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The Day I Learned the Truth About Madonna

Surely most people with a computer receive an e-mail each September listing the technological advancements that “a freshman entering college this fall has never lived without,” along with cultural touchstones about which these youngsters are often in the dark.

With the chameleon-like Madonna in mind, I’ve always wanted to add to those lists something about today’s youth knowing, almost without exception, what their favorite singers look like, sometimes even before these musicians hit the airwaves.

(Though it’s been said before, I think it’s worth mentioning again, if only for the cultural import of such an observation: had music videos been as ubiquitous in the 60s and 70s as they were in the following decades, people like Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Joni Mitchell would never have stood a chance of becoming the icons they are, now. To be absolutely fair, though, if music videos had never caught on we might have been blessed with never having heard of 98 Degrees, the Backstreet Boys or ‘N Synch, mainly because it would have been even more difficult to tell them apart.)

Since we grew up in a tiny West Virginia coal town (pop. 900) in the 70s and 80s, my childhood friends and I can always top the seemingly untoppable in the category of “Oh, heck, we didn’t even have…” We had telephones and microwaves, rest assured, as well as basic cable and VCRs. For a while, what we didn’t know we didn’t have was never any real cause for feeling out of touch.

In our minds, we were Gods with our boom boxes that boasted dual and auto-reverse cassette decks.

Still, it was an era when Billy Idol and Pat Benatar were not joking—you really did have to “call your cable company” and say “I want my MTV!” Had to, because it wasn’t a given that this crazy, faddish “Music Television” channel would ever be an integral part of the cultural landscape all across our nation, especially in the type of rural area where I grew up.

When the song “Holiday” was released by a new singer called Madonna, video had not, much to our increasing chagrin, killed the radio star for my friends and me. Though we’d never seen the video for it, we loved this catchy song by—really? Just the one word? Madonna?

Oh well. Kind of like Cher! Or Liberace!

If “Holiday” came on the radio, we turned up the volume and did our little 80s dances, which always included, at some point, stiffly throwing one’s arms out to the sides and kicking at imaginary soccer balls. For some reason, I don’t think we learned these dance moves from watching “American Bandstand,” which aired every Saturday on ABC at 12:30.

One afternoon early in 1984 Dick Clark announced that, in her first North American television appearance, Madonna would be one of his musical guests. I was excited, and called my friend Jenifer to let her know “that girl who sings ‘Holiday'” would be on TV.

(We had no way of knowing that within a relatively short space of time we would eschew “it’s got a good beat and I can dance to it” in favor of “it’s got beautiful lyrics and I can cry to it,” forsaking the beautiful blokes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet for the gaunt, pale lads in bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and the Cure.)

I suffered through all the “American Bandstand” dancing, the record rating and the Clearasil commercials until She appeared. The moment Madonna bounded into view, my mouth fell open and my eyes popped out of my head. I ran to the phone to dial Jenifer’s number for a second time that afternoon.

Naturally, because I was so desperate to reach her, Jenifer’s line was engaged. In those days the very notion of call-waiting had probably never entered many minds, much less been developed. At least not as far as we knew.

Score another point for childhood deprivation, right?

So I kept hanging up and redialing, never taking my eyes off the shocking spectacle on my television (probably moving my head side to side and kicking imaginary soccer balls). It’s almost surreal to imagine that long ago in a universe very much like this one—only with far less gadgets—there were basic things about celebrities that could still be shocking.

And believe me, what I’d just found out about Madonna was pretty shocking. I’ll freely admit that seeing Madonna on “American Bandstand” was even more shocking than seeing the nude photos of her in Playboy magazine three years later. (The thing I remember best about that, of course, was saying many times to my boyfriend, who was sharing the experience with me, “Underarm hair? Madonna didn’t shave her underarms? Eeeewww! Gross!”)

Finally, my call went through and Jenifer answered, breathless. After our initial exchange, I realized that we’d been frantically trying to call each other the entire time I’d been rebuffed by the busy signal. As soon as Jenifer heard me ask, “Are you watching?” our brains fused and we squealed, at exactly the same moment, exactly the same observation.



This story appears in Bitchcake Madness!, a collection of short autobiographical essays.

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