Madonna was the backdrop to my salad days.
From her first appearance on Top of the Pops as a slightly chubby, yet vibrant young woman, I followed her closely through my youth. Like many others, I puzzled over “Like a Virgin”, wondering if people (read men) could really tell; counselled a schoolfriend who’s Papa had no right to preach about anything while Madonna sang in the background; vogued with the best of them in my fag-hag days; had a beau whose appreciation of the “Justify my Love” video was not purely artistic, and excitedly but carefully cut open the metallic cover of SEX.
Madonna has always been a deeply political artist and one ahead of her time. She burst onto the music scene in the early 80s, along with the androgyny of Annie Lennox and Boy George coupled with the New Romanticism of Spandau Ballet and Soft Cell, while radical political discourse was dominated by second wave feminism and gay rights in an era of AIDS. The assertions of female sexuality through “Like a Virgin”, “Hanky Panky” and “Justify my Love” brought a sex-positive feminism into mainstream culture, while “Papa don’t Preach” spoke of the reproductive responsibilities that women bore as pre-marital sex became more acceptable.
With simulated female masturbation on stage, underwear as outerwear and the celebration of golden age movie stars, she added a sexual element into the power feminism of the late 80s, yet her association with and iconic status within the gay male community, the cross-dressing and lesbian flirtations undermined any attempts to contain her as an object for straight male consumption. Combined with the bondage and S&M imagery contained in SEX and “Justify my Love”, she was the cultural ambassador of feminism’s third wave. The religious imagery, from her first appearances adorned in crosses to the church setting of “Like a Prayer”, which controversially featured a Black saint and burning crosses, speaks of her influence within ethnic discourse. These days, Madonna is white, her bleaching may not have been as dramatic as Michael Jackson’s, yet once prominent origins as a Chicana Catholic, have been buried. Yet religion and ethnicity still plays a key role her artistic toolbox.
The show opened with Greek orthodox imagery, playing around with religious symbolism in “The Prayer Overture” before becoming notably darker. The implicit violence of “Girls Gone Wild”, as the classical Christian imagery gave way to satanic allusions and was followed by gun-toting female mercenaries in “Revolver”. The theme of violent and vengeful femininity continued in “Gang bang”, as the on-stage body count teamed up with a blood smeared backdrop, before giving way to a re-arrangement of “Papa Don’t Preach”, no longer referencing teen pregnancy, but to the vengeance extracted on the bad girl, as she was bound and abducted by masked men, the vulnerability of women in a male dominated world, regardless of their assertiveness or power was laid bare, returning as a rock-chick, the quintessential icon of the survivor, in “I don’t give a…”
A short video interlude bridged a change of tone, as Madonna returned to stage, toting a majorette stick in place of the gun. The white all-american symbol of the majorette was accompanied by fifties style pop-art for a classic poppy version of “Express Yourself. A band of toy soldiers joined the stage to provide a military backbeat for “Give me all your lovin’ “. As the song finished, the Yankee drummers adopted a different beat, with distinct African influences, the dance shifting from a structured two step to a more expressive format, to introduce the “Best Friend” video interlude featuring Black male dancers, initially re-enacting a slavery scene followed by modern fight-style dance. A short medley of her most popular hits, precedes a disturbing rearrangement of “Justify my love”, with robber dancers who adopt masques. “Turn up the Radio” saw the return of the rock chick, followed by the addition of Khalacan, a Basque folk band for “Open Your Heart” and “Masterpiece”. A brief nod to Scottish culture in a Highland Dance style choreography preceeded the obligatory audience interaction.
Vogue saw the emergence of the classical conical bra encased in a corset with added hip emphasis as it overlaid masculine dress as Madonna emerged flanked with dancers with strong cross-dressing overtones. An assistant removed the corset for “Candy Shop” where underwear dressed women and topless males hinted at sex-industry imagery with a Madonna in the shirt and tie of power with masculine dance moves while “Erotic” wove between the verses. “Human Nature” saw Madonna regender as the shirt and tie were removed to expose the black bra beneath, and a hint of thong was given.
The video for “Nobody knows me”, with a variety of faces: old, young, casual, formal, dressed in religious wear, disabled, including known political figures interlaced with some of her features spoke of a common humanity yet the morbid additions were as unsettling as the metallic nature of the melody and solipsistic edge of the lyrics , while gaolers and orange uniformed prisoners walked tightropes beneath the screen. “I’m a Sinner” referenced the all-american road trip while hobos jumped train. “Like a Prayer” followed saw the religious imagery reappear as the Madonna classic saw the young innocent girl of the video replaced by a more mature version.
The set ended with “Celebration” – a poppy upbeat song with 80s references to Tron and tetris. The song itself a reminder of her first hit “Holiday”. An energetic Madonna looked tired, yet her singing and dance moves remained as professional as ever. A clear nod to her heyday, the 80s theme merely drew attention to her age. Throughout the rest of the show, she was timeless and classic. In this playing the teen icon she once was, she distracted from the more mature performer she had become. A lack of encore further deflated the audience.
The audience was notably less male and straight than might have been expected for the general population. Although there were a number of couples, there were also a high number of groups of female friends. Another notable demographic was mothers and daughters. On talking to some of the other audience members on the train home, where the chatter was all of the show, there was a notable disappointment in her lack of encore, and of the somewhat frequent video interludes. There was also a disappointment over the lack of her most famous hits, and if you had come along for “Singalonga Madonna”, you had come to the wrong show.
At 53, Madonna is of an age where many women are starting to think of retirement. The sheer energy and stamina displayed in the complex dance routines is remarkable, while the quality of singing remained high throughout. But Madonna is not just a singer or a dancer, she is a performer and this was a stunning performance. The complex set-work, theatrical themes and brilliant choreography spoke of a clarity of purpose. This was no has-been trotting out hits to cater for an aging audience, this was the inspiration for a new generation.
This was a demonstration that Madonna is still fresh, still challenging kyriachy – undermining the norms, but with a darker and more mature edge than her previous frivolity. Issue of sex, gender and ethnicity were all explored but with added violence. Personally I was disappointed that there was no inclusion of “Material Girl”, Madonna’s mainstream piece of work with an economic focus, for after all we live in a material dialectical world and I am a material dialectical kindof girl.
For all the cultural progressiveness the hard economics of her shows are troubling. I was lucky enough to see this show only because I managed to nab one of the free tickets accidentally released by TicketMaster (thanks TicketMaster – appreciate it!). At £60-£140 a ticket and no concessions, (although VIP Packages available) this show is out of pocket money price range, excluding the young and the marginalised.
More troublingly she broke the boycott of Israel in opening her tour in Tel Aviv. Addressing the audience directly, she stated
“I chose to start my world tour in Israel for a very specific and important reason. As you know, the Middle East and all the conflicts that occur here and that have been occurring for thousands of years, they have to stop. You can’t be a fan of mine and not want peace in the world.
For one who has consistently questioned the role of power, it shows a remarkable ignorance of Middle Eastern affairs – implying that just wanting peace is enough. If Madonna had ever “wanted peace” her work would be far more dull – it is the continual challenge it presents that gives it the edge. The stooshie kicked up by the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign saw 600 free tickets distributed to Palestinian activists, many of whom declined them on principle, yet the inability of Palestinian fans to cross the checkpoints to attend the concert and the segregation of the crowd merited no mention. The imposition of a swastika on the face of Le Pen generated many column inches, yet only allusion to the occupied territory was from one of Madonna’s backup dancers, Ali Ramadani in a tweet. Like Phil Collins before, who played apartheid era South Africa, Madonna’s concert gives a legitimacy to the Israeli state which is undeserved.
Overall, the concert was dark, mature and original. The pink cowboy hats, neon legwarmers and diamante t-shirts looked out of place, belonging to another Madonna – the Madonna that was parodied at the end. As she starts to look to her crone years, the benefits of wisdom and maturity applied to the lessons learned of her earlier incarnations can only further her status as a cultural anti-kyriarchial icon.