Almanac Music: In Melbourne with Madonna.

(Concert: Sunday Night, March 13 2016 – Rod Laver Arena)

 

Growing up in the back end of the 1980s, the dominant music-entertainment forces were Michael Jackson[1][2]and Madonna – with some daylight to whoever came in 3rd. Whenever M or M released a video it was kind of a big deal. In those horse-and-buggy, offline days, only infections went viral and kids in the suburbs had to wait to be thrilled by, or vogue to, videos on MTV or Video Hits – the waiting a lesson in delayed gratification and radical boredom.

 

I have unreliable memories of seeing MJ’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ in the cinema and of  outraged Current Affair hosts showing the best bits of ‘Like A Prayer’ over and over, before I saw the entire clip.

 

Time fades and bleaches preferences, like early 90’s grunge denim. Personally I moved on, away, and back and forth between genres, the old masters and emergent taste shifters. Regardless, M & M’s curious hold on Gen X is undiminished, as though an unexplainable parallel between their destiny and ex-kids in the suburbs. At an X’s birthday recently, a song from either brought whoops of delight.

 

In the case of Madonna, I can respect the total tonnage of her body of work. Madonna has done it all, including Dancer, Musician, Actor and Style Icon. Just as impressive is how Madonna has sustained her career to age 57, a most recognizable fixed star in a constellation of wandering and dying stars.

 

Madonna’s Wikipedia page begins, ‘(1958–), US pop singer and actress; born Madonna Louise Ciccone. Albums such as Like a Virgin (1984) and her image as a sex symbol brought her international stardom in the mid-1980s’. That era sticks like unwanted glitter from a Princess and Unicorn party bag, despite Madonna’s pounding away ever since. A lifetime. How unreal does that get?

Recently reading an interview with ‘Noel Gallagher’, he was asked, “What have you been up to over the last couple of days?” and answered, “Kind of mooching around London, being brilliant. Just, you know, making people’s day when they bump into me… I’ve often wondered what it must be like to bump into me and I can only say from the fuc*ing joyous looks on people’s faces – I’d love to bump into me on a day out…[3]

 

Arguably Madonna has achieved her standing without a rarified voice, compared to contemporaries Whitney, Mariah or Susan Boyle. So, how has she done it?

I’ll return to the point.

 

Attending Madonna’s Melbourne concert on March 13, I felt the unease of a lapsed fan that, truth be told, knew a handful of songs after 1993. It had been 23 years since Madonna was in Melbourne. Back then, I pursued other interests, threw my lot in with ‘Guns n’ Roses’, at Calder Park, and shrugged ‘I’ll catch her next time’, in a few – not 23. The passage of time was motivation to see her now, just as lately I’ve seen the ‘ ‘Stones’, ‘Fleetwood Mac’, ‘Rodriguez’ and ‘KISS’ to tick them off.

 

The support act, ‘DJ Mary Mac’ wore a shirt that read “Bitch, I’m Madonna’s DJ” and sampled a wide cross-section of music, including ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (that had my toe tapping). ‘The lovely and indifferent one’ and I were joined by a friend who leaned in and asked, “Why am I watching someone playing records?” – Gen Xer.

 

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Madonna joked with the audience she’s always a little late and we waited an acceptably iconic 90 minutes for her to take the stage (I understand a couple of days later Brisbane waited between 2 and 3 hours; when waiting becomes flogging). ‘The lovely and indifferent one’ passed the time on social media, tweeting, “Hope you come on soon Madonna, the baby sitter needs to go home”, and was tweeted back, “Yup, that will make her rush right out. Enjoy the show.”

 

When Madonna appeared she was in a cage, launching into ‘Revolution’, ‘Iconic’ (including a startling image of Mike Tyson rapping on big screen) and then, from the current release ‘Rebel Heart’, her earworm tribute to, er… self, ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna’.

Actually, that’s one of a trilogy; the others are ‘Unapologetic Bitch’ and ‘Trust No Bitch’[4].

 

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The weekend before, I crammed for the concert by listening to ‘Rebel Heart’. My initial sense was these were well-crafted pop-dance songs, without making me feel what I felt for a Madonna song as teenager. In fairness, I don’t feel much of what I felt as a teenager and haven’t kept up with her sound over a number of albums.

A first beat of old, came with a stripped back and roughed up, ‘Burning Up’. Guitars and solid vocals made it a crowd pleaser, one of a few oldies to connect with a few oldies. The next song, ‘Holy Water’ included a piece of ‘Vogue’ and had much the same effect.

 

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(Burning Up)

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Then it was more recent product, ‘Devil Pray’, ‘Rockabilly Meets Tokyo’, ‘Messiah’ and ‘Body Shop’. Each song more stunningly presented than the last, with team-of-crack-dancer choreography, stage or screen imagery, a veritable cornucopia of moveable feast.      Stepping out to the bar briefly, I returned to acrobats on poles, like Cirque du Soleil.

 

Madonna playfully bantered with the crowd, reminding of a Cabaret host – funnier than expected, in relaxed and appreciative mood. Madonna referred to some ups and downs along the journey and how often the downs turn out to be pretty good for you (or her, I don’t know).

 

An acoustic ‘True Blue’ was the schmaltzy exception of the set, although crowd pleasing. ‘Deeper and Deeper’ and ‘Like a Virgin’ were also popular, before ‘Heartbreak City’ (with a ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ sample), ‘Latin/Gypsy’ and the very good ‘Living for Love’ from ‘Rebel Heart’.

 

The melody of ‘La Isla Bonita’ caught me off-guard, I had forgotten Madonna sang that one. Performed in front of a lone guitarist, flamenco-style dancing in matador-inspired costume, looking beautiful.

 

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(La Isla Bonita)

 

‘Take a Bow’, ‘Rebel Heart’, ‘Party’ and ‘Illuminati’ were followed by the renowned, ‘Music’ and ‘Material Girl’.

The final act was Cabaret, with ‘La vie en rose’ (Edith Piaf cover), ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ (for Marilyn) and ‘Fever’, before closing with ‘Unapologetic Bitch’ (lightly reggae) and ‘Holiday’ (encore).

 

 

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Listening to ‘Rebel Heart’ in the week following the concert, it impressed as a smooth, quality album (if not my preferred genre) that will continue to go unheard in the media. For some artists, mainstream media and radio are staunchly stuck in a time warp.

Rebel Heart’ was the narrative, theme and centerpiece of the concert and any nostalgia tightly fitted around. Like everybody, Madonna’s moved on and, on moving on, is an unapologetic … entertainer.

 

Personally, I thought the balance was right, evolution and not too much dipping into the back catalogue.

 

So, what is Madonna’s magic? How does she remain in the consciousness and on top?

 

Only Madonna knows, but to have a crack from the audience, I think the answer is somewhere in the magnitude of her ambition, her ability for renewal and the precision of her production. This was an elite theatrical integration of music, dance, imagery and sensation. Her history of pop-cultural influence is well known and well worn. Madonna today unceasingly raises the bar, still unique in an era of her imitators. An awkward teenage crush matures to respect.

 

 

[1] A proposition to reject, if didn’t like either.

[2] I noted after the show, Michael Jackson’s, ‘Do You Wanna Be Starting Something?’ played agreeably to the audience as they streamed out to public transport that had finished for the night.

[3] Chrisfield. B, “Wrong as Fu*k”, The Music (Bluesfest ed.), issue 113, 16.3.2016.

[4] 2 out of 3 performed.

About Paul Campbell

Lawyer, left footer. Loves the Hawks and follows a few U.S sports.

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