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Season 2, Episode 3: "Madonna's 2 Kinky Kisses": The Girl-on-Girl VMAs Kiss That Rocked The World


Well, brother, it’s time to get gay, ok??


Let’s just situate ourselves here. It’s August 2003 and sophomore year of high school just started a week ago. Summer is technically over and you’re miserable about it but at least you get to see some of your friends every day. The minute y’all get back together again at lunch, you start plotting. The MTV Video Music Awards are airing that week and you need to figure out who’s house you’ll all be gathering at to watch them together. Some of your favorite musicians — Missy Elliott, No Doubt, Radiohead, Ludacris, and Beyonce — are all rumored to be nominated for big awards and there’s supposed to be big performances by Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Sean Paul, and Coldplay AND Chris Rock is hosting. We absolutely couldn’t miss it. Everyone — truly, everyone — will be talking about this the Friday after it airs because, back then, whatever was going on on MTV comprised a significant portion of our everyday conversations.


Remember, this is before the death of the music video, before streaming, before reality TV truly blew up, before social media. MTV was pumping out a ton of what we thought was great content, unlike now where they more or less play reruns of Ridiculousness and Catfish 24 hours a day. In the aughts, I would argue that MTV was as hot as TikTok is considered now but was, ultimately, much less dangerous. We tried to get home as quickly as possible from school to watch Total Request Live in the hopes that our favorite videos made it onto the countdown even though they rarely did. In the evening and on the weekends, we’d stare in disbelief as celebrities flaunted their insane wealth and terrible taste in interior design on MTV Cribs. We’d laugh at and with the Jackass crew as they did incredibly dangerous stunts just for our amusement. We’d sit awkwardly watching Room Raiders, thinking about how horrifying it would be to have people we thought were hot come search our rooms. True Life and The Real World gave us a false sense of how people who were not us lived. Say What? Karaoke mostly made us laugh but also it reminded us of the importance of having a sense of humor about yourself. And Road Rules turned us into little gamblers, constantly trying to figure out which cast member was most likely to win at the end. It felt cool to watch MTV and it felt grown up to talk about even though it really wasn’t. The VMAs were just another important part of that equation — it connected us, it gave us something to talk about, and it gave us an opportunity to celebrate something gaudy and absurd.


And 2003 was a huge year for pop music. HUGE. The second half of 2002 and the first half od 2003 saw the releases of the following albums along with tons of visually inventive music videos to accompany them:


  • Missy Elliott’s Under Construction

  • Norah Jones’s Come Away With Me

  • Vanessa Carlton’s Be Not Nobody

  • 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin

  • Eminem’s The Eminem Show AND the 8 Mile Soundtrack

  • Justin Timberlake’s Justified

  • Madonna’s American Life

  • The Dixie Chicks (now called The Chicks) Home

  • Sheryl Crow’s C’mon C’mon

  • John Mayor’s Room for Squares

  • Beyonce’s Dangerously In Love

  • Christina Aguilera’s Stripped

  • Avril Lavigne’s Let Go

  • J. Lo’s This is Me…Then

  • Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head

  • B2K’S Pandemonium

  • Bowling for Soup’s Drunk Enough to Dance

  • Beck’s Sea Change

  • Faith Hill’s Cry

  • India Arie’s Voyage to India

  • The Donna’s Spend the Night (still one of my personal favorites)

  • Good Charlotte’s The Young and the Hopeless

  • The White Stripes’ Elephant

  • Kelly Clarkson’s Thankful

  • Evanescence’s Fallen

  • Sean Paul’s Dutty Rock

  • Eve’s Eve-Olution

  • Cam’Ron’s Come Home With Me (still a favorite)

  • No Doubt’s Rock Steady

  • Ashanti’s Chapter 2

  • R. Kelly’s Chocolate Factory (I’m sorry I have to mention this but everyone knows that album had a HOLD on the aughts, unfortunately.)

  • Nelly’s Nellyville

  • Nas’s God’s Son

  • Busta Rhymes’s It Ain’t Safe No More…

  • Mya’s Moodring

  • Queens of the Stone Age Songs for the Deaf

  • Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief

  • Sum 41’s Does This Look Infected?


Not to mention various singles that came out that year and blasted the charts away:

  • Jay Z and Beyonce’s 03 Bonnie and Clyde

  • Snoop Dogg and Pharrell’s Beautiful

  • Common and Mary J. Blige’s Come Close

  • Britney Spears and Pharell’s Boys from the Austin Powers in Goldmember soundtrack

  • Erykah Badu’s Love of My Life from the Brown Sugar Soundtrack

  • And another one of my favorites of the period, Aaliyah’s Miss You, which was featured on the posthumous compilation album I Care 4 U released by Universal Records the year after her untimely death


Many of these albums and videos do not stand the test of time, but in 2003, the songs on these albums and these singles were all you heard anywhere. It was just hit after hit after hit, and you didn’t have much of a choice of what you were exposed to. Music piracy was really still in its infancy in terms of what we had access to, YouTube wasn’t invented yet, and the internet was just not that great all around so for most people, their tastes were made by their elders or — in my case —- sometimes just their friends’ older siblings, channels like MTV, MTV2, VH1, or BET, the radio, or whatever the guy at the CD store was trying to hawk to you when you asked for something they didn’t have. I’m not saying this on some nostalgic tip because I actually prefer the access we have to different kinds of media now but there was a collectivity in the experience of music and pop culture that just doesn’t exist now. And the VMAs, in my opinion, were kind of a showcase of that.


So, when my friends and I all got together on that Thursday night to watch the VMAs, we expected the usual antics. Of course, this wasn’t our first time watching the show so we knew there would be some foolish shit happening at some point, but we weren’t sure what. And honestly, in 2003, I don’t think anyone could’ve fully prepared us for what did and for what happened after. I don’t know how or why but I remember this like yesterday….The main show began with a performance by Madonna of “Like A Virgin”...there were flower girls walking around the stage throwing petals on the ground and then Madonna emerged from a giant wedding cake wearing a wedding dress. The performance was very similar to her original performance of the song on the 1984 VMAs and was for sure meant to stoke the memories of the people who were old enough to remember it. As the song finishes, she climbs back up the cake, disappears inside of it again, and comes out wearing a tuxedo. Ok, she’s the groom now, got it. At the bottom of the cake, two brides were waiting for her and as she descended the cake again, they ripped off their veils to reveal that they are Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. At this point, the three of them begin performing Madonna’s single “Hollywood” together. They’re singing and they’re dancing…Madonna even had a little salsa moment with each of them, and just as the song is about to end and they’re about to bring Missy Elliott out, Madonna removes the garter belts both Britney and Christina are wearing and then she OPEN MOUTH kisses Britney Spears. Immediately, the camera scans directly to Justin Timberlake who, whether he actually was or not, looked a little bothered by the whole thing and when the camera comes back around to the stage, Madonna and Christina are just finishing up their own kiss. Then, Missy Elliott comes on to perform “Work It” as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.


Brother, I don’t think I need to tell you that my friends and I were fucking TRANSFIXED. I mean, we were hyped. TWO WOMEN KISSING ON NATIONAL TELEVISION? It was a big fucking deal to us. When the performance was over, we all jumped up to give them our own 6 person living room standing ovation. It felt so good to us to see three of the most famous women in the world doing something sexual TOGETHER in a public forum. As imperfect and — ultimately extremely heterosexual — as the representation was, it brought us a lot of joy and, even though I can’t speak for all of them here, I think it gave us all a little more confidence than we already had. For a moment, it didn’t feel so scary to be a bunch of gay teenagers out in a world that was constantly and very publicly — without any reservation or restraint — questioning our right to exist.


But as you can probably imagine, the rest of the people around us didn’t exactly react that way. The next day, at school, that kiss was mostly all people talked about and they didn’t exactly celebrate it in the same way we did. Mostly, they said Britney only did it to get back at Justin after their break up and his release of what remains one of the ultimate pop break up albums of all time. Others just thought it was gross because Madonna was “old” (she was 44 at the time). And some others just thought it wasn’t “right” to show that on TV. A very small percentage of the people I knew directly just thought it was cool. Obviously, I understand now the appeal and the reasoning behind pop stars doing something like this on national television but at the time, I was kind of bummed out that people weren’t that excited about it. It looked to me like maybe being gay was going mainstream in a way and although I certainly have mixed feelings about the concept and possibility of that now, it was a relief to believe that — even for a second.


Part II: I won’t lie, It sucked to be an f word in 2003


I don’t intend for this part to be very long because I HAVE addressed it on other episodes of this podcast. BUT I do think we just need to reacquaint ourselves with the period. You’ll remember that same-sex marriage was the HOT topic among not just the political elite but also just every other person in this country. As I said earlier, people brought up their beliefs on this topic with very little tact and very little care about who was listening. It was just something to muse about…”Are gay people actually like us??” “What does it mean if gay people can get married also?” “If we let gay people get married, won’t people try to marry their dogs now, too?” It also didn’t help much that HBO was playing “The Laramie Project” and “Boys Don’t Cry” in what seemed like an endless loop for much of 2002 and 2003.


You might be thinking this seems tame considering where we’re at in our society right now with the far right constantly attacking queer and trans people and all this legislation that’s going through to limit the rights trans people have to their bodies. And I agree with you, it is. My thoughts on marriage have changed a lot since I was a little gay teen trying to figure out how to be a gay adult when everything seemed so bleak. I don’t think marriage is a very important thing anymore. I don’t think it says anything about my humanity to have a right to it or not. HOWEVER, I will also say this…in 2003, this issue wasn’t a one-sided battle by the far right to deny queer people these rights. It was a multi-sided battle involving any person from any party with any political leanings. Mostly everyone we knew was a bit homophobic in 2003 even if they thought they weren’t. And we didn’t have any cultural capital or access to a forum as large as social media to call them out on it. We were mired in anti-queerness every single day in a way that wasn’t as compartmentalizable as it is now. It was a lot to hold at 15 years old.


It’s with that context that my friends and I watched three of the most famous women in the world kiss on national television in front of a live audience. And it’s with that context that people discussed the kiss.


The people who mocked it or who were disgusted by it felt entitled to think it was stupid or disgusting and the feelings they had were backed by our cultural zeitgeist of the time.


Part III: People Discussing the Kiss


I have to say, for as terrible as it always is, a lot of the media was receptive to the kiss, though they did — of course — discuss it in a weird ass way.


In an article for Slate, Virginia Heffernan wrote, "The small thrill of this kiss was real to me because, though girls making out with girls is an old party stunt, this time it came off as female lechery: overmuscled, rich, landed matriarch Madonna (in tails, no less) preying on sweetie Spears, who (in wedding white) hasn’t even had a first marriage yet. “Hollywood,” Madonna cooed as she brushed hair tenderly from Britney’s face. “How could it hurt you when it looks so good?” I expect we’ll see this wise-woman/callow-girl romance around more now.”


I guess YEAH, she did make some good predictions regarding where lesbian-tinted media would go from there, but “lechery” is a little much for a moment that was assiduously designed to simply cause controversy and make people talk about it.


A New York Post article written by Bill Hoffman donned the headline “MADONNA’S 2 KINKY KISSES – SMOOCHES WITH BRITNEY AND CHRISTINA” and began with this absolute banger of a quote: “The MTV Video Music Awards turned into a red-hot, all-girl smooch-fest last night as Madonna, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera performed a raunchy, bump-and-grind dance routine that ended in explicit, open-mouth kisses.”


You heard me describe the scene of this moment so you know it was not anywhere near as graphic as this description implies. They didn’t “bump and grind” and it certainly wasn’t a “smooch fest.” This is just sensational as hell. I mean, I love it, of course, and I wish it actually happened this way. That would’ve been a lot hotter. But you know, because it’s three women sharing kisses, it’s immediately over-sexualized into something it wasn’t.


A Rolling Stone article by Austin Scaggs and Rob Sheffield called “MTV Awards Fail to Suck” began with the sentence: “When the annual MTV glitzfest of the Video Music Awards begins with Britney slipping Madonna some Louisiana tongue, you can feel certain that your night in front of the TV is going to be quality time.”


Again, they didn’t make out.


Of course, in the week that followed, there was lots of reporting on it, too. Here’s a tidbit in an article from People about how Britney felt about the kiss afterwards:


“I didn’t know it was going to be that long and everything,” Spears told CNN (which, like PEOPLE, is part of AOL Time Warner.)


She said the gesture grew out of rehearsals and that Madonna suggested they “just feel it out and see what happens” during the show.


“I’ve never kissed a woman before,” Spears said in a manner CNN.com described as demure.


And would she do it again? “No, I would not do it,” she reportedly squealed before adding, “Maybe with Madonna.”


Asked whether the nationally televised kiss might have tarnished her once squeaky-clean Mouseketeer image, Spears replied, “I think I’m still clean living. I mean I don’t go home and have orgies or anything like that.”


She said Thursday’s kiss was simply a way of “performing and expressing myself.”


Other media outlets were both positive and pretty normal about it.


Sal Cinquemani wrote in Slant Magazine, “Madonna rarely shares the stage with other stars, and for it to be Britney and Christina—who have been compared to and who cite Madonna as a primary influence—was nothing short of surreal. (Rumors abound that J. Lo was to have originally appeared in Christina’s place, in which case Madonna would have been the best singer on the stage that night.) Add to that an appearance by Madonna’s new Gap pal, Missy Elliott, who has been pegged as one of the greatest video artists since the Material Girl herself, and you’ve got a PR coup of diva proportions. It raises the question: Who thought this shit up?”


Which like….great question, Sal.


And perhaps my favorite analysis of the night comes from Entertainment Weekly in an article by Brian Hiatt that ranked the best and worst moments of the VMAs that year where he ranked the kiss as one of the best: “The close-up of the 45-year-old Madonna locking lips with the 21-year-old Spears was an indelible MTV moment — sexy, vaguely transgressive, and as meaningless as it was entertaining.”


That last part really gets me because it’s just the truth.


Of course, not everyone was excited about the kiss.The same people on the far right who are on the forefront of the culture wars now were on the forefront back then, but it was just a lot easier to ignore them (mostly because social media wasn’t around and, well, they hadn’t fully infiltrated the government in the way they have now).


As an aside: I really struggle to call these headquarters for freaks churches because Jesus, who we all know was gay, wouldn’t have called these places churches but ANYWAYS an evangelical organization/church called Good Fight Ministries was pretty vocal in their disapproval of the kiss, releasing a statement that said: “MTV was leading millions of impressionable youth down the greased pole to hell” and that Satan is using a “legion of demonic beings to promote musical terrorism.” The post on their website went on to say that “God’s word warns that homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God but will be sentenced to the lake of fire.”


That’s nothing unusual or out of the ordinary but it is pretty damn funny. And actually it gets funnier because Good Fight Ministries was founded by this guy Joe Schimmel, and I just feel like you need to hear this snippet from Joe’s bio, brother: “Since 1987 Pastor Joe Schimmel has been equipping Christians with the truth of God’s word. His testimony of the transforming power of Jesus Christ in his own life can be seen in his powerful exposé, They Sold Their Souls for Rock n Roll. This presentation has been heard during live presentations at churches around the world in which he describes his own deliverance from the bondage and satanic influence of Rock Music at the age of 18. This calling and love for the Lord led Joe to start Good Fight Ministries in 1987 with a mission to reach a lost and dying world with the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ. As head of Good Fight Ministries and Senior Pastor of Blessed Hope Chapel in Simi Valley, California since 1990, Joe’s life work and ministry are dedicated to carrying out the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.” Another part of Joe’s bio went on to point out that he also made a film called “Marvel & DC’s War on God” that I can’t say I don’t support — not because I think it’s right or true but because I’m tired of the superhero shit.


I digress…


Ok, obviously, the evangelicals weren’t down with it, but you know who else wasn’t? MRS. BEYONCE GISELLE KNOWLES-CARTER.


Now, listen up, folks, I’m not here to slander Beyonce’s name. I’m here because this shit is just funny AND ALSO speaks so well to what I was explaining before about everyone being a little homophobic during this period. I feel like I need to say this because people confuse just reporting on something with actual criticism. I don’t give a shit if Beyonce was homophobic then (or now even, to be honest)...she said some funny shit and I’m going to report on it.


So, for some reason, The Sun, a British publication, interviewed Beyonce about the kiss, and she told them she couldn’t do what Britney, Christina, and Madonna did because it’s against God and said, “I have standards. There are things I will not do.” The interviewer then asked her how God feels about her dancing and dressing provocatively, she responded “It’s entertainment and I believe God is OK with that. I honestly believe He wants people to celebrate their bodies, as long as you don’t compromise your Christianity in the process.”


If we had a hall of fame for The Most Aughts Quotes of All Time, I think this would be in the top 10.


Also, according to that Slant article I mentioned before, publications were getting heat for just covering the event and the kiss itself. Cinquemani writes, “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution apologized to its readers for printing a thumbnail-sized image of Madonna kissing Britney on their front page after a slew of complaints. The newspaper compared the “mistake” to the paper’s printing of violent images from the war in Iraq several months ago.”


Finally, in an interview from LAST WEEK, J. Lo told reporters that she was actually supposed to be in Christina Aguilera’s spot in the performance. She said, “I was filming a movie in Canada, and we had met — me, her and Britney — to do it at her home. And then, I just couldn't get off the film, and so, we couldn't do it." She seemed hyped about the possibility of it happening and sad that it didn’t in the interview, so as I’ve always said I think J. Lo is a friend of the queers.


Part IV: What’s Culturally Relevant About This?


Maybe some of our listeners are going to be surprised when I say this but I actually think this is more culturally relevant now than it was at the time. Of course, yes, at the time, it was IMPORTANT, and the star powers of Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera were much more intense at the time, but to me, it is directly connected to a much larger shift in pop culture that has happened in the years since and directly relates to a conversation that queers seem to be having all the time now.


Women attempting to use same-sex attraction as a way to excite or enrage or even amuse men was happening in the early aughts — I mean, I can’t tell you how many supposed straight girls I made out with in high school and how many of them made out with each other — but we weren’t TALKING about it. It was a just thing we knew was occurring, and honestly, it wasn’t something that ever bothered me very much. This is going to sound gross but it’s how I felt at the time…technically, I benefited from it. When I first came out, having a real girlfriend seemed like a wild risk to take. I wasn’t out to my family and I didn’t want to feel the pressure of doing that. I also didn’t want someone else to feel that pressure. So, making out or hooking up was what felt the most comfortable and the most empowering for me at the time. And listen, I liked watching girls kiss each other. It didn’t matter to me if they were gay or not because why would it? I wanted to be excited, too, and I was.


In addition to that, it wasn’t fucking hurting anybody. After we watched Britney, Madonna, and Christina kiss on stage, our opinions of them didn’t shift. We didn’t start questioning whether or not they were gay. Why? Because them being gay doesn’t make the kiss anymore real. It’s real because it happened and it was taped for everyone to see. They weren’t gay or bisexual or at least they didn’t say they were, but surely, they were engaging in an explicitly queer act and that was all that mattered to us. OF COURSE, we were, at that point, starved for representation in the media but I don’t know, we just didn’t feel like how many people feel now. I know I might get some flack for this somewhere but as far as queerness went, for us, representation was in the tangible — seeing someone perform it was what impacted us. We just needed to know it was possible.


Today, much of the conversation in queer circles is dominated by this thinking that if you’re acting a little gay, then you have to be on the queer spectrum somewhere and that if you’re presenting characters as a little gay, then eventually, they need to BE gay. The concept of queerbaiting, which is defined in Kate Harrad’s book Claiming the B in LGBT: Illuminating the Bisexual Narrative as “implying either in the text or in commentary same gender desire between characters but never following through on it,” is decried as like one of the biggest infractions on the queer community. Queer people get so upset when Taylor Swift or Harry Styles get a little faggy with it to sell records or whatever, and they lose their minds over the fact that their favorite queer coded TV duos never get to kiss or hook up. More importantly, I don’t think the conversation is expansive enough. Everyone wants to weigh in on queerbaiting, but no one wants to weigh in on how capitalism is the force that is driving people to, like I said, get a little faggy with it in the first place. If you want to perform a real critique of this, then question the capitalist machine we’re all forced to be part of. Or if you want to go harder, question why you’re so willing to let some rainbow-washed shit swindle you out of your hard-earned money in the first place. And if you want to go even harder than that, consider what privileges and powers you might have that make you less susceptible to some of the real life terrors and violences and material deficiencies our siblings suffer from every day. Because those are things that should be more concerning.


On the other hand, I won’t act like I can’t at least somewhat sympathize with the impulse to decry something like the Britney/Madonna/Christina kiss as an instance of queerbaiting or queer for attention or whatever. I understand the urge to gatekeep our language and our culture and our sex because we’re still on the fringes of society, especially those of us who have other intersecting identities. But I don’t know…queer subtext is a thing. And it can be a very powerful thing. And I think sometimes people don’t recognize the power of queer subtext or the possible subversiveness of three of the world’s biggest pop stars kissing on TV. It is now and has, historically, been extremely powerful and empowering for me and I know it has for others, as well.


Finally, I just want to point out that the VMAs kiss was a risk for these artists. Yes, they were going to stay rich no matter what happened after they performed but there was no guarantee they were going to leave the stage with their careers perfectly in tact. In 2003, you could lose a lot for doing something that was perceived as immoral or transgressive, and I don’t think you can ignore that fact. Sure, none of them are out as queer as far as we know, so maybe their punishments would’ve been temporary but the risk was there. And they took it. I think there’s power in that, too.


And, if I’m being real about it, I think our ability to embrace it at the time, along with other things from the aughts that were similar like Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” was mostly thanks to the fact that none of us were chronically online.


So, that’s it, brother. That’s where I’m at……


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