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...