Madonna - “Vogue” (dir. David Fincher)
When I was a kid I was an actor. I did high school plays while I was in elementary school. In middle school I took acting lessons, got an agent, and went on auditions in the City, endless drives with my mom through the Queens Midtown Tunnel. I auditioned for the kid in Lorenzo’s Oil and the Elijah Wood role in The Good Son and a part on the TV show Brooklyn Bridge that required me to rather unconvincingly use the word “shikse.” The closest I came to getting something: I was one of three finalists for the part of Wendy’s brother John, whose Disney cartoon incarnation I simply could not have resembled more at the time, in a Broadway revival of Peter Pan. We were told we’d get a phone call tonight if I was the one they went with; the call never came. Later we found out that they’d cast the younger brother first, and one of the other three John finalists happened to look more like him than I did. Oh well. Then my mom got real sick and couldn’t drive me into the city anymore. While I continued to act through high school and intended to major in theater in at my very theater-friendly college (I switched to film studies because the film studies majors were less pretentious, if you can believe that shit), my dreams of stardom were over.
But they were some dreams, man! Sixth grade dreams, right around the time your solipsistic family/friends/school/cartoons bubble bursts enough for you to sense what’s out there and start wanting some of it but before you really understand what it is you want. Let me put it this way: I very vividly remember sitting in my den watching a lengthy Entertainment Tonight segment on this song (I watched ET religiously — these were my people), listening to the rap section where Madonna lists the icons, and actually telling my babysitter (!) “Every time I hear this song, I think ‘I should be on that list.’”
I found “Vogue” cool before I really knew what that meant to me. When “Vogue” hit, music was not yet a lifestyle for me, so I wasn’t identifying with or aspiring to be like Madonna and her fellow performers as artists or icons. Visually, sonically, artistically, I saw no lines between them and me. This didn’t change, in Madonna’s case, when music did become a lifestyle. She fell out of favor with me about as hard as anyone possibly could — egad, chart-conquering dance pop by a “brilliant businesswoman”!
I also hadn’t quite hit puberty yet, so I wasn’t really looking at Madonna sexually at this point either. Oh, that would come. Would it ever. There’s almost nothing that compares to the attraction 13-year-old boys feel toward whomever’s the World’s Sexiest Woman at the time they reach that tender age. But whatever I’d think about her see-through top a year later, it was a non-factor at this point. (Side note: If you add my adolescent self’s contempt for Madonna as an artist, person, and cultural phenomenon to his roiling sexual fascination with her you come up with a misogyny cocktail that produced one wicked hangover. I still barely trust myself to be an honest broker with her and her work. Just wanna put that out there.) Now, I loved “Vogue” in part because it was from the Dick Tracy soundtrack, and my post-Burton-Batman infatuation with that film ran deep, but that’s not enough to explain it.
No, what I really loved about “Vogue” was that it sounded like an invitation. In preparation for this post I listened to this song from start to finish for the first time in years, and those opening strings gave me a thrill equivalent to what I felt as a very little boy when the 20th Century Fox fanfare played before Star Wars. Something very, very exciting is about to happen — I feel that even now, amazingly. You’re being quietly ushered into a new world of glamour and sophistication. The synth washes, the entrance of the bass, the skittering percussion, Madonna’s restrained vocals, they’re like a curtain opening up and showing you the world beyond, a world you’d never see otherwise but to which you belong. Certainly I’d never ever seen anyone like anyone in David Fincher’s video for this song in real life. They seemed so much older and odder and wealthier and classier and artier than me or anyone else I knew, yet here they were, asking you to come dancing.
To bring it back to what I told my babysitter: Looking back, I know it didn’t hurt that the list of icons at the song’s center was just that, a list. My undiagnosed attention deficit disorder made listmaking one of my life’s great joys — it was the perfect way to put my ability to hyperfocus on something in front of me and shut out the rest of the world to good use. Of course I was also the kind of 11-to-12-year-old who knew who all those people were, which didn’t even register as odd to me then. I just assumed that everyone worth knowing knew the name Lana Turner, same as how Monty Python gave me the idea that your average grown-up was familiar enough with Wittgenstein to laugh at jokes about him. “Getting it” was your ticket in — to adulthood, to intelligence, to sophistication, to being appreciated and accepted. Knowing enough about the list to want to be on the list made you more likely to be on the list.
That’s the whole message of the lyrics, right? An inspirational tract for becoming the coolest possible you? A more affirming, less hectoring version of Madonna’s other big David Fincher-directed imperative-mood hit from that time period, “Express Yourself,” in which you all you had to do was dance? Madonna was right: It made no difference if they were black or white, a boy or a girl (or gay or straight, which distinction never threw me at all, for whatever reason) — they all simply seemed like aliens from my vantage point, and I wanted to be abducted into that black-and-white-and-silver world.
"Vogue" simultaneously flattered me for who I was and provided a tantalizing glimpse of who I could be. Yes, that’s what you are. You know it.