KFC Yum! Center; Louisville, KY; Jan. 16, 2016
Madonna: most of us love her, some of us hate her, but all of us have to agree that she has been a mover and shaker in the world of pop music since her debut LP in 1983.
Controversy has followed this woman from the start. Some was unintentional (such as that which resulted from her interest in the Jewish mysticism of Kabbalah, despite being raised Catholic). Other controversies developed as a result of her envelope-pushing videos. “Like a Prayer”, for example, featured a young black man in the symbolic role of Jesus in addition to using much religious iconography that some people considered sacrilege. Others took issue with her overtly sexual video for “Justify My Love”, banned after very few televised airings. And of course there was her oversized, aluminum bound photo essay coffee-table book, Sex, which featured a nude Madonna (full frontal) along with homosexual, bondage, and light S & M imagery.
The one thing she has not done is remain stagnant. She has re-invented her persona nearly as often as David Bowie; the current one is likely as close to the real woman (not some artificial construct) as she’s ever publicly presented. She has also matured as a musical artist. [And I would point to the excellent set, Bedtime Stories, from 1994 as the springboard of her maturation, followed by the stellar Ray of Light (1998).]
Gone are the cutie-pie little girl vocals and the twee chish-chash of her earliest material. Her newer offerings, over the past decade, have explored techno, industrial, jazz, and hip-hop. Her voice has lost that prepubescent squeal (best noted on the original studio versions of “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl”) and has aged into a wonderfully expressive, sonic instrument with true texture.
Most of us back when in the early Eighties probably thought she would have been a one-trick pony. But 32 years after her first album dropped Madonna has proven (most certainly with her current tour supporting her latest release, Rebel Heart) that not only does she still have something to say she says it very well indeed.
Credit: Vic Dillinger, 2016
History Lesson for the Fetus-y
While making the assumption that almost everyone on the planet knows who Madonna is, it is possible there may be two or three people who do not. So, with that in mind a brief summation of her career is in order.
Born in Michigan on August 16, 1958, Madonna Louise Ciccone graduated high school and attended the University of Michigan on a dance scholarship. She dropped out in 1978 (after less than a year) and high-tailed it to New York City where she hoped to get a job as a dancer. Hooking up with the right people in New York’s theater and dance world led to her being noticed for her vocal skills after she took up with a guy who was in a rock band. It also didn’t hurt that she spent a lot of time dancing in clubs, getting noticed for not only her good looks but for her odd (for the times) moppet style of dress.
After schlepping some demos around, she caught the attention of Seymour Stein of Sire Records; he saw something worthwhile in the young popstress. Her danceable music, while perhaps throw-away at the time, he felt held promise. She signed on as a singles only act, but that changed after her first sides garnered a lot of club play and a few sales.
Her self-titled debut album did well, featuring hits “Holiday”, Lucky Star”, and “Borderline”. Her music video persona made for great MTV rotation, and she created a brand in herself. She influenced the fashions of young women (and some gay men) in the 1980s.
From there, the rest is pretty much history. She proved to be a major influence on up-and-coming female singers who emulated her in almost every way (most notably Britney Spears, though not the only one “inspired” by Madonna). She has acted in film and on television. Multiple failed high-profile relationships and marriages (to actor Sean Penn and British film director, Guy Ritchie, most recently) kept her in the headlines, though not always in a positive light. She has also squeezed out a couple of kids and adopted two.
Credit: Enigma Records, 1989Regardless of the controversies (whether real or imaginary), in every decade since 1983 she has had at least one hit single, multiple platinum-selling albums, and globally she is the best-selling female artist of all time. She has become an icon in pop music (other than Elvis, Sting, Jesus, Bono, and Cher not too many people can get away with going by only one name and having the entire world know who they are).
And she has been honored with covers of her songs by many, not the least of which was No Wave band, Sonic Youth. They loved Madonna so much that in 1989 they released a (sort of) tribute of their own, The Whitey Album, under the pseudonym Ciccone Youth. Among its 1980s’ inspired material is their take on a Madonna classic, “Into the Groove(y)”, featuring Sonic Youth’s dissonant sound.
Following the release of her thirteenth studio album, Rebel Heart, Madonna, at 57 years old, took to the road to promote said disc on the eponymous Rebel Heart Tour.
And, oh ladies and germs, what a show! Let’s look into it, shall we?
Lame . . . So Lame
The show I attended was on Saturday, January 16, 2016. Prior to leaving for the venue, I checked online to see who her supporting act (if any) was. Then the sadness set in: her opening “act” was a female DJ (eek!) from New York City named Mary Mac.
Club DJs are the bottom-feeders of the music industry. I hate them. They create nothing; they only spin other people’s stuff. Or “throw beats” with their little digital samplers or laptops. Oh, and “scratch”—with records or digitally—and say things like “Oh, yee-ah!”, “Lemme hear ya holla!”, or “Throw your hands in the aye-uh!” However much I hate “artists” such as Skrillex or Moby at least those guys do original things more often than not, unlike your average club DJ chump stain.
Show time was posted as 8:00 PM. I’d seen some things online stating that on this tour Madonna has been as much as three hours late starting, so I was terrified of that. Knowing of her tardiness and the fact she would have a DJ as an opener (another complaint I saw online about some of her venues, though not the DJ I would suffer in particular) I did not hurry to take my seat. Instead I browsed the merch tables; though crowded she had some good graphics on her shirts.
Along about 8:30 PM I and my wife headed into the arena. DJ Mary Mac was in full bull crap mode—her console occupied the center of the stage and she was engaged in some boring thumping crud with no lyrics and no value. Later she broke out chestnuts such as AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and mashed it up and did the same with the Aerosmith/Run-DMC version of “Walk this Way”. Yawn.
It was excruciating to sit through. The woman had no personality and shouted out the same old tired hip-hop DJ clichés: “How ya’ll doin’ tonight?”, “Make some noise!”, etc.. I’m sure this junk would have gone over well at 2:00 AM in a small gay club in SoHo where everyone’s diddy-bopping around drunk while torquing amyl nitrite poppers every five minutes. But for the 22,000 seat arena where Madonna was playing, not so much.
Unfortunately, this waste occurred until 9:30 PM. Everyone in the venue was relieved when she finally left the stage and the roadies dragged her console backstage. [Madonna, if you ever read this: You are better than this. It would have been more pleasant for you to simply give us a later show time, have no opening act, and let us enjoy you without first being annoyed by what had to be one of the worst DJs to ever breathe air.]
Under the Big Top
Our suffering over with the departure of said DJ we sat for another hour.
Was Madonna late? I don’t know. The show started at 8:00 PM as advertised with the horror that was DJ Mary Mac. And since we weren’t told what time Madonna herself was supposed to take the stage I have no way of knowing if her 10:30 PM appearance was late or not.
It was all worth it, regardless.
The stage set itself was visually intriguing (and had many tricks in store). It consisted of a main area, backed by video screens. Lighting racks overhead and towers nearby handled the spots and colored highlights. A large video screen, upon which were projected interpretative or filmed imagery, backed the stage. Two smaller video screens mounted high up helped the audience see the show from the central film crew’s perspective. A runway, roughly ¾ the length of the available floor space shot into the crowd, tipped by a heart shaped secondary stage. In the center was another, shorter runway at right angles to the main stretch.
We would learn the main and secondary stages and the shorter runway held trap doors and a rising center section for scenery changes, personnel “disappearances” for costume changes, etc.. The main stage carried a section of its floor that could be raised hydraulically through any angle up to 90°, forming a back drop onto which a scene could be projected. At other times, at a lesser angle, say around 20° or so, dancers and Madonna ran and slid down its slope.
overhead view of Rebel Heart Tour stage set
A video splashed onto the back screen signaled the start of the show. Madonna appeared from the rafters, lowered to the main stage in a cage at 10:30 PM. She opened with “Iconic” a track from Rebel Heart. [Her set this night would cover nearly every song from the expanded version of this CD.]
This presentation was more than a mere concert. The choreography and stage direction were phenomenally disciplined and engaging. Props and scenery projections created little vignettes onstage. It ended up being more of a cross between Cirque du Soleil, a Broadway spectacle, and campy Weimar Republic-era cabaret.
Madonna’s voice is probably better than it has ever been. She was clear, soaring, whispery, belting, whatever the mood called for. Her band, broken up into two distinct sections with percussion on stage left and the rest on stage right, was top notch.
Her set list was geared to themes in costuming and staging as well. Here’s what you would have heard (and seen) that night:
Costume and staging theme: Joan of Arc/Samurai
- Revolution (video intro; with “Iconic” snippets)
- Bitch I'm Madonna
- Burning Up
- Holy Water (with “Vogue” snippet)
- Devil Pray
Costume and staging theme: Rockabilly Meets Tokyo
- Messiah (video interlude)
- Body Shop
- True Blue (acoustic)
- Deeper and Deeper
- HeartBreakCity (with “Love Don't Live Here Anymore” snippet)
- Like a Virgin (with “Heartbeat” sample)
Costume and staging theme: Latin/Gypsy
- S.E.X. (video interlude; with “Justify My Love” snippet)
- Living for Love
- La Isla Bonita
- Dress You Up (with “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star” snippets)
- Like a Prayer
- Rebel Heart
Costume and staging theme: Party/Flapper
- Illuminati (video interlude)
- Music (with “Give It 2 Me” sample)
- Candy Shop
- Material Girl
- La Vie en rose (Édith Piaf cover) (acoustic)
- Unapologetic Bitch
There were a lot of moving parts in this show.
Changes in costuming were done with multiple clothing layering, break-away gear, and playing video interludes which gave Madonna and some of her dancers time to drop out of sight via a trap door, fully change outfits, and then reappear.Credit: Rebecca Bischoff, 2016
The circus elements came from a trapeze, a spiral staircase lowered from the ceiling, male dancers hurling themselves down the tilted center stage “wall” (tied off with bungee cords at the waist), and a ribbon dancer performance (during one of the costume change interludes). Most strangely, though, was a segment in which several dancers strapped themselves atop those roughly 15-foot long flexible poles (like pole vaulters use) and began rocking them back and forth, arcing downward from the runway intersection to within inches of audience members’ heads. It was quite a sight, terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
There were many good moments in this show. Madonna played guitar during some numbers, and while she’s no Brian May, she was skilled enough to pull it off and not look silly or incompetent.
Early on, for “Body Shop” (from Rebel Heart), a mock-up service garage setting was placed on stage complete with the front half of a car. Tires, hand carts and other garage tools completed the scene. It was great fun watching Madonna dressed as a greaser chick.
Another major highlight was the Latinized beat (and costuming) of “Dress You Up” (which included pieces of “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star”, so it functioned more as a medley):
Her “True Blue” (quasi-acoustic) was another terrific surprise, slightly re-imagined and pristine. A goose-bump moment was her performance of “Like a Prayer”—it was sincere and soaring.
An unexpected turn (for me, anyway) Credit: Rebecca Bischoff, 2016occurred near the end. The intersection of the two runways had a roughly 10-foot-diameter center piece that rose above and lowered beneath stage level. It was raised a bit and on this dais Madonna perched with a microphone and a ukulele. Solo she played the chanteuse, singing French pop vocalist Édith Piaf’s signature tune, La Vie en rose. Madonna crooned this in French! It was a tender and poignant interlude in the maelström.
After one more raucous number she left the stage briefly, came back, and encored with “Holiday”.
Thus ended the magic.
Raunch ’n’ Roll
As an adult, I enjoy adult things and it pleased me beyond reason that Madonna felt no need to make her show “kid friendly”.
She dropped a few f-bombs and the s-word on multiple occasions, made sly sexual innuendoes (at one point during some shtick involving a male audience member and a banana, she singled out two female audience members still on the floor and mentioned that they probably knew what to do with that banana!).
Bawdy is her game. She pantomimed several sexual acts (stuffing one of her male dancer’s faces briefly into her groin area), simulating intercourse with another, all typical Madonna hijinks. I’m glad she left that stuff in.
During the opening numbers Madonna led a parade of bare-midriffed female dancers in pleather bras and white bikini bottoms (that curiously looked like diapers). These women straddled and swung on stripper poles shaped like crucifixes.
Another moment that would probably have shocked many came during the “Body Shop”-themed section. Perched on a stack of spare tires with her male dancers strewn around the floor, she asked the audience about “six packs” (intimating they’d likely drunk many beers). She made an off-the-cuff comment herself about having had a few drinks. But, she said, her favorite six packs were of the type her male dancers had. The guys, as directed by their boss, dutifully stood and took off their shirts displaying ripped abdominal muscles.
She then said it wasn’t only the men who had six packs, but women could have them, too. She singled out a female dancer dressed as a guy in a suit. This woman ripped open her shirt to show off her abs and her barely-there (’roided out of existence) teeny breast pads. This only lasted a second or two and was amusing.
Madonna also used a hillbilly accent when talking about the six-pack thing that some people later claimed they found offensive (since she was in Kentucky). I thought it was hilarious! Screw ’em if they can’t take a joke.
In tribute to being in Louisville, Kentucky (home of Churchill Downs and The Kentucky Derby) she played “The Call” (the bugle notes heard to signal the start of the race) by tapping her crotch as notes “issued” from that region. It was funny, funny, funny!
She did a bit toward the end of the show where she tossed a wedding bouquet into the audience (for the catcher to get married with).
Truth or Dare?
In the wake of this show, there was much Monday-morning quarterbacking. Many morons claimed Madonna was actually drunk during her performance (this because she made a few references to booze during the show).
Let me tell you, as someone who was there and not hearing it third-hand: Madonna was NOT intoxicated at any time during her performance. If she’d had a few belts before the show (which I doubt considering how driven she is to perfection) it didn’t tell on her. But she was NOT drunk! She could not have pulled off the nearly 2½ hours’ extravaganza she had done if she were loaded. Timing was on spot, costume and scenery changes went off without a hitch. Nor she did not slur her song lyrics or speech.
She made one faux pas: she offhandedly mentioned it was good to be in Tulsa (she had played in Oklahoma the night before). She quickly corrected herself and apologized for not getting the city name right in her shout out. This is not a sign of drunkenness; it is the sign of a 57-year-old woman, fatigued with road weariness from several months’ of touring, merely forgetting for a fraction of a second the name of the city she was in.
Also, some members of the audience allegedly took offense when she was goofing around with her hillbilly accent. Get over yourselves—if you’re offended by that you deserve to be offended, pajama-bottom-wearing-to-Walmart idiot!
Age is Just a Number
As a woman in her late fifties Madonna puts women half her age to shame! This is truth. She is in top physical shape, looks great, and has the stamina to work her way through a very demanding performance without flagging. Her voice was fantastic (though obviously tired by the end, nearly at 1:00 AM).
This woman is more than a mere singer. This show was an extravaganza, not simply a showcase where someone comes on and plays some tunes and sings. It was an over-the-top spectacle.
And it was obviously expensive. Madonna chided a guy she’d brought up on stage for not dressing better to come see her. “You could have at least bought one of my T-shirts,” she told him. “After the show go out there and buy something—I gotta lotta overhead here!”
She’s not kidding—I can’t begin to imagine the millions of dollars this tour is costing.
And she didn’t make her set list a “best of” or “greatest hits” rehash. Though she tossed in a few oldies (and my only disappointment is that she didn’t do the manic “Ray of Light”) she focused mostly on her very newest material, material that I found good enough live to make me go out and buy her Rebel Heart CD the next day.
She has a couple of dates left in the continental US and one in Puerto Rico before heading to Asia and Australia—if you can catch her, do it!
During the more than two hours I was there the best thing is that I forgot about everything else in the world: money, what to eat when I got home, the fact I had to pee really badly, everything. My only focus during that time was on Madonna and what was happening on stage.
That’s what a good entertainer can do—make you forget your troubles for a bit. And that’s what Madonna has become, an entertainer.
Long may she reign!
Madonna live at KFC Yum! Center; Louisville, KY; Jan. 16, 2016
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