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28 June 2019

Brian Mullin talks to us about their upcoming Live Draft, being queer in the height of the HIV crisis and, of course, Madonna.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Madonna Louise Ciccone is having a big year.

She did a divisive set at Eurovision. Her bold but bizarre new album Madame X is #1 on the US charts. And, on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, she’s headlining Pride in New York City. But most importantly, she’s the subject of my new Live Drafts show Live to Tell, in which I attempt to write the Madonna jukebox musical.

For any other 61-year old pop star (do others exist?*), this would be called a “comeback”.

*The Yard’s response to “do other’s exist?”: “…Patti Smith?” “Shania Twain?” “…Is Shania Twain over 60?” “That’s such a good shout, I’m going to listen to some Shania Twain” // “The harder question is, are there pop stars over 70?” // “CHER” [Resounding response] “CHER!!!!”

** Brian’s response to Yard’s response: love Cher but her last album consisted of ABBA covers. She’s basically in her Golden Years.

Madonna doesn’t do comebacks. Only re-Inventions.

When one persona gets tired she changes form, always keeping the same essential DNA. She absorbs (one might say ‘appropriates’) influences from every culture she encounters. Just like a retrovirus, she has endlessly replicated herself for 30 years.

Tell me she can’t sing. Tell me she’s not relevant.

Tell me everything I’m not,
But please don’t tell me to stop

I came of age as a closeted gay boy in the late 80s and 90s, the exact height of Madonna’s cultural impact. It was also the height of the HIV epidemic, when the virus was the most feared, the most misunderstood. To even consider queer sex back then was equated with risking death.

Yet, at that very time of heightened panic, Madonna was advancing sex positivity.  In 1990, I got I’m Breathless on cassette because I wanted to hear the Stephen Sondheim tunes. Little did I know that some of the other songs would introduce me to kink:

Please don’t call a doctor, ’cause there’s nothing wrong with me,
I just like things a little rough and you better not disagree.

Though condemned by the Catholic Church and banned from the airwaves, Madonna was actually one of the most progressive public voices about sex at that time. By printing information about AIDS and the use of condoms onto every album sleeve of Like a Prayer, she used her viral fame to spread sense instead of stigma.

The epidemic claimed many of the people closest to her. Listening to the lyrics of Live to Tell, it’s hard not to hear the isolation and fear that came with seroconversion:

Will it grow cold?
The secret that I hide,
Will I grow old?
How will they hear?
When will they learn?
How will they know?

The last song on that cassette was Vogue, which I didn’t really understand. I didn’t know the litany of gay icons she invokes (‘Lauren, Katherine, Lana too’). I didn’t know anything about Greenwich Village or the ballroom scene. I didn’t know that most of the dancers in the video would contract the HIV virus.

Or that, much later on, I would, too.

Madonna’s work was my gateway to queer consciousness. My show is sort of about her, but it’s mostly about me. And about things that lay dormant inside of me. I’m not just talking about the virus, though that isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s kept down by antiretroviral meds that give me a normal life expectancy and prevent me from passing HIV on to others. What also remains dormant, though, are feelings of stigma, failure, and guilt. There’s no pill for that.

Deep inside me, inside many of us, lies the collective queer history of the epidemic, the loss and trauma we’ve all experienced. She may not be a saint, but there’s no denying that Madonna is a survivor. In a recent interview, she said “A lot of my peers are no longer alive, and I have to go into uncharted territory.”

Almost no one in the world has lived to 90 years old with HIV… but some of us will. This includes me, a white privileged man with (thank God) access to free health care. I’ve been mostly fit and healthy, despite side effects that have sometimes brought on depression. It includes men and women from other backgrounds who face much harder daily challenges. It includes the surviving backup dancers from the Vogue video, who’ve carried on living – even if they don’t hear from Madonna anymore.

The meds, if we can get them, keep us alive.
We’re the ones who’ll have to handle the rest.

I’ll never be an angel.
I’ll never be a saint, it’s true.
I’m too busy surviving.
Whether it’s heaven or hell,
I’m gonna be living to tell.

 See Brian’s Madonna jukebox musical in Live Drafts on 5 July Tickets £5.