Every time I promise to post something epic I fail miserably. Like, to the point that I don’t even do it. I knew I had doomed myself when I promised the concert review because it was a big enough event that I simply won’t ever be able to do it justice here.
So forget it.
First off, I don’t go to shows. I’m not a concert-goer at all. But once in a while (don’t laugh, there really was an edandheidi.com) a show that I can be talked into (like I said, they’re rare) comes along. Often I have to be told about them, as I don’t follow concert goings-on, and this time was no different. In fact, I just was handed tickets for my birthday back in June. Otherwise I would have had no idea.
The show: Madonna. The place: Oracle Arena in Oakland.
I’ve been a huge fan of Madonna since high school. This often surprises people the first time they hear that, but it goes right along with my love for most things pop and sung by women. Or just things sung by women. I have no idea what deep psychological problem lies at the root of this preference, but whatever it is, I’ve embraced it. I love Madonna’s music and had considered it, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, a goal to see her live in my lifetime. I’m not entirely into the sexual stuff she does other than as an interesting thing to see from the standpoint of it as a social statement or the evolution of a particular star. In fact, weirdly, she’s one of the few artists whose social statements have ever actually interested me. Not that I am swayed by her one way or another, but other people just bore me with their anti-this or pro-that proclamations. She has always been different, though.
Needless to say, my fandom for Madonna is often ridiculed. What that typically means is that I don’t bring it up unless I’m ready to back it up with serious authority. Of course, that generally means fake laughing at a few gay jokes (“So what you’re saying is that only gay people like Madonna? Ahhhh. That’s funny. In a sophomore year, still wondering about yourself way.”) and threatening to eat someone’s children in a Mike Tyson voice. The Mike Tyson part isn’t real. I can’t do his voice.
Getting the tickets was pretty cool. There are about two people in the world that would think of me when they heard there are Madonna tickets available: my mom and Christy. Christy hooked them somehow way back in May or June and gave them to me for my birthday. She says it sucked because the show was November 1, which is, like, almost five months later. When I got them I assured her that was no big deal. I was thrilled to go.
Battling the stereotype was something she apparently had to do with the people we went with. When asking if they wanted to go, the guy kept asking whose concert it was. Christy kept saying it was Madonna, then he’d ask, “And these are for Ryan?” “Yes, they are. I assure you.” That was pretty funny for me to hear that story. I would have guessed he’d know, but he didn’t.
As for the show, this is the hard part. I just watch and take it all in. Christy thought I was having a bad time, but I was loving it. I had seen a couple of her performances on DVD and things like that, so I knew the drill. I wanted to make sure I saw everything, so I didn’t get crazy. I just enjoy the sound, watch the production, etc.
The production was simply amazing. As someone who works with video and has even shot a concert before, I appreciate great work. This was beyond that. Way beyond it. Every single song had a video element to it, and I didn’t notice a single misstep by either Madonna or the crew. The video elements were enormous and complicated, too. The latest album has several songs featuring other artists, and they obviously weren’t in attendance, so they worked those people in through the video. Kanye West was in there, Justin Timberlake was brought out in the form of four portable, moving video boards. These were pushed by dancers into various places on the stage, and his dance moves were choreographed to go along with Madonna’s. It was real impressive. The setup for the video crew was huge. Several tables filled with equipment and a roped off area about 50’ x 50’ housed them. We were up and to the side, so we didn’t get the full effect, but the video board was so big that seeing it from face on would have been almost overwhelming. Many of the backgrounds were built to make the video being shot of the show look cool, I’m sure. And judging from the screen available to us, it was cool.
The song selection was about as you’d expect. Mostly stuff from the new album, and some classics mixed in. One glaring omission was Like a Virgin. I think she’s done it so well so many times it has served as the barometer that measured her evolution as a pop star. From the original white wedding dress to the masturbation scene to the more club-beatish version on the last tour, you could see how she’s changed over the years. This time, perhaps fittingly, it was absent save the short, contrived (I’m guessing it was added as the tour progressed) audience-you-sing-it (she actually had to go through three people asking what they wanted to hear before someone finally figured out this is where she was going – must have all been kids) portion of the show as she rested between segments.
When 4 Minutes came on, it brought the house down. That song is just cool. It does have Timbaland on it, and that pretty much guarantees awesomicity (last point), but still it was crazy cool on its own. The way she mixed in elements of the song throughout the show built the anticipation. The ticking clock shows up a few times, and I think even the horns did, too. Doing that made the place freak out a couple times thinking it was next, then it transitions into another song entirely.
Transitioning is another of her major strong points. I listen to the radio sometimes and hear DJs doing mixes and stuff like that. I even saw Oakenfold once in Tahoe. These guys make themselves by transitioning from one song to another, and none of them even sound professional compared to the music at Madonna’s show. It’s unreal. It could be that she writes just about all of her stuff, I guess. But there are times when she comes out of nowhere with a song while doing the equivalent of a magician distracting you with another. It’s a treat, and I think it makes it better when you know the songs like I do.
There was no major political business at this show. She has one video piece (she uses several to move between segments of the show and change outfits or something—it flat out never stops) called Get Stupid which is obviously political. Whenever Barack Obama appeared in the video he did so to massive cheers. After that, she made the call to elect Obama. It was classy, though. No “F Sarah Palin” comments here.
I can’t believe there is a harder worker in pop music today or for the past twenty years. She once made the comment that she knows she’ll never be the best dancer, the best choreographer, best singer, or best songwriter. But she also knows she can blow you away at being pretty good at all of them. You don’t go see Madonna expecting her to sing like Mariah Carey. But you can bet she’ll entertain the hell out of you. She is constantly working. She left stage a few times, but I’d think the max was for about three minutes. Then she was back out there busting ass again.
Finally, I could be totally fooled here, but I am really impressed that she actually sings her stuff. With a couple obvious exceptions (maybe only one), she’s really singing. The one exception is a song where she sings, then responds to herself. She was only singing one part of the two, and you could see that on the video board, so it wasn’t like it was disguised. Based on some statements she made in Truth or Dare and what I think to be true, she’s singing all the rest. On top of that, I think she’s taken the time to learn new things. She carries a guitar around for a bit of the show, and even turned Borderline into a punk Jam with herself on the lead. I loved that one. I’m not a huge fan of the song, but this made it more bearable. When it comes to arguing over this stuff, I tend to side with “she’s doing it” because I think she has a lot more to lose by not doing it. As far as I know, she has always said she does, so why take the chance by not doing what you say? Besides, her work ethic is legendary, so I see no reason she couldn’t learn the guitar and go for it. It’s another reason I have so much respect for her music. I’m sure she micromanages and can be downright mean, but it’s her name all over the albums and marquees, so you can bet she’s going to want control over it.
Madonna has to be in the top five all-time of pop stars. I’d rank her at the top, simply for the longevity and my personal preference. I’m not a big Beatles guy, but I think they could logically rank above her. Michael Jackson ruined it for himself by becoming the freak show I think Madonna barely avoided. To finally have my chance at seeing her, considering that statement, was a big deal to me. I didn’t bring a camera because I was scared by their “No Cameras” line on the ticket, but it seems like I could have gotten away with it. Plus, I freaking forgot my pocket video camera in the car at the hotel or I’d have original video of something. Oh well. Best not to take chances. Overall, I think it lived up to and beyond the expectations I had set for such a thing. I though it would kick ass, and it really kicked ass. I’d see her again, but I have heard this is it for touring. If it is, I’m glad I got in there. If not, we might do it all over again.
Ryan Jerz is an all-around good guy who shoots photos and video, builds websites, and works in athletics at the University of Nevada, where he handles the department's digital presence, including online and in stadiums and arenas. Ryan is also a digital production instructor at Nevada's Reynolds School of Journalism.