The Madonna Timeline: Song #55 – ‘Drowned World/Substitute for Love’ – March 1998 ~ Present – Parts 1-5


{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}


A late-winter evening – sometime after midnight. I am scheduled to work at Structure the next morning, but now I sit, wide awake, thrilled and enthralled. A new Madonna album – the Madonna album of all albums, Ray of Light, has been released. The date is March 3, 1998. The opening track ~ ‘Drowned World/Substitute for Love’ ~ fills the room, downstairs neighbors be damned. I lie on the hardwood floor – solitary, isolated, alone – and, for perhaps the first time ever, all right with that. At least, as all right as I’ll ever be – and it may never be entirely all right.

It begins with an ambient sonic atmosphere – chilly and yet pulsing with life. It ushers in a new era for Madonna, and a new chapter for me. Then, clear as the purest crystal, the plaintive coo of the woman I have followed for all of my cognizant life.

I traded fame for love,
Without a second thought
It all became a silly game
Some things cannot be bought…

On the night at hand I stare up at the ceiling, wondering at the whole, well, wonder of it all. Having graduated from college, having traveled the world, and having ended up right where I began (working retail at a ridiculous salesperson job that I couldn’t help but love), I have no idea where to go or what to do, but at twenty-three years of age that’s exactly where I’m supposed to be. That doesn’t ease the restlessness, or the melancholy.

My heart has been broken – not in a very real sense, and not in a sense that anyone who’s been through any serious heart-break will honor or understand – but in my own way it’s been a painful few years. My best friend Suzie, when asked by her brother if I have a boyfriend, responded, “He’s had a lot of… bad boyfriends.” Which wasn’t entirely true, but not entirely untrue either. Count on Suzie for a telling sound-bite. As magnificently melodramatic as it is, it’s still not quite accurate.

I’d had a lot of men in my life who didn’t treat me well – not just lovers, but family and friends – but it was mostly because they didn’t want anything to do with me – not due to some personal antipathy they felt. If only I could inspire such a depth of feeling.

My heartache stemmed from an absolute apathy that many of the men I fancied – romantic and otherwise – felt, or profoundly didn’t feel, for me. There’s a very different sort of emotion that evolves from being ignored as opposed to being actively disliked. If there’s a heat to hatred, at least there’s that heat. The cruel chill of indifference is somehow more insidious, more ruinous, in the long run. It slowly decimates the soul, instead of instantly destroying and offering the bitter salvation of strength in re-building. It simply defeats, without a chance of redemption. That apathy would be the ultimate downfall of my life – as well as the unlikely savior. But I’m getting ahead of myself again. I did not know that then.

Got exactly what I asked for
Wanted it so badly
Running, rushing back for more
I suffered fools so gladly
And now
I find
I’ve changed my mind…

Back then I thought the key to happiness did not lie in my own hand. (I wasn’t quite ready, privately at least, to believe Madonna’s words of wisdom from 1994’s ‘Secret’). Publicly I pretended I was strong, that I could make it on my own, but deep down, in the secret inviolable insecurity of my heart, I had always believed that I needed someone else to validate my existence – a partner to make my life whole. Chalk it up to one too many Victorian novels, or Disney’s deluge of brainwashing happily-ever-afters. Whatever the reason, and whatever the politically-incorrect inclinations, I thought I needed a man, and wouldn’t be all right without one.

With no one to guide me, I made my own way, carving out my own set of rules designed to distance and safeguard against heartbreak, but they never worked. I could get the guy for a night or two, but that was it. Maybe they were all just looking for a quick one-off, or maybe there was something wrong with me. I never had the courage to ask. You can tell when you’re not loved – especially when you love the person. No matter how much you may desperately wish to see that love returned, in their eyes you can see when it isn’t.

The face of you
My substitute for love,
My substitute for love…

To hear Madonna questioning her own worth, to listen to her search for love, was emboldening. That the woman I had long admired for steely strength and ultimate control had her own doubts gave me a certain hope, and made me feel less alone, less unsure. She saw me through that bitter end of Winter – and the brutal awakening of Spring. There would be lonely nights, tear-stained pillows, and solitary walks with nary a concern for safety. I would throw and thrash myself across one-night-stands and men who only wanted their way with me. I hid the pain with drink, smoking clove cigarettes with throat-bleeding abandon. I tried to fill the void with distractions of every sort, vices that were their own slowly-suicidal path to the end, to oblivion. And through it all, the voice of the woman I adored carried me along.

Should I wait for you?
My substitute for love,
My substitute for love…


In the messy sheets of sterile hotel rooms, I find myself looking out at cities strange and fantastical. Bodies of water – some rivers, some oceans, some lakes – stretch out from day to day. A different place, a different room, a different way of escape. Time passes, as do the men in my life. They shape me, they make me into someone else, then they too move on. The dense solitude of searching for companionship takes its toll, yet I do not feel lonely. Not yet.

I traveled round the world
Looking for a home
I found myself in crowded rooms
Feeling so alone…

There is occasionally kindness here, in the crook of an arm, even after the spurt of quick passion. Sometimes – most times – I don’t want to cuddle, and I don’t mind if they leave without a word. Once in a while I’d like them to stay, and whenever that is they never do. Somehow, I am still so young, still not quite removed from boyhood, even if my heart is worn.

I had so many lovers
Who settled for the thrill
Of basking in my spotlight
I never felt so happy…

In the darkness of these gatherings, the hurried push and pull of trying to find my way into another human being, the desperate clawing at skin, at hope, at connection ~ I search to find salvation. At the hands of cold, hard men, whose sweat and heat are only deception, whose smiles and twinkling eyes are but a mask, I cry out in rage or passion, and they never know the difference. What do they see when it slows, when face-to-face we look into each others’ eyes through the hazy salty film? You see, I do sometimes cry, and never at an opportune moment, but most do not see. It’s better that way.

The face of you
My substitute for love
My substitute for love

Was there tenderness in those days before Andy? There was. It was just fleeting, abstract, and infuriatingly obtuse – impossible to rely upon, cagey to the very end. It lent everything such an air of defeat, of pointlessness. The struggle of it all seemed too much, too elusive, and the promise of happiness – of, dare I even say it, love – proved futile.

When I did find it, for a few months, even a few years, the rapture felt fleeting, and always a bit false. I was never quite myself, lost in a gauzy world of the person I thought they wanted me to be, this soft-focus bundle of nerves and unsteadiness. It would never feel real to me. Even Andy – stalwart, safe, steady man he would prove to be, never quite felt real for years. Maybe I wanted too much. Maybe what I wanted did not even exist. Maybe my own whole existence was a fool’s mission. And so I wondered.

Should I wait for you?
My substitute for love
My substitute for love…


It is not all sadness or solitary rumination, and there are glamorous moments of decadence and distraction to ease the emptiness. Parties to fill the nights, cocktails that overflow into the morning, and a wardrobe bustling with only the most fashionable accessories. To some it seemed a life of enchantment, a charmed existence where I could be made giddy at the purchase of a Prada bag or the tilt of a couture hat. Trendy sunglasses hid dark eyes, and streamlined suits compensated for slouchy hangovers. Traveling to distant cities and following friends around the world became a mainstay – it was easier to call a suitcase a home, to consider my friends a family, and to distract myself with everything that didn’t matter.

There were so many substitutes for love. And, yes, even love – if it makes any sense, became a substitute for love. For that pure self-love – that “greatest love of all” that I would forever be lacking, and forever making up for in any other way. That sense of self-worth and self-respect was never instilled in me – and I would never be good enough. If I could get someone else to love me, maybe that would be the way to self-acceptance. It had to be. There was no choice. All other possibilities had been exhausted.

I recognized then in Madonna, as I do now, an incredible insecurity – I share with her that need to be loved and adored unconditionally, with all the conditions we place upon it and none other. It will always be unfair, and we will always be just a little bit unhappy because of it. But we try harder too.

So we search to fill that void in manners both bizarre and inappropriate, over the top and attention-getting. It’s not attention we’re after – it never was and never will be. If that were the end to our means we would have been there right after we started, lo those many years of crazy costume antics ages ago. The attention is the aftermath of our destruction, the result of our romantic quests, because in the end that’s what it’s always been about, hasn’t it?

The best part of the song is at hand. It is the key to so much – the litany of shared experiences, echoing loneliness – the glory of musical abandon and emotional release all at once. Everything hinges on this. It is the summation of a lifetime searching for Love, and the dim, terrifying realization that it may never be enough.

No famous faces, far-off places,
Trinkets I can buy,
No handsome stranger, heady danger
Drug that I can try
No ferris wheel, no heart to steal
No laughter in the dark
No one-night stand, no far-off land
No fire that I can spark…

We speed to the bitter climax, music building all the while, and the guitars crash into oblivion as our desires collide at that tricky triangle of want and hope and need. The nights blur into one night, filled with grays and shadows and whispered kisses of abandoned dreams. An empty pair of underwear lies crumpled by the door. A trail of two socks leads to the bed. A young man bereft of his usual armor of garments thrashes restlessly among the sheets.

The pillow is damp.

The memory is torrid.

The man is alone.


It is the song I play whenever I feel lost or upset, and while that may make it a strange choice for my favorite, that’s the way it’s always been. My heart and my head find a necessary solace in the acknowledgement of sadness – there is something more meaningful to that than the giddy dance-break of joy. As the woman at hand once proclaimed and questioned, “What’s the point of sitting down and notating your happiness?”

It changes through the years and seasons too, lending itself to multiple meanings, endless readings, shifting into a symbol of universal significance – because in the end it’s always about love, no matter how highly singular or specific.

It is there for the first chill of Fall, when I meet the first man I will ever live with, and there when I realize it’s over, on a cruel winter’s night, as crystalline snowflakes flutter silently upon the Windy City. It is there in that healing Spring of Boston, and every healing Spring since then, when the cherry blossoms dangle like little ballerinas, floating overhead in the night wind. And it is there in the subsequent summers, the time of the year in which I met Andy.

Sitting in the parking lot of a supermarket, in the high, dull heat of one of those summers, on an all-too-quick lunch break and wanting nothing more than to drown my boredom, I listen to Madonna’s voice, and the song opens up again – as one of deliberate rumination on the distractions of life, and the crutches and self-medicating ways we choose to relieve our pain. For me, there was no greater discomfort than boredom or stagnation.

I wondered if I could live in upstate New York and not get restless, provided there were outlets – of Boston, of New York, of a honeymoon in London – even as they were growing further and further away, if not falling apart altogether. I wondered if I could live with someone who didn’t want to do the things that I wanted to do, whether we could compromise and make it work because he was a good man and I might never find that again – but was that really the way to live? I thought of the things we give up for love, for recognition, for the simple act of doing something that mattered – and the trade-off suddenly seemed blurry and undefined. The darkening swirl of a world drowning.

I was both touched and repulsed by the inability of him to read my mind, all the while knowing how unfair it was of me. There was a greater tenderness and resonance to the love that I had for him, and at the same time I was more than willing to give it all up for one moment of heartfelt understanding.

Then the love of a life together, of partnership and marriage, and the subtle maneuverings required for both, impresses itself upon my mind – such glad and grateful relief – growing more resonant as the years pass, forging a deeper bond than any flight or fancy could ever create, and I am made happy again, as happy as I may ever be. Does anyone ever really know happiness until it has passed?

The song swells with the heart, and she sings the sadness complete. It is an exquisite sadness. A fiery and quick slash of rage, a burning tear – the salty, searing droplet of love, of life – and an ache so lasting and raw it throbs under the burden of the ages.

… And now I find I’ve changed my mind…


Tonight, I write this as I sit alone in the condo in Boston, where I sat the first time I heard this song over thirteen years ago. I cannot tell you how far I’ve come since 1998 – or if I’ve come very far at all – the same uneasiness with myself, the same insecurity and doubt, pervades my existence – and I have to wonder if this has all been a substitute for love – every last bit of it. It kills me to question that, but it would kill me more not to say it. That’s where we are, that’s where I am. But in the song – as in most of Madonna’s best music – there is some brief bit of solace, of aural understanding and empathy. She’s been there – she knows, and she continues to go on.

The journey of finding love, especially that ever-elusive self-love (so much more than ego and self-confidence, and so often mistaken as such) is proving a life-long one, and even when the heart is full, I want for more. There are distractions enough in this world, but all the trinkets and fancy bags and new shoes will never fill the void – there is no substitute for it.

Some people are born with what I would call a “happy gene”. They are, for the most part, kind and good people who do what they’re supposed to do with their lives, and are made happy and content from it. This is not to say they don’t suffer – and often suffer much more tragic hardships than the rest of us, but their happy gene remains intact – they carry on – they don’t let it destroy them. The one thing I was born without – and the one thing I have killed myself to create – was this happy gene. But you can’t make it. You can’t will it into being, or learn how to access it. You’re either born with it or you’re not – and I, like Madonna I suspect, was not. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel happiness – we just feel other things a lot more, even if we never let on.

The early darkness of Daylight Savings Time has descended upon Boston. In the distance, the John Hancock building sparkles high in the sky, while the neighboring hotels blink with the lights and drawn shades of strangers going about their transitory time in the city. The world goes on as it always has. It feels as if the last thirteen years have sped by outside the window while inside I remained unchanged – yet in those thirteen years how much has happened, how much life has been spent and mourned and celebrated.

This moment of solitude does not have a neat or happy ending, and the resolution of the song is one of indeterminate proclamation, not unlike this last post on my favorite Madonna song.

The face of you, the faith of love, the way of the heart.

This is what I have learned.

This is where I have been.

This is where I must go.

This is my religion.

Song #55– ‘Drowned World/Substitute for Love’ – March 1998 ~ Present

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