Madonna at Verizon Center: I’m Too Old Or And She Is
If, like me, you occasionally watch Fashion Police, there is a pattern to the critiques that Joan Rivers and her crew make of celebrities’ bad outfits, especially when the celebrity is someone they seem to like personally. They all start with the positive – “first of all, she is so beautiful, I mean look at that body, and her hair just always looks flawless, and maybe there was something about how it played on television, but…” – and that’s when you know this person’s latest red carpet look is about to be served up like a meatball over home plate.
So, let me say this about Monday night’s Madonna concert. She is Madonna. Four decades of enormous success. “Ground breaker” is too trite but spot on accurate. Her music has formed some part of the life soundtrack of everyone from the age of, I don’t know, 18 to 45. I don’t need to google her record sales or the number of top 10 singles to know she’s in the pantheon of extraordinary performers, deservedly so. And I mean, look at that body. You can’t not look at it, and no amount of surgery could produce what she has: strength, agility, sexual energy, all carried with much deserved pride.
Since attending a concert is a two way street, I’ll also take responsibility for not bringing my A game. I had no time to change after work, and ended up attending in my black turtleneck and wool pants. Amit was so aghast that he took off his Hanes undershirt and made me put that on, with my denim jacket over it, to try to salvage the family rep just a shred. It was also a Monday, which I could right well have appreciated by looking at the calendar when we were invited to the show. But after the very first song, that much, much, much anticipated first glimpse of this icon staging her craft, I checked out. Over the next 90 minutes, Amit heard more expletives from his wife than a Yankees fan in the Fenway bleachers. Because this show left me baffled, then annoyed, occasionally bemused, but eventually just pissed.
Madonna, though you are not likely one of my six or seven readers, I will still speak frankly.
First, we all know that you can afford to buy several small countries and have sat with (or on) kings, but girl, you can’t start your stadium show at 10:30 p.m. Just can’t. If Jay Z and Kanye can forklift their ten ton egos onto that stage and serve up a powerhouse concert between the respectable hours of 9 and 12 – encores included – so can you. There’s a great venue in DC called the 9:30 Club, and when you go there to see – oh, I don’t know, the Lemonheads (that’s the sound of Amit’s hand hitting his forehead) or SuperDiamond (They rock. Deal with it.) – you understand that with an opening act, the headliner isn’t coming on til 10 or 11. You plan accordingly. But with rare exceptions, nothing about staying up that late improves things, particularly here, when just about everything you decided to do on stage screamed only for improvement.
Let’s start with the opening sequence of you wielding several firearms, and the 50 foot screens flashing the attendant blood splatters? I’m lost, absolutely lost, but ready to duck for cover rather than watch this play out. As for what you were singing as you emptied those many clips, the best I could make out was a lyric as inspired as “dead…shot him in the head.” As Amit said, “if I wanted to see a Tarrantino movie….”
Moving on from there, you’ve got at least three dozen too many men dressed in monastic garb and white Smurf hats moving around the stage at any given minute. I can’t keep up with all the symbolism, and I’m sure none of it is solicitous of the Catholic Church – I’m with you there – but the bigger problem is that I can barely find you. Is that your shadow in the gilded confessional in the back? Are you under the chanting monk pile? Are you the monkey in the middle in that Billy Elliott-meets-Lord-Flatley industrial stepdance action? I can’t see you, girl!
Oh! That’s because a whole bunch of the time, you’re not there!
Yep, this was a show in which you could watch a whole lot of video of Madonna, including rapid fire montages of the various eras in which you should have forked up money to see her live, but for at least an appreciable segment of this concert, the woman simply wasn’t on stage. You can’t explain it away with costume changes, either. The entire track of Justify played while 30 guys dressed like mimes in white mittens writhed around on the stage. At this point, sick to death of hearing my griping, Amit pointed out that it had a cool Cirque du Soleil feel. To which I said, yes, there’s a Cirque du Soleil show featuring Michael Jackson’s music too, and it’s true you never see him, but his promoters waited til he was dead to go in that direction. So he gets a pass on the whole “live” thing.
[By the way, having all those drummers velcro’d to the curtains 30 feet over the stage? That just feels like you’re courting disaster – one of these days you’re not going to need to simulate those big blood splatters. At a minimum I’m pretty sure it’s an OSHA violation.]
The title to this piece was not meant in any way to suggest that this woman, or any woman, should play it safe, or tone it down, or stop getting half naked on stage when you look better than a 20 year old supermodel, or – god forbid – pack it in at 54. Madonna has taken such phenomenal care of herself, she’s put in the work, and she’s a legend. What I could not get over, though, is how damn insecure this woman seems in spite of all that. Two examples: the PSA from Nicky Minaj incanting: “There is only one queen……and that is Madonna….” Do you need this generation’s pop icons, however much they owe to you, to instruct your own audience that you are great? Or are you just fearing irrelevance, after fending it off better than almost anyone since the 1980’s? I’m just imagining what Nicky’s agent thought when they got this request: “Let me get this straight, you want her to what? So in the middle of a Madonna show everyone sees a ten story image of Nicky saying how Madonna is still the queen? Uh, yeah, I guess we could do that.”
Worse yet, what you may have intended as a playful dig at Lady Gaga, by peppering some lines of Born This Way into the middle of Express Yourself, just came off as petty and – I’ll just say it – beneath a woman of your age and accomplishment. We get it. She stole your sound, in that song and probably countless others. She’s a hit anyway. It’s not just in your imagination that she’s cutting in on the gay club scene. Deal with it. The entire genre of hip hop was and is grounded in sampling, mixing, and downright copying others’ music. If you can’t own your legend at this point in your career, then that is really a shame. One of the best things I’ve found about my 40’s is that each year I care a little less about how others view me. I care, of course, but my self-regard certainly doesn’t hinge on it. In sum, you’re too old for this crap.
There’s certainly more I could say. The majorette costume. The pom pom’s. The tattoo of Obama across your back and – since this is DC after all – your endorsement, laden somewhat inexplicably with several “motherf—-r”s. I can’t do it all justice. [But I will say this: Michelle, do not let this woman within ten miles of your husband. Hear me now, and believe me later, you didn’t see her snake across the stage singing “Like A Virgin” with the letters of Obama’s name undulating across her lats. You’d be safer sending him to film a movie with Angelina.]
Finally, I confess that Amit cut through the majority of my criticism with one major and obvious reaction: if you thought you were coming here to hear her rattle off 20 top ten hits, you should have known better. He’s right, I guess, and it’s up to Madonna to decide what her current incarnation is and how she’s going to share it with the world. It’s up to the ticket buying public laying down anywhere from $60 to over $200, plus babysitter money, to decide whether we want to buy.
Springsteen has a philosophy about the contract – literal and figurative – between performer and fan, and I venture to say it has served him well. As he told David Remnick in a fabulous New Yorker piece: “Remember, we’re also running a business here, so there is a commercial exchange, and that ticket is my handshake. That ticket is me promising you that it’s gonna be all the way every chance I get. That’s my contract. And ever since I was a young guy I took that seriously.”
In so many ways, Madonna’s show convinces me she doesn’t share that view. That is her right, I suppose, and who knows? Maybe her next tour will feature more of what has made her compelling all these years. Because one thing is for sure: this woman shouldn’t need assault weapons, or even a single Glock, to know she can still kill it.