Op-ed: Are You There, Madonna? It’s Me, Ari
My best friend in elementary school, Nikki, was going to see Madonna’s Virgin Tour at Radio City Music Hall — without me. It was a Friday night, the Sabbath, and my parents, being observant Orthodox Jews, would not let me go. Nikki and I had been best friends since kindergarten but I felt like we were slowly growing apart. I was more upset that I might be losing her friendship than I was about missing the concert. Honestly, Madonna scared me. Her overt sexuality, her brazenness — it was something I didn’t understand and something I was scared of within myself.
When Nikki switched to a different school in 4th grade, I called her and asked her why she didn’t call me as often. Her response to me was, “Ari, sometimes people just grow apart." Her words stung and I had my first hard lesson in life and rejection.
As I tried to accept this new reality of people in my life leaving me or disappointing me, the masterpiece that is “Live To Tell” stunned my soul through the radio speakers. As I put the pieces of my heart back together I also put together all the songs that were uplifting me, songs like “Holiday,” Borderline” and “Lucky Star” and realized they were all by the same artist. I officially became a true blue Madonna fan. When she sang, “everybody is a star,” I thought Madonna was singing to only me.
The day I bought the Like A Prayer album changed me forever. I was living in the Bronx, where there was only one record store — literally and figuratively — on the other side of the train tracks. I took the bus by myself to go buy it when I was only used to subways. When I got back home, I saw my parents driving the car out of our building’s garage and realized I had forgotten about an important family function. I ran five blocks chasing after their blue Buick but they didn’t see me. I knew they would be furious at me when they got back, but at that point all I could do was go home alone, open my new CD, put my headphones on, and listen. The smell of patchouli wafted through the air as I tore open the oversized rectangular cardboard box CDs used to come in. The opening blast of a wailing guitar shot through my eardrums—not the “Like A Prayer” I remembered from the Pepsi commercial. This was a full sensory experience. I felt I was growing up as Madonna grew up. As I relished every word in the liner notes and absorbed the music and lyrics of "Like A Prayer," it was the message of “Express Yourself” and “Keep It Together” that foreshadowed the principal tenets of my young adult life.
Even though I was a professional child performer in show business, I remained fairly sheltered as I went to Yeshiva (Jewish parochial school) and stayed mostly amongst the orthodox Jewish community I grew up in. Madonna was the first voice to tell me it was OK to be gay, when my teachers, friends, brothers, and parents were telling me it was a sin. The only time I had the guts to even look at, let alone buy, a gay magazine was when I bought a copy of The Advocate because I thought it wouldn’t look suspicious as long as Madonna was on the cover. (As if wanting to buy a magazine simply because Madonna was on the cover wasn’t an immediate giveaway.) I delved deep into my fandom, winning first prize in the Vogueing contest at the annual Madonnathon conference, became a contributing writer in the official Madonna fanzine and won an advance copy of Sex and Erotica by being the 100th caller on z100. My college admissions essay was on Feminism and Madonna and it got me into NYU, where I ended up with straight A’s in Music and Gay, Lesbian & Transgender Studies. It was only a matter of time before I started writing songs from the perspective of being a gay man and performing in the New York gay club scene.
Fifteen years of therapy later, I realize that much of my adult career has been about being noticed by my mother and my father — a recurring theme in Madonna’s own life and career. I had enjoyed a successful career as a child vocalist singing on more than 400 jingles including backgrounds for Diana Ross and playing a character on my favorite cartoon, Jem and the Holograms. But after my voice changed and I wasn’t working anymore, I felt like a has-been—at age 14. As if puberty isn’t tough enough, my father decided he was going to start a talent management company for other children. It was the ultimate show business rejection.
Singing and songwriting were in my blood at that point and I was determined to have my own career, with or without my parents support. I was going to do it on my own terms — as an openly gay man. But despite hard times between my parents and me, they did come around to supporting my career. In 1999, my mother paid for the manufacturing of my first album with her credit card (when she didn’t have much to spare) so I could release my first self-titled pop album. The album included male pronouns in its love songs and ended up winning an Outmusic Award.
In 2009, I approached Madonna’s own brother to direct my music video for “I Can Forgive You.” Christopher Ciccone, Madonna’s gay brother, directed two of her most influential tours and possibly the most influential pop concerts in history. “I Can Forgive You” was a song I thought I wrote about an ex but realized later was really all about my parents. I even secretly hoped that if Christopher directed the video it might bring some peace between the estranged Ciccone siblings. With forgiveness and a song, I could keep both my family and the Ciccone family together.
“Music makes the people come together” and so when my best friend from kindergarten, Nikki, transferred to NYU, we reunited. We remain best friends to this day and she's one of my most ardent fans. I kept people together cause that’s what Madonna told me to do. I owe it to her for opening up my mind to Sex — both the book and the act — for not being afraid of people with AIDS; teaching me about safe sex in her concerts; for asking “why’s it so hard to love one another?”; for being “a freedom fighter.” “Don’t forget that your family is gold,” and again, Madonna was singing to my Gold family and me. It’s 2013 and I have just released my career-spanning PLAY MY F**KN REMIX: Remixed Retrospective — my sixth album to date. Both my parents recently cheered me on in the front row of my record release concert in New York.
Every artist has the artists that came before them that make the work they do possible. Would there be Chris Brown and Usher without Michael Jackson? Michael Jackson without James Brown? Madonna without Deborah Harry and Marilyn Monroe? It’s pretty amazing how an artist’s work can change people’s lives without ever knowing them personally. Despite being in the same room a few times, including surreally praying in Hebrew across from her at the Kabbalah Center, I have never met Madonna. I dream about her often, and last night I dreamt that I was performing at Radio City Music Hall and my own father yanked me off stage. “But Daddy, I’m having a good time!” I told him.
This July marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Gold's first music video, "Wave of You." Here is a refreshed 2013 remix from Gold's latest album:
SIR ARI GOLD is a recording artist. For more, visit AriGold.com