20 years ago, self-described ‘front row bitch’ Matthew Rettenmund wrote an exhaustive compendium of all things Madge. Now he revisits the ultimate tribute of literary superfandom, ‘The Encyclopedia Madonnica’
Matthew Rettenmund is only kidding, but his enduring commitment to Madonna isn’t lost on him when he jokes, “She has me on speed hang-up.” It’s a statement that couldn’t ring truer if it were, well, true.
Except Rettenmund, the author known for quenching your man-thirst via his site Boy Culture, doesn’t know Madonna like you know your mom or a Facebook friend or even the hot Starbucks barista you shamelessly stalk.
He and Madonna have met, briefly, a few times, but they’re not musing introspectively on their way to Kabbalah classes, drafting, en route, a detailed plan for the icon’s next love-it-or-hate-it career conquest, though Retten-mund — who calls himself Madonna’s “front-row bitch” — would make an expert consultant. After all, he did document the life and times and first menstruation of Madge (actual entry: “Madonna first bled at age 10.”), when, two decades ago, he released Encyclopedia Madonnica 20: Madonna from A to Z. Now updated, this impressively crazy feat of fandom that goes deep (and deeper and deeper) into the pop empresses’ history is not just a book — when it comes to Madonna, it’s the Holy Bible.
— Chris Azzopardi
Dallas Voice: You must know more about Madonna than Madonna herself. Rettenmund: I think that’s true. That’s not to brag, but just like a lot of people, she seems to forget a lot of things about herself, and like a lot of stars enhances some things. I think I have more factoids than she’s ever kept at any one given time.
When did you decide that you would dedicate the rest of your life to this woman? I’m not dead yet! I can still give her up! I first became really interested when I first heard her on the radio. I have a very clear memory of it, and it was when I first heard “Holiday.” I was obsessed with the Billboard charts at the time, and I remember driving back from a Dungeons & Dragons session and I heard this song and thought it was amazing.
Of course it’s a cliché, but I thought she was a black girl. I really associate that song with “Let the Music Play” by Shannon because I was hearing them at the same time, and for some reason I was just so captivated by “Holiday” that I wanted to know more about her.
I liked being surprised by her even in small ways back then, and I liked a lot of different stars. I really liked Cyndi Lauper first, and so it took a while for all my forces to coalesce around Madonna. I would say when “Like a Virgin” came out it really kind of starting to hit its stride, and certainly by 1985 I had moved on from Cyndi Lauper, and Madonna was my woman — she was my main woman.
I found her really useful when I was talking to people too, because even back then I’d feel like when you were having a conversation about Madonna, it’s never just about Madonna; it’s about different suppositions and presets people have when they’re talking about her, and that’s not true of a lot of artists. She was kind of an icon from the beginning for that reason — she means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. She causes people to express things within themselves whether they intend to do it or not.
For me that was sexuality. I recall seeing the “Vogue” video and being awestruck that I could see boobage through that black lacey top. I associated Madonna with sex at a very young age. What facets of Madonna did you first cling to? Oh, I mean that was definitely part of it. But before that, it was just the coolness. That’s true of almost any person you put on a pedestal. There’s a cool factor. But Madonna always had a certain effortless coolness. She never questions herself. She reminded me of Andy Warhol in that way. She had tunnel vision about what she wanted to do, that she was gonna do it really well and that she was the person to do it. I really admired that. I liked that she was so decisive and really so cool.
The sex part came along quickly, too. At the time, I was a teenager and had hormones flare-ups. And I was gay, and I just kind of felt that she was a kindred spirit. She’d come from Michigan where I came from — and where I’ll probably go when I die [laughs]. I just loved knowing that she had come where I had come from and was doing all this stuff and was so unafraid to be so expressively sexual in a way that I couldn’t be, so I definitely used her as a mode of expression as we do with any star. It was easier to say, “I love Madonna,” than it was to go into the hundreds of things that were wrapped up in that. I definitely used her as a kind of shorthand, and I liked that she used her music and her work as a shorthand to communicate back to her fans.
How would you describe your level of fandom when it comes to Madonna? Front-row bitch. People always like to say, “I’m a crazy fan but I’m not crazy like that person,” but I don’t have a lot of wiggle room for that because I’ve written this huge book on her and people know me as someone who’s pretty far gone. But I would describe myself as someone who has complete respect and affection for Madonna, and the respect is very objective, and the affection is very subjective. I have a high level of both of those things, but I still think I’m able to be realistic, and I think that’s reflected in the book. As positive as it is, and as fawning as parts of it are, you do have to kind of step back and say, “This wasn’t so great, this let me down, this reveals a character flaw,” so I’m sort of a student of Madonna’s.
You definitely did not fawn over her film career. Well, yeah. I think that’s a good way to tell if someone is too far gone as a fan: If they really like all of her movies. I think even she would admit that a lot her movies were not good. She may not agree why. [Laughs] She might say it was the script, it was the director. But also, you weren’t so great in them. So much of the criticism she gets is just ridiculously over the top and it’s unfounded and so mired in people’s hang ups and expectations: the way women and the way older women and the way public figures should act and behave. I’m someone who’s extremely sensitive, and as confident as I can be, I take stuff to heart in a way, and I like the fact that she’s able to present an extremely determined public face. And as much as it probably does affect her in some ways, it doesn’t stop her. That’s inspiring.
What compelled you to write this book 20 years ago? When I wrote the first book and when I decided to update it, the way I approached it is: It had to be two different things. On one hand it is a serious reference book, but on the other hand there’s a ridiculousness about the endeavor. That’s the point of it. It is a pop artifact. I want it to be kind of ridiculous that we have a 600-page encyclopedia about this person, about any person. I was inspired 20 years ago by a dictionary on Marilyn Monroe and that one was very straight-laced. Basically entries with all the different people and places and things about her. I really kicked it up a notch from that. But that was my inspiration. So: I’m the Lady Gaga and those writers are the Madonna.
What does Madonna think of your book? She loves it — no, I’m just kidding. I’ll tell you the truth: When I did the first book 20 years ago I approached her publicist to try to get them to potentially give me some information or help me out, and of course they ignored me. When the book came out, her publicist, Liz Rosenberg — and I’ll never forget it — called me at my new job and said, “I love this.” So I was thrilled that they liked it. What happened was they had me send a signed copy to Madonna and Madonna signed a copy for me. So she did see it and she was aware of it. But Madonna’s the kind of person who is not gonna be excited to hear that somebody wrote a book about her. She’s not gonna flip open a book and go, “Look at all this wonderful stuff he got right about me.” You just can’t picture that.
Who would wanna read a book about themselves anyway? Nobody would, but especially someone who’s cool. She’d roll her eyes. This time around I did send it to her people again, got no negative feedback or anything. I haven’t gotten a signed copy this time, but I haven’t gotten a lawsuit either. If she gets it and flips through it — or maybe her kids would; I can imagine that happening more likely — I would hope she’d appreciate the affection that’s there.
Anything in the book that you’re uncomfortable with her seeing? I wouldn’t want her to read about plastic surgery or my guesses about plastic surgery or any kind of personal health things. I don’t think I would care about her reading any of my impressions of her work. She understands that people have criticisms, and unlike most people who review her, I know that none of my reviews, even the ones that are negative, are outrageously off-base. They don’t come from a place of hating her.
Also, the last time, I was just some random kid doing a book and so nobody wanted to deal with me — except Allen Ginsberg, maybe because I was a young boy. But this time I was able to get some people to actually talk to me, and some of them said things that weren’t 100 percent positive, like the publicist from Desperately Seeking Susan who had a very long interview, and I put in every word. I found it really fascinating because he really respected her and thought she was talented musically early on. He was very frank in saying that there were times when it wasn’t cool to be seen with him, so she didn’t want to be seen with him, and so she’d blow him off.
This reminds me of the time we both interviewed Madonna in New York at the end of 2011, when, after I mentioned that people refer to her as the “queen of reinvention,” she snapped, telling me, “Don’t throw those tired, old clichés at me.” Which you note in your book! It’s forever immortalized. And you don’t even know how long that haunted me. I was happy to read that you thought Madonna was being “playful” with me, though. I get it. I think when someone has that much power, any little swipe, any little movement can be taken with so much more powerfully. I sort of took it as she assumed that you were on the team and so it was fine to kind of give you a little kitty cat swipe.
Well, I’m glad. Aside from Madonna herself, you’d know best. She told me it’s fine… just kidding. But I know what you mean. Before I met her I always wondered: What if I meet her and she’s horrible to me? Would I claim that I thought that was cool and amazing too? Or would I be deeply sad? Obviously you wouldn’t want her to be a total asshole, but luckily I got to meet her under positive circumstances, where she knew I was a member of the press. It wasn’t like I was coming up to her on the street and saying, “Oh my gosh can I get your autograph?” which would be like suicide and you might as well just step in front of a car.
How old were you when you first fell for Madonna? I was born in 1968, Christmas ’68, so I would’ve been 13.
And is it true you have “literally over a ton” of memorabilia? I do have a big archive. Up till about 24 years old, my rooms looked like they should be second-hand shops, but I did get over that pretty quickly. Now it’s all stashed away. So, if you walked into my apartment you’d know I like Madonna because there are three or four things on the wall, but they’re kind of tasteful, kind of cool high-end things, and then there’s a lot of other art. So it’s under control.
Over the years I have let go of things. And that’s a hard thing to come to grips with if you’ve kind of devoted a lot of time to collecting anything. It does make you think, “Do I really wanna get rid of all this?” and then you think, “Geez, do I really wanna die with all of this?”
What’s the first piece you ever owned? Oh, that’s a good question. I know what it is: If you don’t count music, I remember very clearly buying my first Madonna poster at probably a Sam Goody’s or maybe even Coconuts near Genesee Valley mall. It was a caricature picture of her from Desperately Seeking Susan, and it’s really not a very good shot. Herb Ritts did the shoot and they’re all amazing but I always thought this shot was a little weird. She looks a little greasy, a little matted down [laughs]. But her face was amazing! The hair was just not quite right in this one shot. But I bought that poster, and that’s the one that replaced my Cyndi Lauper poster. In my opinion,
Desperately Seeking Susan is one of the best things Madonna has ever been associated with. I love that movie.
Even back then in Michigan, when I had to drive around, I had my routine where I would go to buy stuff and my approach to collecting was like that of a bug strip — anything that got close to me that had to do with Madonna was stuck to me and I kept it, or I found a way to get it. I wasn’t discriminatory at all. I bought music, I bought posters, I bought cheesy merchandise at stores. Old magazines, new magazines. For a long time I continued down that path.
I’m a big Mariah fan and, in fact, I remember getting a life-size Mariah cardboard cutout from Sam Goody’s. It was a hard day for me when I put it into storage in my late 20s. But you didn’t get rid of it?
No, no. Of course not. [Laughs] That’s actually worse when it gets to that level, That’s when you go to a whole new level of crazy. So congrats.
Ha! Are you not at that level of crazy? You did write a 581-page book about Madonna that weighs four pounds. Oh, I’m way beyond that. But I could probably be persuaded by the right entity to give my archives away, to donate them somewhere if I thought it’d be kind of kept well and made available. I mean, I have tens of thousands of clippings from magazines and newspapers. When you collect anything you have to decide if you’re collecting it to make a profit or collecting it because you love it.
For you, it’s because you love it, right? No, it’s just the money. [Laughs] No, I do love it. But I’m definitely not as crazy as I once was when it comes to collecting. If anything, I’ve gotten more successful in life and started making a little bit more money and deciding “I’m going to go to an auction! I’m going to buy something that she owns! I’m gonna buy a one of a kind thing!” You bump up from getting the latest foreign magazine to crazy shit you never thought you’d be looking into. It gets worse before it gets better.
‘Well, this has been great, Matthew. Thanks for the chat. I appreciate you taking the time and I hope you didn’t read the Mariah Carey entry.
I did. It was the first entry I went to. Fuck.
I didn’t want to sour this experience, but now that you have… I do think it’s important to have a healthy sense of bitchery, but I will say that the whole “star wars” are tiresome when you get to be in your fucking 40s. It’s like, “I can’t read all this. There’s too many divas for me to hate.” Gaga fanatics would write me and say, “I hope you choke on your AIDS medications.” I loved that one. I definitely have been commented on posts about things I disagree with, but I’ve never gone to somebody’s Lady Gaga or Mariah Carey page to just start shit and say, “My favorite is better than your favorite.” So pointless. Come on guys. Promote the things you like and don’t worry about the things you hate.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 5, 2016.