Madonna’s #secretprojectrevolution and #ArtForFreedom

When I found out that Madonna’s long-trailed ‘secret project’ was going to tackle ‘human rights’ I was, it must be said, apprehensive. Having finally watched it tonight, I sadly think I was right to be. Here I’ll focus on its broad message, though the accusations of hypocrisy re:  Madonna endorsing products and partnering with an organisation part-owned by Rupert Murdoch while decrying branding and corporations are hard to combat.

Everything I write about Madonna comes from a place of love. Amongst friends (and enemies) I have a reputation as a Madonna nut, someone who is incapable of objectivity towards her and loves everything she does. I plead guilty to the former charge: objectivity is for chemistry, not pop music. I’ve written here countless times about how important Madonna has been and remains to me. I’ve also expressed my admiration for her outspokenness and willingness to involve herself in issues which most other pop stars shy away from. This remains the case. Even though I think #secretprojectrevolution is enormously flawed, I’d rather she was doing something like this than another perfume or gym launch; particularly as she must surely know that she’ll be torn to shreds for it and has little to gain. In the accompanying interview you are given the sense of someone who continues to try and seek some ‘truth’ and publicly work through the issues she cares about. So yes, to re-iterate, this comes from a place of love.

The film itself looks fabulous, continuing the aesthetic of the MDNA tour and producing some of the most arresting visuals of Madonna’s career. As a political statement it’s almost certainly too opaque to have any effect on the non-converted but as the launch for a new website/campaign called ‘Art For Freedom’, it piques interest. It also feels like a serious work worthy of our attention, albeit one which will be dismissed out-of-hand by many because of Madonna’s infamy.

I wrote earlier in the year about Madonna’s speech to GLAAD and how it found her firmly ensconced as an ‘archetypal American liberal’. Rather incongruously this saw me labelled as a ‘Madonna hater’ for possibly the first time in my life – some really do seem to think that being a fan means loving everything an artist does. The one message from #secretprojectrevolution’s somewhat rambling voice-over which jumps out to me, however, is the ‘revolution of thinking for yourself, of having your own opinion…of inquiring further’. That message reminded of a graphic I saw earlier today on the Progressive Development Forum

For all her talk of a ‘revolution of love’ it seems to me that Madonna actually wants people to be more politically conscious and more capable of critical analysis. This is by itself a great message but it’s one which means accepting/realising that these issues are more important than any pop star. This ‘revolution’ cannot possibly mean fawning over Madonna for ‘saying something’ and swallowing everything she says; if we buy into this message, we have to parse her words.

Indeed, there are times when her words demand to be challenged. Consider the following:

I keep telling everyone that I want to start a revolution, but no one is taking me seriously. If I had black skin and an afro, would you take me seriously? If I was an Arab waving a hand grenade, would you take me seriously? If I was wearing combat gear and I had an AK-47 strapped to my back, would you take me seriously? Instead, I’m a woman. I’m blonde. I have tits and ass and an insatiable desire to be noticed.

Now, if Madonna wants to say that she’s taken less seriously as an artist because of her gender, her use of sexuality and her notoriety, that’s fine…but that’s enormously different from what she actually says. Her words invoke the black civil rights movement, the struggle to ‘free’ Palestine and armed struggle in general: none of these things are Madonna’s to claim. She is an enormously privileged, wealthy, famous American and it’s flat-out offensive to draw parallels between her being booed at some shows or torn apart by some critics and the systematic oppression of an entire race or an entire people. People don’t dismiss Madonna speaking of ‘revolution’ because she’s a woman but rather because a) her class makes it difficult to take her use of the word seriously and, following on from that, b) she strips the word of most of its meaning.

We see the latter in her repeated assertion that ‘the enemy’ lies ‘within’ ourselves. Sure, we all have issues we have to deal with and a lot of hatred in the world surely does stem from personal problems. We do not, however, exist in a vacuum. Our beliefs and ideologies don’t just appear within us like hairs upon our head; they come from our engagement with the world. Politics, the media, popular culture and more all shape us and people with agendas manipulate all of these to try and encourage us to think certain things. Failing to understand this makes demands to ‘do something’ little more than self-help speak encouraging us all to ‘be nicer’. Instead any artistic statement for ‘freedom’ must surely be a didactic one, encouraging people to think about the structures of society and the operation of power – it must be something which actually enables people to identify targets rather than leading them to believe that the world’s problems all arise because some folk are just dickheads.

Madonna’s failure to grasp this is evident in the interview where she keeps speaking about touring the world, seeing problems everywhere and feeling like everything was ‘collapsing’. She talks about it as if some black cloud just descended one day, complaining about people’s ‘consciousness not evolving’ and even seeming to blame the internet at one point. Aside from one throwaway comment in the film (drawn from her L’Olympia speech) she doesn’t draw links between the world’s unrest and the massive economic crisis which it is still going through. She certainly doesn’t draw any links between unrest and global capitalism (or neoliberalism).

The shallowness of her analysis is sharply illuminated when she gets onto geopolitical specifics. As she did at GLAAD and has done elsewhere, she points the finger at a series of acceptable ‘bad guys’. What is happening in Iran ‘breaks her heart’ but she insisted on starting her tour in Israel even when she thought the latter might be about to bomb the former. There is no hint of a notion that Israel could be at fault in that situation and certainly no consideration of Israel’s own diabolical human rights record when it comes to Palestine. She again speaks of Russia and Pussy Riot, complaining about Putin’s censorship and record on gay rights; nothing about Obama’s unprecedented persecution of whistle-blowers or the fact that America’s own gay rights record leaves much to be desired in many states. She again mentions Malala Yousafzai, a shooting which rightfully horrified her; nothing about the many shootings of children which have taken place in America even in the past year, let alone the drone killings of children (and others) led by the US. She again speaks of Le Pen in France, labelling her a ‘fascist’ and expressing bewilderment that France should ever be unwelcoming of ‘difference’; she has nothing to say about Obama’s record deportations or the fact that, under the guise of the ‘war on terror’, America has ramped up its own persecution of Muslims both at home and around the world.

It’s when Madonna explicitly speaks about America that her facileness simply becomes unavoidable. Her big problem with the Americans she encountered on tour? That they take ‘freedom’ for granted and many weren’t going to vote (and weren’t going to vote for Obama). She thinks you become complacent when ‘you can have whatever you want’, something which must be news for the millions of Americans living in poverty in one of the world’s most unequal countries. More unequal, even, than many of the South American countries which are, she says, riddled with ‘corruption and poverty’ (once again, an easy target). At one point the interviewer is clearly inviting Madonna to articulate some disappointment with Obama, asking her why so many were disillusioned by his first time. Her response is just embarrassing: he was left a bad situation by Bush (which didn’t stop him appointing some of the people responsible for that situation to his administration) and people didn’t trust him on the economy. Then, astoundingly, she says that she doesn’t want a ‘warmonger’ for President. For a second I took this to mean Obama, especially given her recent admirable stand on Syria. In the context of her continued defence of the current President and a comment about saving money for everybody, however, it would seem that she’s continuing her blinkered argument and criticising Romney.

I would never argue that people should ignore abuses and injustice around the world. I do however think that any starting point for this should be that old saying about throwing the first stone – we have a duty to speak out about the abuses and injustices in our own societies first and foremost. Avoiding this while proclaiming a desire to ‘give these (foreign) people a voice’ as Madonna does is at best misguided orientalism and at worse a path to brutal imperialism. This is why the critical thinking and political consciousness – the ability to think for oneself – is the best message which anyone could take from #secretprojectrevolution. Simply lifting its agenda whole-heartedly is missing the point. It remains to be seen how the Art For Freedom project develops but in its conception as a social media platform devoted to ‘freedom’ it’s certainly potentially exciting (the current ‘daily feature’ depicts a Palestinian man escaping from the Gaza Strip “about a mile from the northern Israeli border fence and under the watchful eye of an Israeli destroyer vessel in Beit Lahia”, already filling in a big gap in Madonna’s words). Madonna speaks of wishing to inspire others to thought and action; as a fundamental this is impossible to argue with, even if Madonna’s own thought and action here leave a lot to be desired (personally). At the very least, I’ve seen people discussing some of these issues on internet forums throughout the day. You wouldn’t get that from Celine Dion now, would you?

The MDNA Tour

More than ever, it seems, we live in an age where you’re not supposed to take pop music seriously. This isn’t difficult to comprehend – we do, after all, live in an age where taking almost anything very seriously is frowned upon – yet it’s easy to forget that there are artists who have been working on the premise that ‘pop music will never be low brow’ (as Lady Gaga put it, prior to a massive backlash which has led her to already describe her next album as lacking ‘maturity’) for decades. In my 17 years of gig-going I’ve learned that there really is no other pop show quite like a Madonna one. Sure, the ‘theatrical’ influences of her tours (themselves heavily influenced by David Bowie’s work) hang heavily over shows by scores of other artists, yet a big production and ‘themed segments’ is typically as far as it gets. Make no mistake about it: at times Madonna’s shows are performance art on a grand scale.

Previously this was perhaps most pronounced on the Drowned World tour, a dark, violent and largely classic-free show which demanded a lot from its audience. It’s rare for pop shows to demand much. For all of their merits, today’s pop superstars tend to deliver hit and after hit, quickly skating over lesser-known album tracks. Whatever the cause and effect of the situation this has coincided with audiences which have become lazier and more obnoxious, refusing to indulge songs they are unfamiliar with and seemingly determined to ruin things for those who do wish to listen by screeching loudly throughout.

This is more pronounced in stadium gigs, where many clearly go along expecting to hear classic hit followed by classic hit. This has never been Madonna’s style and the MDNA tour is no exception. In terms of its tone and themes it reminded me heavily in places of Drowned World – a dense, spectacular and steely show which took it as given that pop shows can be high brow. Perhaps the crucial difference, however, is that Drowned World played to the 19,000 capacity Earls Court while MDNA played to 70,000 people in Hyde Park.

The venue was definitely the problem here: Hyde Park’s volume limit (due to it being a residential area) meant the sound never packed a punch while its flat terrain saw scores of people around us building mounds out of wood chips in order to try and catch a glimpse of the lady herself. The curfew also meant that the show, clearly intended to begin under the cover of darkness, had to begin in daylight. A casual listener expecting to hear selections from Celebration for the evening would already have had to alter their expectations – these problems could only have further alienated them. Saying that, anyone attending a show called MDNA who hasn’t listened to the album of the same title probably deserves everything they get

For a big fan such as myself, the show was an absolute treat. The opening section stretching from ‘Girl Gone Wild’ to ‘I Don’t Give A’ was simply stunning. There was a lot going on, both physically on stage and thematically, with a dark, aggressive and violent exploration of a ‘girl gone wild’. The symbolism of Madonna emerging from a confessional booth in a cathedral, dressed in a funereal take on her wedding dress, is difficult to beat. The following songs, imagery and choreography saw her celebrating her position as a feminist icon while linking her failed marriage to her status as a lapsed Catholic. ‘Revolver’ saw her surrounded by female dancers, celebrating sexuality before being boxed in and fighting off male assailants in the demented ‘Gang Bang’. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ and ‘Hung Up’ were re-interpreted as a communique to God, a plea for Him to send a sign as Madonna tries and repeatedly fails to ‘walk the line’ before finally accepting her identity and proclaiming ‘I Don’t Give A’. Transgression is undoubtedly one of the most truly theatrical sections of a music concert I’ve ever seen and I can’t wait to see it again.

Flowing neatly from her ‘acceptance’ of herself, Madonna returned to the stage to perform a truly joyous version of ‘Express Yourself’. This old classic united the entire park in song, so much so that the sly dig at Gaga with the snippets of ‘Born This Way’ and accompanying video of ‘little monsters’ eating mass produced product was almost unnoticeable. The production of this section was just incredible, with drummers suspended in mid-air for ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’ and a visual assault on the senses.

The third section was the most interesting to me, as a fan. It kicked off with an imperial take on ‘Vogue’, possibly her most iconic song and certainly one of the most iconic songs in pop. Given what followed, it seemed as if she was reminding everyone of her unassailable position in the pop pantheon. The following three songs were, quite simply, a massive ‘fuck you’ to those who take glee in attacking her these days – for her age, for her sexuality, for her music. The performance of ‘Candy Shop’, the much-ridiculed opening track to the maligned Hard Candy, seemed pointed enough but in following it with the defiant ‘Human Nature’, Madonna made the message clear: no regrets, no compromises. The point was rammed home with an odd, mournful version of ‘Like A Virgin’ which saw Madonna stripped and on the floor just as in its legendary MTV Award performance in 1984. Unlike then, however, this Madonna was aged, tired, emotional. It was a rare glimpse into the psyche of an artist who has been on the pop treadmill for 30 years and still receives many brickbats for it. The segment ended with Madonna being strapped tightly into a corset – constrained and back in character, ready for another performance.

It was a pleasure to hear ‘I’m Addicted’ live but this was definitely one which needed the music to be LOUD. ‘Like A Prayer’ of course managed to overcome this problem – again, the entire park was as one for a truly euphoric sing-a-long which is definitely one of my all-time favourite gig moments. A brief, playful rendition of ‘Celebration’ (featuring one of several appearances from Rocco, clearly having the time of his life) and it was all over.

Madonna was definitely on form – she looked, moved and sounded better than on Sticky & Sweet. The tour passes suggest that the tour will continue into 2013, which raises the hope that (as with her last tour) she will return for an arena date. Fingers crossed as this intelligent, often-subtle show would work much better in such an environment. It’s nonetheless remarkable that, 30 years into her career, Madonna can remind you of the transcendental brilliance of pop at its best and its unifying power – both before and after the gig, the streets and bars of central London had an air of celebration,  packed as they were with people wearing Madonna t-shirts.  It may not be fashionable to take pop music too seriously or to earnestly proclaim your love for it – with Madonna, I’m unable to do anything else. 

MDNA

I love Madonna. If you’re reading this, you probably knew that already. I’m teased for being a bit of a loon about her, incapable of objectivity when her name is mentioned. It’s a charge I readily admit to. How can you be objective about someone who is in your DNA, whose work has not only soundtracked your life but been instrumental in shaping the person you are? Far from feeling embarrassed about it, I feel privileged that I have found artists like her whom I feel a profound connection with – I always feel sorry for people who don’t have that, who view music as background noise to work or getting ready to go out. I think they’re missing out on so much. They could never understand why ‘objectivity’ (so feted in our society which increasingly fetishes ‘rationality’) is a useless term when it comes to an artist who you just feel on a visceral level, who is so ingrained in your life that they feel like extended family. Yes, I’ll always love Madonna.

Now, this love, this respect, doesn’t mean that I am a gibbering supplicant. Of course I prefer certain albums to others. I don’t like that she is kicking off her tour in Israel, or giving exclusive clips to Perez Hilton, or doing exclusive interviews in The Sun on Sunday. I think some of her songs, such as ‘One More Chance’ or ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’, are downright awful. Undeniably, however, it means that my instinct is to look for the positive with her. Perhaps because of this, I happen to think that some myths around her have taken place in recent years. I won’t go into great detail, suffice to say that complaints about her voice and lyrics are absolutely nothing new (and Hard Candy has some great lyrics on it) and the idea, pretty much accepted these days, that she only ever worked with obscure producers for most of her career is just nonsense.

Nevertheless, MDNA feels like a crossroads album for her. I think the reaction to Hard Candy has become overblown with time (and is not unconnected to its r&b influences) yet it was certainly seen as an artistic failure. The Celebration singles were catchy enough but neither were even approaching first-rate Madonna (though the new bonus tracks, ‘It’s So Cool’ and ‘Broken’, were much better). There has of course been a new pretender on the scene (‘fingering all of the poses that Madonna liberated’) and, perhaps most crucially of all, Madonna hasn’t released a studio album since turning 50 and the vast majority of the artists in the charts today are, at most, half her age. Madonna has always refused to become a legacy act (part of the reason why she gets so much stick – she won’t shut up and just let people love what she was) and the success or otherwise of MDNA seems likely to determine her ability to maintain this.

The omens have been mixed, to say the least. In her interviews promoting W.E. there was a worrying sense that she was currently far more enthused by film-making than by music. Yet I absolutely loved ‘Masterpiece’, a boldly understated ballad of the kind she hasn’t recorded in years. ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’ is a retro slice of New Wave bliss, harking back to her pre-Madonna days and catchy as hell (it was also, incidentally, an absolutely genius song to return with when everyone was waiting to see how she would ‘top’ Gaga), yet it was difficult to see how it and ‘Masterpiece’ fit together or pointed the way to the future.

Then came ‘Girl Gone Wild’. After the initial excitement of a new Madonna song died down, I felt wretched about this. It’s catchy enough but it’s completely ordinary and without a doubt the worst pre-album single she’s ever released. The vocals sound phoned in, the production is bizarrely flat and for the first time I found myself wondering if we were about to get a truly awful Madonna album.

It’s not due to be released until next Monday in the UK, yet it was ‘released’ last night on AOL Radio in North America. It was quickly ripped and spread across the internet. When I realised what was happening I turned off the tv, plugged my headphones into my laptop and didn’t move for hours.  How to explain what I felt? Relief, euphoria, affection, love. MDNA is not only a brilliant album, it’s possibly the best album she’s released since Music in 2000 (which is easily in my top 3 Madonna albums). It’s being called her ‘divorce album’ in many reviews due to the dominance of songs about the end of a relationship. I came to think of Hard Candy as a ‘divorce album’ because it so clearly covered the disintegration of a relationship but, of course, the other album by her that is accepted as being largely influenced by a divorce is the peerless Like a Prayer. Yet only one song on that really directly addressed a crumbling marriage – in contrast, it hangs heavy over the whole of MDNA. Even ‘Girl Gone Wild’ takes on new meaning in this context and it suddenly makes sense. The Act of Contrition recited at the beginning is not only a self-referential nod (in an album full of them, as all of her recent albums are) but a statement of the albums themes – the ability of a person to change themselves, to ‘be good’, the guilt felt in failing, feeling scared of the ‘loss of heaven’ and yet ultimately accepting your ‘true self’. Madonna sings that she is a ‘bad girl, anyway” and, towards the end of the album, dedicates the fun 60s-psychedelia of ‘I’m A Sinner’ to celebrating the fact. 

It’s an album about finding yourself alone, with everything that entails (not least the demented anger of the stunning ‘Gang Bang’, a dark techno-noir that sounds unlike anything she has ever done before) and realising (or deciding) that you’ll be okay. My current favourite, ‘I Don’t Give A’, is an anthemic celebration of this message and rams it home with a humour that is so often misinterpreted (from ‘I like to singy singy singy’ to the ‘American Life’ rap). You can’t help but smile at lines such as ‘lawyers suck it up – didn’t have a pre-nup!’ unless you are irredeemably dour. I’ve seen MDNA compared to Confessions on a Dancefloor meets American Life and I think that’s fairly accurate. It combines the irresistible commercial nous of the former with the sonic invention (and, of course, intensely personal themes) of the latter and it somehow works. Nothing about the record feels half-hearted. A track like the shoulda-been-first-single ‘I’m Addicted’ is breathtaking and caused me to start counting the days until I can dance to it in a club. Special mention too, to the brilliantly inventive Abbaesque charms of ‘Love Spent’ and the almost True Blue sounding ‘Turn Up The Radio’.

Who knows if the album will do well. I find myself being far more relaxed about chart performances these days, which is perhaps just as well. I’m just happy to have another great pop album. And that’s not objective – it’s fairly gushing and happy and sincere and not a little embarrassing…but I don’t give a…