I went to see Madonna on Tuesday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose. We got free $350 tickets—which is the only reason we went. I haven't been a fan of her music for years, decades even. But I was very excited to check out this icon of pop culture, this woman who has dominated the pop music scene for most of my life, for free. I had so many thoughts during the show that I find myself drawn to the inevitable, the beloved, the bullet point list!

  • This was the kind of show you expected to see in Las Vegas, not on the arena tour circuit. I've seen plenty of big concerts, but the sets, costumes, and pure theatricality of this show fit in somewhere totally different.
  • Madonna made her mark in the musical arena, and I've always known that musical talent wasn't her forté. But after watching that show, I am more convinced than ever that Madonna is really not a musician at all. It's sort of a cliché to say that Madonna's a "performer" or an "entertainer" and doesn't even pretend to be a musician. But I feel like for someone who is ranked up there with the Beatles and Bob Dylan as one of the most important musical artists of all time, her lack of musical talent is astonishing, and it's never come through quite as clearly as when she was on stage in the same room. There's just nothing musical about it. Her singing is particularly weak, and her songs are just not that enjoyable to listen to. Perhaps this is because she played mostly new songs, but even the old hits she played were butchered and no fun to listen to.
  • Madonna mostly looks rehearsed and controlled on stage. Everything she does fits into a certain archetype: the impressive, elaborately staged grand opening, the upbeat dance numbers with her perfectly ethnically diverse, plucked-from-the-cast-of-the-musical-Rent dancers, the sit and have a one-on-one chat with the audience, the "rock" numbers, the triumphant finale... It's all very well done, yet it's calculated and soulless.
  • EXCEPT when she is in her zone, dancing in front of a pyramid of backup dancers who follow her every move. I've seen this in every concert movie or video I've ever seen—Madonna totally comes alive when she's dancing coordinated moves with a couple of people behind her. This was one of the two high points of the show, during her discofied rendition of "Music," when she was wearing a white suit à la John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and surrounded by roller skating whizzes, dancing her little heart out.
  • The other high point was the much-discussed crucifixion number, where Madonna's wearing a crown of thorns and is hanging from a mirrored cross. She was singing "Live to Tell," which is a beautiful song to begin with, but was especially poignant because it was accompanied by a number on a screen in the background on which a counting rose steadily upward until it reached 12 million—the number of children who will be ophaned in Africa this year as a result of the AIDS epidemic. It was powerful and didn't reek at all of the usual opportunism in so much of her other work.
  • Madonna's massive ego-power-trip is strangely evident even during her otherwise utterly controlled, planned performance. At one point (during the aforementioned "intimate chat with the audience" segment of the show), she joked that she was "freezing her ass off" and that "someone" in the audience needed to "get the building manager to turn the air conditioning down." It was weird and awkward...as if she was trying to remind us that SHE's in charge. At another point, when she wanted one side of the arena to dance more, she said they were pissing her off, "and you don't want to piss me off!" she warned. All I could think was that no amount of adulation, money, cheering, sweating, or perfectly stepped dance routines was going to fill the abyss of a hole in Madonna's ego.
  • But despite what I might have to say about it all, the crowd absolutely loved her. These people all willingly paid anywhere from $100 to $350 each for the privilege to see this spectacle. And for those people, it seemed to be worth every penny. They didn't seem to mind how crappy most of the music was, or how stilted and rehearsed it all was. They didn't seem to mind when the last song ended and the lights went instantly up, indicating that there would clearly be NO encore. They just didn't seem to mind any of the things I minded, and it made me a little bit sad for the state of American entertainment today...
  • 5.30.2006

    What makes you cringe

    On this week's This American Life, the theme was "Stories that make us cringe." In it, "[host] Ira [Glass] reports on a week he spent on the set of the TV show M*A*S*H in 1979, supposedly to do a story about the program for National Public Radio. He was 20 years old. He didn't know what he was doing. He listened to the tapes for the first time in over two decades, and found much to cringe at." (That description is from the show web site.)

    As is too often the case with this show, I only heard it from halfway through, so I didn't actually know what the theme was when I started listening. But I didn't have to—I figured out quickly that Ira Glass was listening to old tapes for the first time in a long time, tapes of interviews he'd one when he was really young and stupid, with the benefit of professional maturity, inevitable hindsight, and the not-negligible safety of not holding a microphone in front of Hawkeye's face expecting oneself to ask a bunch of "smart, probing" questions. It only took a few seconds for me to realize that he was looking back on something he'd done, and that was making him cringe.

    I think I understood this all so immediately and profoundly, because I myself have a backlog of interview tapes—hours, way too many hours, of interviews done when I was working at MTV in my early 20s. On those tapes, I interview countless famous musicians and actors. I saved those tapes because I figured I might want to listen to them someday. Little did I know that I would probably never be able to stomach the experience of listening to them; I know how god-awfully cringeworthy it would be. Off the top of my head, and without revisiting my younger, less experienced self on the tapes, I cringe simply at the memory of my interviews with Bjork, Henry Rollins, and the Cocteau Twins. If I actually listened to the tapes, I think I'd discover many more "difficult" moments that, at the time, I thought went really well. Luckily, just as Ira Glass remembers how "nice" everyone on M*A*S*H was, how they treated him with respect even as he was asking them questions that were condescending, insensitive, meandering, even rude (case in point: asking Harry Morgan/Colonel Potter, "In all your roles, you're always there, but you're never the lead, never the center... why is that?"), I remember most of my subjects being polite and making the best out of my stupid questions. (Well, everyone except Henry Rollins, who was a complete jerk...) But I still don't have any desire to listen to those tapes.

    And let's not even get into the diaries from junior high (though This American Life covered that one too, in a hilarious segment at the end of the show about a guy who wrote his diaries through high school as if they were important historical documents, because someday he just knew he was going to become the future Prime Minister of Israel). Let's just say I have volumes and volumes of diaries too, and we'll leave it at that as I silently cringe.


    Resolutions, pt. 2

    I can't believe this year is almost halfway over already! Tonight I got home from work and decided it was time to post the next installment in my "365 Easy Resolutions Anyone Can Do!" even though the list wasn't as long as I thought it should be. So here it is!

    101. Pet a pet.

    102. Meditate.
    103. Say something nice to yourself.
    104. Decide to turn a bad day around.
    105. Watch a classic movie you've heard a lot about but never seen.
    106. Watch an action movie you've heard a lot about but never seen.
    107. Watch a foreign movie you've heard a lot about but never seen.
    108. Watch a samurai movie.
    109. Make popcorn and dim the lights while you watch a movie to replicate the "theater experience."
    110. Make enchiladas (dedicated to Sandblower)
    111. Sleep in as long as you can.
    112. Read a new comic strip.
    113. Read a graphic novel.
    114. Watch a children's show.
    115. Spend an afternoon with a toddler.
    116. Give up your seat on the bus.
    117. Have a drink in a bar with a stunning view.
    118. Give an outrageously big tip to someone who deserves it.
    119. Give your compliments to the chef.
    120. Order the expensive bottle of wine.
    121. Order dessert.
    122. Play a videogame.
    123. Take a wine-tasting class.
    124. Make/update your will.
    125. Take the easy parking spot that's farther away.
    126. Stick in the line you picked and ignore the one that might go faster.
    127. Post again on your blog.
    128. Go for a jog.
    129. Get a new plant.
    130. Hip someone to music they might love.
    131. Go see a matinee.
    132. RSVP "No" without giving any explanation.
    133. Create a separate email account for all your junk mail.
    134. Find out the current number of U.S. casualties in the war in Iraq.
    135. Find out the current number of Iraqi casualties.
    136. Compromise just to get the job done.
    137. Call a long-lost friend on his/her birthday.
    138. Leave a comment on a stranger's blog.
    139. Listen to This American Life.
    140. Watch a silly Internet video you don't think you have time for.
    141. Browse a bunch of random photos on a web photo site.
    142. Make your own iced tea.
    143. Write a poem.
    144. Click on your friend's blogs ads.
    145. Look at the clouds and figure out what they look like.
    146. Read a newspaper article you don't think you're interested in.
    147. Guiltlessly skip a newspaper or magazine article you know you're not interested in.
    148. Give someone a book you liked.
    149. Trade some books in at a used book store.
    150. Post something even though it wasn't quite as done as you wanted it to be.

    really, I plan to post 365 easy resolutions--in several installments!


    Victor Scargle!

    I saw Victor Scargle on TV!

    I understand this might not be exciting for you, but if you knew me during 6th grade, you would understand everything and I wouldn't need to explain a thing. For everyone else, I'll reveal that 6th grade is when I went genuinely "boy crazy," and Victor was the singular object of my affection. We probably had many classes together, but I only remember that we were in the same home room and English class. Mrs. Bendix, our English teacher, clumped desks in groups of four around the room, and Victor and I sat in the same clump. He was a very interesting character, though it's hard now to remember why. All I remember is that he was sort of funny and charming, and that he had a hard time spelling "answer." I think we were friends, but I suspect (and hope) he had no clue about my severe infatuation. He also had a girlfriend, Tricia...the dreaded Tricia! Actually, she was a nice girl too but she had Victor, so it could only get so friendly between us--not that she knew this. (Funny how important secrecy was back then--everything hinged on NOBODY knowing ANYTHING about ANYTHING that was said at lunch, written in notes, discussed at slumber parties...) Nothing ever came of my "relationship" with Victor. The next year, he went to another school, and we never saw each other again (that sounded so dramatic I felt it deserved italics).

    So why did I see Victor Scargle on TV? The other night I was watching Top Chef, and they went to a restaurant in Napa Valley called Julia's Kitchen, where the executive chef was...Victor Scargle! He looks totally different. First, he's, like, a MAN. He's all TALL and GROWN-UP. His hair has gotten a lot darker--I remember he had these light blond curls, a really unusual (and terribly cute) style--it's now cut short and...grown-up. Plus, he's a master chef, which I guess I wouldn't have predicted, though now that I think about it, I couldn't have predicted anything about him. (If you'd ask me to, I guess I would have said he probably ended up as...a...hm...you know? I couldn't tell you--it was 6th grade after all, and in reality Victor and I were not exactly close friends.) But there he was, executive chef in Julia's (yup, that Julia) Kitchen, hanging out with Napa's finest chefs, talking truffles, drinking rare wine, and determining the fate of four fine reality show contestants (btw, they totally should have picked Lee Anne because that Tiffani is so full of herself!). I was so happy to see he's done well for himself.

    Perhaps even funnier was when I was telling this story at work at lunch, and I said, "I saw Victor Scargle on TV!" and the girl sitting next to me said, "I know him!" Clearly, Victor has still got it goin on....