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(Published on ARTSCLASH)

I’ve tried to be a boy/tried to be a girl/tried to be a mess/tried to be the best

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Ask me who my favourite artist of all time is, and I’ll probably tell you David Bowie. But in reality, in my mind he takes a clear second place to the real, more embarrassing artist that has probably had the most impact in my life –  Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone.

But why the embarrassment? After all, this is the bestselling female artist OF ALL TIME, with 13 UK number one singles (I could name them but won’t), a woman who’s very name is used as an indicator of western influence on remote parts of the world – as the test goes, if you’ve heard of Mickey Mouse, Michael Jackson or Madonna there’s been some influence. And yet still for most Madonna is remembered not for her run of classic life-affirming singles (singles so good that she could afford to waste ‘Into The Groove’ as a B-Side until DJs saw sense) or for the classic looks, genius videos or for having the two highest grossing tours in the world ever in a row. Instead, ask someone on the street what they think of Madonna and all you’ll hear is about the weird arms, the adopted children, the fact that a fifty-something woman shouldn’t be releasing songs with titles like ‘Gang Bang’ (although anyone who listens to that song and doesn’t see it as a work of bizarre genius has no sense of fun)

Of course, there’s a dual snobbery in action here, with the fact that she makes pop music and (of course) the fact that she’s a woman being a big part of the judgement. And I probably can’t do much to change that. All I can do is give you a very personal account of what a young boy in ’99/’00 (that’s the ‘Beautiful Stranger’ – ‘Music’ album period for anyone thinking in Madonna) destined to grow up gay loved about Madonna, and why she’s stayed such a strong influence in my life ever since, and maybe what all of us can learn from Madonna.

1. The ability to change and adapt

If there’s one lesson to be learned from her, it’s that with enough imagination and creativity you can be whoever you want to be, and the benefits of never letting anyone second-guess your next move, that you can be the virgin AND the whore

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Although of course David Bowie did the whole chameleon thing first, Madonna started at the same time music videos were coming in (a time where Bowie can politely described as being beyond awful) meaning that you didn’t just get a new look per album, you got one every one of two months. Liking Madonna as a child was like liking a thousand pop stars at once, with every new video another glimpse into the dress-up box life could continue being if you wanted it to.

2. The power of good visuals

In fact, I think I learned every design rule worth knowing through Madonna, things that as a designer and artist I now use every day. At her best, no one does music video quite as well as her – in fact, she’s one of the few artists to have a video held in the MOMA collections (you can’t say that about Rihanna…). Through the David Fincher (yes, that David Fincher) ‘Vogue’ I learned the power of well-done black and white and clever referencing on the past…

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I also learned how to dance…

And from the ‘Frozen’ I pretty much learned everything ever, to the point where 90% of my wardrobe is still black.

If nothing else, which other female artist has a bra style named after them?

3. The unique power of the gay community

There’s a reason she’s such a gay icon. Before becoming famous, she spent years in gay clubs, taking the atmosphere and somehow trying to capture that in three minute pop songs. She was one of the first to speak out about AIDS awareness, and was one of the first to bring the drag ball scene to popular consciousness (although as I’ve written before this was not without its problems…) She did all of this without being deeply patronising, unlike certain other pop stars. Rather than telling us we were merely ‘born this way’ in the same way people are born with a club foot, Madonna showed us that through a gay aesthetic we could actually do better things than straight people, be more successful, make songs as good as ‘Vogue’.

In fact, Madonna could be single handedly said to have made gay culture mainstream, taking the baton from disco and bringing gay aesthetics through pop culture and in everyone of her 300 million record sales.

Plus, the songs are pretty fucking good too.

Read the rest of the ‘Making of Me’ series here.

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