Sonic Heart (Genealogy in Song)


by Masha Tupitsyn

I cannot lie. I love 80s Madonna, mainly because that period of her music scores my childhood.

It’s the only Madonna I like.

When I was a little girl I acted and looked like a little boy. It was the first way I knew how to feel about boys, especially the ones I liked. Back in September, I rediscovered Madonna’s “Can’t Stop” on YouTube—a euphoric, syrupy song from the movie-album Who’s That Girl?, and a full-on obsession for me as a child summering in Provincetown. In “Can’t Stop” I find lyrics that hold the key (another Madonna lyric from another 80s Madonna song—”Open Your Heart”) not just to my heart—romantic biography—but to who I would become, because, it turns out, I was this girl right from the start.


I’ve tried and tried
To get next to you.
My friends say I am blind,
I’ll never break through.
But I don’t give in so easily
Cause I know, you just wait and see.
I know that you’re afraid that I might
conceal your heart away in the night.

These bossy, brash, romantic, female-obsessive lyrics go hand in hand with a boy that I not only fell in love with the summer I was listening to these songs, and which I listened to in part because I was in love, but the singular fantasies I concocted about him, as I rode my 10-speed bike around town for hours. The album Who’s That Girl? was the official score I gave those fantasies precisely because of the obsessive lyrics. I was a boy obsessing about a girl. Or, I was being the kind of boy I wanted boys to be with me.


So shut me out, I’ll never let go
‘Cause I can work a spell on your soul.

Madonna (“Pretender”):

I’ll make him dance with me
I’ll make him tell me why.

I would prove to him, not he would prove to me. I would seduce and rescue him—his weary heart—he wouldn’t seduce and rescue me.


I know about your secret side.

When it comes to love, I’ve always been the one with the courage. With the lover’s heart and vision of the future. And the boys have always been the maidens who needed convincing and waking up. Who lacked faith in themselves, faith in the world, but had faith in me. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t also pursued, or loved. It means I am the one who always believed, who went the distance. Who didn’t give up until it was time to give up (though that’s been my hardest lesson in life, knowing when to give up: “Oh baby I can’t clear you out”). Who sounded the call and imagined what was possible in love.


Cause baby I’m too strong.

In the 80s, Madonna (her songs, especially in the 80s, have always been so lyrically and sonically immature. In fact, it’s her arrested development that appealed to my gender-bending infantilism at the time) was always doing the boy-part—the chasing and wooing—with boys. But in the 90s, Madonna’s pop-gallantry and playful gender-bending became phallocentric—a dominant power move on her part—and that is when I lost interest.

In the 1987 movie Who’s That Girl?, an homage to old Hollywood screwball comedies, Madonna seduces and rescues Griffin Dunne. But while the uptight, stuffy, and passive attorney, Dunne, loves the rakish, heart-of-gold thug—Madonna—it is the impish and scruffy girl who opens the floodgates of love, passion, and desire.


I was born to love you
I’ve got nothing to hide.

Unrelated to Who’s That Girl?—or related in a tangential, lyrical (as in song lyrics) way—-“Spotlight: (I’ll hear you when you call/And I’ll be here by your side”) was another favorite of mine. Madonna’s notions about love have always been closely tied to stardom. For her the “spotlight” that makes one “special” as an individual, and that is the source of the erotic exchange (exchange being the operative word), is also the same stardust that leads to fame. Fundamentally tied to drive and capital, love and desire for Madonna are an extension of and prelude to power and celebrity. If you’re charming enough to seduce and beguile one person, Madonna sings over and over, you’re charming enough to seduce everyone. Love is rehearsal for fame, and sex is the performance that keeps your audience your enthralled, subordinate lover. Love is thus also a power move, and this period of Madonna’s career is her memo to the industry as she becomes industry—a white diamond of ambition crystallizing and hardening into the shape of capital. This is also when Madonna’s body starts to get chiseled (disciplined), when her hair turns peroxide (old Hollywood) white. That is, when everything become obvious (Blonde) ambition. Intense ambition (famously ruthless ambition, Madonna is maybe the most ambitious woman we’ve ever seen) masquerades as dance-pop/party girl (sometimes ditsy) joie de vivre.

Of course, I know this about her now, not then.


Now you have the power
Baby love is on your side.

But it’s “Physical Attraction,” which at the time sounded like sex to me; the kind you have and imagine by yourself; the kind you watch; the kind that’s in your head, and in the future; the desire for desire, is the song I was most obsessed with early on. Which makes sense because at that age everything was mostly in my head and in the future. Someone was on the other end of Madonna’s lyrics for me. Those lyrics were for and about someone—something. Yet, more than a someone or a something, it was the loneliness and thrill of being and imagining what being would one day be like. Would being get better or worse? Music is an interstitial medium, or more precisely, a medium that works on and in the interstices; the gap between the body and events. During childhood, music is the affect that gives you the experience you don’t have—that you want—and then later, as we become adults, music is the after-effect that gives voice and sound to the experiences you have had.


Even though you’re not for real
It could be such a fantasy.

Fantasy: from phantazesthai “picture to oneself,” from phantos “visible,” from phainesthai “appear,” in late Greek “to imagine, have visions,” related to phaos, phos “light,” phainein “to show, to bring to light” (see phantasm). Sense of “whimsical notion, illusion” is pre-1400, followed by that of “imagination,” which is first attested 1530s. Sense of “day-dream based on desires” is from 1926.

“Not for real” is key here, along with to “picture oneself.” Not real for the dreamer, and not real for the one who is dreamed about. This is the way we dream in late modernity—without, it seems, even wanting our dreams to come true, and without wanting anyone to really be there or show up. Without fulfillment, desire is a narcissistic and private experience, and in the digital age, it seems that we prefer it that way. As Enrique Lima put it in Why Pop Songs Are Not Novels”, “We like monological music because we want to be alone with songs and we want them to be alone with us.” “It could be such a fantasy,” (not a reality) Madonna sings, and it is, as the conditional falls away, turns into pure image and solipsism, and loses all ties with actual fulfillment, engagement, and real love. In childhood fantasies still have the possibility of becoming real. We aspire for things to come true. And why should we know any better without the trial and error and deduction of time, which whittles down possibilities, shows us loss, and has us growing more lost and at a loss the more we lose.

Spotlight, Starlight, Starbright, Lucky Star. Angel.

In her book Blind Date: Sex and Philosophy, Anne Dufourmantelle writes, “We make pictures and live with them…images of desire we have fabricated ourselves.” As a little girl listening to early Madonna, sex was largely a manufactured silhouette that I filled in with the found objects of representation and with a construct of gender that was free from gender constructs. I did this with adult material that I’d never actually lived, but nevertheless felt, as Anne Dufourmantelle points out, was my own life. But that’s what being an 80s kid was all about. Being raised on a diet of images, fantasies, and consumer metaphysics, popular culture produces an excess; a third element that becomes a third parent.

About the Author:

Masha Tupitsyn is a writer, cultural critic, and multi-media artist. She is the author of Love Dog (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (ZerO Books, 2011), Beauty Talk & Monsters, a collection of film-based stories (Semiotext(e) Press, 2007), and co-editor of the anthology Life As We Show It: Writing on Film (City Lights, 2009). Her fiction and criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies Women in Clothes (Penguin, 2014), The Force of What’s Possible (Nightboat Books, 2014), The American Tetralogy (Blackjack Editions, 2013), Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology (2012), The Encyclopedia Project Volume 2 (F-K) (2010) and Volume 3 (L-Z) (2014), and Wreckage of Reason: XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century (Spuyten Duyvil, 2008), with additional works published by The White Review, The New Inquiry, Fence, Bookforum, The Rumpus, Boing Boing, Indiewire’s Press Play, Animal Shelter, the Shepparton Art Museum, and Ryberg Curated Video.