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by JJ Haslup:
Pole-dancing nuns rocking ruffled white panties and black leather bras on a song that asks Madonna’s lover “Don’t it taste like holy water?” Well, you wouldn’t expect her to lie on a Last Supper table straight outta Gomorrah and spread her legs while a dancer who may have been Jesus drops to his knees without a little foreplay, would you?
She’s been pop music’s quintessential Catholic girl gone wild since Lady Gaga was, if anything, a glimmer in her mother’s eye. And yes, it’s been a minute — maybe two — since “Like a Prayer” became a pop-cultural lightning rod on the strength of a classic taboo-tweaking video that effortlessly blurred the lines between the sacred and profane. But she still knows where all the buttons are and how to push them. In the unlikely event that the pole-dancing nuns weren’t scandalous enough? Their poles were topped by giant holy crosses.
She’s Madonna. That’s just how she rolls.
She’s 57 now, an age that may mean more in her case than it would in Joni Mitchell’s case because so much of the musical answer to “Who’s That Girl?” when it comes to Madonna has come to revolve around sex and the selling thereof, with Madonna empowering and objectifying herself in the same provocative breath and/or gyration. And you know what? She still pulls it off. Like one more article of clothing.
And the fans who turned out to pay homage to their favorite icon Thursday night in Glendale at Gila River Arena saw a show that more than lived up to her legacy. It offered all the pageantry and spectacle of prime Madonna served with throbbing dance beats, dirty dancing, countless costume changes, simulated sex acts and the same mix of the sacred and profane that got her into hot, if holy, water in her youth. The choreography was great, as were the awe-inspiring feats of acrobatics. And Madonna got into the groove with conviction while leaving the fancier dance moves and/or acrobatics to the small army of dancing boys and girls that rarely left her side. She played guitar and ukulele, too — guitar on several songs, including a rocking rendition of “Burning Up,” ukulele on two or three songs, perhaps most memorably a charming cover of the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie en Rose” sung in French.
After setting the tone for the show with the self-referential “Iconic” and “Bitch I’m Madonna,” both from this year’s “Rebel Heart,” she dipped into the catalog for “Burning Up.” But she returned immediately to her latest effort for a string of new songs that provided a musical backdrop to her onstage exploration of religious themes (as “Holy Water” turned to “Devil Pray” and a video interlude of “Messiah”).
She dropped a verse or two of “Vogue” into the midst of “Holy Water” but resisted the temptation to add “Like a Prayer,” the greatest of her greatest hits, to the religious mix. Before the set was through, she’d made her way through nearly every track on “Rebel Heart,” from “Body Shop” (set in a body shop) to “HeartBreak City” (which featured a beautiful snippet of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”), “Living for Love,” the title track and “Unapologetic Bitch,” for which she plucked a beefy male fan from the crowd to get on stage and leave a lot of people wondering where he may be dancing next.
It was a bold move, really, putting that much focus on her latest album. But the crowd was clearly in her corner through it all. And she did get around to a few of the songs that made her so iconic in the first place — an acoustic “True Blue,” an edgy, re-imagined “Like a Virgin” (which truly felt shiny and new), “La Isla Bonita,” an acoustic “Who’s That Girl,” “Material Girl” and a medley of “Dress You Up,” “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star.” And she reached back to her first chart-topping dance hit, “Holiday,” for a triumphant one-song encore that ended with the singer being flown offstage like Peter Pan.
She did keep the audience waiting far too long for her to take the stage. But from the time the fancy curtain fell at 10:09 p.m. until the final notes of “Holiday” rang out a little after midnight, Madonna delivered. It helps that she has an amazing rapport with her fans, or as she called them more than once, her “bitches.” And she’s funnier than one might think (if one were in the business of dismissing her act without actually seeing it), even joking about the response to her joking. “See? You guys aren’t laughing at my jokes,” she said at one point, “and I’m starting to feel low self-esteem again.”
And as hard as it is to imagine the same Madonna who opened the show with “Iconic” and “Bitch I’m Madonna” struggling with her self-esteem, by the end of the night, she somehow felt more human. In a good way.
My 20-year-old daughter and I have – and have always had – a much different relationship. We’re not exactly best girlfriends, but we do talk about boys and whisper secrets and bare our souls, pieces of them anyway. We bond over music. We go to shows. We make mixes for the specific purpose of rocking out in the car (my mother thinks the car radio is a distraction to the driver). We scream/sing along with Eddie Vedder, Carrie Underwood, the odd Disney tune (“A Whole New World” from Aladdin is a fave), Brother Ali, Ben Kweller, OKGO, Lady Gaga, Fleetwood Mac, Macy Gray, Cage the Elephant, Avett Brothers, High School Musical soundtracks, and, of course, Taylor Swift, who is my daughter’s soul mate and (healthy, I think) obsession. “Dear John” is my favorite T-Swift song. My daughter likes to play “The Best Day,” especially after we’ve had a not-so-best day. This is how she says “sorry” or “I forgive you.”
In 1983 I was in eighth grade, just growing out of my year-long Thriller fog, the first vinyl I ever bought with my own money. I loved Michael Jackson so, so much, and then I became a girl, preferring the Go-Go’s, Bananarama, and Cyndi Lauper. Then I heard Madonna.
It was okay that I didn’t have a mom who could talk to me about sex and boys and music because now I had Madonna. From the first tinny notes of “Borderline” to her black rubber bracelets to her confident, boyish bouncy skip/walk to the space between her teeth, I knew Madonna was here – put on this earth – to usher me into a new way of thinking about — and being — a girl.
Until the recent release of Rebel Heart, the only Madonna track that has graced one of our car-rock mixes was “Four Minutes” with Justin Timberlake. And since my daughter and I love Justin Timberlake and want to marry him, I knew she would approve of its presence on our mix. But my daughter and I are listening to this song through very different eras, lenses, and hearts.
A vivid childhood memory is Madonna on American Bandstand telling Dick Clark she wants to rule the world, but I was 32 the first time I saw Madonna live on stage – the Drowned World Tour at the Staples Center in LA. Madonna greeted us with a hearty, profane salute, which made perfect sense. This was just days after 9/11 (she had cancelled her LA show scheduled on 9/11), and she was tough and wise and told us we could be okay again. She played the acoustic guitar and I believed her.
Years later I saw her here in Phoenix during her 2013 MDNA Tour. We were both middle-aged women by then, she appeared two hours late, and I couldn’t believe what her body was still capable of, as if no time had passed (over 20 years!) since her self-produced “documentary,” Truth or Dare (1991). In that awful/wonderful film, she says, “I know I’m not the best singer, and I know I’m not the best dancer, but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, in being provocative and in being political.” Madonna. Stop. You are the best dancer.
You know who else knows she’s not the best dancer? Taylor Swift – and who cannot love the “Shake It Off” video? T-Swift and Madonna (who performed together in March at the IHeartRadio Music Awards, Swift strumming to Madonna’s “Ghosttown,” the two walking off the stage with their arms around each other) tell us that the secret to happiness is shedding our investment in others’ perceptions of us. Put a tutu on and make fun of yourself.
My daughter drove us (too fast and following too close) to Madonna’s concert last night at Gila River Arena. We were last here together eight years ago for the Best of Both Worlds tour, where my daughter met Miley Cyrus backstage. Cyrus was surly, and then during the show, I was bored. My daughter was 12 and had really outgrown Hannah Montana, firmly switching allegiance to the Swift camp. Like I said, she’s obsessed with Taylor Swift, and I don’t always get it.
“There’s a T-Swift song for everything,” she tells me. Swift’s music speaks to her personally and on every level. Sounds familiar. Why not Madonna, I ask. Why didn’t we listen to Madonna together?
“Hmm. I’m not really into old music. Y’know, ‘80s music.”
As my daughter and I waited for the show to start, after Michael Diamond, the DJ opener (whatever), we people-watched a crowd of mostly middle-aged woo girls and tribes of gay men punctuated here and there with daughters like mine, dragged along for the ritual. The lights dimmed to the most perfect segue ever, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” and Madonna eventually descended in a cage to a stage filled with Game of Thrones-y soldier-dancers menacingly stomping out the opener, “Iconic.” Cue hysteria (a dude in a tiara was crying, pouring tears).
Madonna’s first words to us last night were not a profane greeting, but, “A girl has to work for a living!”
In an almost three-hour show, boy did she work. She didn’t deviate from the Rebel Heart Tour set list; nine of the 21 songs she performed are from the new album. There were more songs, though. Dancers – performed isn’t even the word – shocked, amazed, delighted, frightened, titillated during video installations of “Messiah,” “S.E.X.,” and “Illuminati.”
Three hours felt like 30 minutes. There was so much to watch and so many places to be that my daughter and I were constantly nudging each other and pointing the other elsewhere. Look! Madonna is standing (in heels) atop a dancer whose body is stretched completely horizontally from a pole (and an unbelievable core) – and they’re spinning! Look! Nicki Minaj’s bubblegum-pink lips on the video screen! Look! Madonna just pushed a dancer to his “death” from the top of a spiral staircase! Look! Those three dancers on the brilliant bungee-cord-stilt mash-up contraptions are going to let go of each other and catapult themselves into oblivion! Look! Madonna has a ukulele – again!
Even though I knew to watch for it, I missed a dancer dangling from a crucifix during the pole-dancing nuns in the “Devil Pray” number. Inexplicably, I was watching the clerical-collar-clad musicians. My daughter saw her do it, thanks be. Later, as we recounted the amazing “Holy Water” last supper reenactment, we wondered aloud if this show is perfect or traumatic for recovering Catholics. Probably both. “I mean, can she even do that?” my daughter asked. As M would say, “Hell. Yeah.”
The most nostalgic number was the “Holiday” encore where Madonna emerged in a red-white-and-blue sparkly get-up, draped in an American flag. Nothing’s not ironic in this show, but Madonna performed this one mostly straight outta 1983 – still skipping in her sky-high heels after 20 songs.
She smiled a lot. She laughed. She clearly said “Ouuuuch!” (off mic) when a dancer pinched her or pulled her hair or something during “Body Shop.” She talked about how desperately she had to pee. She sat down often or disappeared from stage completely (it didn’t matter – we were mesmerized) and sweated like crazy but was never (perceptibly) out of breath or not up to a physical task, say a series of deep squats or climbing up a steep, precarious stack of tables in three purposeful, giant steps. “How hard does a girl have to work around here?” the masochist/narcissist asked us. We roared.
Madonna’s sermon-y pep talk explored how hard it is to find a tribe that understands you. Yep, we nodded, we know. She talked about how important is to stick with that tribe once you find it. She laughed at her own failures at love and lectured us about loyalty. Her dancers hooked her into a bungee harness and she flew up and over the stage, like Peter Pan, away from us.
“One thing Madonna has over Taylor Swift,” my daughter admitted on our way home, “is that she says what she wants to, whatever occurs to her. Taylor Swift seems so scripted. I bet she says the same exact thing wherever she goes. She never goes off script. She doesn’t miss a chord. She’s untouchable.
“Madonna is a real person,” my daughter decided.
In “Iconic” we hear Mike Tyson say, “I’m the best the world has ever seen! I’m the best ever! I’m somebody you’ll never forget because I work hard and sweat in my tears.”
Taylor Swift and Madonna are both working hard. A girl has to work for a living, right? It’s all I need my daughter to see. It’s all I needed to hear.