The day Madonna turned 19 — Aug. 16, 1977 — was the day Elvis Presley died, and there’s a certain symmetry to the coincidence.
She was still several years away from barnstorming the music world with her gummy dance hits and inimitable fashion and, subsequently, becoming one of the most provocative and popular pop-culture figures in the world. Sex, religion, music, politics: Nothing was spared her brazen iconoclasm or sacrilege.
In its artist biography of Madonna, Rolling Stone says: “Until she toned down her press-baiting behavior in the ’90s, she was the most consistently controversial (pop star) since Elvis Presley.”
She turned 54 this year, but Madonna hasn’t lost much lust for generating attention, if not controversy. And she is going to great lengths to avoid Elvis’ fate: becoming a caricature as his career drifted into its gloaming.
Tuesday night, Madonna performs for the first time ever in Kansas City, where she is bringing her extravagant MDNA Tour, a two-hour blitzkrieg of music, theater, dance and acrobatics. The tour opened May 31 in Tel Aviv, and it has generated several “incidents.”
At a show in Istanbul, Turkey, she bared one of her breasts. She has been sued twice — once by a group in Russia for a pro-gay speech she delivered in St. Petersburg and once by the National Front Party in France for a video shown during the tour that associates the party’s leader with Hitler and the Nazis.
At a show in Washington, D.C., she referred to President Barack Obama as a black Muslim. She later told the Washington Post: “Yes, I know Obama is not a Muslim — though I know that plenty of people in this country think he is. And what if he were? The point I was making is that a good man is a good man, no matter who he prays to.”
And she chafed some raw wounds at her show in Denver on Oct. 18, three months after 12 people were killed in a mass shooting at a theater in nearby Aurora. As she does at every show on the tour, during the song “Gang Bang,” Madonna and her entourage pointed fake weapons at the crowd and then shot several assailants.
She later issued a statement saying, “It’s true there is a lot of violence in the beginning of the show and sometimes the use of fake guns — but they are used as metaphors. ... they are symbols of wanting to appear strong and wanting to find a way to stop feelings that I find hurtful or damaging.”
It’s also worth noting that at nearly every stop on this tour, Madonna hasn’t taken the stage for her two-hour show until 10:30 p.m., long after the 8 p.m. starting time on the tickets, some of which cost more than $350. (If you’re hiring babysitters for this school-night show, take note.)
None of the above incidents seems anything worse than an act of insensitivity or poor taste. In fact, it seems that when it comes to true controversy or acts of deep offense or indelible sacrilege, the world has become desensitized since Madonna started baiting us with her music, videos and behavior. Others have since upped the ante in music (Marilyn Manson) and film (Quentin Tarantino), and there’s so much raw reality on the Internet.
Even exposure of a breast seems merely juvenile, a punch she was beaten to by Janet Jackson. Her performance during this year’s Super Bowl halftime was widely panned, notorious only because M.I.A flipped the bird.
The MDNA Tour is Madonna’s ninth; she has called it the “journey of a soul from darkness to light.” Reviews have been widely positive, mostly for the tour’s opulence and energy.
In the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot wrote: “(It) opened with an act of contrition and closed with a robed church choir paving the road to a celebration. In between there was fake blood, pretend guns, the return of the infamous conical bra, whiffs of sadomasochism and poison-tipped political commentary, as well as allusions to the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein, movies by Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick, Brecht-Weil cabaret, Asian mysticism, Cirque du Soleil-style tightrope acrobatics and Basque folk music.”
In his review of a show in Philadelphia, Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote, “Madonna and her team do know how to dazzle. Her male dancers bounced on web tightropes in slack-lining routines, twisted themselves in scary contortions and even wore some high heels. ‘Vogue’ placed Madonna at a decadent party with a chandelier overhead, surrounded by dancers in angular black-and-white costumes, while she struck her own poses in a latter-day remake of her old conical bra, now a black-ribbed exoskeleton.”
In 2012, rather than changing the game, Madonna is letting everyone know she’s still in it, out-ranking all the divas birthed in her wake, from Britney Spears and Beyonce to Katy Perry. She is overtly aware of the tide of popularity around Lady Gaga, who has become something of a rival. In several shows Madonna has made reference to Gaga, implying her imitation of the Queen of Pop borders on theft. She has been slipping the chorus of the Gaga hit “Born This Way” into “Express Yourself,” noting their similarities, then telling the crowd, “She’s not me.”
Two years ago, writer and social critic Camille Paglia took on Gaga in an essay in the London Sunday Times titled “Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex”: “Gaga has borrowed so heavily from Madonna that it must be asked, at what point does homage become theft? However, the main point is that the young Madonna was on fire. She was indeed the imperious Marlene Dietrich’s true heir.
“For Gaga, sex is mainly decor and surface; she’s like a laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture. Alarmingly, Generation Gaga can’t tell the difference. Is it the death of sex? Perhaps the symbolic status that sex had for a century has gone kaput; that blazing trajectory is over.”
Paglia has been a supporter/admirer of Madonna for decades. In 1990, she wrote an essay for the New York Times titled, “Madonna — finally a real feminist.” The essay focuses on the decadent “Justify My Love” video and its liberating, empowering themes.
“Madonna is the true feminist. She exposes the Puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode. Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time.”
Madonna was 32 then and truly on fire, about to launch the debauched “Blond Ambition Tour,” which prompted the Vatican to call for a boycott, and soon to release the “Erotica” album. Since then, she has become a Golden Globe-winning actress, a wife, a mother, a divorcee, a filmmaker.
And she has left a trail of controversy and infamy: the video for “American Life,” which was banned for anti-war themes; her lip-locked kiss with Spears at the MTV Video Music Awards; the fusillade of f-bombs released during an appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman”; her self-crucifixion in the “Live to Tell” video; the “Get Stupid” video, played during 2008’s “Sticky and Sweet Tour,” which showed images of Sen. John McCain, then a presidential candidate, with images of Hitler and Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.
Four years after that tour, she is back, with a new album, “MDNA,” that generated lukewarm reviews and a tour that is generating praise, if not raves. She is making it clear that this is not a “hits” tour and that she’s no heritage act, no Vegas theater performer living off her past.
The set list for the MDNA tour features nine of its 12 tracks, and a few of her hits have been dramatically rearranged. And that 10:30 p.m. starting time? An assertion that what she has to deliver is worth any wait.
In 2012, she may not be on fire or able to render the hype or ignite the controversy or stir the cultural pot like she used to. A new generation of divas may be on her heels, but the Madonna in the midst of her sixth decade has made something clear: The world around her can change all it wants to, but she’s not about to change along with it. The queen still reigns.