As I write this Thursday night, I can hear Madonna singing from Yankee Stadium through the window of my Harlem apartment. In fact, the sound mix on “Girls Gone Wild” and “Papa Don’t Preach” gets so good that her vocals cut like a Samurai sword across a perfectly balanced backing track and the audible appreciation of the crowd. The concert seemed to start just as Vice President Biden ended his televised speech at the Democratic National Convention.
I, of course, saw the smaller, arena-sized production of this spectacle in Philly last week, which kicked off the North American leg of her MDNA tour. But we early birds were warned that unless we saw the stadium show we weren’t seeing Madonna’s definitive version of this show.
Be that as it may, Philly inspired me to contemplate the live performance Madonna put together for her fans this year, and nothing could be more inspiring as I share these thoughts than hearing her rock Yankee Stadium from a few blocks away.
MDNA, but for one letter, alludes to Ecstasy. But like the dance party drug, Madonna promises no unalloyed pleasures. Even as early as her Blonde Ambition tour Madonna was performing more to prove thematic points than to entertain. Unlike lesser pop stars who also think their songwriting is strong enough to support artistic, “attitudinal” staging, only Madonna sustains the palpable strength of character to pair the blood-splatter visuals of Dexter to a homicidal song about her ex-husband and somehow make it a gleeful collective catharsis.
Shifting from girl backup dancers to male dancers from song to song also creates interesting juxtapositions you wouldn’t see from, say, Katy Perry, Gaga, or Taylor Swift. To begin with, it’s her manly queens that get to strut and ki-ki through “Girls Gone Wild,” while her guerilla girls butch it up and flash rifles through “Revolver.”
A raw, defiant Nikki Minaj appears via video like Madge’s adolescent alter-ego to bring ghetto realness to the coda of “I Don’t Give a F***.” And it was Nikki’s chirpy yelps which gave generational balance to the magnificent gospel singer who contributes a solo near the end of the show during Like A Prayer. Madonna actually genuflects onstage to this diva’s wail, much as she visibly salutes the talents of the many side-performers she borrows from diverse traditions — Basque/Indian/Hip-Hop/drag balls — who help Madonna push the envelope of the acceptable sound of contemporary dance pop.
There are periodic momentum problems within the live show because Madonna refuses to program all the uptempo tracks into a seamless attempt to peak the crowd then keep them in a kinetic frenzy like a deejay would. Instead she will slow things down for elegiac meditations on relationships: like “Best Friend” or the Golden Globe-winning “Masterpiece.” That she leads into the latter with a languid “Open Your Heart” transformed by the Bollywood sway of Kalakan’s “Sagara Jo” lets the mod-era lilt of “Masterpiece” allude both to the inspirational diversity of the Beatles and to the imperialistic history of the land which gave her a British ex-husband.
Speaking to the risky sacrament of marriage, the church backdrops featured throughout this show repeatedly shatter or dissolve via projected images which telegraph all five “stages” of the MDNA experience (ranging from “Transgression” to “Celebration”) and underscore the jittery momentum of the pacing. Opening in a shadowy gothic cathedral with buff monks ringing a bell, the set shifts to reveal a open chapel showing stained-glass windows streaming with sunlight and grace.
This is the Church of Love, in which Lady Madonna has worshipped long enough to sacrifice two marriages on its altar. Accordingly, twice we see projected images of the church shatter or dissolve on screens above the stage. Sometimes the bricks explode into literal visions of heaven and hell; another time into Christ’s heart wreathed in thorns. Madonna didn’t enter either of her marriages lightly. She held as an article of faith that she could (and should) be able to make a marriage of creative equals work. She was betrayed in that belief, and a large part of MDNA‘s drama reflects wryly on the ramifications of that betrayal.
That’s why her live mash-up of “Express Yourself” with “Born this Way” resonates as much more than snarky commentary on Lady Gaga. First, let’s give Gaga a break here shall we? Until Gaga puts out four or five more hit solo albums, there’s no way her slender output as a singer/songwriter can be measured against Madonna’s track record. So if it’s not all about Gaga what is it about? It’s about what the lyrics are saying. “Express Yourself” talks about a talented woman respecting herself enough to want a creative/intellectual equal for a spouse then doing everything possible not to settle for less. “(I Was) Born This Way” is about that same woman refusing to apologize for her aggressive drive and dominant personality. The repeated ad-lib “She’s not me!” in this context reads like disappointment, not outrage. It’s the mordant battle cry of every career girl who has survived watching men leave them for less “difficult”, less ambitious women. To pull her head out of these sobering epiphanies with the sassy marching band swagger of “Give Me All Your Luvin'” proves that our Madge knows how to bounce back. Gladly trading the faithless love of a husband for the admiration of millions, Madonna, now in her fifties, returns to the arms of her muse and gently maturing fandom.
Far more important than musical asides about men or momentary rivals are the sly in-jokes Madonna will sometimes deploy to amuse herself. (Remember that equestrian montage she did around the time a male bestiality ring went public?) “Justify My Love,” a provocative tone-poem which dates from the time of her Sex book, introduces a suite of libidinal material which functions here as a John Waters-esque retort to any critic who ever wanted to reduce Madonna’s girlie show allusions to mere prurience. The rapid segue into the stylistic diversity of “Vogue,” “CandyShop,” and “Human Nature” lets Madonna and her dancers work the proscenium in a parade of all the edgy fashions she introduced to MTV. The costumes culminate in her stripping to her underwear to give us Dietrich at the Blue Angel crooning a waltz-time piano remix of “Like A Virgin.” Then she goes Miles Davis one better by turning not only her back to her audience, but also a nearly bare ass.
This dramatic stroll down memory lane could be seen as a beautiful mess by those who are too linear and literal in their thinking. To be sure there is a certain amount of chaos throughout the MDNA carnival. But it is controlled chaos with a creative purpose. There is a quote from the arts criticism of C.G. Jung that illustrates this point. It reveals Jung’s reaction to the “diabolical” literary style James Joyce applied to his experimental novel Ulysses. By replacing every reference to Joyce with a reference to Madonna and replacing the word Ulysses with MDNA, a marvelously Jungian view of this tour emerges below:
“Under the cynicism of Madonna there is hidden a great compassion. Madonna knows the suffering of a world that is neither beautiful nor good, and worse still, rolls on without hope through the eternally repeated everyday . . . dragging with it man’s consciousness in an idiot dance through the hours, months, years. With MDNA she has dared to take the step that leads to the detachment of consciousness from the object. She has freed herself from attachment, entanglement and delusion, and can therefore turn homeward. MDNA gives us more than a subjective expression of personal opinion, for the creative genius is never one but many, and MDNA speaks in stillness to the souls of the multitude, whose meaning and destiny it embodies no less than the artist’s own.” — “Ulysses: A Monologue” (1932/1934) from The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature
Published in: Rock’s Backpages, September 10, 2012