And there she was, rising up on stage in all black, bright blonde locks curled, flying her roots proudly and wearing a vertical halo-like crown — also black. And she was singing. An inverse angel, an icon from the last century.
Madonna, of course.
I grew up on Madonna. I wasn’t her most rabid fan — I was more of a Cyndi Lauper fan, and in the 1980s when both were hit makers who wore aggressively unusual, personalized clothing and did whatever the hell they liked with their hair, the pair were often discussed side-by-side. At the time it was just the way things were — I was a kid, and kids take things at face value. They don’t have context. I was witnessing women embracing their look, their music and their personas in a way few had ever been permitted to do before — and I was doing it while my cement was still wet (to paraphrase a Billy Bragg lyric). They were outrageous, and they were completely normal to me.
But Madonna was always there, and has persistently been there throughout the ensuing decades I’ve been alive in a way Lauper wasn’t. Lauper may be 2/3 of the way to an EGOT, but Madonna became an icon — a word that’s so overused these days I hesitate to apply it, but in her case it’s precisely the correct one. Madonna leaned so far into her Catholic iconography, lace, embrace of LGBTQ+ culture and mix of “I’m a hurt little girl”/”I’m a sexy beast” songs that she sometimes toppled over backward. But she always got up again.
And here I was, seeing her for the first time live at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.
Age was a factor here. Not just for Madonna, shaking her tushie and rocking fishnet stockings, getting lifted by young fit dancers old enough to be her grandkids, grabbing at her crotch and draping veils over her head, standing with a (silent, masked) double who donned several of her classic outfits — but for me, too. She’s a marvel of personal training and engineering, maybe not looking as sleek as her earliest days, but still a wonder to behold. She’s 65. Let that sink in. She’s 65 and she comes out on stage over two hours after the stated start time on the ticket (8:30, she arrived at 10:45) and kicks ass for another two hours plus, while singing.
For me, age meant this: I had to nap before I arrived. Madonna’s start time is about 15 minutes after my usual bedtime. It also meant I could afford a really good ticket, on the floor, eighth row. If you’re going to only do something once — and once is enough for me and Madonna — then you might as well splurge and get the ticket, assuming you have the money. I wouldn’t have been able to do this 20 years go, and now I can. So there I was on the floor with my excellent ticket, riding out the DJ (Honey Dijon, great name) set up on a stage in the center of the floor directly behind me, for about an hour or so, hoping not to really seem like an old fart.
But I am an old fart, it seems, when it comes to concerts that start super late, for musicians whose songs I’ve enjoyed over the years but who’ve never sent me into fits of frenzy. There was a lot of excitement in the outfits I noticed around the stadium — a lot of lace mimicry, pearls, T-shirts that read “Italians do it better” and “Gay as shit.” Glitter, spangles, faux rhinestones everywhere. I fully expected this place to basically turn into a rave once the show finally got started. Me, I wore black jeans and a short-sleeved top from a Bolivian store in my neighborhood that had faux rhinestone flowers and swirls, my contribution to the atmosphere. I had no particular jewelry on. I wasn’t there to co-perform. I just wanted to be comfortable as I prepared to stand for two hours and, possibly, dance in the tiny square in front of my seat. The irony is this: When I could have really dug into the Madonna vibe and danced my little heart out, I could never have afforded this seat. Now that I can, it felt more like a “thing you should do before it’s too late” event.
And it will be too late, sooner than any of us think. A tour like this is punishing, even if you let your dozen or so (extremely fit!) dancers do most of the heavy lifting (of each other, of Madonna). I was close enough (eighth row on the floor), to spot the skin-colored tape surrounding one of her tights-encased knees; the other knee had on a much more obvious black brace. When she was on the main stage I was eight rows away, but as she also performed on the side and back stages, I got to see many more angles. When she had her back to me on the center stage I was intrigued to see her looking a bit more like an … well, if not a 65-year-old, someone more like my age, with veins sticking up and a few wrinkly bits.
The show! Ah, yes, the show. Much spectacle. Much choreography. Many sets, costume changes. Pleasantly, a few moments where she actually spoke to the audience (though a lot of her conversation involved repeating “Glad to be back in New York! New Yorkers are the best!”). And I don’t know when I’ve ever seen Madonna play a guitar, but there she was, strumming along. There was a brief Prince homage (a guitarist with chain mail obscuring his face but in a paisley outfit that clearly invoked the late Mr. Nelson; plus some of the opening monologue from the opening of “Let’s Go Crazy”) and screens that rose and fell to feature projections — including images of those lost to AIDS and HIV. That’s not how Sinead O’Connor died, but the singer’s face appeared for an extended moment on two screens, too.
Madonna herself deserves praise, as I’ve given above, but overall the concert was so choreographed, so much played to the cameras — as opposed to the audience — that there was a sterile quality to the event. There was no band, just the occasional musician. There was a reliance on putting a modern dance beat behind virtually every song — rendering the melody difficult to parse and sucking the life out of even her more upbeat numbers. This is the risk when you organize everything to within a centimeter of its life — you get precise perfection, but you do not get spontaneity. You do not get something that pumps your heart. You do not get creativity. You get A Spectacle. And if you needed any more proof of this: The audience had its cameras out for Madonna, thousands filming, scattered in the stadium (mine too, from time to time), and very little dancing was done in the crowd. It was not a club, not a rave. People were spellbound — a huge rock concert is one of the few ways we humans can make actual magic — but I didn’t sweat a drop.
After that first black-clad number in the show, images on the screen and Madonna’s (and her dancers’) outfits took us all the way back to 1982, when she broke through with her earliest hits (which she then dutifully sang). Flickers of black-and-white post-punk clubs, high Mohawk haircuts, fluorescent colors, and ripped clothing all threw me back to the time when rough edges were embraced, when things were grimy and gritty and musicians just had to have energy, they didn’t have to know how to play their instruments. Punk and its immediate aftermath were so full of life they were uncontainable, an explosion of color, sound, fury and making. Being. Becoming. Forty years later, the attempt to reproduce all of that for nostalgia’s sake can’t replicate that feeling. Not exactly. Not really even close.
As I left the arena (a few songs early; I did say I was an old fart), what stuck with me was this: Not a Madonna song. Not an outfit. Not a stage set. But rather, the hope and wish that whatever punk might look like in the 21st Century gets its ass in gear and starts upending things all over again. We’re due for a shakeup.
And we need it, bitch.
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