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Unapologetically Madonna: Sex & Religion Through the Decades


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Unapologetically Madonna: Sex & Religion Through the Decades
September 7, 2015 by Caryn Riswold

In the category of News of the Obvious, Madonna declared that her Rebel Heart tour, which kicks off in Canada on September 9, will focus on sexuality and religion:

“I’m very immersed in deconstructing the concept of sexuality and religion and how it’s not supposed to go together, but in my world it goes together.”

When has Madonna ever NOT been deconstructing sexuality and religion?

She writhed onstage at the 1984 Video Music Awards in a white wedding gown.

She freaked out Catholics worldwide with Like a Prayer, its lyrics and video, and was written about by none other than author and priest Andrew Greeley.

She published a book called Sex.

Her first greatest hits compilation was called The Immaculate Collection.

Her 1992 album was called Erotica.

I don’t have to go on, do I?

Here’s the deal: I love Madonna. I don’t love everything she does, but I realized this summer that she is the only artist whose work I have bought, when it came out, in three generations of music format: first on cassette (Like a Virgin, Erotica, et.al.), then on CD (Music, Ray of Light, et.al.), and now digitally (MDNA, Rebel Heart). She’s been with me a long time, in my first boom box in the mid-1980s alongside Rick Springfield and Michael Jackson, in my car’s CD player with Tori Amos and the Indigo Girls standing by, and now my iPhone 5s alongside Beyonce and Taylor Swift on my Top Ten playlist.

There have been books written on her, like Madonna and Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop edited by Laura Barcella and published in 2012. She’s been banned from countries for her political statements in support of other women artists, decried as a blasphemer by the Vatican, and embroiled in international adoption controversy as part of her personal life. And it’s always been about religion and sexuality.

Songs on Rebel Heart make obvious reference to religious ideas with titles like “Devil Pray,” “Holy Water,” “Messiah,” and “Joan of Arc.” Lyrics are explicit and then some, like “bitch get off my pole,” (with rumors of nuns and stripper poles on stage in the upcoming tour!) and “don’t it taste like holy water?” in reference to … another sacred liquid. Of course, with other songs titled “Bitch I’m Madonna,” (performed raucously on The Tonight Show earlier this year) and “Unapologetic Bitch,” the point should be pretty clear.

In an interview with an Italian radio station earlier this year, Madonna said of her songs:

“They are a bit to do with my relationship with God and/or sexuality or playing with the idea of God and religion or sexuality; these are all themes that are present in my songs – as you know. It’s also the reason I have been excommunicated by the Catholic Church not once, not twice but three times….”

What I find compelling is that she’s still deeply shaped by Catholic ideas, images, and practices. The religion that imprinted on her youth continues to imprint her artistic expression in middle age. A lifetime of denouncing and scandalizing hasn’t exhausted the singer’s repertoire yet.

Because while Madonna says that sexuality and religion are “not supposed to go together,” it is clear that they have always gone together. Much of religion is and has always been about defining, explaining, and regulating sexuality. At its best it can be about providing a sacred framework of meaning for human life, including sex. At its worst, it has been about dehumanization and discrimination explicitly on the basis of sex. Which is why it will continue to provide fodder for artists who want to engage the paradox, push the boundaries, and call out the problems.


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