This week, in a beautiful generational symmetry, EO and I went to Madonna’s Rebel Heart concert here in Hong Kong. My one and only Madonna show prior to this was a floor seat at Austin’s Frank Erwin Center on the Like a Virgin tour, May 1985, a few weeks before I graduated from high school. This spring, EO will attend her first formal dance and ‘graduate’ Y11 before beginning her school’s two-year IB program. Over thirty years between our rites of passage and yet here was Madonna – in fearsome form and wicked wit, middle-aged, twice-divorced, sex-obsessed, foul-mouthed – here was fucking Madonna.
The fourth best-selling musical act of all time. Superseded only by The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.
The most successful solo artist in the history of the American singles charts. Let that sink right in while I say her name one more time.
Screw the haters. To hell with the ageist TMZ brigade. Go home if her show starts too late for you. I don’t care how old she is or who shares her bed or even what kind of person she is behind the scenes. All that matters is what she brings to the stage, and in that arena Madonna reigns. Unrivaled. Matchless. Supreme.
She transported her full show to Hong Kong – not always the case with touring artists in Asia – and played for over two hours, joined by her band, back-up singers and about 20 dancers. The concert was a button-pushing visual feast of multimedia images, lights, poles, ramps, stairs, hydraulics and dance. Lots of dance. Throughout the show, Madonna moved seamlessly from one cultural theme to another: Samurais to start; Catholicism (of course) to heat things up; Matadors, Greasers and Flappers to express love and more sex, sex, sex; and then “Holiday” fun to finish. I expected the button-pushing and restless cultural curiosity; Madonna has always championed the unusual and the underground, the more provocative the better. She’s a human synthesizer, and I say that as a compliment. What surprised me, however, was the lightness and vulnerability she showed. She chatted, joked, queried and proclaimed to the audience: don’t ask questions, there is no answer. She wore the mantle of Queen both proudly and irreverently.
But if I could distill her performance, nay her entire artistic existence, down to one point, I would say very simply that Madonna is about the body. All shaking ass, thrusting bosom, beating heart. Her hand on a thigh and a head in her crotch. As a dancer first and foremost, she understands the visual power of motion, of open legs and intertwined limbs. Or as her concert showcased, the stunning impact of one shirtless, muscular man moving on an empty stage with only a billowing scarf for company.
Her raison d’être, if I dare to speculate, has always been about celebrating the amazing, ecstatic things we can do with our bodies, alone and in company. She made that statement with her very first single, “Everybody”, which was released in 1982. Every / Body / Come on / Dance and Sing. And she continued that manifesto by shining a light on how others try to stop us from said ecstasy, whether it’s an overbearing patriarchy, Catholic constraints on sexuality or our very own hang-ups. Every / Body / Get Up And / Do Your Thing. Madonna’s body electric is both personal and political, and she makes her stand not only with music and lyrics but movement as well. As if Martha Graham were a pop star…
After the show, EO and I speculated as to what Madonna would do between her two shows in Hong Kong. (If you see her hiking The Peak, tell her I said Hi!) I figured after 2+ hours on stage, in heels, she probably needed some serious physio, or at least a massage. The thought made me a little sad. Madonna’s getting older, her knees must be killing her.
I know a lot of people reckon she’s well past her prime, that the best she can do these days is hitch her wagon to Nicki Minaj or Drake. But I disagree. Though I hadn’t seen her in concert for decades, her Rebel Heart show was indisputable proof that her creative vigor and taste for provocation is alive and well. She still owns the stage, whether she’s alone and singing “La Vie En Rose” or leading her dancers down the catwalk in a fantastic rendition of “Deeper and Deeper”, everyone strutting and vogueing. Even EO said she didn’t think Madonna was trying to be a teenager. The Queen was dancing, singing, doing her thing, and we were lucky to be a part of it.
How many musical icons not only survive but prosper as they head gently in to that good night? How many still have something to say? The list is short. Prince, Jagger, McCartney, Aretha, Bruce? Maybe. Bowie we just lost, Streisand barely sings anymore, Diana Ross has been MIA for years. Sinatra got it right, but then who else? Who changed pop music forever? Who’s left?
*All Hong Kong concert photos courtesy of a lovely and talented friend who had way better seats than I did! 😉
I wasn’t looking for this; in fact I didn’t even know I needed it. But, oh, it is very, very necessary: Mary J. Blige channeling Julie Andrews in a cover of ‘My Favorite Things’.
I know, right? It’s perfect. In her interpretation, ‘schnitzel’ and ‘strudel’ are no longer tasty dishes, but Mary’s own bittersweet memories of Bavaria! And the video, even though it looks like a quickie-shoot-for-the-marketing-department job, succeeds in showcasing her pure fabulousness, reminding us that she’s one of the few women living today who can pull off a metallic turban. Liz Taylor would be so proud.
If Beyonce is our Tina Turner, all legs and fierce fire, then Mary is our Aretha. She sings soul-first. Even though she has the power to belt each and every tune, she doesn’t need to rely on vocal histrionics to make her point. Her control and range, her ability to convey the emotion of the song, her confidence – all of these elements make her, arguably, our generation’s greatest vocalist. For more proof, listen to her version of ‘Mary, Did You Know’. As the song moves from an understated ache to a gospel revelation about the Son of God, her voice will make you a believer.
I like the fact that she’s recorded her holiday album, A Mary Christmas, with the Verve label, home of classic American singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Nina Simone. It’s where Mary belongs.
So, check out her holiday album and have yourself a very, merry Mary Christmas!