Madonna albums are like cast recordings for a film or stage musical. You buy the album before you have a sense of the visual or of the narrative that overlays the music.
It isn’t until you watch the music performed live or in video form that you really “get” the intent.
And then the album becomes a kind of souvenir, an aural remembrance of the pageant and all its themes and provocations.
That is not to say Madonna’s music doesn’t stand on its own (generally it does, even the lesser works … <cough> Hard Candy) but it doesn’t really come alive until you see, sense, feel, taste (?) the spectacle swaddling her nursery rhyme-like tunes.
I’ve had the good fortune now to have seen her live on four occasions (and one additional stalking moment when I spied her gliding into a Traverse City movie theatre for the premiere of her documentary I Am Because We Are; I was perched precariously with one knee on a parking meter and one foot on John’s shoulder at the time to get the best view I could … I’m not subtle).
In 2001, she brought her Drowned World Tour (supporting Music and Ray of Light) to Detroit after years of not stopping in the Motor City. I had practically committed to memory the cheeky joys of Blonde Ambition and The Girlie Show (both of which had been broadcast on HBO) so the somber, take-no-prisoners/play-no-hits/look-at-me-wearing-a-kilt-and-playing-an-electric-guitar-badly approach of this production was an unintentional let down.
I wanted camp and kitsch and got sturm und drang. As the years have passed, I’ve come to reconsider my initially superficial disappointment with that show, realizing that she was predicting musically and visually the angst and anxiety and chaos that have come to define America in the 21st Century. Go figure.
I caught The Sticky and Sweet Tour when it stopped at Ford Field in 2008. While Hard Candy was a bit of a Milk Dud upon first listen, that show which supported the much-maligned album opened a world of confectionery delights in its rainbow-colored, kaleidoscopic staging.
In many respects, the show was a return to multi-culti appropriation form for the Material Girl as her years living hand-to-mouth in New York and her interests in hip-hop, eastern rhythms, and gypsy folk were distilled into a revelatory, propulsive brew.
Bitch, I’m Madonna
A dark heart still beat at the center of the show as Madonna continued to channel a justifiable rage against the machine, skewering a society that consumes relentlessly and persecutes shamelessly.
If the dark heart of Sticky and Sweet was hidden behind a coating of tasty caramel, it was on full corrosive display in The MDNA Tour (supporting the EDM-chugging album of the same name). Madonna, freshly divorced from director Guy Ritchie, was letting her angry Id freak flag fly, and it was glorious … and cold.
Whereas the album at times seemed a meandering if compelling mess, the show was a silver bullet to the heart of America, with a series of pneumatic projection screens that raised and lowered to depict gun-ridden crime scenes, oppressive religious structures, and a cracked political landscape. It was a brilliant show though a tad impenetrable and joyless.
Madonna and Nicki Minaj
With my talented pal – actor and designer – Barbie Weisserman
Which brings us to her latest – The Rebel Heart Tour – which was performed at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena last night (October 1).
I’m a big fan of the particular record this tour supports (see my review here) which, to me, is a spiritual sequel to the caustic, intoxicating Erotica album but with a level of maturity, exhaustion, and peace that only 20+ years of living could bring. Needless to say, I was curious, excited, and a bit nervous about what interpretations she might bring to this superior collection of ditties.
She did great.
The show is a standard Madonna production, with top-of-the-line choreography, lightning fast costume changes, a healthy dose of sociopolitical sniping, and some flat-out stunning visuals (both digital and set design). What sets this show apart from the three live shows already described is that, well, Madonna seems happy. Not goofy or forced or self-aggrandizing. Just happy.
Lourdes [Photo Courtesy Glenn Nolan]
Her University of Michigan-attending daughter Lourdes was seated just a few rows over from us and Madonna’s father was somewhere in the crowd, so Madonna seemed genuinely, authentically giddy to be back home.
(By the way, watching Madonna’s daughter beam with pride and delight as her famous mom did her thing pretty much made the show. I suggest that somebody set up a live-feed of Lourdes to run on a screen somewhere at every tour stop from here on out.)
The show is structured in the Madonna boilerplate: four sections – a religious pastiche, a desert garage, a Latin party, and the roaring 20s. New songs from Rebel Heart are juxtaposed with left-of-center arrangements of classic hits, in a successful effort both to freshen up the old and validate the new.
Our seats [Image Created by Becca Mansfield]
Set changes are simple but effective, achieved mostly through digital projections and some props, and Madonna’s costumes are less glam than we typically see and more utilitarian, a base costume for each of the four sections, adjusted with the addition or deletion of pieces depending on the song being performed.
One of my favorites from the new album – the title track “Rebel Heart” – is a high point of the evening. Madonna strums a guitar (she’s gotten quite proficient at it over the past 15 years!), standing alone on the catwalk stage (shaped like a crucifix, a heart at the end and spanning the entire arena floor), with a series of fan-created tribute images behind her.
Who’s That Girl?
As we watch hundreds of interpretations of Madonna’s famous mug morph one into another – water color, photo collage, pen and ink, and so on – what would have once seemed yet another exercise in her seemingly limitless supply of hubris is instead touching and loving, a capstone on an exceptional career that continues to brim with unbridled potential.
Her mother’s daughter [Photo Courtesy Glenn Nolan]
As I viewed those images, I thought of college-age Lourdes sitting a few rows away, gobsmacked myself at how time slips away and wondering what must be going through Madonna’s daughter’s head as she watches countless depictions of her mother’s famous stances and poses sail by.
The show is riddled with such visceral, thoughtful, and, yes, entertaining moments. Opener “Iconic” with a guest video appearance from Mike Tison is a bombastic gut punch, Zack Snyder’s 300 if designed by Bob Mackie, with Madonna, the Warrior Queen, descending from the ceiling in a gilded cage.
Thereafter, we quickly enter Madonna’s favorite territory – pop blasphemy lite – with a sequence that ends in a “Last Supper” tableau, that is if the Last Supper had been held in a discotheque in Miami. What a pip!
The show slows down a bit after that, allowing both performers and audience, to stop clutching their pearls and to catch their breath.
As Madonna strums away, she turns classic chestnut “True Blue” into a campfire ode and makes the raunchy “Body Shop” sound like a salute to old-fashioned courtship and love.
Classic club track “Deeper and Deeper” makes a glorious return to stage in one of the most epic line-dances I’ve ever seen, and we even got a winking re-branding of “Material Girl” (a perfect song that Madonna has always inexplicably claimed to hate, which is a shame because it’s … perfect).
Madonna, possibly still smarting from not getting cast in Chicago, struts atop a steeply angled platform, dressed as a 20s flapper and crooning all those famous “some boys” lines from the tune, knocking one male dancer after another off her perch as they slide down the raked stage into a tuxedo-garbed heap on the floor.
There is a glorious flamenco-style medley of her classic tunes that spins out of Madonna’s torreodor-from-space visioning of her recent hit “Living for Love,” and she slaps “Like a Virgin” on the behind and turns it into a dub-step R&B banger. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Brilliantly.
And then there was the moment where she sang “La Vie En Rose” … in powerful voice … in French … with a ukulele. Simply because her daughter loves the song and asked her to sing it. Not a dry eye in the house.
Barbie with new friends all the way from Australia – Glenn and Philip
(I daresay this is a direction she might want to pursue more fully for her next reinvention. Please? If Lady Gaga can monkey around with Tony Bennett, Madonna can go full Edith Piaf.)
The show has its flaws. Any big arena tour doesn’t hold up under intense scrutiny. These are circus acts for the new millennium, full of false emotions, phony posturing, smoke and mirrors.
But what Madonna does so well on this tour is humanize: herself, her personae, her history, her songs, her legacy.
We have lived with a rigid, defensive Madonna for about 15 years now (I blame Guy Ritchie … or England), and we are starting to get our quintessentially American street urchin, our mugging-Horatio-Alger-rag-dolly back, and I couldn’t be happier. She’s fun; she’s frisky; and she doesn’t give a f*ck.
Welcome back, Madge.
Speaking of Rebel Hearts …
This past Sunday, September 27, I married my long-time partner John Mola in a ceremony officiated by Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor and Pastor Ian Reed Twiss and attended by a small gathering of family and friends. We honored our guests with donations to the Huron Valley Humane Society and also gave, on behalf of the wedding officiants, to Equality Michigan, 826Michigan, and the Jim Toy Center.
John and Roy
Dinner at Weber’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, immediately followed the ceremony and included a three-tiered wedding cake that gave a nod to John’s and my shared interests in Disney, superheroes, and classic cars.
Our parents Susie and Don Sexton and Luci and Simone Mola (respectively) presented the grooms, and readings (1 John 4: 16-21; excerpt from the Supreme Court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges, and “Maker of Heaven and Earth – All Things Bright and Beautiful” poem by Cecil Frances Alexander) were given by Stephanie Kassman, Rachel Green, and Gabby Rundall (our niece). Lori Rundall, John’s sister, presented the toast, and photographs of the event were taken by Gabby Rundall and Kyle Lawson.
Vision in green – Zach & Susie
About the day, my mom wrote on her blog (here) …
“Took a tumble off some steps and directly into prickly shrubbery, rode in a limousine–my virgin ride, kept my hat on, lost my dress and my shoes, urged the Ann Arbor mayor to prevent deer culling, learned I am not alone in detesting Bing Crosby, spoke to a journalist about the Last Tango in Paris and why I sorta love Trump and not Bernie and that I want to vote for Hillary, posed with Zach because we are kindred spirits and love mint green, met my second minister that I see eye to eye with since the beginning of time, and today am sore all over ‘my little body’? And the wedding occurred on schedule in spite of it all and was the happiest moment of my lifetime! Congrats, John and Roy ♥!!!!”
John and I dearly love this description – it makes me smile every time I read it!
Ian, John, Roy, & Christopher
Thanks to our parents and our family for their love and support and their unyielding championing of bravery and authenticity and kindness. Thanks to our friends for giving us this wonderful network of fun and joy. Thanks to Ian and Christopher for their guidance and their important and gracious roles in making it all “official.” Thanks to the Supreme Court for doing the right thing in the face of a wall of political foolishness.
And, I can feel John rolling his eyes now, but thanks to performers and artists like Madonna, who have pushed for compassion and inclusion for decades for us all, for anyone who is different or who is judged unfairly based on gender, age, race, species, sexuality, faith, financial status, and so on. We are a nation that can do so much good by just being kind. Let’s do more of that.
Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.