As someone who has enjoyed Madonna’s work for the past 30+ years, Matthew Rettenmund’s Encyclopedia Madonnica 20 interests me. But as someone who engages with extreme human behavior for my job, Matthew Rettenmund’s Encyclopedia Madonnica 20 fascinates me. And the behavior I’m most fascinated by is not Madonna’s, but Rettenmund’s.
Encyclopedia Madonnica 20 is not just an A to Z reference manual. It’s not just a dizzying collection of interviews, reviews, and essays, nor is it just the most comprehensive and wittiest de facto Madonna biography that’s ever been published; it is the most useful channeling of celebrity fanaticism that I’ve ever witnessed. Rettenmund, who has written several books and runs the blog Boy Culture, has been a fan of Madonna’s since he was a kid in the ‘80s. He owns over 3,000 magazines with Madonna’s face on the cover, has “literally over a ton” of memorabilia, and estimates that he has spent upwards of half a million dollars on Madonna-oriented material. Encyclopedia Madonnica 20 is not just an expression of celebrity adoration, it is the height of such expression.
EM20 is an update of Rettenmund’s original Encyclopedia Madonnica, which he published in 1995. Last year, Rettenmund launched a Kickstarter for the new version and after raising his initial goal of $22,500 in 18 days, he got to work (he ended the monthlong campaign with $32,920). Six months of work yielded 422,814 words—the bulk of them new to this edition—within almost 1,400 entries that cover the basic artistic output you’d expect, and several subjects you wouldn’t (like Madonna’s routine misuse of the word “ironic”). There are interviews (including one with childhood friend/Truth or Dare scene-stealer Moira McFarland), thinkpieces, pull quotes, and hundreds of color pictures. To give you a sense of how mammoth this thing is, it contains about 60,000 fewer words than Lord of the Rings—the entire trilogy, that is. For some more perspective, here’s video I shot of Rettenmund flipping through it:
[There was a video here]
This book is an amazing feat and, in all likelihood, a symptom of madness. To talk about it, I met with Rettenmund—with whom I’ve known for years while having no idea what was brewing inside of him—for brunch this past weekend. A transcript of our chat, edited for length and clarity, appears below.
Gawker: When I think about expressions of fandom, this, to me, is the among the most useful ways you could channel your utter stan-hood.
Rettenmund: It’s kind of like the ultimate rebuttal to all the haters. I’ve always been a very practical person. I do spend some time arguing with people, but I do think it is more useful, as you say, to explain the alternative. If you’re just saying, “You’re an idiot, you don’t get her,” that doesn’t really help. But if you have your bible in hand, you can point to all the reasons why. It is alarming to me that a lot of younger people dismiss Madonna and not because she’s my girl and I take it personally. It’s because some of the ways in which they dismiss her, they’re dismissing huge chunks of history and the context of what she did and why it was important or at least of interest. It disturbs me when people say, “She never did anything for gay people.” Where to begin? I don’t even know where to begin.
The main reason I felt like I could do a book like this is not just that I like Madonna. That gets boring, the same topic. It’s not just every little thing Madonna has done, it’s also about how she’s been reacted to over the years. And then I go off in tangents in that direction—about the gay rights struggle, for example. And I think it gets more interesting that way, the more you contextualize it.
This is like my ultimate commentary on the subject. I don’t really want to go back. I don’t want to go back in 20 years and do it again. I have nothing more to say about Madonna. Nothing more to say!
But haven’t you been effectively writing this book all your life?
Only in my head.
That’s what I mean. Do you think you could write a book this long about yourself?
No. I know I couldn’t.
Is Madonna your avatar?
I don’t know. I don’t know how I would describe her to me. Obviously, she means a lot to me. I think about her a lot. But I still sort of fancy myself as being able to detach myself from it. I’m not completely in her thrall. People will say, “If I met her, I wouldn’t know what to say.” Well, I met her and I knew exactly what to say. Not counting the press line when one could only ask questions in a heartbeat, when I was at a (gay-journo) round table with Madonna, I made sure to ask the first question, and when there was a lull at the end I asked her about a bracelet she was wearing. It felt “right” because Madonna is keenly aware of every aspect of her ensemble, so I knew it would be a welcome question, and she explained it represented her children (and was also a copy of one seen in the film she was promoting, W.E.). She was completely charming to me the several times I was around her, including when I got a picture with her.
Meeting her felt like relief. It was a period on the end of a very long sentence. And that’s what this [book] feels like, too. Although maybe it’s more like an ellipsis.
I was reading the “Gay” entry, and I thought you did a good job of summing up her appeal succinctly. It also made me think about the broader implications of her cultural dabbling. I think about this a lot, especially as more and more people decry appropriation more loudly, which oftentimes when discussed in gay contexts completely ignores the way gay culture functions. Gay culture necessarily involves appropriation since a minuscule number of queer people are actually born into queer culture. You’re always influenced by the outside and rifling through culture to see what you can use. Madonna is the embodiment of that.
Yes, but I think she’s also controversial because she’s not accepted as being part of any tribe that’s allowed to do that, especially as she’s gotten older and richer and whiter. That’s why there’s so much antagonism there. Some of it is really interesting, and some of the criticism, I get it. Sometimes I look at her and think, “What the fuck are you thinking?” There’s a lack of awareness there that’s alarming at times. Sometimes it’s clearly not to cause controversy; she just does not get that people are going to be upset. And that’s weird because there’s no filter on her Instagram; it’s just her. On the other hand, most of the time when I hear criticism like that, I just have to throw my hands up because it just seems so limiting and unhealthy for art and culture. I don’t know what culture is supposed to do. What are we supposed to do? All stay within what we are and never explore? Is it wrong for a white person to appreciate forms that come from other cultures? Is it more right for non-whites to do it because they’re more oppressed? I don’t know, and I find it very troubling that people are so sure about it.
We elect certain people, with our money and attention, to be our artists. Artists run on inspiration. If you don’t want different cultures being explored in artists’ work, you’d have to stop them at the inspiration period, and then what you’re calling for is artistic segregation (“No, you cannot listen to that!”). There is no real practical solution to that problem, I don’t think. But I think we when you see a year go by with no solo black artists at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and plenty of black made by white music in that space, as we did in 2013, that’s a definite sign of a problem. But it seems like a systematic problem, and an audience problem.
You can’t really take it out on the artists.
Well, some do a really bad job of reaching outside their cultures...
It’s funny, with someone like her, she’s from a time when awards shows were giving awards for “black music.” The times and the words were just so different. In context, she might have seemed like a trailblazer, but she has to keep kind of refreshing in order to not be seen as a throwback to the bad old days. More than any other artist, she’s not allowed to rest on her laurels. She always has to prove herself. I’m surprised she’s not called out more for things she’s said and done in the past. It’s all out there. All it takes is one person to notice it and everyone to jump on. If you start from a place of disliking her, it’s easy enough to condemn her over and over again.
I really appreciate what you wrote about the “Open Your Heart” video. [Excerpt: “Though there were indignant whispers that the video pushed pedophilia, it’s pretty clear that the boy-child is heroine-worshipping the stripper—coveting her feminine allure even—a phase common in boys.”] Among gay men of a certain age, that video was really important and now I have a greater understanding of why: the hero worship exhibited by that kid was so relatable. Talk about avatars!
I think it’s important the way they did that video: It’s a sexual milieu, but their connection is not sexual. It really baits people to be uncomfortable with it, and think, “Oh my god, she’s kissing a kid,” when clearly that wasn’t it. Having stand-ins is important, I think. And that kid is a stand-in.
In the “Gay” entry, you write: “There is also the phenomenon of gay people resenting the alleged social pressure to like Madonna, reacting by disliking her; this has more to do with a need to be seen as outside the norm and/or an ironically homophobic discomfort with anything ‘too gay’ than it does with anything Madonna’s said or done.” This is so true. I loved Madonna as a kid, but then around Ray of Light, when my sexuality became no longer avoidable, I denounced her and my former love for her—it wasn’t until I was was watching the Celebration video collection that I had an epiphany and realized how much she had meant to me. Reaccepting how much Madonna meant to me coincided with my self-acceptance.
Fandom is not hot. If you’re on an app and someone’s like, “Yo what’s up?” and you say, “I’m in town for the Madonna concert,” you’re not getting laid. It’s too real.
Sometimes to that question I’ve answered, “Listening to Mariah Carey,” if I wasn’t too pressed about hooking up and wanted to test the limits of the other guy’s open mind.
In general, if I’m going to a show, seeing Liza Minnelli or something, you just have to realize this is the gayest shit. This is gayer than rimming. You just have to do it and not be ashamed of it. I’m big on self-awareness. I think gay people used to be so aware of everything they were projecting and what people were doing and what the social contract was, and they’re getting less so. They’re getting a little more unironic in their behavior. But I’ll never stop being that way.
Do you hate people who hate Madonna?
That’s always been a problem. It’s difficult to like people who hate her. I know plenty of people who don’t like her, but it doesn’t come up. It depends on how they express it and way. If it’s like, “She should shut up. I don’t care what celebrities think.” I don’t like that. I don’t like that attitude. “She’s old.” I don’t like that attitude. It depends on why. It isn’t just, “You don’t like what I like; I hate you.”
You said you have nothing more to say about Madonna, but it’s clear that even if you aren’t writing it down, you’ll still think about her. It’s really the same thing, it just depends on how you want the time you spend thinking to materialize.
It used to be that I would think about her a lot, to the point of distraction. The biggest distraction was when I was a collector in the old days before eBay. I would literally spend hours walking around the city going to all the magazine stores and finding this version of that magazine, which is only available [at a certain store]. I don’t have to that anymore. If I want something it’s click, I can get it on eBay. And I don’t think about her all the time. When I do there’s more of an air of professionalism. This is an area of expertise. I still get gripped by things, though. I watched her fall. I wish there was a video of me watching that. I just sank. In that moment, I thought, “I’m still such a crazy fan.”