Today in Madonna History: October 14, 1993

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On October 14 1993, Rolling Stone magazine featured Madonna (several times) in an article featuring The 100 Top Music Videos.

Rolling Stone included the following Madonna music videos: Express Yourself at #10, Like A Prayer at #20, Borderline at #24, Vogue at #28, Justify My Love at #43 and Oh Father at #66 – Madonna had more videos on the list than any other artist or group.

Today in Madonna History: September 18, 2019

On September 18 2019, the New York Times published a review (Jon Pareles) of Madonna’s opening Madame X Tour show held the night before at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn:

Madonna Is Still Taking Chances

Her Madame X show reimagines pop spectacle for a theater stage, merging her newest music and calls for political awareness with striking intimacy.

“I’m not here to be popular. I’m here to be free,” Madonna declared to a packed, adoring audience on Tuesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House. It was the premiere of her Madame X Tour, named after the album she released in June that she has said was influenced by the music in Lisbon, her adopted home. The show follows her decades of arena spectacles by scaling the same kind of razzle-dazzle — dancers! costumes! video! choir! — for a theater stage.

Unlike jukebox musicals or “Springsteen on Broadway,” Madame X is a concert focusing on new songs and the present moment. In other words, Madonna is still taking chances. She will reach arena-size attendance in only a handful of venues on the eight-city tour, but with much longer engagements; the Gilman Opera House holds 2,098, and she booked 17 shows there, through Oct. 12. Onstage, “selling” a selfie Polaroid to an audience member who happened to be Rosie O’Donnell, she claimed, “I’m not making a dime on this show.”

Concertgoers arrived to what was billed as a phone-free experience. Cellphones and smart watches were locked into bags at the door, though quickly unlocked afterward. It helped prevent online spoilers; it certainly removed the distractions of waving screens. (No photography was permitted, including press.)

As both album and show, Madame X is Madonna’s latest declaration of a defiant, self-assured, flexible identity that’s entirely comfortable with dualities: attentive parent and sexual adventurer, lapsed Catholic and spiritual seeker, party girl and political voice, self-described “icon” and self-described “soccer mom,” an American and — more than ever — a world traveler.

Yes, she is 61, but her music remains determinedly contemporary, with the drum-machine sounds of trap, collaborations with hip-hop vocalists (Quavo and Swae Lee, shown on video) and the bilingual, reggaeton-flavored Latin pop sometimes called urbano (with the Colombian singer Maluma, also shown on video). The concert, with most of its music drawn from the Madame X album, was packed with pronouncements, symbols and enigmatic vignettes to frame the songs. Madonna often wore an eye patch with an X on it, no doubt a challenge to her depth perception as a dancer.

By the time Madonna had completed just the first two songs, she had already presented an epigraph from James Baldwin — “Artists are here to disturb the peace” — that was knocked out onstage by one of the concert’s recurring figures, a woman (sometimes Madonna herself) at a typewriter.

Gunshots introduced God Control, which moves from bitter mourning about gun deaths to happy memories of string-laden 1970s disco, while Madonna and dancers appeared in glittery versions of Revolutionary War finery, complete with feathered tricorn hats, only to be confronted by police with riot shields. Dark Ballet had Joan of Arc references, a montage of gothic cathedrals and scary priests, a synthesizer excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” and Madonna grappling with masked dancers, until cops pulled her off the piano she had been perched on. The signifiers were already piling up.

And there were more. Film-noir detectives pursued and interrogated Madonna in another disco-tinged song, I Don’t Search I Find; Crave, which warns, “My cravings get dangerous,” flaunted a full-sized disco ball. A pair of robotic but sinuous dancers, with red lights for eyes, flanked Madonna as she sat at a piano for the ominous Future, while the video screen filled with images of urban and environmental destruction. She surrounded herself with a choir of brightly robed women and geometric Arabic designs in Come Alive, which used the metal castanets and triplet rhythm of Moroccan gnawa music to back her as, once again, Madonna’s lyrics rejected unwanted opinions and restrictions.

The songs Madonna chose from her past were mostly exhortations and pushbacks, sometimes coupled with direct political statements. She sang part of Papa Don’t Preach, reversing its decision to “keep my baby,” then spoke directly about supporting abortion rights. Dancing while surrounded by video imagery of pointing fingers, she revived Human Nature, which already testified — a full 25 years ago — to Madonna’s tenacity and determination to express herself uncensored. When it ended, her daughters Mercy James, Estere and Stella were onstage, and the singers and a full-throated audience shared an a cappella Express Yourself.

The concert’s unquestioned showstopper was Frozen, a somber ballad from the 1998 album Ray Of Light that offers healing: “If I could melt your heart, we’d never be apart.” Madonna appeared as a tiny figure onstage, surrounded by giant video projections of a dancer moving from a self-protective clutch to a tentative, then joyful unfurling and back. It was her oldest daughter, Lourdes, affirming the family connection in movement.

Since 2017 Madonna has lived in Lisbon, where her son David plays soccer, and she spoke about savoring the city’s music: the Portuguese tradition of fado and music from Portugal’s former empire, particularly from the Cape Verde Islands near Senegal. One of the show’s most elaborate backdrops simulated a club in Lisbon.

But appreciation doesn’t equal mastery. Madonna was backed by the Portuguese guitarra player Gaspar Varela, the grandson of the fado singer Celeste Rodrigues, in an earnest, awkward fado-rooted song, Killers Who Are Partying from the Madame X album; she also performed a Cape Verdean classic, Sodade, made famous by Cesária Évora.

Reminding the audience that she had sung in Cape Verdean Creole and other languages, Madonna boasted, “This is a girl who gets around. This is a girl who does her homework.” But in the songs themselves, she only sounded like a well-meaning tourist.

Madonna was more suited to the harder beat of Batuka a song based on the matriarchal, call-and-response Cape Verdean tradition of batuque. Backed by more than a dozen batuque drummers and singers — Orquestra Batukadeiras — and doing some hip-shimmying batuque moves, Madonna conveyed the delight of her discovery, even as the hand-played beat gave way to electronic percussion.

Forty-one musicians, dancers and singers appeared throughout the two-hour-plus show, which came with the same wardrobe changes as any of Madonna’s large-scale extravaganzas (one, before Vogue, was executed before the audience, shielded by a dressing table). The singer wasn’t onstage for one of the most powerful dance moments, a break between acts when a row of performers convulsed gracefully at the lip of the stage to irregular breaths, set to a recording of Madonna intoning lyrics from Rescue Me.

Madonna spoke to and with the audience repeatedly, taking advantage of the intimacy of the room to tell bawdy jokes, apologize for starting the show late and sip a fan’s beer. But in songs and stage patter, she sometimes conflated self-realization and self-absorption with social progress. Contrasting freedom and slavery after Come Alive, she announced that slavery “begins with ourselves,” forgetting that the slave trade was not the same as being “slaves to our phones.”

Yet with Madonna, the spirit is more about sounds and images than literalism. I Rise, which ends both the album and the concert, samples a speech by Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. then goes on to some clumsy lyrics. But in a small theater, with a gospelly beat, raised fists, images of protests worldwide, a rainbow flag, and Madonna and her troupe parading up the aisle — close enough for fans to touch — there was no denying the conviction.

Set List: 

  • God Control
  • Dark Ballet
  • Human Nature
  • Express Yourself
  • Madame X Manifesto (video interlude)
  • Vogue
  • I Don’t Search I Find
  • Papa Don’t Preach / American Life
  • Coffin (video interlude)
  • Batuka
  • Fado Pechincha (with Gasper Varela)
  • Killers Who Are Partying
  • Crazy
  • Welcome to My Fado Club / La Isla Bonita
  • Sodade
  • Medellín
  • Extreme Occident
  • Rescue Me” (video interlude)
  • Frozen
  • Come Alive
  • Future
  • Crave
  • Like a Prayer
  • I Rise

Today in Madonna History: September 6, 1989

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On September 6 1989, Madonna performed Express Yourself  at the 6th annual MTV Video Music Awards at the Universal Amphitheatre, Los Angeles, CA. The Express Yourself music video picked up awards for Best Direction, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, while Like A Prayer won the Viewer’s Choice Award.

Serving as a sneak preview for 1990’s Blond Ambition Tour, the performance marked the first of many to feature the vocal trio of Madonna, Donna De Lory and Niki Haris. De Lory and Haris had previously toured with Madonna during the 1987 Who’s That Girl Tour, but had been joined by a third background vocalist, Debra Parsons. The pair would be more heavily featured as vocalist/dancers from this point forward, rather than simply band members who rarely left the confines of their microphone stand.

It was during rehearsals for the 1989 VMA performance that Niki Haris brought voguing to Madonna’s attention, and stylized poses were then fittingly incorporated into the performance’s choreography. While the performance is relatively simple compared to her numerous VMA performances in the years that followed, this puts the focus on the trio’s excellent live vocals and kick-ass choreography (keeping in mind that vocally, Express Yourself is quite a workout even without the dancing!). I consider this a great example of how sometimes less is more, and I would definitely consider this among her best awards show performances.

Today in Madonna History: August 12, 1989

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On August 12 1989, Madonna’s Express Yourself spent a fourth week at #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Music and Maxi Single Sales chart.

Madonna explained to Becky Johnston in the May 1989 issue of Interview magazine:

“The ultimate thing behind the song is that if you don’t express yourself, if you don’t say what you want, then you’re not going to get it. And in effect you are chained down by your inability to say what you feel or go after what you want. No matter how in control you think are about sexuality in a relationship there is always the power struggle… always a certain amount of compromise. Of being beholden, if you love them. You do it because you choose to. No one put the chain around this neck but me. I wrote Express Yourself to tell women around the world that pick and choose the best for yourself, before that chain around your neck, kills you instead. It’s my take on how man can express what they want, the same prerogative should be there for a woman too.”

Today in Madonna History: July 22, 1989

 

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On July 22 1989, Madonna’s Express Yourself reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart. Express Yourself was the first song that Madonna and producer Stephen Bray collaborated on for the Like a Prayer album.

“The message of the song is that people should always say what it is they want. The reason relationships don’t work is because they are afraid. That’s been my problem in all my relationships. I’m sure people see me as an outspoken person, and for the most part, if I want something I ask for it. But sometimes you feel that if you ask for too much or ask for the wrong thing from someone you care about that that person won’t like you. And so you censor yourself. I’ve been guilty of that in every meaningful relationship I’ve ever had. The time I learn how not to edit myself will be the time I consider myself a complete adult.”

—Madonna talking to Stephen Holden of The New York Times.

Today in Madonna History: June 24, 1989

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On June 24 1989, Madonna’s Express  Yourself single debuted at #21 on the Billboard Hot Dance Music/Maxi Single Sales chart.

The 12″ maxi single included the following:

  1. Express Yourself (Non-Stop Express Mix) – 7:57
  2. Express Yourself (Stop & Go Dubs) – 10:49
  3. Express Yourself (Local Mix) – 6:26
  4. The Look of Love (Album Version) – 4:00

Today in Madonna History: June 3, 1989

On June 3 1989, Madonna’s Express Yourself single was reviewed in Billboard magazine.

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