Touched for the very first time

I've waited 22 years to see Madonna live in concert. But would seeing the Material Girl, lithe and gyrating at 47, make me feel like an old fogy?

Published July 21, 2006 12:26PM (EDT)

The question I was asked Wednesday by more than one person was: Is it too late to see Madonna?

They were asking me this because, at the last minute, my friend Sara had found tickets to Madge's final stop at Madison Square Garden on her "Confessions on a Dance Floor" tour. I couldn't afford a Madonna ticket and I told Sara this and she said she would buy it and I would pay it off via a kind of social layaway plan. She also said, in a bracing way: "Look, I have never seen her. You have never seen her. And I don't want us to see her when she's 65 and it's too late, you know?" Yes, I said solemnly. I know.

I understand that there are a lot of people out there who have never seen Madonna and who don't consider it a missed opportunity. But I am a 31-year-old American woman. I was 9 when I watched a ratty-looking woman pleasure herself on a Venetian gondola while a panting lion looked on in the "Like a Virgin" video and my father, glancing at the television, asked, "Who is that?" I am sure that my father, who has barely glanced at a television since, has no memory of this. But I remember. Because while I didn't understand the first thing about who she was or what she was doing to that poor lion, I knew she was fascinating. And because my mother -- who also never glances at the television and has never been able to remember anyone's name, including mine -- stunned us all by informing him, "That's Madonna."

The conclusion to which I stumbled by following the logic of that exchange turned out to be coincidentally accurate: If my mother knew who Madonna was, then she was the most famous woman in the world. Twenty-two years later, she is, at 47, the most famous woman in the world -- at least the world I grew up in. Even without having been a truly devout Madonna fan (too young to be a wannabe, I was a wannabe wannabe), I managed to own every one of her albums back when people owned albums. Even songs I think I don't know the lyrics to -- like "Music," or "Ray of Light," or "Take a Bow"? -- I know the lyrics to. Madonna has been the soundtrack to my life.

So I agreed with Sara that this was a pretty momentous event and besides, we had a hot ticket. They all sold out in four minutes or something and this was the kind of concert the cool kids went to, and weren't we hip to be going at all. In short, I felt the way I probably should have felt at 15 if I'd scored tickets to the "Blond Ambition" tour.

Which became abundantly clear when I happened to mention to my mother that I was going to see Madonna. "My goodness!" she chuckled. "That's really some old-fashioned entertainment." That's right. My mother -- the 62-year-old woman who still occasionally asks me what ever happened to "that young rock 'n' roll guy, Billy Joel," which she still pronounces Billy Joe-Elle despite having been corrected 1,000 times, that mother -- was teasing me about being an old fogy because I was going to see Madonna.

Then my brother called. He's been calling a lot recently because he has a 6-week-old son and chatting with a 6-week-old gets boring fast, which makes chatting with your sister a lot more appealing. I told him I was going to Madonna. "Well, you're showing up a little late to that party, aren't you?" he said. I should mention that my brother is 28 and cannot drive a car so I don't know where he gets off making fun of me. "No, I'm sure it'll be great," he said. "Like if Yente from 'Fiddler on the Roof' got her own show for two hours." Then my brother underscored just how doddering we both are (as if the 'Fiddler' reference weren't enough) by consulting with his 6-week-old son as we spoke. "Do you think Madonna is still relevant to your generation, Noah?" he asked. "Do you think that the Material Girl still has the power to put asses in the seats?" I heard Noah burp loudly before hanging up.

Here is the thing: Because I have never actually been to a Madonna concert, and because going is something I considered doing at 9 and 13 and 25, it is not something that makes me feel old at all. In fact, it makes me feel rather spry! Then again, here's another thing: I go to Bruce Springsteen concerts. All the time. As a matter of fact, I have seen Bruce Springsteen four times in the past three months. And what's more, some friends just yesterday proposed that we fly to Dublin to see him play in November and to my immense surprise I said that seemed like a good idea, even though I have never been the kind of person who thinks that flying anywhere to see someone perform is a good idea, let alone if you have seen that person perform four times in the past year, let alone if that person is in his late 50s and you are completely aware that your devotion to him sort of dates you.

Also, in the past year, I have paid money to see Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Prince. For the record, I have also seen Feist and Neko Case, though we left Neko Case early because it was standing only and sort of hot. And I thought about seeing Cat Power, but didn't.

But in any case, what I am saying is that I am not one of those people who goes to shows by Modest Mouse or the Libertines. I feel comfortable admitting that my musical tastes are creaky.

But I somehow felt bad about the perception that Madonna is a creaky act. Maybe because it makes me feel old. Maybe because my radar was so off that I thought it was cool I was going to a Madonna concert when really it was fogyish. Maybe, because seeing Madonna was something I'd wanted to do since I was 9, I got momentarily tricked into thinking I was 9 again.

Anyway, I went. And I think it's a good thing I didn't see Madonna when I was younger, because I might not have been old enough to handle it. There have been a lot of reviews of the concert -- which I assume never varies, since who could do anything spontaneous when you have 14 tightly choreographed backup dancers in chaps? -- but here is a rundown of what happened:

Madonna hatched out of a disco-ball egg that opened like a multifaceted DeLorean; there were pulsing lights and reflecting surfaces; it looked like 12 disco emporia had vomited simultaneously all over the Garden stage. A team of shirtless, musclebound dancers clippety-clopped around in plumed riding hats; gymnasts did some impressive tumbling and jumping on uneven bars, and a woman in electric blue Middle Eastern-ish gear convulsed in a cage. There was crumping. (OK, the truth is, I thought it was break-dancing but when I read Kelefa Sanneh's review of the concert in the Times, he said it was crumping.) At one point, Madonna donned a white Travolta suit and danced like Tony Manero on a lighted-up tiled floor; at another, she invited the audience to "suck George Bush's dick." Images flashed: of dead dolphins and tigers and falling horses. Of Bush, Dick Cheney, Nazis, scud missiles, Klansmen, red blood cells. There was a roller-skating segment straight out of "Starlight Express." It was the Folies Bergères, it was Bianca Jagger at Studio 54; it was the Moulin Rouge -- if all those things were viewed at a distance, as if they were being broadcast when they were actually live.

After Madonna sang "I have a tale to tell," the first line of "Live to Tell," there were performance-arty monologues about falling, or being a gang-banger, acted out on jutting portions of stage by people who were not Madonna. In fact, there was a lot in the show by people who were not Madonna. Several minutes would go by in which Madonna was nowhere onstage but six people in loincloths were climbing jungle gyms or a guy in a turban was blowing a ram's horn and then all of a sudden Madonna -- well-rested and in a new costume -- would get lowered from a helicopter or shot from a cannon, or do what she actually did on Wednesday night, which was appear to sing "Live to Tell" hanging from a disco-ball cross dressed in a peasant blouse, a sequined belt and a crown of thorns.

You probably saw the pictures of Madonna on this cross when the tour started. I remember shaking my head in admiration; this woman's commitment to creating new ways to dismay the public is simply unrivaled. The trouble is, she's made her own job so much harder. Whether she herself trained us not to flinch in the face of manipulated sexual and religious iconography or whether she has simply ridden the larger cultural shock wave past its crest, I'm not sure what her future as a provocateur could possibly hold. The self-crucifixion thing was a good try, but ... eh. She may have to hang on until the day when, in a retirement gesture that will make Streisand cry in her tsimmes, she can disembowel herself onstage.

Anyway, back to the concert: After Madge came off the cross, she launched into "Sorry." The man in front of me -- and believe me, he was practically the only man in front of me; everyone at this concert was female -- started convulsing, face in his hands, Beatlemania-style. Then she stripped into a tank top and began singing, for real (which you could tell because her voice was out of breath, as it should be), and ground her hips into a chair. Madonna humped everything that stood still long enough for her to wrap her legs around it. At one point -- and I do not think this particular disco egg is worth cracking open here and now -- she rode a black man like a horse.

The concert was not at all like watching two hours of Yente from "Fiddler on the Roof," unless updated productions of "Fiddler" have included scenes in which Yente whips a bare-chested Tevye with a riding crop and yells at the audience, "That's right, you motherfuckers, I love New York!" Which, I suppose, is possible. I never saw the version with Madonna's friend Rosie O'Donnell.

In 2004, Sanneh wrote about Madonna's Re-Invention tour that, "When you imagine Madonna, you don't see a single image but a time-lapse photograph, with one persona melting and warping into the next." It's a great line, and a great description of what I felt last night, watching Madonna live, for the first time in my life. When I look at her, it's hard not to imagine decades -- of her life, and of my life -- written on her body. That body. Her legs aren't even traditionally shapely anymore: Their muscles are serpentine and distinct; she's an anatomical enterprise as much as an aesthetic or athletic or musical one. I wonder if Madonna made that body so strong because she has to lug so much of her own baggage around on it every day.

Watching that body -- not a ligament, let alone a strand of hair, out of place -- it's hard not to think of the soft, ragged young woman who was content to hump a stage in a wedding dress back in 1984. I looked for that younger woman at Madison Square Garden. It was she, after all, who made this older woman -- this freak of pop culture -- possible. But if it was easy to recall younger iterations of the performer, it was tough to actually spot them onstage on Wednesday night. And I think that's how she wants it right now.

Madonna played almost all of her new album and only a handful of her classic songs; she seemed to be stamping her feet to convey that she is no nostalgia act. But in drawing such a severe line between her older and her younger selves, in successfully insisting that she's no fogy, she actually made me feel like more of one.

It was in her grand finale, "Hung Up," the best part of the night -- that it felt like a concert at all. She let her hair down, literally and figuratively, and when she threw her leotarded bod around the stage, rubbing herself against a giant boom box, there was the first, and only, glimmer of authentic eroticism. It was then, for the first time, that she appeared to let herself get taken in by her own music, to lose just a shred of control. And for a second, she looked so young -- like that girl in the New York clubs with her stupid leggings and torn gloves -- and she seemed to notice at last that she had a flesh-and-blood audience and berated us, in her old S/M way, to sing along. "Time goes by -- so slowly/ Time goes by -- so slowly/ Time goes by -- so slowly." The crowd rose 20 feet in the air on adrenaline alone. And still she kept holding the microphone out: "Time goes by -- so slowly."

And that was when I, or my 9-year-old self, got way overstimulated. Hearing words about time going by so slowly while staring at Madonna's preserved, warped body; considering all the long-forgotten cultural references on display -- whatever happened to Tony Manero anyway? I was confused about why I was enjoying "Hung Up" more than "Like a Virgin," about why so much of the concert, especially the familiar songs, had seemed so distant but that this new song had brought her alive. And my brain began to expand and contract in sync with the pulsing lights and the rhythmic chanting -- "Time goes by -- so slowly" -- and all I could think was that time goes by so quickly. And that sometimes, like tonight, it can fold in on itself, and remind us of how far away we are from our old selves, our old bodies, our old memories even as we experience things that bring the past to mind. And how this woman, who has been in my consciousness my whole life, seems to be trying to stop time -- by singing about it and making her body impervious to it and making her career about the present not the past. And then I came close to doing the most old-fogy thing I can imagine: crying at a concert. And just then she finally broke the trance with a final euphoric verse: "Every little thing that you say or do/ I'm hung up/ I'm so hung up on you."

"That was a great fucking song," Sara said to me, breathlessly. We walked downstairs, out onto the street, talking about the show. And then, as we exited Madison Square Garden, she turned to me. "You know what?" she said. "Maybe we saw her too late."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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