Madonna Celebrations Tour in SF: this is a bust

Maybe I’m just too grumpy; maybe I’m too old. I was tired, I don’t want to be up at midnight and waving my arms. Or maybe if the crowd had grown frenzied I would have too. But I don’t think so. I think you can only feel it if the performer really brings herself.

Michael and I went to the Madonna Celebrations tour this past Tuesday night, which was held in the Chase Center Stadium in San Francisco. Apparently, this stadium is capable of holding 18,000 people. That’s a lot of people, and probably the largest crowd of people I’ve ever gathered with in any indoor space, ever. There’s something kind of unreal about that.

But I’ll cut to the chase and say: it was, overall, a disappointing experience.

Here’s something that is true about music: it has a nearly unbelievable ability to connect people— spiritually, politically, emotionally. Listening to some bits of music is like surgery ripping your heart out. Other bits of music summon you. I can’t think of much else that can bring you into your own memories, into tears, into the poignancy of feeling understood deeply, all within 60 seconds. A lot of visual art moves me, and then I think about it. But a lot of music doesn’t make me think, it makes me feel. 

I read once that the music that hits you in your adolescence just sort of cements itself into your soul in a special way, that the novelty and your development together mean that there will always be a special place in your heart for this particular music.

Madonna’s “True Blue” album found me at just that kind of vulnerable moment. La Isla Bonita was an anthem of imagining for me, what it means to fantasize and remember something at the same time, an evocative “and when the samba played, the sun would set so high” — a Spanish lullaby. That’s really the only album I know, so I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Madonna fan. On the other hand, Michael never shied from calling himself that, so he was happy to splurge $$ carry ourselves to San Francisco, and splurge on the time to indulge a concert that was set to begin at 8:30 pm.

Of course, we knew it wouldn’t begin at 8:30. When we arrived, I asked the ticket taker if he knew anything about the timing, and he helpfully answered, “she’s saying that she’ll come on at 9:30, but it could be as late as 9:45.” 

I don’t want to seem like a grumpy old lady, but why not print the time it actually will begin? If Madonna wants to perform at 9:30, no problem, but why not just say that? For what reason did I need to spend an hour buying things or sitting down and waiting?

Actual start time: 10:00 pm. So more like 90 minutes, and by the time it started, I would have been satisfied for it to end.

Maybe this is exciting, I don’t know. I’m old, and so was the rest of the audience. People who love Madonna over her 40-year career are old, and old people don’t love staying up late the way their younger selves once did. Why not respect your audience?Madonna is groundbreaking in her acknowledgment of rights of people who don’t always get full shrift: women, sexual women, gay and trans people, atheists— how is it not more widely understood that time is an equity issue, and that people at different life stages don’t all move to the same daily rhythm? 

Well, if I want to start by saying that the concert didn’t understand its audience very well, maybe it didn’t understand very well what Madonna was either.

The heart of a concert, and the reason that people pay a lot of money, is (I think) to draw close to their beloved performer. It’s why people pay more to be inches closer, and it’s why everyone at every distance values being in the same room. A live performance offers a glimpse behind the production value. It’s the thrill of watching how the performer responds in unscripted ways, the pauses, the things that won’t be edited out.

We were sitting up pretty far away from the action, and Michael worried that we’d be too far away to see well.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “There will be big screens. The only point of being closer is to see if you can sort of match up the little dot with the action on the screen.” We’d still be in the room to see what happened. We’d be close.

But this was a concert without closeness. There weren’t just screens, there were highly produced screens that split the difference between watching a music video and watching a concert. Every song was its own universe of production value. There were elevator-like things where Madonna performed from overhead, there were rotating prisons on the stage, there were massive sets that changed every song, there were platforms and videos and up-close shots and an entire live cabinet at the back of the stage that looked like a war room.

We were inside of a music video, and one blaring at over 100 decibels, which for the record is a good 10,000 times louder than our dinner table, which is very very loud. 

But I didn’t experience any of this as exciting, or enhancing to my experience of seeing Madonna. I felt like it was all additional insulation, putting cheap thrills in between me and the performer. There was no Madonna to be had at this concert, there was only the image of her, developed, rehearsed, cultivated, and projected onto a screen.

Was I alone in this assessment?

Let me offer this in partial support: several times, various other people- and even Madonna herself — would gesture their arms, asking the audience to clap in the rhythms, asking the 18,000 people there to come together and make a noise, together, to come together, to be part of the event.

The response was lackluster. 

Here’s what I think:

I think that nobody likes to be cast in a music video. The high production value distracted the audience from the performer. Oddly, I felt like she was more intimately singing to me on her old albums than she was there, right in front of me. She was starring in a Madonna show, but she was not performing for us so much as she was staging an event. I didn’t want more songs, I wanted more Madonna.

There were some parts of the show that were undeniably interesting. At the beginning of what the Wikipedia set list calls “Act III,” she opened with Like A Prayer, and the staging was a very intriguing performance art piece. There was like a rotating carousel on stage, with dozens of framed windows spinning around, and in each one a shirtless male dancer. In sync, they performed a kind of crucifixion, with gymnastic moves that evoked the torture and sinuous romance of Jesus on the Cross. It was mesmerizing, interesting, a beautiful ballet. Meanwhile, Madonna was hooded by three black-robed priests swinging incense, led along the stage, headed….somewhere.

It was too frenetic to take in all of the imagery, but it occurred to me that Madonna has always done very interesting things in the space of religion, spirituality, Catholicism and married it to deep sensuality and sexuality. There’s a lot to be said about what she did, and I felt like I was in a moving modern art piece that I couldn’t fully absorb. At the same time, it’s only by referencing the wikipedia article that I could even remember what song was playing at the time. (There were so many recorded backup vocals— am I right or wrong to be suspicious that a good chunk of this concert was actually blaring pre-recorded and not live music?)

But shortly after that was my favorite, and perhaps only good part of the show. 

The moment, the song, doesn’t appear on the set list, so it at least appeared to be added in for just this night. I won’t say it was unplanned, but it was un-enhanced.

Madonna took a moment where it was just her on the stage. No pyrotechnics around her. There was just her, and the cameraman in front of her, putting her visage in front of us. With a microphone loud enough to be heard in the heavens, she pleaded for “these difficult times, when innocent children were being killed.” I looked over at Michael because despite the fact that violence threatens children all around the world, it’s political now, and I was afraid for a moment, him wearing his kippah. And she said, “and kidnapped,” and I realized: it’s impossible to say anything now that can just read as wanting the violence to stop, and she was trying.

She said something like, “you all know,” and then frustrated said “I’m not the news!”  She wanted to be saying: this is hard, people. Our world is broken. And then she sang her truth, all slow-like, “express yourself” and I felt like she was saying: you can only do what you can do, but you should do that. And that’s why I felt she was, finally, singing to us: using her voice, her instrument, to bridge the gap between us, between all of us.

She said, “you all have phones, take them out,” and like lightning bugs popping out of mid-air on a summer evening, everyone pulled out these amazing machines in our pockets. I stopped looking at the stage, looking at the screen, and looked around in awe at the thousands of people around me. Little flashlights, lit up together, and it really was chilling to see thousands of little lights go on.

I felt part of something, part of this call to be bigger and better, and I think that’s what she really wanted to say all along. And I wish she could just be comfortable, as a 65-year-old woman, to say, “I’ve had this big career and I’ve done stuff, and also, I’m not Taylor Swift, and you all might have paid big money for these tickets, but still, I am who I am.” But it didn’t last, and after that moment, the highly stage pyrotechnics came back, even though the clock had rolled over and it was a new day, and one in which I would have rather been sleeping. We left right after that, streaming out with plenty of other people who had passed their bedtimes, their tolerance, or their preferred decibel levels.

And it made me feel a little bit sad because many years ago, I went to a Paul Simon concert where he was a speck and I watched him on the big screen behind him, but he mostly did hold a guitar and talk and sing to us, and I went home happy.

Was that because it was twenty years ago and you could still do that? Or is it because he’s a man and he doesn’t have to be sexy to sing?

I don’t need to watch an old lady look like a sex symbol and fake masturbate on stage and it’s not because she’s old that I don’t want to; it’s because it didn’t feel honest.

Maybe I’m just too grumpy; maybe I’m too old. I was tired, I don’t want to be up at midnight and waving my arms. Or maybe if the crowd had grown frenzied I would have too. Or maybe if we’d paid even more we could have been amidst the true fans and we might have gotten swept away, or maybe the stage exploding in fire would have been more thrilling if we could have been close enough to feel the heat.

But I don’t think so. I think you can only feel it if the performer really brings herself. I think she knew she wasn’t doing that, maybe she thought she had to do this, or maybe she wanted to. Maybe she didn’t want to do the concert at all, and she was as begrudging a participant as I was. Or maybe her moment has passed, a star gone out and we’re just watching the old light still making its way over to earth. Who knows.

What I do know is that if she came to town, and you blinked, and you missed it, don’t worry— really, you missed nothing at all.

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