Poor Madge. It must be tough, constantly reinventing oneself, and even tougher to keep those reinventions feeling “new.” But that’s one of the things that has always been captivating about La Madonna, her ability to always seem so fresh, so “cutting edge.” Say what you will about her, one thing is certain, if nothing else, Madonna has consistently provided (whether in concert, video or album — let’s forget for a moment that she has a film career) something like originality. Even when she has directly ripped off subcultures — like the Harlem Drag Ball circuit for “Vogue” or the pumped-up techno-culture of rave for Ray of Light— the product she offers up to market, so prettily produced and packaged, usually has a sense of urgency, of “newness.”
Alas, this is largely untrue of Madge’s hyper-hyped new tour, and its televisual incarnation, HBO’s Madonna Live: Drowned World 2001.
First, let’s get the obvious criticisms of her live voice out of the way. We all know she isn’t the most gifted singer in the world, and shouldn’t expect too much from her live. This is particularly manifest in the first few numbers of Drowned World, especially on “Impressive Instant,” from her album Music. The song has a relatively broad range and when Madonna tries to hit its lowest notes, they are as flat as a pancake. And the silly electronic effects as she sings, “I like to singy, singy, singy/Like a bird on the wingy, wingy, wingy,” are as annoying as the lyrics are dopey. It’s unclear why she would choose to go solo on these first few numbers before bringing in back-up singers Niki Harris and Donna DeLory, two very talented women who have been saving her ass in concert since at least the Who’s That Girl tour (that’s when I first remember seeing them).
Maybe Madonna’s willingness to sing without backup here is part and parcel of her more recent desire to be taken as a “serious” musician, demonstrated by her recent decision to learn to play the guitar. For the past year, she has been announcing all over the place (Letterman, for example) that she has done this, and Drowned World is her first chance to showcase her new “skill.” Well… let’s just say her guitar playing is on a par with her vocal prowess and leave it at that. At least she recognizes her own limitations and wisely backs herself up with talented singers and musicians.
But so what if she doesn’t sound so hot live? Isn’t it really all about the show? The costumes, choreography, scandalous tableaux, controversial themes, and grand symbolic gestures have always been the heart of Madonna’s live performances, whether in sold-out arenas or on MTV awards shows. Against these theatrical excesses, her musical or vocal shortcomings have hardly mattered. Here they do matter, though, primarily because of Drowned World‘s theatrical failures. The costumes are mostly lame and the styles and themes Maddie mines for inspiration are totally derivative.
It’s not until the last third of the show, when she gets all cow-girly to perform “Don’t Tell Me,” that the show scores some points for fun. Madonna’s camping on Western iconography is totally sexy. Furthermore, it’s interesting that this new stylistic incarnation has come after her emigration to Great Britain: perhaps Madonna as cowgirl is a function of ironic nostalgia for the country she has left behind. Other than this number, however, there is precious little that you might call “fresh.” (The two best moments come during the two songs she performs that predate Ray of Light — a flamenco-inspired “La Isla Bonita” and a pimped-out, Detroit ghetto-style “Holiday.”)
For the first third of the show, Madonna and company are all decked out in neo-punk plaids, tattered jeans, clunky black boots, and torn-up fishnets. (Torn-up fishnets? Been there before.) Why add gas masks to the punkish dancers as they cavort across the stage? Is it a commentary on the re-emergence of youth political activism in the wake of Seattle, Washington DC, and Genoa, Italy demonstrations? Or is it just grasping for a new sexual fetish? While I would like to think these stylistics gesture towards the former, I fear they are merely the latter. Gas-masked punks are less “deviant” or “progressive,” than merely ho-hum. With neo-punk bands like Blink-182, Sum 41, and Alien Ant Farm all over Total Request Live, Madonna’s punk look is hardly “avant garde.”
The themes of the middle part of Drowned World are the show’s biggest disappointment. Here your Madonna appears as geisha and warrior princess, a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In fact, the show goes so far as to copy directly several of the more recognizable scenes from Ang Lee’s powerhouse film, for instance, the scene where the young princess twirls several stories straight up into the air: Madonna goes spinning like a pop-up into the fly-space above the stage, and karate-chops her way through a group of “bad guy” dancers.
This middle section is also where La Madonna attempts to inject some controversy into the proceedings, but she comes off as surprisingly irresponsible. After she kicks her way through the bad guys, images flash on a huge video screen behind her while she sings about decaying bodies and such from some song I didn’t recognize. The images on screen show Madonna bloodied and bruised. One eye nearly swollen shut, blood trailing from one nostril, the Madonna on screen wipes the blood across her still immaculately made up face with the back of her hand, with an inscrutable smirk on her face. Meanwhile, the Madonna on stage pulls out a prop shotgun and shoots the one remaining dancer on stage “dead.”
Considering some of Maddie’s recent video work, like “What It Feels Like For a Girl” and the BMW.com film “The Star,” both, of course, directed by her Guy, the violence depicted here might be an extension of her ruminations on the relationships of gender to violence or violence and/as eroticism. But that hardly excuses what seems to me to glamorize violence against women. How else are we to read the video images of the beaten Madonna? Why else make those images so polished and alluring? In the past year, Madge has gone to bat for rapper Eminem, defending his right to express himself through violent, homophobic, and misogynist lyrics. As she puts it, one of the responsibilities of art is to comment on social conditions, and Em is only reflecting on and reflective of the violence, misogyny, and homophobia of U.S. culture. Agreed. The difference between Em’s lyrical violence against women and Madonna’s battered video self-portraits is that in Em’s songs, violence against women is always nasty, ugly, and despicable (contrary to those who would claim he “glorifies” it), unlike the video-screen Madonna of Drowned World, who is bloodied and bruised but nevertheless glamorous.