It feels like yesterday. When I was seven-years-old, my mother bought me my first computer. This device lacked the thinness of a MacBook Air or the portability of a tablet. No, this was a honest-to-goodness, white-block-with-a-screen computer. It was completely old school, and I loved it.
Included with it was a disc from Microsoft you could pop into a drive that would show off the capabilities of your new toy. Most of it was Office tutorials and promotional fodder, but one link captured my attention. I double-clicked the file, and a video emerged of a blonde woman, elegantly dressed in black, with back-up dancers, performing for a massive crowd. I yelled to mother and asked her to come look. “Who is that?” I asked. Her face lit up with a smile and out from her mouth came the words, “That’s Madonna.”
The song she was performing in the video, “Vogue,” was unlike anything I had heard up until that point. My parents were rock fans, so the radio was normally filled with Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, the Stones, and all these artists were great. There was something electric to Madonna, though. There was an addictive beat behind the words. There was choreography to every move in her dance. “Vogue” was more than just a song; it was a performance. I had never seen anything like it. It was like a living work of art, and I was hooked.
Much has happened in the world of the queen of pop in the 20 years following me viewing that “Vogue” performance for the first time. In grade school, I followed her first visual and musical rebirth, “Ray of Light,” which saw her shed her pop rock roots for a more spiritual tone. Then when junior high came around, she became a cowboy, bursting out more modern beats like “Music” and “Don’t Tell Me,” songs that influenced the entire industry in the decade that followed.
There was the shocking kiss with Britney at the VMAs. The critically panned movies with ex-husband Guy. The Confessions tour where she strapped herself to a rainbow-colored cross that presented her in a Christ-like pose. The adoption scandal to get more children from Africa I still don’t understand.
And yet, through all of this scandal and circumstance, her music continually reinvented the pop scene in invigorating ways. 2005’s “Confessions on a Dance Floor” is a nostalgic disco-filled album that supercharged her appeal to modern audiences with the lead track, “Hung Up.” 2008’s “Hard Candy” saw her team with Justin Timberlake and produce the biggest female artist-led tour in history, “Sticky and Sweet.” She did the Super Bowl, had her “MDNA” era, and then, after taking a few years off from the scene, came roaring back with “Rebel Heart,” which is the best album she’s had in two decades.
Madonna’s music and image have been with me through all stages of life. Both left such an impact on me. As a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, I would often feel like an outcast artistically. I was never comfortable just sitting quietly and not voicing my opinion. I wanted to press buttons and make people think of things in different ways. I wanted to use my words and actions as a form of powerful expression. I wanted to make people think through what I did, be it a speech, performance, or – best of all – art.
And she represented all of that. She wasn’t afraid of what the press thought or the church thought or politicians thought. She didn’t give up after being ripped apart in reviews. She didn’t really seem to care what anyone said about her crossing the line artistically and sexually. She was content with herself and what she produced. And when a concept got old? She didn’t grasp to it. She reinvented herself. What a unique example for a guy who was in a community where personal expression was rarely encouraged.
When I had a break-up? Tracks like “The Power of Goodbye” and “Sorry” propelled me forward. When I needed some spiritual uplift church couldn’t seem to provide? “Drowned World” and “Ray of Light” opened my mind up a tad. When my mother passed two years ago, her music took on an even more personal tone to me; songs like “Mother and Father” reflect on the loss of her mother when she was just a girl and the constant search to feel that massive void with other people. I use to just skip the track when listening to “American Life”; now, I skip it for a different reason – I’m worried if I listen it will trigger the tears to start to flow.
When I was younger, the thought of seeing her live seemed like such a dim prospect. After all, this was Madonna; she didn’t make stops in places like Memphis or Nashville. This was a big-big city artist. It was only when I got older and was able to start saving up money and traveling I was finally able to make the journey to see her for the first time in-person.
Monday night will be a moment I truly never thought would come, though. Madonna will perform for the first time in Tennessee, as the Rebel Heart Tour makes a stop in Nashville at Bridgestone Arena. To see one of my idols finally venture to my home state is a real dream come true, and to finally be able to share that moment with friends who ordinarily couldn’t or wouldn’t travel thousands of miles to see her in another city is something I know I’ll never forget.
But writing a column like this is more than just to highlight her first Tennessee concert. After the passing of David Bowie earlier this week, I began to reflect on other artists and what they have meant to me. In many ways, musicians are the closest people to us in life we more than likely never meet. Their words through song serve as a backdrop to life’s biggest and smallest moments. They provide a soundtrack to our existence.
Odds are I will never meet Madonna in the flesh, and I highly doubt she’ll ever find the time to read what I’ve just written. But I do want to say “Thank You” to her. Thank you for giving me constant artistic inspiration to create my own work that will last forever. Thank you for putting words to music that reflect different moments in my life. Most importantly, thank you for encouraging me to use my voice and express myself regardless of where I am in this world.
Oh, and thanks for coming to Nashville after all these years, too. You’ve made one redheaded Southern guy and his friends quite happy. Enjoy your time in the Volunteer State, Madonna. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed your music and inspiration over the last 20 years.
Alex Beene is an author from Tennessee. He enjoys traveling, drinking coffee, and writing for the Wise Guise. His latest children’s book, “The Journey of the Paper Heart,” can be purchased on Amazon and through all other major book retailers. He can be reached at email@example.com.