The faces started appearing one by one on the huge video screens as the solemn intro of “Live to Tell” started to play.
And Gabriel Trupin.
All people Madonna knew and loved. Who had died of AIDS.
As she sang, the screens started zooming out to show more and more faces of people with AIDS, until it became a sea of faces—not famous people with the disease, just people.
And then those faces faded gently away before a dedication “to all the bright lights” lost to the disease.
Madonna came up in the club scene of New York City in the early 1980s, when the sound of the decade was still forming itself.
She hung around clubs like Danceteria and the Paradise Garage, hoping somebody would play the cassettes of her early songs.
During her recent Celebration Tour, I watched her tear through some of these early hits: “Everybody,” “Burning Up,” and “Into the Groove.”
For “Holiday,” the mood suddenly turned dark.
Staged outside a club as a bouncer denied her entry…
…the song ended with one lone dancer left lying on the floor, covered with a jacket.
This must have been what it was like to be part of that club scene in the ‘80s.
People getting sick with a mysterious disease, named by those four infamous letters, and dying.
A good part of a generation… just gone.
Madonna knew her share of people who succumbed to AIDS—friends, mentors and cocreators.
It was powerful and moving to see her segue from performing her club songs, to paying tribute to the people who vanished from the scene she came up in.
Take a look at the lyrics of “Live To Tell.” Words like:
Hope I live to tell
The secret I have learned
Til then it will burn inside of me
Will it grow cold
The secret that I hide?
Will I grow old?
To be able to turn those lyrics around and tell the story of people with a then-fatal disease, who often stayed in the closet in shame and were pariahs after they came out, was extraordinary and deeply human.
I’m a little too young to have lived in the fear those gay men felt in the club scene in the ‘80s.
But I do remember it happening.
All that ignorance, fear, and callousness.
People thought they could get infected from toilet seats. Some funeral homes wouldn’t take bodies with the infection.
People with AIDS often were ostracized from their families, shamed for who they loved and for having the disease that would kill them.
Today with so much more acceptance of our community, and with the health risks of AIDS mitigated by new drugs, the disease and its stigma can seem distant to us.
But we should never forget our forebears and the price they paid in trying to build a better future.
In contrast with the dark queer history in “Live to Tell,” Madonna’s performance of “Vogue” that night was a queer celebration.
The house music classic was a full-on drag/fashion show, with all the dancers parading around the runway, and Madonna as judge, giving 10/10 to everyone.
There were videos showing all manner of LGBTQ celebrations and protests. It was a beautiful nod to the start of voguing in ballroom culture.
Since 1990, there’s been controversy over cultural appropriation in “Vogue.”
And the idea that Madonna ripped off the gay community.
I understand all that. But when that song came out, I had no way of knowing about ballroom culture or any of that.
I was a gay kid on the edge of turning 16 with no self-awareness, waiting in my bedroom for the song to come on the radio so I could mimic Madonna’s poses in the mirror.
I didn’t know what it meant—what moved me to dance like that.
But “Vogue” was like a subliminal signal to me that it wasn’t weird to vogue in the mirror.
And that there was a place for people like me who could (badly) dance and strike a pose. That song was a burst of joy, some strange magic, and I can still feel that decades after I figured myself out.
For a few hours, with thousands of other people dancing around me, it was as if Madonna was telling us:
“Revel in that joy and magic, but spare a thought for the people who fought for it and what that fight cost them.”
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