Surfing the net with an episode of the FAMILY GUY playing in the next room. Peter has apparently decided to form his own religion around his hero, The Fonz. Towards the end of the show, there is another of those wicked cultural references when Peter calls Madonna a liar for singing about a nonexistent place, stating that he could not find it on any map. He’s referring to her song La Isla Bonita, of course, and it spurs a little memory:
Imagine a freezing morning in early 1987. The sky is bright and I’m squinting into the sun as I drive to work, cursing the stabbing blindness of light yet marveling at the way it illuminates the frost on the windshield, making it look, you know, all spider-webby.
Back then, it was my daily habit to stop at a particular convenience store for a hot breakfast sandwich. It’s always great to buy your breakfast from a place that sells food and gasoline from the same location. So, I pull into the parking lot, my empty stomach grumbling, only eleven minutes from being late to work, and stride to the doors, my nose making puffs of steam like those bulls in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. I pour myself a delicious, piping-hot coffee, grab a sandwich from under the heat lamps, and make my way to the finish line that is the checkout counter.
Suddenly, and yet in horrifyingly slow-motion, a mysterious, silhouetted figure enters the store and heads straight towards the cashier, a shorter distance than mine. But even in slow motion, I noticed two things that signaled danger like a road flare: 1. There is only one employee working here this morning. And 2. This new customer is carrying a small slip of paper.
Let me tell you why this is bad for me. If you’re short on time and want to get out in a hurry, ideally you want the other customer to have quick payment ready, his arm extended, holding cash. But as this character darts to my God-given place in line, my place in line by Divine Right, it’s become all too clear that he has come to play the dreaded California Lotto. GAME OVER. I drop my head in defeat and let out an audible sigh. Slowly, like a mindless zombie, this stranger, this destroyer of melted cheddar cheese dreams, begins to slowly recite his “lucky numbers” to the cashier. “3 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ”
I could feel the sandwich in my hand getting colder by the second and somehow, even without unwrapping it, I could sense the melted cheese beginning to congeal.
My father played the Lotto, and I once asked him, “How much money do you spend every week playing it?” He replied, “Five dollars.” He had never won, so I offered him this deal: how about every week, instead of playing the Lotto, he could just give me the money. Then I’d give him two-fifty. That way I’ve got some extra dough and he makes a 50% return on his investment. We both win.
He was not amused.
Back inside the convenience store, the strange, ritualistic dance between dreamer and retailer continued, with the dreamer seemingly talking, to me, agonizingly slowly. In the background, a radio played the new pop hits of the era, but I wasn’t really listening because this tormentor was finally finishing his pick. Thank God. My sandwich still might be warm enough to eat. Then the cashier asked, “How many are you going to play?”
“Ten,” he answered.
The mere news of this cooled my coffee down by at least three more degrees and my numerical nightmare started again. “. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ”
“YOU ARE NOT GOING TO WIN!” I screamed soundlessly. I mean, yeah, I know somebody has to win, but it isn’t going to be this guy. And he isn’t going to win because twenty million other people are also playing the Lotto. Twenty million! I bet if I flipped a coin right now, this guy would guess wrong.
Then, UNBELIEVABLY, a woman storms in, pays no attention to me and the lotto guy and asks the cashier for some cigarette brand I’d never even heard of. The cashier stared at her blankly. She then spends the next several minutes asking for some brand of cigarette, something like Extra-menthol, double-filtered, Iron Lung short/long Pall Marlboro with a Flying Suplex and a twist of lemon.
My soul was crushed. I was late for work and my sandwich was getting quickly uneatable. Something was beginning on the radio, something with a Latin rhythm and I definitely needed a little escapism at this moment. It was Madonna and she cooed a new Spanish lullaby that made me think of sizzly romance under cozy sheltering palms, the kind of tune most males have a hard time shrugging off. I closed my eyes and listened. “Last night I dreamt of some playdough . . .” Well, I probably misunderstood that line, but it didn’t matter. I was imagining a tropical paradise, a place of eternal summer, with white beaches gleaming like sugar under my toes. Lush palms swayed in the warm breeze. “Young girl with eyes like potatoes . . .” Whatever. I got that one wrong too.
La Isla Bonita, The Beautiful Island, was originally written for Michael Jackson. When he turned it down, Madonna rewrote the lyrics and employed a Spanish motif on the song, beginning a Spanish theme that has reoccurred many times throughout her career. Standing in that convenience store, under the swaying palms and surrounded by azure seas, I felt sort of Latiny.
Here’s the music video. People are dancing in a Spanish barrio as Madonna watches them from a window. She plays an introverted, pale-looking pious girl wearing nothing but a simple slip, her short hair brushed back. From her sparsely decorated room, she prays to an altar and reluctantly ignores the invitation of the music. The austerity of this character is contrasted with Madonna as her inner self, a colorful Flamenco dancer, where she wears a voluminous red gown and red carnations in her golden hair. The spiritual Madonna prays while the passionate Madonna joins the dancers in the street. The video, I think, symbolizes the link between Latino culture and Catholicism. More accurately, it symbolizes the restrained and passionate sides of Catholicism itself. Look for Oscar winner Benicio del Toro, an unknown actor at the time, as a background character sitting on the hood of a car.
Such was the influence of Madonna, that in the massive wake of a La Isla Bonita, Latin music began exploding into the mainstream with the popularity of artists like Ricky Martin, Jon Secada, Selena, Enrique Iglesias, Jennifer Lopez, and Shakira. In 2000, this trend reached its peak with the launch of the first annual Latin Grammy Awards.
The Beautiful Island is a real place, but Peter Griffin is right that you can’t find it on any map. It is only found in the uncharted recesses of your imagination.
This is French pop princess, Alizee, quite possibly the hottest chick on the planet, paying homage to Madonna’s cultural influence on Paris television. Picture me like one of those guys in a Corona beer commercial, sitting in a beach chair on an awesome sunny day, with an aquamarine sea, the sound of waves lapping the shore, a bucket of icy Coronas in the sand, holding a yummy breakfast sandwich and watching Alizee perform La Isla Bonita. I’m sure my wife will sit down and solemnly squeeze some lime juice in my face, but I’m looking at a young girl with eyes like potatoes. It’s not my fault, you see. I didn’t mean to be a dirty old man. It’s sort of mesmerizing.
Those hips. Oh. Dear. Lord.