At 57 years old, there isn’t a lot left that Madonna has not already done. She has expressed herself, respected herself, embalmed herself, found herself, and physically and socially stretched her way to the top of billboard charts for the last three decades. Not an easy feat in our trend-chasing, material world. Yet, Madonna rarely follows trends, she creates them – and sometimes appropriates them (more on that later). Each reinvention or incarnation of Madonna is always a hard right turn from the last – from cowgirl to disco queen, to rapper, to girl gone wild, to matador. Sex and religion are the only constants in her image and musical identity.
I’ve been a Madonna fan since age 7. In those days, I would secretly listen to my mom’s copy of the “Immaculate Collection.” (Mom, it was me, and not my sister, that snagged your Ray of Light CD). I have attended three of her concerts, bought all of her albums, and even created an art installation that centered on her navigation through and under patriarchy. Whether she knows it or not, Madonna and I have history. I identify with her courage, provocation, and her “insatiable desire to be noticed” – as a gay stand up comic, I have taken a lot of inspiration from her. But Madonna’s relevance has arguably began to teeter in the last decade, as new and improved models of her sexual, visual, and musical identity have started to reign the charts.
Luckily for us fans and Madonna, no matter how bad her album may be, she always revives and repurposes it for the subsequent tour (yes, I’m talking about you, Hard Candy and MDNA). After a few songs from Rebel Heart leaked in December 2014, Madonna was forced to pump out the album ahead of schedule. After the inauthenticity of Hard Candy and the disarray of MDNA, I began to worry that Rebel Heart would suffer the similar fate.
I’m happy to report that I was wrong.
Rebel Heart is arguably the best album Madonna has produced since 2005. It’s one complete, comprehensive flavor. It’s convincingly sexual, emotional, angry, ambitious and conductive for booty shaking – all the things that make a good pop album. But despite its positive qualities, the album didn’t sell like expected. Neither did the tour. Something strange and new was going on. Was the tide going out on Madonna’s career? Was Rebel Heart too much, too late? The promotional advancements of the album were seemingly ill fated too: there was that horribly awkward kiss with Drake at Coachella, the misspelling Nietzsche on a music video, her stand-up routine on Fallon, and of course, the infamous “Cape Gate,” where she got pulled off the stage of the BRIT Awards. ‘Then there’s always her Instagram account, but please don’t get me started on that. It seemed she was increasingly labeled by society as too old, too bitchy, too gross; Madonna had officially become outshone by Pizza Rat and girls half her age.
Fast forward six months. I am standing front row in the SAP Arena in San Jose for the Rebel Heart Tour – gin and tonic in hand, and hope in heart. Is she gonna pull this off? What is she gonna wear? How will she sound? Fuck it, how is she physically gonna survive two hours of physical exertion? Before I could let my mind ramble on further, the lights suddenly dimmed… and the crowd roared. The physical and mental barrier between me and Madonna was instantly dissolved. I dropped my drink and threw my hands into the air.
The opening song, “Iconic,” comes on strong with a heavy tone. Dressed as an encaged, bloodied and beaten Marilyn Monroe, Madonna’s raspy spoken words lament that beauty and creativity are “being crushed beneath wheel of corporate branding and what’s trending.” In her words, she wants to start a revolution.
As her dancers marched across the stage, dressed like Game of Thrones inspired soldiers, I felt that it was interesting to see Madonna subtly address her age and loss of relevance. While on the one hand Madonna gains from and has helped shaped the music and material culture that we are addicted to, on the other, she calls out its unjust treatment of artists and women. Depicting herself as beaten down (but empowered), Madonna, like many other creatives, is demonstrating a concern that the new technological advancements and genres entertainment expect artists to produce more, for a larger audience, and for almost no pay. The balance between production and consumption is unfavorably skewed towards the demands of capitalism and the niche genres it loves to make money off of. Our minds, values, and abilities as both consumers and creators of culture cannot keep up with our own self-inflicted demand. The world is no longer moved or shaken by a girl gyrating in a wedding dress on national television. Data and the interests of big money are more important than creative fortitude – a dilemma which Madonna has to an extent helped to create.
As the concert progressed, I got the sense that this two-hour dance frenzy was aimed to assert Madonna’s newest incarnation: post-relevant Madonna. She appears surprisingly more dressed than she has for the last ten years – just three years ago she wore nothing but a braw and panties for “Like a Virgin” in the MDNA Tour. This is my only greatest grievance with the concert: I think its punk rock when Madonna demonstrates her lace-clad prowess, despite the naysayers, the male gaze, sexism, and agism.
While there was a shortage of skin in the Rebel Heart Tour, there was certainly no shortage of controversy. Madonna always has and always will have a natural flare for pushing buttons. This time round, it would be her new track “Holy Water” that would give me an intellectual panic attack.
Madonna literally sings of her vagina tasting like holy water; she and her dancers are dressed like nuns. After some ass-shaking, groping, and “girl-on-girl” kissing, Madonna’s dancers individually start dancing on poles that are in the shape of a cross. At one point, Madonna literally stands on top of one of her black dancers and the two of them spin around the pole. “Holy Water” then suddenly turns into a minimalist version of “Vogue.” The mash-up subsequently breaks down into a sexualized, reinvention of Da Vinci’s, Last Supper – which is truly mind blowing. Madonna’s reliance on her time-honored technique of using black bodies to give her overwhelming whiteness street credibility is growing a little tiresome. Despite her incredible bravery and strength to climb a pole, her infatuation with the black body and persistent entitlement to women’s bodies is something to question. The next section of the show, Madonna and her dance crew were dressed in Frida Kahlo/Latin American themed regalia – another stop on Madonna’s appropriation ambition tour.
These appropriations aside, she seemed comfortable with her notes and sure of her footsteps. She sang most of the tour live and with astonishingly strong voice, seamlessly weaving between old a new tracks. She revisited “True Blue,” “Burning Up.” “Who’s that Girl,” “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and most surprisingly “Material Girl” – a song she dreads more than Lady Gaga. “Like a Virgin” was also successfully reinvented. And yes, Madonna, I’ll be in your gang.
All the latest and greatest from her current album were played out, like “Living for Love,” “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” “Unapologetic Bitch,” and my personal favorite, “S.E.X.” After over two hours of me screaming, dancing, having intellectual panic attacks, and repeatedly spilling my drinks because I was having a “moment,” Madonna ended the tour with good ol’ “Holiday.”
Madonna had pulled it off.
My true appreciation for the concert was solidified a week later, after my boyfriend and I broke up. (It is what it is, and I’m doing good). Feeling blue, my Madonna listenings were no longer satisfied by “Body Shop,” “Like a Virgin,” or “True Blue.” Instead, “Iconic,” “Unapologetic Bitch,” and “Living for Love” began to take their place. It struck me that all of her songs have an overwhelmingly confident tone. Whether she sings of heartbreak, motivation, sex, romance, or even her children, there is an unbreakable persistence and assertion of her fortified character. Her music gave me a much needed a boost and it reminded me what is to be a badass. As I started to feel better, my own creative process shifted into fifth gear again. I’ve since went out and got a handful of gigs, with new material to boot.
Look, Madonna may be old, problematic, and bordering on desperate, but man… does she have nerve. It’s inspiring. Her privilege aside, she takes risks and forces you to think. Madonna demands to be heard. She’s a showgirl with a past and an unapologetic bitch with a future; she makes mistakes, but tirelessly presses on. While our culture continues to ride the tidal wave of information, trends, and substandard celebrities, I remain content with Madonna. She continues to push my buttons, create meaningful pop music, and challenge America’s notions of age, sexuality, and feminism. I continue to find truth, empathy, and courage in her infamous words: “express yourself, don’t repress yourself”
by Nate Blanchard