Live Review: At the altar of pop worship with Madonna and the phantom deity

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s a generally understood notion that songs are meaningless and trite, and that if one wants to be a productive member of society, avoiding music is a prudent choice. Songs are traps, or so goes this common wisdom, filled with, at best, fantasy notions and, at worst, dangerous and destructive ideas; even worse are artists, who attempt to peddle their songs as a means of stringing them together into a narrative arc which, by using a nice beat and/or a catchy melody, can fool an innocent passerby into conflating their own emotions with that of the artist. The master artists, the ones who amass fortunes with multi-decade careers, are experts at this storytelling, creating a proxy persona through the proliferation of recorded songs — often resulting in the creation of a phantom deity, plastered on t-shirts and advertisements and music videos, that speaks to society and culture conveying ambiguous messages within a framework of relatability and emotional resonance. The artist’s perceived drama becomes real within the psychic æther of our shared mental space, our aspirations and fears and fantasies.

Although music is a powerful tool of persuasion, this artist-as-locus-point-of-psychic-power phenomenon is a relative rarity; only a few individuals have managed to punch through the noise of our current electronic lifestyle to overlay their own emotional map onto the waiting cortex of society as a whole. One of the most powerful of these musical artists has entranced, globally, at least three distinct generations of susceptible media consumers: her name is Madonna Louise Ciccone, and she is not just a master musician but a grand wizard able to spin gold out of the dross that is the raw emotional flotsam burbling violently beneath the surface of her haughty persona.

Madonna honored the City of Boston with her presence on Saturday night, September 26, arriving with an intimidating crew of dancers and musicians to a staged piece of formal pageantry fitting to an artist who is a full two-and-a-half decades into the regal phase of her career. Where she was once a scrappy street urchin, a failed ballet student gnawing at the table scraps of late-’70s NYC post-punk culture, by the end of the ’80s she ached to be more than an ephemeral pop presence competing with the likes of Cyndi Lauper or Pat Benatar. Her first taste of fame on the heels of hits like “Everybody” and “Holiday” were narcotic for the budding star — asked at the end of 1983 by Dick Clark what she hoped to achieve in the years ahead, she giggled “To rule the world!” The perversity of our pop culture world, the way that our celebrity machine occasionally lets dream actualization occur through will-to-power, allowed this wish to come true.

On Saturday night, to the opening whump of “Iconic”, amidst a squadron of dancers decked out in samurai-or-is-it-warrior-from-300 uniforms, Madonna, in a cage made of enormous metal spears, was lowered from the rafters. “If you try and fail, get up again/Destiny will choose you in the end,” she lustily intoned, chopping the air with flailing limbs emerging from her red kimono-slash-warrior-outfit. As the first line of the show, it was also the first lie of the evening, sending the audience the message that not only was her ascent to stardom a preordained result of her lengthy incubation period of struggle, but that the obstacles she continues to face as the most popular female musical artist of all time can all be bested by dogged determination.

If this is understood to be at the very least a kind untruth, it is also a bedrock moral foundation of American popular culture — Madonna’s strength as a force and a brand can be conferred to her following if they just allow themselves to be touched by the mental persuasion of determination as a weapon for personal triumph. When an artist such as Madonna is seen as an ’80s artist, it fundamentally has to do with that artist’s adherence to this maxim — if the existence of the cesspool of culture that is the 1990s has taught us anything, it is that basing cultural mores on failure and dispirited ennui tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The lie of determination is the fist in the air that allows musical art to infiltrate our minds and poison our reason, if only by deluding us that we are masters of our own destiny.

Madonna, though, of almost any popular musical artist, should be aware of the fallacy of this outlook, if only because of her oeuvre’s focus on the tragedy of love. In many ways, the true power of the brand of Madonna rests in the authenticity of her resilience in the face of this tragedy, and so many of her greatest songs mine the territory of finding strength in, or in the aftermath of, failed romance. The lead single from her new album, Rebel Heart, “Living For Love”, is a prime example of Madonna’s mastery of this emotion — the song hits a fulcrum point between the sadness of a relationship’s deterioration and the life-affirming determination to make the magic happen again. If there is cognitive dissonance in the concept, it is obliterated by the swelling house beats, courtesy of Diplo, and the powerhouse vocal performance. Power, dominance, absolute faith in an abstract notion of heaven-on-Earth-through-love, all convincingly hammered into the audience’s collective craniums by a hair-raising act of songcraft.

Madonna has a long history of being obsessed with the occupation of matador, as evidenced by the videos for both “Take A Bow” and “You’ll See”, a logical conclusion to her infatuation with all things Spanish that likely itself resulted from her immersion in NYC Puerto Rican culture that permeated so much of her earlier work (a number of her early singles are said to have been penned while pining for various Puerto Rican boys she would spy around the city whilst in her above-referenced street urchin phase). The twist in her current tour, during “Living For Love”, is that finally Madonna herself is the matador rather than pining for one — a significant shift from loving someone with a dangerous occupation to having the dangerous occupation oneself, with the minotaur/bull of the tour production a stand-in for the existential horror that is “living for love” knowing that it may indeed be unattainable.

Prior to donning the jewel-encrusted matador pants for her triumphant runthrough of “Living For Love”, Madonna had just completed a run of tunes that in many ways represents the quicksand miasma that love has come to mean to her triumphant public persona. Sex, adoration, fidelity, falling so deeply that there is no light anymore: in Madonna’s vivid lucid dreaming, love is a cave that one spelunks into until the only options are escape or death. The mini-set began with “Body Shop”, another Rebel Heart number, wherein Madonna relates her own body’s sexuality to that of a car, a Dali-esque trompe in line with, say, Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” or Van Halen’s “Panama”. “You can keep it overnight/You can do whatever you like/Working overtime”, she growls lustily, with a bevy of dancers in greasy mechanic outfits, not unlike Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” video except she’s Christy Brinkley pretending to be a car. You can hear Madonna’s royal status peering into the tune: she is herself clearly a hard worker, but pining for someone who works overtime is a clear lust for crossing class lines in search of a working class paramour whose drab uniform she can get dirty with her automotive fluids — it’s almost like a J.G. Ballard concept of pop music, confusing crude machinery with raw lust.

Madonna and her crew didn’t stay in this fantasy for long — first she did an abrupt switch to the ’50s recidivism of 1986’s “True Blue”, a gorgeous ode to being forever in thrall to an ideal lover, written for then-husband Sean Penn before harrowing accounts of domestic abuse led to an acrimonious split a few years later; then a lengthy excursion into primo early-’90s single “Deeper and Deeper”, a heartfelt disco anthem that could be about almost anything: a lost weekend of romance, an unending spiritual quest for meaning in a shallow, venal world, coming out as gay, or really almost anything that involves being immersed in something deep and expansive. Next she indulged in the jilted psychodrama of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”, basking in rejection and abandonment on an impromptu spiral staircase where she appeared to push a proxy lover off of a balcony.

As the staircase disappeared and her dancers scurried away, we heard the throbbing pulse of her breakthrough 1984 smash “Like A Virgin” — pounding and predatory, Madonna flung herself to the floor during the chorus, humping and rolling, microphone in hand. Just minutes before she had been flanked by some of the finest backup dancers in the world — but freed from the intricate choreographic mousetrap that is her typical stock-in-trade, she enthusiastically bounced around the floor, gyrating and thrusting in a way that was singularly liberating. Even in the middle of a hockey stadium filled to capacity with nearly twenty thousand screaming fans, Madonna so clearly relishes being able to close her eyes and dance as if she is the only person in the room; she never really seems free-er than when she can let it go in her own private world.

And what’s odd about that is that Madonna doesn’t seem like much of a private world person — among musical artists of her stature, it really is remarkable just how transparent she is about her life, her feelings, her loves and her struggles, especially in her songs. Saturday night’s show couldn’t help but spotlight the melancholy ambivalence the superstar clearly has about the realistic possibility for her to find a way to unite her strong desire for love with her eternal yearning for spiritual enlightenment. Which, put into layman’s terms, means that she has become, at 57, a decidedly cynical pop diva.

After a rip-roaring run-through of “Material Girl”, staged kind of like a 21st century Cotton Club, which featured Madonna in wedding garb tossing a bouquet into the audience, Madonna singled out a married couple near the stage, adressing the husband: “When you married this woman, I hope you gave her the three rings, did you give her the three rings of marriage? First, the engagement ring, then the wedding ring, and after that, a lifetime of suffer-ring.”

Later in the show, Madonna would emerge in a spotlight, solo with guitar in hand, to sing a plaintive run-through of Edith Piaf’s 1945 standard “La Vie En Rose”; a melancholy number about love having the ability to temporarily blind one to the sadness of the world, “Rose” is thematically similar to “Like A Virgin”. If Madonna seemed to come alive when able to focus inward on her solitary self, perhaps it’s because her career-long message, of the joy and sadness of choosing to live for love, is one that has oftentimes left her alone with nothing but her faith in that love. “Les ennuis, les chagrins s’effacent/Heureux, heureux à en mourir”, as the Piaf song goes: “My troubles, my grief are removed/I’m content enough to die.”

Edith Piaf lived an all-too-brief life filled with enough horror, sadness and tragedy to neuter her ungodly fame and the world’s adoration; and although Madonna’s life has in many ways been a walk in the park compared to Piaf’s war-ravaged mortal coil trip, it’s clear that she sees, in Piaf’s defiance in the face of romantic tragedy an inspiration. On Saturday, Madonna chose, more than usual, to indulge in her bittersweet romantic muse; after an opening salvo that saw her and her troupe conflating Catholic ritual with sexual fire in a manner that seemed utterly Madonna-esque to an extreme, she shifted gears, dialed down the attempts at shock and awe, and put her heart on display to a capacity audience ravenous for blood.

“I want to start a revolution of love!” Madonna proclaimed, positioning herself, as she has so many times before, as the ultimate erotic politician, aiming to mobilize the powerful force she has over an audience to evince some kind of change. What is her ultimate goal here: Awareness? Activism? To rule the world? Perhaps… or maybe it is just to find a way to universalize her own narrative, to use her power of song and dance to, at least for a brief time, quell the naysayers while also proving that love is possible even if not easy for her on a personal level. Even if mass art is mind control and music is but a tool to coerce human beings to work harder and in tighter rhythm for the benefit of their overlords, it is still occasionally possible for a genuine human message to come through even on the large bandwidth signals of mass pop culture. Madonna’s campaign for human dignity through spiritual pain and the ecstasy of dance is one such missive, and it’s clear that she will continue sending through this message until she finally merges with the infinite; we won’t know how lost we are until we no longer have her shining light to guide us.

Follow Daniel Brockman on Twitter @thebizhaslanded