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Hung Up: Madonna, the Church, and AIDS

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Hung Up: Madonna, the Church, and AIDS

In a recent “editorial” column, Andrea Peyser of The New York Post, that shining beacon of anti-journalism, likened Madonna

Pundits claim the adoption is a publicity stunt—as if, coming off a record-breaking concert tour, Madonna needs it. Carol Sarler of The Observer condemned the attitude of those who claim it’s just gesture-politics, outright dismissing the obscene mentality that “if you can’t save a million, there’s no point in saving one.” I specifically mention the Post column not because it is representative of even Madonna’s harshest critics (Peyser isn’t even worthy of being called a journalist—she’s so low on the food chain that she actually does what Madonna has been accused of doing for a quarter century: garnering attention from shock and awe), but because one ridiculously over-the-top editorial seems to accurately distill the absurdity of the media’s obsession with Madonna’s adoption. Just as Britney Spears was not the first woman to give birth, Madonna is not the first person (or celebrity) to adopt a child from the third world. Or maybe Angelina Jolie is a better example of the latter since Madonna has been accused of copying Angie by adopting, but what about Mia Farrow? Meg Ryan?

The media (and the world) is finally catching up to public figures like Madonna, Bono, and others who have attempted to bring attention to the plight of AIDS around the globe, not the other way around. This is a woman who, for over 20 years, has watched many of her close friends die of the disease and has given huge chunks of change to various AIDS organizations while leaders behind both political and religious pulpits remained eerily silent. Madonna’s maligned album Erotica, released at the apex of the crisis, was one of the first pieces of mainstream pop art to fully reflect and comment on the sexual repression of the era. (I’ve often joked that Madonna must have had a cold while recording her nasally vocals, but, intentional or not, her stuffed-up voice only adds to the claustrophobia of the record, compounding the sense of sickness and restraint that permeates almost every icy moment.)

My colleague and good friend Ed Gonzalez took issue with the mock crucifixion during Madonna’s Confessions Tour earlier this year, claiming it paled in comparison to the singer’s Erotica-era pleas for compassion. And, yes, now that she’s a family woman, Madonna seems to be a bit removed from the gay community (much to the chagrin of Rupert Everett). But as with everything she does, Madonna opened her performance up to interpretation, and I saw the condemnation of the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy and their decades-long failure to address the scourge. In a public statement, Madonna reminded us that Jesus wasn’t the only one who died on a cross—crucifixion was the preferred method of public execution in bibilical times. And it’s interesting to note that no one seemed to mind that Madonna was, in relative terms, violently strapped to an electric chair during her Reinvention Tour two years ago. Perhaps people remained mum about that display of un-Christian capital punishment because they recognized that, like Jesus, many innocents have died at the hands of people like the former governor of Texas. But I doubt it.

NBC, which is broadcasting Madonna’s show during November sweeps, is reportedly caving under pressure from various extreme Christian groups to cut the crucifixion scene and strip the show of one of its most powerful and important moments. Christians aren’t just ignoring the AIDS crisis anymore; they’re, in effect, actively obstructing the exposure of the pandemic under the transparent veil of censoring a supposedly blasphemous pop star. In an article reporting on the controversy from Spero News, a pastor is quoted condemning Evangelical Christians for focusing their energy on Madonna’s “stunt” and not “the unbelievable atrocities that are committed in the name of Christianity,” suggesting they instead direct their outrage on what is really breaking God’s heart. Like, say, the millions of children orphaned by AIDS in Africa?

Many have come to Madonna’s defense by acknowledging the images, statistics, and bibilical quotes that are projected behind the star as she hangs from the cross, but few have mentioned the actual song she sings, “Live to Tell.” Two decades after it was first released, it remains one of Madonna’s most personal, revealing songs. “I have a tale to tell,” it starts. Maybe it’s arrogant of Madonna to believe that she’s finally lived to tell it, and that she’s capable of making people “hear,” “learn,” and “know” it to the point where they’ll leave her show and donate money or adopt an orphan of their own. But by adopting this child, she’s putting her money, her heart, and her home where her mouth is. And she’s being crucified for it.