Yeah, I know the whole Madonna-Is-This-Epic-Pop-Cultural-Rorschach-Test is, like, so twenty years ago, but bear with me for a minute. A week after my baptism into the High Church of Please Don’t Call Me Madge, I’ve nearly got the ear worm of “Girl Gone Wild” out of my head, but I still find myself cogitating over something I turned to the Woman Formerly Known as Goose and said in the middle of the show. I had to whisper/yell it and repeat myself several times to be heard, of course, but once she caught the drift of what I was saying, she nodded in enthusiastic agreement. So, what was my high-on-MDNA revelation?
Early in the show, there’s an incredibly dark sequence in which Our Lady of Pop becomes a gun-toting gal on a rampage. It runs through three songs, the aforementioned “Girl Gone Wild,” “Revolver,” and “Gang Bang.” There’s a lot of shooting and a lot of blood, much of it projected in high-definition on the screen at the back of the stage. “Gang Bang” is an especially creepy and powerful song about a scorned woman shooting an ex-lover in the head. The refrain is a gleeful, “Bang Bang, shot you dead, shot my lover in the head.” It was riveting, but I don’t think my companion and I were alone in finding the spectacle both discomfiting and difficult to read. However, as “Gang Bang” transitions to a snippet of “Papa Don’t Preach,” the girls with guns scene gives way to four soldiers wearing camouflage pants and masks that seem both vaguely tribal and eerily reminiscent of the hoods worn by tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The soldiers surround Madonna, who is lying on the stage singing, wrap her in chains, hoist her above their heads, and march with her body to the back of the stage. Images of fire and implements of torture flicker on the screen. As she sings “Hung Up,” Madonna, accompanied, by the soldiers, walks across a wire suspended above the floor. They appear to be walking through fire. I realized in that moment that we weren’t being forced merely to revel in gratuitous violence for its own sake. The evocations of Abu Ghraib somberly recontextualized and geopoliticized the cartoonish violence of the earlier, Tarantino-esque scene and made its consequences starkly real. (Or, you know, as real as anything can be in the surreal spectacle of Madonna.) It was then that I turned to WFKG and said, “You know, I would despair of our species if it weren’t for popular culture. Our political system is so broken, so utterly incapable of addressing with any real thought or feeling the urgencies of our time. Popular culture at least tries, at least sometimes.” (Here is a link to a vid of the whole MDNA show. The scenes referred to in this paragraph are in the first 25 minutes.)
I wasn’t just thinking of Madonna, of course, though I do hereby declare that the mind-boggling multimedia extravaganza of “Nobody Knows Me” is the most compelling meditation on representation, violence, and non-identity the twenty-first century has produced. Even without the swastikas. (That “Nobody Knows Me” link is a pretty decent concert vid. Click on it to see if you agree with me or think my claims are proof that I’ve gone MADonna.) I’m also thinking of our old pal Bruce Springsteen, who’s been brooding on the painful gap between American ideals and American realities for decades and fighting off despair through rousing calls to consciousness, compassion, and engagement. It would never have occurred to me to compare these two artists, so deeply different in so many ways, but WFKG and I trooped down to Nationals Park to see Bruce for the eleventy-billionth time just a week before we saw Madonna, so the passion of the Boss’s live performance was fresh in my mind as I found myself caught up in the frenzy of “Like a Prayer” and “Celebration” that concludes the MDNA show. For all their differences, both Madonna and Springsteen demand that their audiences look into the darkness of their own and their country’s souls — but then lift us up into light, dance, a space in which we can see one another’s faces, move and sing together. It isn’t just a party, though it is that. It is a moment of shared agency and, perhaps, a shot at collective redemption. (Bruce, Madonna, and the Post-Catholic Allure of Redemption. Discuss.)
I’ve always been a sucker for the gospel of popular music, particularly in live performance. It’s also fascinating to me, though, that in this moment when our politics seems so stunningly dysfunctional we see evidence throughout popular culture of serious efforts to grapple with many of the intractable problems our leaders are barely able to acknowledge much less address. What am I talking about? Everything from The Hunger Games to Homeland, from the brand new Revolution to the salacious yet smart Scandal. These are all fundamentally dystopian stories of an America dying or destroyed by some combination of corruption, conspiracy, and neglect, but they are also stories of characters struggling to be decent in conditions of profound moral ambiguity and battling to reclaim power — literally in the case of Revolution, in which the rebels are trying to get the lights turned back on after a 15-year power outage. (Given the multi-day power outages we regularly experience in the Washington, DC area, this show feels entirely and excruciatingly apt to me. I imagine I am about two derechos away from being willing to kill to obtain one of those little amulet/flash drive thingies if it would help me to defeat the tyrant thugs of Pepco.)
This should be a longer post, a post that delves deeply into the kind of cultural work I see these shows and performances as doing, a post that explains eloquently and in great detail what we learn not only from Madonna but from any pop cultural text that challenges us to think, feel, act, and connect. This longer post would wrestle with the important question of whether my investment in such stories is not proof that I suffer from what Lauren Berlant in her latest book terms cruel optimism, an attachment to objects — “food, or a kind of love[,] . . . a fantasy of the good life, or a political project” — that “actively impede the aim” that brought me to them initially. It’s entirely possible that I do suffer from cruel optimism. It’s also possible I would rather have cruel optimism than no optimism at all. Because given the choice between dog-paddling and drowning, I would choose dog-paddling every time. Happily.
Sadly, however, it’s also true that it’s Sunday evening. I have work to do. And the new seasons of The Good Wife and Homeland begin in less than an hour. What are you watching? What are you listening to? What kind of work is it doing, and why does it matter? What have you learned and from whom have you learned it?
Peace out, Madpeople at your Laptops, and remember: Don’t be cruel.