“Beautiful. Intelligent. Talented. Classy… Horny. Are we missing a letter? Oh, it’s good that I went to school. Horny. So it’s okay if I call you BITCH, and you can call me BITCH, right? You’re all my bitches tonight!”
My sis and I, and everyone else in that stadium–a little mesmerized, a lot thrilled–couldn’t help but vociferously agree. (I plead the fifth on the H.)
I expected Madonna to be saucily provocative, even raunchy, and able to gyrate like a pro on a crucifix, but why didn’t I anticipate that she’d be funny? Because she is. Even cute. Isn’t it funny that the prodigal daughter accused of doing Satan’s work is a diminutive (she’s 5’3), sweet, 57-year-old dame? Who happens to swear a lot? When she delivers a pun like “Would you like to see me come…on top?” (after setting it up with, “Hey, I’m tired, I was supposed to go all the way [up the tiered tables], but I only got to the middle”) there’s a sly ‘aren’t-I-naughty’ twinkle in her eye (yep, I imagined I saw this from way up in the nosebleed seats while sneaking glances at the massive screen, haha, indulge me please). If you take her too seriously, the joke’s on you, because she’s just playing. Like a kid who knows the rules but prefers to break them. Or who thinks it’s fun to take the bull by the horns.
Madonna will try her very best to get a rise out of you. For the Rebel Heart tour, the lady hung on a cross, upside down, by her knees. She staged a Bacchanalian Last Supper upon a gilded altar where she took the opportunity to spread her legs and be, er, feasted upon. She fake-strangled a monk, and frolicked with dancers wearing the religious robes of the various faiths, including nuns in Catholic veils, coifs…and French knickers. And she threw a bouquet at the crowd, ordered the fan–named “Pretty”–who caught it, to take a whiff, and baldly stated that it smelled of her vagina.
From the first, Madonna has been using religious iconography and sexual deviancy to claim the public’s attention. What she does with that attention is something else–show her strength, question established norms (what is supposed to be acceptable or tolerable or appropriate behavior), and express her unique brand of artistry. Offensive to some, titillating to others, inspiring for multitudes. Hers is a truly compelling voice. She was a brand before “branding” became commonplace; she set the trend before “trending” became an everyday obsession.
And this rebel has a cause (or two). She visited two children’s shelters (Bahay Tuluyan and Hospicio de San Jose) before her first concert (ever!) in Manila–a gesture that melted hearts, albeit not that of the unforgiving clergy. At her second Manila concert, the one I attended on Feb. 25, she acknowledged the day’s celebration of 30 years of freedom from Martial Law, marking the occasion with the popular ballad, “Crazy for You,” which fans had been clamoring for. It was her first performance of the classic song since 2004 (although Madonna seems to think that one didn’t count, indicating she hasn’t sung the song for three decades), and was, of course, wildly welcomed. (My ears are still ringing.) It made the lack of “Like A Prayer” pretty darn worth it.
Madonna worked her ass off on that stage, entertaining the audience with the aforementioned bawdy banter (including training her audience to scream, “Fuck yeah, Bitch!”), better-than-usual singing (compared to a few of her other live performances in other parts of the tour), and truly superior choreography. Though not as flashy as her acrobatic sets, the dancing along the spiral staircase for “Heartbreak City/Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” was supremely affecting. Madonna sang about the end of a love affair even as her partner clambered up, by hand, from beneath the stairs. They would slip and slide down the thin spiraling rail, tread carefully around and against each other, and at one point, one would push and the other fall off the edge entirely.
Part of what makes Madonna so fascinating is that feeling of being on edge. You’re never quite sure what she’ll bring, so you expect the unexpected. Sure, she has a set list and routine, down to picking the “unapologetic bitch” of the night, giving them a spanking, and handing them a banana as reward. Some of what she says is probably on repeat–and yet you feel that she reveals just a little bit of herself in the moment, within the interaction, baring the vulnerability of her contrarian heart. She jokes about being rejected, mentions her two failed marriages, admits to the romanticism that belies her assumed cynicism. Such impromptu confessions on the dance floor–with or without eye candy–make the Queen more accessible. This tour has also been characterized by little personalized flourishes, so no two concerts, even in the same city, are truly alike. Her fans (even those of us in the nosebleed seats) are made to feel special, in that small way. Pretty, pampered bitches–and loving it.
Photo taken from commons.wikimedia.org just for reference. Nosebleed seats don’t get you this kind of detail 😉 Plus, my fangirl-since-grade-school self was kinda soaking it all in and left sis to take the photos and vids.