Madonna, The Spectacle, Part I: shock and … er …

 So Husband and I went to see Madonna at her first-ever performance in the Gulf region.  She played Abu Dhabi for two nights; the second stop on her world tour. Her first stop? Tel Aviv.

And yes, the Israeli-Arabic connection was deliberate on her part: she told her Israeli audience that they can’t be her fans if they don’t work for peace, in the Middle East and in the world.  She didn’t say that in Abu Dhabi, maybe because she realized there were very few Arabs in the audience. Or maybe there were Emiratis in the audience, secreted up in the skyboxes behind smoked glass, where they were shielded from the beer-drinking, skin-baring expat audience “sitting” (read: standing) in the general admission sections.

When Husband and I stopped at the t-shirt stall, I was looking for a shirt that said “I am here ironically,” but can you believe it, they didn’t have one.

The booth was sold out of the only shirt that was specific to Abu Dhabi, which a person might want for the curiosity factor.  A person probably wouldn’t want the shirt in this picture because one might not want Madonna’s perfect face stretched across one’s less-than-perfect torso. Spreading her mug across one’s muffintop seems wrong, somehow, like wearing Louboutins to pick up the kids at school.

But here’s the thing about the t-shirt: Madge, god bless her, is about 53 years old. She’s almost eligible for those early enrollment AARP cards. At 53, she can totally pull off the powerful, beautiful, Dietrich-esque look of the face in this image. But the ingenue-ish finger crooked in the corner of her mouth, as if to say “who me, sexy?” And the bed-head hair, tousled just so? Does she (or whomever took this picture) really think her faux-sexy-innocence is pushing some kind of envelope?  (And…er…did no one dare suggest to Her Madgesty that her pose here seems way more reminiscent of Mike Myers doing Dr. Evil than it is of Innocent Schoolgirl?)

I’ve never been to a Madonna concert before – or rather, a Madonna show, a Madonna spectacle. So much to look at: Catholic iconography, half-naked men, ginormous video screens that frequently featured Madonna’s ginormous face, guns, drums, cheerleaders, choirboys, men in gas masks…And while I appreciated the spectacular-ness of the spectacle, I got spectacled-out. Too much to look at, too much happening, and none of it adding up to much more than: Madonna wants us to know that she still kicks ass.

And she does kick ass, I guess, or kind of. I mean, good lord, the woman could snap me in two like a twig; she’s strong as hell and can dance like a sumbitch. She takes Gloria Steinem’s comment about Ginger Rogers – that she did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels – and raises the bar about eight inches, the height of her heels through most of her numbers.  Sixty seconds of one of her routines would leave most of us ordinary mortals on the floor screaming for mercy.

So okay, Madge, we get it. You’re one tough cookie. But does that mean you have to stride out after your opening number – in which the video screens show stained glass windows shattering, crosses crumbling, and so forth – and say “Hellooooo Abu Dhabi!” while toting a submachine jauntily over one shoulder?  Didn’t you do all that anti-Catholic stuff with “Like a Prayer” and the gun stuff in “American Life?” Plus that, it seems pretty clear that really the opening line was “Hellooo insert city name here” – we could’ve been in any sweaty outdoor performance venue, really. Inside the arena Madonna and her crew had created an entirely secular space: I saw more exposed flesh last night in the audience of the show than I’ve seen in ten months of living in Abu Dhabi.

But.

But we are in the Middle East, which as Madge herself said at the show in Tel Aviv, has been the site of bloody conflicts for generations. So the spectacle that accompanied her new song “Gang Bang” became really disturbing – but not disturbing in an “oh wow that’s really edgy and daring” sort of way but in an “oh good lord woman really?” sort of way. The chorus of the song is “bang bang shot you dead shot my lover in the head bang bang shot you dead now i have no regret.”  Accompanying these lines were scenes of Madge being attacked by masked intruders and shooting them in the head with a revolver while blood splattered and drooled across the video screens behind her. Over and over and over.  She shot her lovers very athletically; there was lots of dancing and writhing, but then: bang bang, and bang bang, and bang bang. And blood, blood, blood.

Okay so, yeah, transgressive violence, yeah yeah, women taking power into their own hands, hooray hooray, but really? Empowerment in the shape of a rifle? Especially in this part of the world where armed violence has caused such profound damage…that is the opening she chose for a concert that is supposed to promote peace?  Madonna-philes would say that contradictions like these (Dietrich & ingenue; peace & violence) are the source of Madonna’s continued attraction, and maybe that’s right.

Or you could say that once you’ve done “Vogue,” and “Express Yourself,” and “Truth or Dare,” and on and on…you’ve used up your shock value; you’ve used up the power of disconcerting juxtapositions. The entire show felt a bit like watching a live-action music video and left me with perhaps the most disconcerting Madonna emotion of all:

I was bored.

For Part II about the Madonna show – Madge, Gaga, and… Dolly? – click here

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