The Power of Love and Madonna

The author of Justify My Love watches and wants.

By Ryann Donnelly

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Two Women on the Shore, by Edvard Munch, 1898. Art Institute of Chicago, Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Each issue of Lapham’s Quarterly addresses a theme—States of War, States of Mind, Food, Youth, Animals—by drawing on primary sources throughout history, finding the rhymes and dissonances in how these topics have played out and been perceived over the centuries. In this series, we open up the sleuthing beyond our staff and four annual themes by letting historians and writers share what they have come across in their recent visits to the archives.

This week’s selection comes from Ryann Donnelly, author of Justify My Love: Sex, Subversion, and Music Video, now available from Repeater Books.

In 1995 Courtney Love threw several pieces of makeup at Madonna while she was being interviewed by Kurt Loder on an elevated platform after the MTV Video Music Awards. Loder invited her to come up and speak with Madonna. She did.

It didn’t go well, exactly. Courtney compared her love life to a hospital where she’s been trying to date surgeons and wondered if she should date the candy stripers instead. Madonna made a reference to the hospital’s wealth of available drugs and told her to get out. Courtney said the money’s too good.

The overwhelming confusion and conflict I feel when I watch these women code their combat in what initially presents as polite conversation comes from the desire to eat them, wear them, and be them. I want the violet and turquoise satin they wear to turn to cotton candy in my mouth and melt into hot syrup in my throat; to turn to gems and hang on my ear and around my neck and be given to me as gifts. I don’t know what to do first. I have never known which one to be. And when I am confronted with the truth, that none of these options are real options, I feel panic. I want to be blond.

The wanting is so urgent.

I don’t always feel a lack of power as a woman, but when I question these feelings I understand that I want to feel more powerful. I want to have their power, part of which is tangled up in how many people look at them because of how they look.

I also recognize the precarity of my primal instincts telling me that the way to gain power is to devour other women or to reconstruct their surfaces so meticulously on my own that they are, in a way, replaced.

In my book Justify My Love: Sex, Subversion, and Music Video, I laud music videos that confront or seek to undo the performative effects of sex and gender. These are things that happen to us without our control. I feel these exemplified (with my actual body) by this subconscious inclination toward cannibalism. I think Courtney Love felt it too.


Want to read more? Here are some past posts from this series:

LeAnne Howe, author of Savage Conversations

Lucy Inglis, author of Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium

Chris Cander, author of The Weight of a Piano

Rosellen Brown, author of The Lake on Fire

Patricia Miller, author of Bringing Down the Colonel

Monica Muñoz Martinez, author of The Injustice Never Leaves You

John Wray, author of Godsend

Imani Perry, author of Looking for Lorraine

Ken Krimstein, author of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth

Scott W. Stern, author of The Trials of Nina McCall

Katherine Benton-Cohen, historical adviser for the film Bisbee ’17

Victoria Johnson, author of American Eden

Anna Clark, author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy

Christopher Bonanos, author of Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous

Linda Gordon, author of The Second Coming of the KKK

Elizabeth Catte, author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

Ben Austen, author of High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing