October 11, 2012
Our Lady of Contrition? Madonna Tour Explores Transgression and Repentance
— David Mihalyfy
Through her current MDNA tour, pop megastar Madonna sympathetically explores how Catholicism can function as a restraining moral force against violence and sex.
Though widely thought of as a singer who makes occasional forays into film and publishing, Madonna most forcefully expresses her artistic vision through live performances where she intelligently and evocatively integrates music with choreography, costumes, and sets. For example, in the opening of her recent Super Bowl halftime show, Madonna was borne on the back of a throng of gladiators. She was covered by palms that flew apart to reveal her as she intoned, "What are you looking at?", the first words of a popular version of her megahit "Vogue," here arranged to the sound of swords unsheathing. Football players are gladiators – but gladiators are also gay, thanks to the over-the-top muscleheads of recent movies, (As comedian Sarah Silverman memorably remarked, 300 got its title from "how gay it was on a scale of one to ten.") Since the voguing dance style originated in a black and Latino urban gay subculture, Madonna thus honored but then delightfully subverted the quintessential sporting event of straight American white men.
Tours, then, only allow Madonna to explore more ideas and in greater depth. As she recently related during her sole American interview publicizing the tour, she likes to "create a dramatic arc" and then "try to make the songs fit in that arc."
"Transgression" – as she named the show's first section – stereotypically glorifies but then questions that theme.
At first glance, the opening number exploited religious imagery for mild shock value: praying in and then destroying a cathedral with an assault rifle, Madonna sang "Girl Gone Wild," which at its worst delights in carefree dancing. Channeling the critique of popular atheists, she apparently rebels against an over-controlling and perhaps imaginary deity who prevents harmless pleasures.
Pistols carried by Madonna and backup dancers, however, soon turned into something much darker than a throwaway gesture to the lyric "girls they just want to have some fun/ get fired up like a smoking gun." At the sound of sirens, Madonna holed up in a hotel room and killed a series of cops and criminals at point blank range to the "bang bang" chorus of her song "Gang Bang." Admittedly inspired by Quentin Tarantino, the highly stylized yet disturbing staging caused many audience members at a recent Chicago performance to avert their eyes: with each and every deliberate shot, victims would slowly sway and crumple, as blowups of realistic-looking blood spattered across the stage's stadium-height backdrop. A neon sign "Paradise Motel" thus became highly suggestive: what can humans create apart from God? Underscoring that theme, a cross on the hotel wall appeared in gigantic proportions in the next number, as Madonna slumped on the floor and sang "Papa Don't Preach."
A later section of the concert repeated the same sequence of transgression and repentance. An unapologetic striptease left her in a black bra, thong, and fishnets and proudly displaying her buttocks to the stadium. A large back tattoo reading "FORGIVE", however, provided a dissonant note that she reinforced by a slow, strange waltz that only slowly became recognizable as "Like a Virgin" as she lit upon the words "you make me feel/ shiny and new." Within minutes, Madonna had transformed from vixen to an aged, regretful woman no longer able to celebrate the naïve reawakening of her upbeat hit, now almost 30 years old. Although she did not condemn the previous exhibitionism, she presented its consequences as both inevitable and undesirable; as one of YouTube's Top Comments declares about opening night in Tel Aviv, her "[i]ntense performance... turns the meaning of the song on it's [sic] head."
Notably, Madonna valorized Catholicism as a restraining moral force, even though she contrasted it unfavorably with Kabbalah during the remainder of the concert. There, Madonna evangelized for her newfound religion by staging "Like a Prayer" against a backdrop of Hebrew characters representing the "home" of the song's lyrics . Since scanning Hebrew letters provides access to spiritual power according to the populist esotericism of her variety of Kabbalah, Madonna not only presented her journey to her audience, but also may have nonconsensually impressed them into its ritual practices. More importantly, Madonna symbolically presented Kabbalah's self-understanding as the fulfillment of all religions by having the accompanying gospel choir incorporate several white-robed Indians left over from the staging of the previous song. Accordingly, Madonna qualified but did not retract her earlier appreciation of the Catholicism of her childhood; though ultimately inadequate, Catholicism reflects some truth and can serve a purpose.
In the end, Madonna is a famously protean and contradictory artist, and MDNA represents an occasional reflection upon rather than a lasting re-evaluation of Catholicism. Madonna has long remarked that her Catholic upbringing permanently shaped her, including giving her a strong sense of sin. In MDNA, Madonna toyed with and appreciated facets of that idea, although without acknowledging and internalizing its implications. Most troublingly, she reenacted to applause the problematic sins – including that of gun violence in a city where it has reached epidemic proportions. Her stage banter pled for tolerance, kindness, and to "not vote for Romney" – unnecessary platitudes for an overwhelmingly privileged, liberal audience. Although aesthetically engaging, Madonna's invocation of higher moral standards did not correspond to any real, self-reflective moral valor; although MDNA vividly conveys the idea of sin in the world, she does not seriously think through what might follow upon this recognition.
Lucy O'Brien. Madonna: Like an Icon (New York: HarperEntertainment, 2007).
Becky Johnston, "Confession of a Catholic Girl," Interview magazine, 1989, reprinted in The Madonna Companion: Two Decades of Commentary, edited by Carol Benson and Allan Metz (New York: Schirmer Books, 1999), 52-74.
Madonna, Superbowl XLVI Halftime Show, February 5, 2012.
Madonna, MDNA Publicity Interview with Jimmy Fallon, March 24, 2012.
Madonna, MDNA Tour, September 19, 2012, Chicago, IL.
David Mihalyfy is a Ph.D. candidate in History of Christianity at the Divinity School.