On 10 March 2016, Madonna surprised her Australian fans with a one-off concert called “Madonna: Tears of a Clown”. Unlike the other concerts associated with the Rebel Heart Tour, this show didn’t feature any backup dancers, costume changes, or elaborate set pieces. Instead, it had Madonna, dressed as a clown, singing her most intimate songs and ad libbing to the small audience at Melbourne’s Forum Theater.
When Madonna walked on stage to greet the crowd, she described the show as a work in progress, and promised that she would disappoint those looking for perfection. The Rebel Heart Tour this was not, she reiterated.
And she was right. The show was imperfect, and at times, Madonna’s thoughts seemed scattered and her timing a little off. However, it’s also Madonna’s most interesting artistic statement in years.
Naturally, the mainstream press didn’t get it. A number of reporters speculated that she was drunk during the show, a claim Madonna angrily debunked on social media. (“Madonna says Playing Character, not Drunk, in Australia Show“, by Jill Sergjeant, Reuters, 150 March 2016) The media has always misunderstood Madonna. They take her too seriously when she’s being silly, but at the same time, never treat her like an artist with something to say.
In the ‘90s, to provide just one example, Madonna was heavily criticized for her Erotica period. She had always been provocative, but many felt that her sexual expressions had gone too far. She was called a slut, and the unfortunate narrative that plagues many female stars — that she’s only famous for showing her body — spread like wildfire. What the press failed to understand at the time, and continue to miss to this day, is that Madonna was playing a character.
The first words of “Erotica”, the album’s lead single, are clear enough: “My name is Dita, I’ll be your mistress tonight”. The song is meant to be a playful commentary on sexual expression, but rather than call attention to Madonna’s alter-ego, the press assumed that it was she who was the whore. When Madonna had children years later, many worried that she would be an unfit mother, and often cited “Erotica” as a reason for their concerns. Little did they know that she was playing around.
There’s no doubt that Madonna still has the ability to be creative, but if there’s one thing that’s lacking in her most recent tours, it’s a grand artistic statement. The Sticky and Sweet Tour, for example, was a blast from start to finish, but it lacked the inventiveness of the Drowned World Tour. The Rebel Heart Tour was entertaining enough, but it had Madonna going through the motions, as if she needed to do the concert to fulfill a contractual obligation. This show was different. Madonna had something to say, and she wanted the world to know it.
Madonna portrayed the sad clown for a night. The audience laughed at her absurdity until they realized that she was expressing the pain inside her soul.
Or was she? That’s the thing with Madonna. We never can tell if she’s serious or not. Is this show, the most intimate of Madonna’s long career, a vulnerable cry for help and understanding, or is Madonna just screwing with us, as she often does? I couldn’t tell, and that’s what was brilliant about it.
In one of the show’s most talked about moments, Madonna performed her song “Intervention” and dedicated it to her son Rocco. It was Madonna exposed, letting us experience her emotional pain. For those who don’t know, Madonna has been involved in a custody battle over Rocco with her ex-husband Guy Ritchie.
There’s a strong possibility that Madonna was trolling us. Of course she loves her son, but maybe this was less about her pain and more about the press’ exploitation of her pain. As the show got more intimate with each song and personal anecdote, a disturbing thought crept into my mind: what if it was meant to be a joke?
It’s not unreasonable. Madonna is one of the first pop stars to call attention to the genre’s inauthenticity. Known for reinventing her image with each new project, she constantly reminded us that it was all fiction. Unlike most pop artists who present a carefully crafted image to the public and then pretend it’s who they really are (Taylor Swift comes to mind), Madonna was never shy about confronting the artifice of her image(s).
Even the show’s theme is suspect. Everyone knows about the sad clown cliché, and Madonna surely wouldn’t incorporate that concept into her art without some kind of ironic twist. This is troubling to come to terms with precisely because Madonna was so candid on stage, sharing stories about her son, her failed marriage to Sean Penn, and her career in general.
I’m reminded of her iconic documentary concert film Madonna: Truth or Dare (1992), in which she provides us with a backstage pass to her Blonde Ambition Tour. This is Madonna at her most revealing, complete with a brief flash of her breasts.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that Madonna had control over the final product. The Madonna we see on screen is the one she wants us to see, and we’ll never know what she’s really like when the cameras are off.
That’s what’s so fascinating about her art. The most famous pop star in the world needed some anonymity, and the only way she was able to get it was by presenting a version of herself to the masses. This version may not be the real woman, but it was enough to satisfy the die-hard fans who hang on to her every word as if it were gospel, not knowing that she may not mean anything she says.
“Madonna: Tears of a Clown” has the potential to represent a transitional point in the pop star’s career. After decades of spectacle, Madonna may pull a Marlene Dietrich and spend the rest of her career in intimate clubs singing slow songs and telling stories about her life.
Or then again, maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll put out another pop album in a few years featuring the most in-demand producers, and sell out another tour complete with a by-the-numbers dance extravaganza. If that’s the case, “Madonna: Tears of a Clown” will always be remembered as the time she decided to step out of her comfort zone and try something different, even if it’s still unclear what, exactly, she was going for.