The first movie that I can ever remember watching that wasn’t specifically meant for children was Grease. If you know me at all, this probably won’t surprise you, but that movie was my favorite til I was about 15 years old and saw Pulp Fiction and Annie Hall for the first time. Grease is Problematic with a capital P — primarily the rampant misogynistic undercurrents throughout the whole film — but it’s not difficult to understand why so many folks love it — and musicals/musical theater more generally.
Good for you if you’re just naturally content and pleased with the exact presentation of your life, but for the rest of us, we’re insecure. We’re attracted to the idea of being bigger than ourselves. We want to be free of our anxieties and insecurities and hang-ups and fear. Danny Zuko is sensitive, masculine swagger defined. Sandy is the (and I apologize for this segway in advance) Madonna and the whore (not using that word derogatorily here. Just acknowledging that is precisely the archetypal dichotomy the film was going for) all in one by the end of the film. And that impossible amalgamation — at least when she first appeared on the scene in the early 80s — has always defined Madonna the pop icon.
Madonna is woman in the mythic sense. She is sex. She is vulnerability. She is power. She is control. She is pleasure. Someone will pipe in and say “well, what about her music?” It can be pretty f***Ing great too, but you can’t talk about Madonna’s music without also bringing up Madonna, the cultural legend. They are inextricably separated. Madonna has the mythic allure generally reserved for Beatles or members of the Forever 27 Club. And Madonna knows this. Are her 2000s/2010s albums as good as her 80s/90s output? F*** no. But at this point, that’s irrelevant. Madonna stopped by Brooklyn’s Barclays Center as the latest stop on her sold out Rebel Heart Tour and delivered nearly two and a half hours of pure sex, adrenaline, and fantasy. And even if I knew maybe four songs she played the whole night, I couldn’t deny the onslaught of sensory overload that kept my eyes glued to the stage from start to finish — well except for the bit where this incredibly intoxicated couple were breaking up and getting back together every ten minutes behind me. That was miserable.
If you’ve never been to one of Madonna’s recent concerts (and I hadn’t before that night), it’s like a Broadway show on Molly and the show’s being co-directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky and the showrunners of Game of Thrones. The show begins with an army of half-dressed men carrying enormous staves marching in military formation til Madonna descends from the rafters in a cage. This is Cirque Du Soleil for hedonistic American excess. There are men flying across the stage on hyper flexible pole vaults. Back-up dancers that are half-nun/half-stripper are gyrating against poles. There aren’t just costume changes (although there are a ton of those); there are major set changes including a body shop and an old style jazz stage and more minimalist production when it calls for it. Even if you don’t like Madonna’s music, a Madonna concert is worth it for stage production nerds that just have their minds boggled by the sheer logistics of the performance.
And that’s why we love Madonna. Nobody is arguing that the Madonna we’re seeing on stage is precisely who the real Madonna is but that’s not the point. She’s created a fantasy that we all need. She’s created a fantasy that helps us escape even momentarily the ever-crushing existential despair that is life. It’s why legions of women have loved her for 30 years. It’s why queer men have loved her for 30 years. She’s a radical blow against the cishet patriarchy because we don’t have to be defined by who we are or what society thinks we have to be. If this sounds like I didn’t engage with the music of the night, it’s cause I can’t. I didn’t know 80% of the songs she played. But I can’t stress enough how irrelevant that was to the whole Madonna experience. So, Madge, we salute you.