A lesson in provocation
Or why Madonna, even at P57,750 per VIP concert ticket, was so worth it
In truth, Madonna’s Rebel Heart, her 13th studio album, is grossly underrated. I bought mine when it was released last year, but didn’t really listen to it in earnest until two weeks ago, just to make sure I could sing along with every track, from “Living for Love” to “Heartbreak City,” at the concert held at the SM MOA Arena last Wednesday and Thursday, for which I paid top peso to get as close to the Queen of Pop as anyone could get.
So I took the road less traveled by
And I barely made it out alive
Not only was Rebel Heart Madonna’s latest outing, released at a time dominated by Taylor Swift and Kanye West as well as bishops and boxers splitting hairs on what is right and wrong and to a generation to whom hers is a familiar name but to whom her gravitas in the current world order, particularly her personal advocacy for self-expression, women empowerment, sexual liberation, gender equality, and religious freedom, might have been lost, the album is also an exploration, perhaps a reiteration of our own struggles—personal, human, society, world—over the past 30 years. It’s like a meditation, a mulling over, and, with her concert that proved worthy of every centavo of the 57,750-peso ticket, very steep compared to the ticket prices at many bigger venues in Europe and North America where the VIP ticket came with lots of giveaways, it now also brings to light how far we’ve come, from when Ferdinand Marcos, the political strongman of 21 years, campaigned against his fiercest opponent, Corazon Aquino, by cutting her down to size for being “just a woman, a plain housewife, what does she know?”
Can you be my father, tell me what to do
You can punish me and maybe I will punish you
The Rebel Heart Tour concert was in every way a provocation, even in the fringes, such as among the audience, many of whom wore their favorite of Madonna’s reinventions, from pre-“Material Girl” punk to “Ray of Light” club wear, replete with Adidas sneakers. Apropos of the Manny Pacquiao controversy, Paulo Castro chose to make a statement at the concert, dressed in a T-back and fishnet stockings with a tattoo on his back that said “Mas Masahol Pa Sa Hayop (Worse than an Animal).” But the stage,
especially where Madonna stood in the spotlight, was throughout the two-hour concert the middle finger up against Manila’s self-limiting conventions. I don’t think Ramon Arguelles, archbishop of Lipa City, could have withstood a minute in what he would have confirmed as hell on earth, if he chose to be open-minded enough to check out for himself just how suggestive (that is to put it lightly) and vulgar Madonna could get. But wait until Madonna had warmed up and, flirting with the audience (excuse me, but the next few words are strictly for adults only), instructed them to say “Fuck Yeah!” in response to anything she said. And so, yeah, to the prude, and the judgmental, Madonna, indeed, is a bad, bad girl and the almost five hours, total playtime of her two-night concert series in Manila, that she spent with us, her Filipino followers, proved no less bad, crammed full with obscenities, vulgarities, innuendoes, expletives, maybe even a Satanic rite or an orgy in barely-there clothes, all happening right before our eyes while leaving us in a trance.
It’s not Steve Jobs or Bill Gates
It’s not the Google of United States
It’s not Bieber or Lebron
Clinton or Obama
Or anyone you’d love to hate
But this is how Madonna has stayed on top of her game. More than talent or charttoppers or hit concerts or innovation or reinvention, her decades-long career has been an exploration, an education, an emancipation—and a provocation. She has all these years dug deep into her soul and emerged with pieces of it to share with the world, whether they decide to spit on them or to glean from them some truth.
Among the most dominant themes of her artistic journey is the quest for self-expression. In her desire to champion that cause, to help free the world from prejudice and judgment and self-limitation, in her concert performances, in her videos, in her public appearances, and in her songs, many of which she wrote herself, from “Express Yourself” (Like a Prayer, 1989) to “Vene Vini Vici” (Rebel Heart, 2015), which pretty much sums up “all the things I did just to be seen,” to borrow a line from her current album’s title track, she puts herself on the line, ruffling feathers, scandalizing and provoking the “good people,” challenging beliefs, instigating change, inciting a revolution…
But do not judge Madonna by the songs she sings. As she said in a Rolling Stones interview in 1987, “I play a lot of characters and every time I do a video or a song, people go, ‘Oh that’s what she’s like!’ And I’m not like any of them. I’m all of them. I’m none of them. You know what I mean?” Maybe hers is a great commercial success, a thumbs down for the purist and the hard hat, but Madonna has from her CBGB days doing punk in early ’80s New York served the mandate of art, which is to provoke thought, to force us to take a good look at what otherwise makes us feel uneasy, uncomfortable, even revolted.
I promise you it’s not a sin
Find salvation within
And the production, the lighting, the staging, the choreography, the costumes, all that jazz—they, too, as they did at the Rebel Heart PH concert last Wednesday and Thursday, make every encounter with Madonna a bootyshaking, mindblowing, heartstopping, soulstirring experience, just as every song, if you listen hard enough, is rife with the sound of experimentation, the clamor for something new, the desire for change and reinvention, the pushing of the envelope, and the writing of a poet.
Love her or hate her, but history cannot ignore Madonna. Now that she’s 57 turning 58 (in August), her fans are worried that this might be her last concert tour and that, from here, her next reinvention, if ever, will be a kind of slowing down (and she did say in one of her interviews that she dreamed of more intimate concerts at smaller venues), but she has her place and there she will live forever, for sure.