Confessions in the Nosebleed Seats

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Madonna hatches
[SAWF News]

I saw Madonna last night at Madison Square Garden, and I have spent most of the day in love with her.

I am definitely a sincere Madonna fan, but I approach much of what she does with skepticism. She’s been getting very political with recent albums, which tends to suck the fun out of it sometimes, whether I agree with her politics or not. So, thank god “Confessions” was an incredible show. As fit to match her latest fantastic-from-beginning-to-end dance album, it was uplifting and joyful compared with her recent tours. Though I loved them, I found “Drowned World” to be a bit dour and “Re-Invention” to be a bit message-heavy in comparison. There’s a “message” or a “moral” in many of the new songs, too, but she seems merely socially conscious this time rather than angry and politically arrogant.

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A closer look

I avoided reading about the tour over the last few months. I had learned certain things on accident, such as the disco ball entrance and some of the set list, but I wanted as much of it as possible to be a surprise. I wanted to be dazzled. And I was. (And that disco ball entrance was even better than I imagined it would be!)

Nothing about “Confessions” by itself was particularly unusual or groundbreaking or revolutionary. The lights were gorgeous and brilliant, especially the rainbow lights along the edge of the stage during the finale and the video screen dancefloor at the end of the catwalk. Yet, honestly, they were just lights. But they were lights at a Madonna show, so they were awesome. With the exception of some parkour and some fancy, death-defying rollerskating, the dancing looked almost ordinary to me. But it was flawless. And it was at a Madonna show — so it was awesome.

She even does a balloon drop at the end of the show. The last two tours used confetti. How mundane, right? Not so. With these shiny mylar balloons, she transforms the interior of Madison Square Garden into a disco ball turned inside-out. And with the air conditioning turned off, we are all sweating and shouting and moving together in the biggest dance club in New York.

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Madonna: a raven-like vixen

I cannot equivocate about her voice, however. She sounded amazing. Thank god for Evita and the requisite voice coaching that changed everything.

Thank god, also, that there were no kilts this tour. Or bagpipes. She’s been working that too much lately. The Erotica-style riding crop came back, but thanks to her late obsession with horses, it’s actually in the context of riding. I’m also glad that she didn’t do “Holiday” as the final number. In fact, contrary to some early-reported set lists I saw, it didn’t appear in the show at all. It’s a crowd pleaser, but she can fly just fine without that magic feather.

A lot of old-school disco found its way in, which I found clever and fun. Madonna loves to pay hommage to the divas who came before. Her own repertoire is getting larger all the time. And her themes, both visual and lyrical, are repeating more frequently. “Deeper and Deeper” harkened back to “Vogue.” “Hung Up” recalls “Love Song.” It shows ultimately a consistency through her career and makes possible some clever combinations. During a mash-up of “Music” and “Disco Inferno,” I heard some roboticized lyrics from “Where’s the Party.” I love to hear those oldies coming back into play.

She is still a bit wooden when she plays guitar and sings at the same time. As with everything, she is so careful, so precise. Trying so hard to get it right. And she does get it right. But only when she breaks away from that microphone, do we see the diva within. When she struts across the stage and starts to jam a little bit, it looks like she’s actually having some fun. And when she’s having fun, we all have more fun.

It’s no great playing, either. Simple stuff — as if I know anything about guitar. But it sure sounds good. Some people say she should be embarrassed for being a guitar-playing poser, but rather, I think it just shows what little actual talent goes into being a rock star. (Rock star, not musician.) It’s all attitude. Madonna does not have that attitude on the guitar, but she more than makes up for it with the attitude in her look and her moves and the choices she makes for the rest of her show — and in the fact that she’s lasted so bloody long. I’d say she’s maybe … 90% rock star. But she’s definitely 100% superstar.

A friend recently complained that there is no room for spontaneity in her shows. They are too choreographed and structured and mechanical. And they are. But Madonna has never claimed to be a musician. She is a performer. An artist. To this day, she calls herself a dancer. She puts on a concert like it’s a theatrical production. Everything is planned; everything is just so. And how is this a bad thing? Her art is in her precision and her calculation. It’s a dancer’s art. It’s a story. She’s saying something specific. And it’s a brilliant performance.

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S&M merry-go-round

The set was spare and minimalist, if anything. The show relies very heavily instead on elaborate video productions. I want to know who puts these things together. Ordinarily they would be the backdrop to the live performance, but instead they are integral to the experience. In one part of the show, Madonna rides up and down on a cross between a mechanical bull and a runaway carousel horse, singing “Like a Virgin.” At the same time, the video screens show scenes of horses throwing their riders, falling, injuring themselves. It’s a weird set of contrasts. Forget the trashy wedding dress and the Boy Toy belt of the ’80s. She’s moved on, and so have we. The song survives with other things to say.

The images tell one story while the live performance tells another. This happened throughout the show. She’s obviously taking more seriously her role as a social commentator. She takes on industrial waste during “Sorry,” and a bit later during the “Sorry” costume-change remix, there is a weird, clearly purposeful, contrast between images of her in a satin leotard and tights (and Gaultier corset!) and her feather-back hair and eye shadow, vamping “don’t speak” and “don’t talk” and “I’ve heard it all before,” and the images of world leaders (both obvious villains and merely morally questionable politicians), war and world strife.

She seems to admit to being an image, an icon, a one-dimensional pop star. There is depth to her, but leave the depth to her friends and family. All we need is the surface. But, she says, while we’re all at this party, take a look at what’s going on outside. Look at what you’re going home to. It’s like: Some strange shit is going down out there. Shake it off for a night, and let’s dance!

There are the tried-and-true religious references, too. I don’t think she uses religious imagery in an inflammatory way. These symbols represent ideas that people have been willing to kill each other over throughout history. They are widely powerful and suggestive and potent. So much is tied up in two perpendicular lines, two crossed equalateral triangles, a crescent and a star. I take some comfort in seeing them used to tell a story or express a more harmonious point of view rather than as weapons at odds with each other.

During the “uproar” over her performing a song on a giant mirrorball cross — Anglicans around the world have condemned her, apparently — I yawned. Who cares? She’s been working that crucifix since the beginning. She’s singing “Live to Tell,” and the context is the worldwide fight against AIDS. I don’t know what impact this concert will have on that fight. (Will she make substantial donations with her enormous proceeds?) But I think it’s a sensible and legitimate artistic expression to compare that ongoing human suffering to the legendary suffering of Jesus on the cross. Whatever statement Madonna is making, it is not literal. This is surely not the enactment of some kind of a messianic complex.

Religion should never be off-limits in art, whether it’s high art or pop music. Art has been used through the ages to glorify religion. But somehow, raising thoughtful questions, drawing meaningful connections and pointing out legitimate paradoxes is evil? Hardly. It merely places the divine in the context of human existence. If we can’t do that, we have no hope of understanding our own religion, let alone anyone else’s.

And I think there’s a real link to the Christian conceits of suffering and redemption in this case. How much suffering in the world — at the hands of this mindless disease and at the feet of powerful but inactive politicians and businesspeople — does it take before those who suffer can see some redemption or easement?

Despite her somewhat silly crown of thorns, Madonna clearly is not suffering. She is only reminding us of a story of great suffering, the Crucifixion. Her crucifix is composed rather glamorously of countless little mirrors, reflecting outward in all directiong, showing us ourselves. What are we doing to answer the call of these victims? How are we suffering?

In the end, it’s all sort of ridiculous. A crown of thorns. A lampooned crucifixion. Madonna, in all her yogafied dance-a-thon glory, with arms out, wrists slumped — but fantastic hair. She is willing to act out these roles and to assume that undignified position, almost like a clown. Of course it’s ridiculous; not only the act, but the fact that she is doing it. And I think she knows it. It’s an old joke. She’s almost making fun of herself. In 1983, Madonna wore the crucifix. In 2006, the crucifix is wearing her.

Slightly newer is the stir she caused with the “Isaac” track on her album, and in this concert. At best, it’s an entry to educate her fans about the Kabbalah. it introduces themes of the study into her work, gives them some depth, and probably does a great deal to spread some peaceful thoughts around the world.

However, it is apparently a no-no to make money off the name of one of the founders of Kabbalah. I can understand that. Madonna has never really compromised her work for any person or any religion, has she? She has absorbed what she will from Catholicism. She has taken what she will from people and continues to take what she will from people beneficial to her progress. She is absorbing what she needs at this point in her life from Kabbalah. She takes what she needs and she moves on. It’s not even intentional or planned. It’s just in service of her vision or her ambition or her self discovery or her life’s journey. It’s all really the same thing. I find this uncompromising parasitic nature at once totally horrifying and utterly respectable. Truly, it’s necessary if she is going to do the work she wants to do.

I won’t say she exploits religions or modes of thought or social movements. I won’t say she uses people. What I will say is that she absorbs and learns and evolves — relentlessly. She takes, she gives, and she moves. And she leaves something beautiful behind. That is all. If she is guilty of anything it is a fascination with the world around her and a desire to be a part of it and to understand it. She has the confidence to take the world that was given to her at birth — the same world we are all given — and fill out her life. Can we all claim to do the same?

She may not be a great artist, but she is fearless in creating her art. Her canvas is herself. It’s a work in progress. The same is true for you and for me. In her case, though, through the forces of capitalism and free markets and pop culture, she is taking us on her journey with her, and we are buying it, literally.


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