Sunday, November 26, 2006

TV Review: Confessing to no talent

Wednesday night, NBC aired their second music special of the week. Though many believe the performer's hit making days are far behind, it's also true that the special was based on Madonna's huge money making tour. Tony Bennett was reduced to an hour but NBC carved out two full hours for Madge.

As the first hour dragged on, we realized several things. First, we grasped that Madonna's returning to her inner pre-adolescence. The clue there was her obsession with horses -- male dancers had saddles strapped to their backs, Madonna carried a riding crop and at one point was on a merry-go-round horse attempting some sort of pole dance which mainly consisted of rubbing her crotch against the pole -- and the 'lyrics' to her new songs which feature all the 'insight' that only a twelve-year-old locked in her room doodling horses in a spiral notebook can provide. She's been "The Material Girl," she's been "The Spiritual Girl" and these days she appears to be "The Stunted Girl."

The special was billed as Madonna: The Confessions Tour and "the confession" appears to be: "I have never had any talent and now I don't even know how to market myself." We felt it should have been billed as Jerk: De Old Lay.

How bad was it? During the second hour, as we saw all she had to offer these days, we phoned a friend to ask, "You really put your cock into that?"

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Going in, a friend, who thinks the world of Madonna and considers her a friend, warned us not to expect much from Madonna's dancing. The rumor is the knees aren't holding up and the days of the high impact dancing she made her name with are long over.

If true, we could accept that. She's not a singer, she's not a beauty, she's not an actress, she's not British (the faux accent was not on display) and she's no longer a hit maker so it's sad that she's no longer a dancer but no one's immune to the laws of gravity.

We weren't surprised when she didn't do any real dancing. We were, however, appalled that she couldn't even handle the catwalk. In the second hour, she attempts to 'work the runway' and you could hang out at a truck stop for hours and not come across more graceless lumbering.
What the hell happened?

We're told that's partly a "creative decision" -- the concert's supposed to blend Thwarp and Fosse but really comes off like Hymn to the Rhythmically Challenged and Graceless choreographed by Corky St. Clair. More importantly, it comes off like the work of someone who has nothing left in her.

Madonna's interested in the Resurrection. You grasp that not only when an imposing cross drawfs the stage but when the music plays throughout. Someone's explained to Madge that disco died. They just forgot to pass on that it died for a reason. Had they done so, she might still top the charts.

The fear, for many, with Madonna was that, at age 80, she'd still be slithering across the stage, in her panties. After "Justify My Love," Erotica, dripping wax on a bound Willem Dafoe in Body of Evidence and the Sex book, that fear seemed valid for some. Us, we would have preferred that she pursue that track. It would have been interesting. Instead, the same fawning and thoughtless critics that led her to believe she was gifted and talented, stage managed her into something else: boring.

That's pretty much all she's been now for over a decade. Boring.

We blame the critics who applauded her 'soft' side move.

They're the 'thinkers' that were seeing 'meaning' where there was none for most of Madonna's career. (In better days, Madonna laughed and sneered at them. Choosing to embrace them has killed any excitement in her career.) They're the type who, as early as the Who's That Girl tour were seeing 'empowerment' in the performance of "Live To Tell" where, for the song's ending, Madonna slumps then stands erect. They penned over-thought, embarrassing praise like this:

". . . a pose that suggest surrender and desolation, and then . . . as if recovering her strength and courage through an act of titantic will . . ." (We'll be kind and not name the 'author' of that crap.) People, she just stood up. The really bad rewrite of Joni Mitchell (lyrics) with the drone that would dominate in her later music had come to an end. She needed to do something on stage. (Another nitwit saw in that brief moment the battle against AIDS. We'll spare you his tripe.)

It was that kind of crap that led her away from actual songs ("Cherish," "Like a Prayer," "Holiday," "Angel," "Dress You Up," etc.) into what she is today: 'inspirational.'

With her more recent work (heavily on display in the concert NBC broadcasts) grafting banal lyrics onto the never ending wump-wump beat of a drone, some saw the influence of the Kabbalah. While she does now repeatedly present herself as the modern day Aimee Semple McPherson -- it's Church of the Madonna. Don't blame Kabbalah, these days it's all about her.

There was a time when that might have made for an interesting tour and, certainly in the past, she's been able to mount stage shows that grappled with the tensions between sexuality and spirituality, conventionalality and iconoclast. These days, she's just another boring celebrity and who would have ever thought you could say that about Madonna?

Sister Madge's following eats it up, they pay hundreds for a ticket and (due to ticket pricing more than anything) the last two tours have been seen as financially successful. Anything resembling art (even pop art) long ago left the building, but there are people across the country, around the world, willing to waste a couple of hundred to listen to her dither on, with the drone behind her, about how tough it is to be Madonna.

It's a specialized audience, a niche one, and possibly TV's become so segmented that even the big three can chase after the niche these days? We don't think so. And we don't think her Thanksgiving special offered much of anything.

Or at least, not anything of use. If you needed confirmation that she's not pretty, you got it.

People have long wondered why is it that she doesn't come across on the big screen? She has no eyes. In film terms, she has no eyes. That's why she passes for pretty when she closes or hoods them but repells (on the big screen) when they're wide open. Eyes are very important in film, they have to draw audiences in. If they do, you're Paul Newman, if they don't, you're Julia Ormond.

Along with settling the fact that she's not beautiful, she also may have shocked a few who dropped out (as many have in the last years) -- the body is gone. The shoulder development that upstaged Ricky Martin at the Grammys in the 90s is somewhat still there but the upper arms are flabby to the point that, should she be cast in another movie role, her big line should be "Want some cream corn?" as she dishes out food in the cafeteria of some teen sex-comedy.

The trunk's rather disturbing as well, it continues to thicken. Now most with that problem wouldn't wear a white body suit with stripes running across the hips, but when your Sister Madge, apparently no one tells you how laughable you look in that ensemble.

Just like they don't tell you that your hair looks greasy (not shiny) and limp and lifeless and it's the sort of 'style' you might expect on a 70s porn queen but not on someone who fancies themselves the artist of their time.

If it seems bad taste or vulgar to dwell so much on her appearance, the special was vulger as well. In fact, the first hour contained the f-word repeatedly. This was when she highlighted three dancers. They made awkward moments, each one, in their solo spots. There was a White man who spoke about how his father tried to strangle him when he was a kid but it was love -- check the empowerment and common sense at the door when entering the Church of the Madonna. Then a woman seemed to be babbling on about self-mutiliation but who knows? Last up was an African-American male.

Madonna's had a much more difficult time with the African-American community than some in the White world realize. They seem to think that because she's had a string of dance hits, back in the day, that she must be beloved. That's not really ever been the case. Some of the strong (and apt) critism of her Blond Ambition Tour should be dogging The Confessions Tour.

The African-American male with the solo spot detonates the f-bomb repeatedly, because he's 'real,' you understand. He's talking about gang-banging and drive bys and using words like 'homies.' How out of it is Madonna that she thinks 'homies' is cutting edge street talk? More importantly, why is she stereotyping African-American males as gang-bangers?

As the taped inner monologue broadcasts during that last solo dance, we're supposed to feel that they're just 'keeping it real,' so why did we feel like it was 'keeping it racist'?

Now Madonna's never going to be upstaged by a mere backup dancer, so she was front and center repeatedly in the second hour with f-this and f-that. But saying it wasn't enough for her, she also had the need to repeatedly flip the bird. Her finger was repeatedly blurred. Her f-words were repeatedly bleeped.

There may be no calls to the FCC due to the special but can someone call the art police?

This all comes during the part of the concert when Madonna seems to want to become the Courtney Love of dance. She's supposed to be playing guitar (most of the noises aren't coming from her guitar) and she's supposed to be hard rocker (with a disco beat). She sounded as though she'd forked over a couple of million to Love to teach her attitude. (When Madonna needs help with attitude, the career's in the toilet.) She looked even more ridiculous with some black, feathery crap around the high collar of her jacket. Whatever the fashion statement she thought she was expressing, the result was it looked like she had decorated a neck brace and only reminded you how old (and tired) she is now.

Was there a reason for the f-word? We're not opposed to it. We say it quite often. We believe it can be used, in art, in a powerful way. This played out more like her much bleeped 1994 Letterman appearance. And it made about as much sense.

Chrissie Hynde, an actual rocker who got her start in the punk period that Madonna seems to want to set to a disco beat, has used the word onstage many times. We've never been offended. There are songs she performs with that and other words and we're not bothered.

The difference is Chrissie Hynde has something to say. Madonna just wants to shock. And then, when she's shocked, she wants to scream "Censorship!"

We're told she leveraged the crucifixion that's part of the current tour (but didn't air in the NBC broadcast) to slip past the f-word.

Madonna repeatedly flipping the bird is not art. It's her trying to steal from the art of others, no question. But the magpie didn't reassemble it in any way that said 'art.' It was just Madonna, boring as she is today, trying desperately to create something shocking.

Something shocking really isn't the way to prepare for a holiday on network TV. Around the second flipping or the umpteenth time she used the f-word, we had to pick up the phone and call the friend to ask, "You really put your cock into that?"

We're not Madonna haters. Or we weren't until the special. We didn't follow the adoption 'controversy' or cluck over any of the other psuedo controversies the career is built upon. We've been very grateful for her soundtrack work which is the only time she still bothers to craft a song these days. We think Like A Prayer still stands up as not just her finest album but one of the better ones coming from the pop music scene in the eighties.

We've rolled our eyes at the oft noted "I chained myself" excuse, but we've never called for her head or a public stoning.

Who knew she'd do that herself? While in her 'soft' period?

And who at NBC saw the tour before they made the deal?

Madonna in concert, to your average broadcast TV viewer, is going to mean some of the hits. Maybe you won't hear them all, but how could you? 1997 and 2004 are the only years she didn't release a top forty hit. Many years have contained multiple hits. So hopes of "Into the Groove" (not technically a single -- though played constantly on radio, it was on the dance mix of "Angel"), "I'll Remember," "Dress You Up," "Keep It Together," "Rain," . . . well it just wasn't going to happen. What Sheena Easton calls hits are blips for Madonna.

But is it too much for the average viewer to assume that a special starring a performer with something like 46 top forty hits might offer up at least five of those hits over a two hour span?
If you want to be generous, you can count the strains of "Live To Tell." If you want to be really generous, you can say that Madonna sang them from offstage.

"Singing"? Let's note first that "Live To Tell" was while she was off stage (changing) and that was a recording until she walked out on stage (not danced) and sang 36 seconds of vocals to the audience. If you didn't catch that one was complete playback and the other was 'live,' you must have missed the panting into the mike she did during her 36 seconds of 'singing.' She was out of breath just from walking on stage? (The outfit she'd changed into wasn't that complicated -- boots, black pants and a loose, red blouse.) Maybe they were too busy noting that, in her 36 seconds of 'live' vocals, she basically had two notes? One was intentional, the other was when her voice cracked throughout the 36 seconds (pay attention to end words she holds like "inside"). She used her one in-tune note as well as could be expected, tossing it down to the throat and then, when the voice was actually supposed to go up a few notes, hitting the same note but tossing it up to her nose. (Pay attention to the very nasal tone on "tell" -- "If I live to tell.")

Onstage or off, she didn't sing for most of the two hours. She moved her lips semi-convincingly but she rarely attempted to actually sing -- and when she did, it was scary to hear her attempt hitting a note and notice how she went up to it, then flat, then around it all while she was supposed to be hitting and holding. Not since she toured with the then new guys of the Beastie Boys as her opening act (yes, that's how long she's been around) has she really attempted to sing onstage for a concert. The voice is "banked" so it can be sweetened.

Long ago, she chose dance over singing. With her range, it was a smart choice. But these days, when she doesn't dance, exactly what's the crowd playing for? Her self-help sermonettes?

No one dances in this show except for 'busting some moves'. We use that dated terminology intentionally because the little actual dancing was nothing but a bunch of tired moves you saw from the mall set in the eighties plus some break dancing.

Otherwise, the backup dancers tended to crawl around on the stage and did something akin to shadow boxing. They punched the air and space around them a great deal. There was also some sort of tribute to Bernadette Yao who did the arm dance on Zoom years ago. Two male dancers did this hand and arm thing. We're told it was supposed to represent the barriers to same-sex coupling that still exist and we'd buy that were it not for the fact that Madonna got in on it, putting herself between the two men, stroking them one at a time (she seemed to favor the one stage right). Is Madonna the last barrier to same-sex coupling?

Or is it just that she's got no message left to deliver that doesn't make herself the message?

When we called our friend, he said, "Oh come on, she's singing." He wasn't watching. He turned on the TV. He saw her moving her lips, heard the voice do things that a voice can't (Madonna's got a serious case of "Believe" envy) and agreed that there was something "very hollow" about the act. Why did the crowd put up with it?

Because they're not music fans, they're disciples of Madonna. Which is why she could, and did, pluck a cowboy hat off one urban type (we're being kind, the concert was filmed in London) concert goer, put it on top of her head for a bit and then toss it into the crowd without the owner screaming at the top of his lungs. We're told the bit was a phoney as the 'singing.' True though that may be, the crowd reaction was in keeping with the cult feel.

It's not a Garland type feel or a Diana Ross type feel, where the audience gets moved via expression. It's not the golden oldie cult feel (which recently led a reviewer to compare a non-rapper's inability to sing with rapping -- the voice is gone but the dream persists for the nostalgic). It's a cult around being Madonna and it's one that will have to die with her because there's no other Madonna.

"No one else like her," at one time, would be praise. These days it's thanks. Which may have been the only thing about the special that was in keeping with the holiday. Or, as our friend put it, "She had a quality back then."

Yes, long ago and far away. The special arrives about sixteen years to late for anyone to give a damn. A year prior, 1989, Madonna and NBC had another connection. On their Thursday night ratings powerhouse (built around The Cosby Show), her commercial for Pepsi aired (loosely based on the video to "Like A Prayer"). It was quickly pulled. The Jesus imagery and the interracial aspect enraged the reactionaires. There was talk of it being the end of her career. Madonna: The Confessions Tour played out like the long predicted funeral so it may have made sense that it aired on NBC -- sense in the scriptures of Madonna. In the real world, which gave up its obession with the English Rose long before she became part of the horse set across the Atlantic, it made no sense.

Last year, NBC aired the best Thanksgiving week music special, Faith Hill's Fireflies. This year, they have nothing to be thankful for -- even the ratings tanked.
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