So much flesh, so little personality

Madonna. At Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, Monday, July 20th.

During the encores of the first of her two spectacular shows at Shoreline Amphitheatre last week, Madonna, the fantasy idol of American youth, finally asked the musical question lurking in the shadows of her extravagant performance. When the saucy Ms. Ciccone sang “Who’s That Girl?,” the title song of her forthcoming movie and just-released soundtrack album, she made the riddle of her career explicit. But after more than 90 minutes of relentless razzle-dazzle, after Madonna had revealed so much of her flesh and so little of her personality, the question should have been, why do so many people care?

Clearly they care a lot. Over two nights, nearly 40,000 people trekked to Mountain View for their close encounter of the absurd kind. This “Material Girl” made them willing to part with huge chunk of their disposable income for the privilege of watching her cavort through 16 entertaining but uninspiring production numbers masquerading as songs. The largely post-teen concertgoers paid up to $22.50 for an unscalped ticket, before service charges, and had the chance to fork over ten bucks for a slick program, $16 for a T-shirt and untold pocket change for food and drink from Shoreline’s amusement park-style concession. Scores even hired limousines to carry them to the show.

The power of Madonna’s appeal should be the envy of movie and pop stars alike. Even the most charismatic screen idols don’t attract so many people to one place at one time, and only a relative handful of music performers ever develop such commercial appeal. By successfully straddling both pop culture realms, Madonna doubles her draw. She is no ordinary icon.

How does she pull it off when she’s such a transparantly ordinary talent? The quick answer is that she sells sex, but her current show is remarkably unsexy. Nearly every song was punctuated by lacivious moves, from bumps and grinds with her male dancers (including salacious routines with a boy who looked less than half her 28 years) to teasing masturbatory gestures. And the foundation of her costuming — the black merry widow corset with gold sequined breast tips and twirling tassels — was part Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and part Gypsy Rose Lee. But Madonna’s precisely programmed dancing was little more than a second-rate rehash of Flashdance (from the same choreographer) and her attire came off like a dress-up game, not a seduction. Nor was the secret of her appeal in the music. The seven-piece band and three back-up singers, under the direction of Madonna’s co-producer Patrick Leonard, was loud and punchy, rhythmically sharp and note perfect. But the musicians, shunted to the sides of the elaborate staircase set, were beside the point. Their routine neo-disco grooves varied little throughout the night and only a few of Madonna’s songs, such as “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Like A Virgin” and “Holiday,” get beyond the busy beats with catchy melodic hooks.

No, Madonna must send other kinds of messages to her fans. In “Papa Don’t Preach,” her big hit from True Blue, she seemed to be picking up a social cause, defending a pregnant teenage girl’s freedom of choice. Presented in concert, however, the song became an overcrowded bandwagon for a mishmash of socio-political themes. Giant projected images of clouds in a blue sky gave way to those of thunderstorms, the menacing face of a surgeon, the entrance to a giant cathedral. A nightmarish Monty Python-style slide montage hinted at the horrors of abortion and careened through bizarre juxtapositions culminating in a giant blowup of the White House, then Reagan’s face, the faces of happy, healthy children and, finally, the words, SAFE SEX.

Whatever Madonna was trying to say in “Papa Don’t Preach,” her fourth song in concert, was quickly forgotten in the onslaught of MTV-style production numbers that followed. Indeed, the show was little more than an overblown “live” music video, full of silly props and simplified physical interpretations of the songs.

At the center of it all was a vaguely attractive young woman who projected nothing of her real self yet represented a kind of between-the-cracks liberation from the creeping conservatism of the 1980s. After all the dressing up and stripping down, nothing of the performer’s inner nature was revealed. But “Madonna” represented the freedom to act out the most outrageous fantasies without fear or guilt. During “Like A Virgin,” a New York Post front page was projected on the huge screen with the headline “Madonna: I Am Not Ashamed.”

She can be a material girl, a party girl, an innocent harlot in red lace undies and a black leather jacket, a rebel without a cause clothed by Frederick’s of Hollywood. She takes a stand against post-feminism by strutting, leaping and groveling on the stage, declaring that if there’s going to be any exploitation in her career, she’s going to control it. She confounds the objectification of womanhood by adding more layers. One of the few female role models that the mass media has coughed up in pop music during this regressive decade, Madonna is merely making the most of it, and making over her image in as many ways as she can within the narrow range of options. She leaves it to her fans to create their own answers to the question, “Who’s that girl?”*