Two hours to save the world
(Images courtesy of Fidel Lirio)
It was that classic "Blond Ambition Tour" jacket -- the black nylon baseball-style one featuring a gold crown with ruby encrusted cross and fleurs-de-lis with a giant M in the center over the name Madonna -- that I honed in on, on the back of a 40-something Madonna fan, who passed me en route to his seat at Oracle Arena last Saturday night for the first of two sold-out Oakland shows on the singer's highly-successful "Sticky & Sweet Tour."
Between the jacket that I never had and the pouring rain outside, I was transported back to 1990 Japan for the opening of the "Blond Ambition Tour" on a thunderous April night, when Japanese concert-goers raced into Marine Stadium at Makuhari, just outside Tokyo -- an inauspicious beginning as the oppressive rain and winds demanded that the show's elaborate costumes be scaled back to simple tights and the aforementioned nylon tour jackets.
While my recollection of that night may seem sharp, it lends proof to the theory that if you remember certain events then you weren't actually there, and I unfortunately wasn't.
But I did watch the scene play out over and over again in the tour's concert film "Truth or Dare" which I saw a total of five times in theaters, and probably 50 times on video, along with full-length bootleg versions of the concert, and of course the closing night in Nice, televised on HBO.
The show not only featured sufficient singing, skilled dance numbers, and avant-garde costumes, but also told a thought-provoking narrative which offered metaphorical messages about the evils of sexism, homophobia, religious and racial oppression, and the dangers of unprotected sex -- and most importantly, the hope that we, as a society, could overcome them. No other singer had ever put on a "concert" with so much depth, and I don’t believe that anyone has since.
In fact I'd seen the highly-controversial presentation so many times that I often feel as if I were there. But I wasn't.
It would actually take another 11 years before I ever saw Madonna in concert for the "Drowned World Tour" and twice more at the "Reinvention Tour" and the "Confessions Tour." No matter how stellar the shows have been and how fortunate I've felt to have attended them, I still feel that with each tour I'm trying to get at a show that will never be recreated, because Madonna, the Mercurial Girl, can't ever go home again.
Times have also changed, too, thanks to the Divine Miss M, whose art brought much-needed understanding of, and subsequently more tolerance towards oppressed groups, thereby altering society's social ladder -- forever.
When asked in an interview almost a decade later what she had left to accomplish, Madonna noted the social progress that she sparked and said that she thinks that her work, for the most part, is already done. But that was during Clinton's administration.
Most of us would agree that as soon as Bush took office, we've only gone backwards in certain regards as our hard-won rights and even our livelihoods have been challenged at every turn. Consequently, Madonna, ever the mother, who mothers because she never felt mothered, has become progressively more political, taking it upon herself to save the world, from her "American Life" album onwards.
Today, there is no stopping her as she fights to stop the War, raise spiritual and cultural awareness, end environmental destruction, and famine and AIDS in Africa.
All of these causes were tackled with renewed vigor on the Bay Area stop of her "Sticky and Sweet Tour" this past weekend. Amid four acts: "Pimp," which melds contemporary urban with 20's deco, "Old School," an homage to early 80's NYC, "Gypsy," which blends Latin and folk gypsy culture, and "Rave," a futuristic, eastern-inspired dance event; and video guest appearances from the likes of Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams and Britney Spears, Madonna definitely delivered with impressive vocals on nine tracks from her latest release "Hard Candy" and popular classic songs such as "Vogue" "La Isla Bonita" and "Ray of Light," along with improved dance routines.
Unlike her last couple tours where her moves appeared more like yoga poses – when she wasn't hiding behind her dance crew – this time around Madonna gets back to basics: highly technical club dancing performed with seeming effortlessness.
While her guitar-rock performances of "Human Nature" and "Borderline" seemed to rob the tracks of all danceability, her paired down performance of "You Must Love Me," complete with poignant clips from "Evita" for which she won a Golden Globe, was heartfelt and an excellent demonstration of how her vocals have only ripened with age; and her more than rousing rendition of "Like a Prayer" even took disbelievers to church.
While certain interludes from a back-up dancer boxing match to a traditional Japanese dance presentation by a kimono-clad duo may have been too conceptual, Madonna's own performance of "She's Not Me," where she attacks dancers, representing her earlier incarnations, is clear; and her haunting performance of the trip hopped- "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You" off "Hard Candy" atop a piano in a shape-shifting, monk-like hooded coat is still emblazoned in my memory.
A memorable moment from the final portion of the show involved a guitar-in-hand Madonna’s decision to consider audience requests for her next song. When one front row fan shouted "Justify My Love," Madonna turned him down with the hilarious retort, "No, that song is just talking and fucking." Less funny was the strummy rendition of "Like a Virgin" that followed, which came off as so uninspired that it may as well have been performed by a bad bar band playing for beer.
But I think the singer would rather leave her audience remembering her "Get Stupid" video interlude, which flashed images of McCain, Hitler and Mugabe; and Gandhi, Gore and Obama, as well as an assault of gruesome images of world suffering, from war and famine to animal slaughter and diseased children, that is far too hard-hitting for a pop concert.
Whereas on the "Blond Ambition Tour" Madonna presented social commentary through metaphorical performance worthy of New York's acclaimed Alvin Ailey Dance Company, where she got her start, she now beats us over the head with major political crises that even she can't solve.
Believe me, I would love nothing more than to believe that she can or that we can end all world conflicts. Part of the reason I continue to attend Madonna shows to this very day is to be inspired; but I’m not 12 anymore, as I was in 1990, and after two major wars and eight years of Bush, I know I never will be again. Still, that doesn’t stop me from putting on my old Breathless Mahoney t-shirt from time to time and trying.