Friday, April 9, 2010

Throwback Thursday 04-15-10 Blond Ambition

Soooo... I tried to use my Dad's computer this morning, but I turned it on and #1, he is the last remaining human that still uses AOL and #2, it's dial up and I don't think he has a line devoted to it, meaning I think I had to disconnect the phone and all that glorious circa 1995 fun, so I was just like "Off button."

So yeah, sorry this is late!

I've been on kind of a Madonna kick for a few months now, with the release of her Celebration greatest hits collection last fall and more recently the Sticky & Sweet Tour on DVD and CD. Plus, next Tuesday's Glee is the much anticipated all-Madge episode. Then, I received last week's Entertainment Weekly and read that, on top of everything else, this is the 20 year anniversary of... well, let me put it this way. When people ask me why I'm a Madonna fan, I have two words for them:

Blond Ambition!

Madonna's third tour marked the official point when she conquered the world. This was the most elaborate tour by a pop star to date and it wasn't just big in terms of pyro and flash. The show was like theater, with Madonna addressing, via her music, sexuality, power, religion, family and... er, mermen. Heh. The show lifted her to a new level of artistry and raised the bar for future concert tours for all musicians. The show itself featured nothing but hits... with the exception of two songs from...
...I'm Breathless, her soundtrack to the movie Dick Tracy. Hard to believe, but at the time, the tour was meant to promote the candy-colored noir comic strip adaptation, produced by Disney in hopes of emulating the success of 1989's blockbuster Batman. In the film, Madonna played sultry lounge singer/gangster moll, Breathless Mahoney. The movie's soundtrack surprised listeners as the dance pop singer tackled completely new (and decidedly un-pop) genres, early-century jazz, swing, ragtime and show tunes, including three tracks penned by Stephen Sondheim, to reflect the film's1930s setting... with one exception.


Inspired by a dance craze in underground gay bars, the track was recorded during the Like A Prayer sessions, but didn't fit with that album's stripped-down, introspective tone. Instead, it was slated for release as the throw-away b-side to the final single from that album, "Keep It Together." However, with Dick Tracy looming, Warner Brothers felt that the song, which name-checked classic film stars, worked as a tie-in to the movie and tacked it incongruously onto the end of the soundtrack. (Allegedly, some early pressings of the I'm Breathless album don't include "Vogue" at the end but I'm kinda calling bullshit on that one.) The rest is history, as "Vogue" became one of Madonna's biggest, most defining hits, and a climax of the Blond Ambition tour.

The show itself bounded through various settings and styles, including the Broadway-esque, Bob Fosse inspired "Keep It Together" which served as the final encore of the show... well as the cabaret-style three song Dick Tracy segment, featuring the Top Ten hit "Hanky Panky" as well as "Sooner Or Later" which would go on to win the Academy Award for best Original Song From A Movie. The third song, "Now I'm Following You (Parts 1 & 2)" featured Madonna shamelessly lipsynching, with dancer "Slam" dressed in a vibrant yellow fedora and trenchcoat standing in for Warren Beatty on the duet.

She also delivered a spirited, disco-inspired version of "Holiday."

And the show's opener, "Express Yourself..."
...features Madonna at her most iconic, clad in a navy men's style pinstripe suit, descending a metal staircase in a setting that emulated the music video for the song, designed to look like a huge industrial machine shop, with giant turning gears and her pack of dancers, Oliver, Jose, Luis, Gabriel, Carlton, Kevin and "Slam" (more on them in a bit), (un)dressed as laborers.

Madonna's look from this performance, pink leotard with garter belts over pants...
...was both avant garde and influential, with Michael Jackson himself ripping it... er, paying homage to it, on his Dangerous Tour in 1992.
Yeah, that look totally translates well to a man. Girlfriend.

But the most memorable and poignant portion of the show was the "religious" section, which begins with the controversial Middle Eastern-influenced rearrangement of "Like A Virgin," with Madonna perched atop a red velvet bed, flanked by two male dancers wearing extra long cone bras. Madonna writhed seductively through the song, which culminated in her simulating masturbation to climax.
The Canadian authorities threatened to arrest Madonna if she performed the song in Toronto. But Madonna refused to back down and performed it anyway... and the police did nothing! So ha!

I love how the performance footage is OBVIOUSLY from a different show, since in the black and white behind the scenes footage, Madonna has the long ponytail that she wore earlier in the tour, but had to abandon in later shows because it was pulling her natural hair out and would also get tangled up in her headset microphone. Also, it chaps my ass to this day that this version of the song has never been released! I LOVE this arrangement!

In a sharp contrast, this performance was followed by a rendition of "Like A Prayer" inspired by Madonna's strict Catholic upbringing, with a giant neon blue cross hanging over the stage and Madonna's dancers and backup singers, Niki and Donna (once again, more on them in a bit) dressed as priests and nuns, and the stage decorated with flickering candles.

Enjoy the soulful climax of "Like A Prayer" belted out by its original vocalist, Niki Haris!

This was followed by a medley of "Live To Tell" and "Oh Father" and finally "Papa Don't Preach," which for space sake, I will not post, but you can look them up if you want. Basically when viewed all together, the songs illustrate hedonism with "Virgin" followed by coming under the sway of religion in "Prayer." "Live To Tell/Oh Father" illustrates repentance but also finding one's inner strength, with "Papa Don't Preach" showing Madonna realizing this strength and breaking free of the church's influence. I mean... pretty deep for a pop concert, right?!
HBO aired the final performance of the show, live from Nice on the French Riviera. I recorded it and proceeded to watch it at least once a day for the next two or three years. If no one else was home, I'd perform it complete with dance moves, which were backward, since I was mimicking the actions on the TV screen. I found my old tape not too long ago and was amused to find that the HBO telecast was introduced by a certain Matt Lauer, at least a decade before he became one of the most recognizable newscasters on TV. My transformation was instantaneous, from "I love 'Dress You Up!' And some of her other tunes are pretty good too," to "Madonna Madonna Madonna Madonna Madonna Madonna Madonna Madonna... gasp... Madonna Madonna Madonna Madonna Madonna!"

It's interesting that NO ONE else I knew was into her. All the girls at my high school seemed to be completely into hair metal, which was in it's hey day. And all the guys were into dead people like The Doors and Queen. But I ate, slept and breathed Madonna... all Madonna, all the time. I squeezed myself into girl's Madge tees and had posters of her all over my walls. I had her calendar (which was almost all pics from Blond Ambition) and once the year was up, I tore the pages out and plastered my wall with each individual shot. Too bad I wasn't smart enough to by two as I had to Sophie's Choice a few, like "Oh! This shot of her singing Sooner Or Later is cool... but so is the one on the other side of her singing Like A Virgin! How am I supposed to choose?! Why God, why?!"
But in the ensuing years, I have gladly come to realize that I certainly wasn't the only one captivated by Blond Ambition. Madonna fans all over the world memorized the names of all her backup dancers and acted like Niki and Donna were OUR best friends. The entire Blond Ambition pack appeared with Madge when she lipsynched the shit out of "Vogue" on 1990's VMAs.Which for whatever reason isn't available on Youtube. Well, it is, but the audio is disabled on all of them. LAME! You know what's not disabled? We Are Heroes' AMAZING tribute performance from last season's America's Best Dance Crew.

How freakin' awesome were those perfectly timed back flips at the end?! SO EXCELLENT!!!

Niki and Donna accompanied Madonna on her next two tours, 1993's The Girlie Show and 2001's Drowned World Tour. (Both had also previously sung backup for her on 1987's Who's That Girl Tour.) Niki then "retired" to focus on her family and her own musical career but Donna joined Madonna on two more tours, 2004's Re-Invention Tour and 2006's Confessions Tour. Pregnant, she did not participate in Madonna's most recent Sticky & Sweet Tour. Additionally, Carlton Wilburn, one of BA's dancers, also backed Madonna up on The Girlie Show.

Three of BA's dancers, Oliver, Gabriel and Kevin, sued Madonna once the theatrical documentary/concert film Truth or Dare came out, claiming invasion of privacy among other infractions. For one thing, gay dancer Gabriel was not out to his family prior to the film's release. Sadly, Gabriel subsequently died of AIDS related illness. No one seems to know what HAPPENED with this law suit, whether it was settled or if it even when before a judge. Huh, oh well.
The Truth Or Dare documentary has also been repeatedly watched and scrutinized by us fans. Sample online discussion: "Was Madonna too calouse after Sharon "Mamma Makeup" was date raped?" Perhaps. But it was an unprecedented backstage look at the life of a world famous super star at a new high, and often at her least glamorous (getting a throat check up, waking up in the morning and, ahem, simulating fellatio on a water bottle.)Not to dismiss her subsequent work. Her next single, "Justify My Love" and the following album, Erotica, showed tremendous growth musically, with her experimenting with stark electronica years before it became mainstream. Then, in a sharp twist, her next album Beadtime Stories, found her taking on a warmer, more organic sound, slow, groove-driven R&B, collaborating with hit makers like Babyface and Dallas Austin. She returned to more electronic sounds and explored her interest in Eastern religion on Ray of Light, then returned to her dance floor origins (updated significantly) on Music. American Life sucked balls. She then crafted a lighter dance album with Confessions on a Dancefloor and, as she had with Bedtime Stories in the mid-90s, took on contemporary R&B on 2008's Hard Candy, working with Justin Timberlake, Pharrell and Timbaland. Through it all, she's managed to score hit after hit (more overseas than in America of late). Her 2008-09 Sticky & Sweet Tour, while perhaps not as dramatic as Blond Ambition, was the highest grossing tour ever by a solo artist. She's still the Queen of Pop. She's earned the title of icon and legend. Her work has influenced pretty much every female pop artist... a many male... that have come since. But for long-time fans, Blond Ambition was the perfect photograph of the young Queen, sinewy and lean, climbing the mountain and seizing power... and making herself comfy on the throne.I hope they release SOMETHING to commemorate the 20 year anniversary! The Blond Ambition concert was only ever released on Laser Disc and who the hell has one of those? Does anyone even remember them?! Fans have had to make do with beat up old homemade VHS recordings and Truth Or Dare. As a fan, I bought Truth Or Dare immediately when it came out and then re-bought it when it was re-released with two extra songs tacked on to the end, Hanky Panky and Like A Prayer. But for whatever lame reason, when it was released on DVD, those two extra songs weren't included. (I should also point out that TorD doesn't include every song from the show, just like seven or so, and most are edited with other footage, including dialogue over parts.) The DVD of it has almost NO extras. There's plenty they COULD have included, bonus performances, the music video version of "Like A Virgin" posted above, plus an additional music video version of "Holiday" which is almost identical to the clip above, but has a black and white intro of Madonna, Niki and Donna singing a capella. Also, someplace foreign, they released a full-length concert filmed in Japan, from the early portion of the tour, so she has the ponytail and also, some of the between song banter is different from the Nice concert. I would EAGERLY buy a boxed set with the Truth Or Dare film (which could also contain unused bonus scenes, since it's common knowledge that the film was culled from HUNDREDS of hours of footage), and BOTH versions of the concert. AND a bonus CD of the songs including this arrangement of "Like A Virgin."

I doubt it'll happen. Rights may be an issue at this point, since Madonna has left Warner Brothers and Miramax who originally released TorD has been shaken up as well. Also, Madonna herself seems uninterested in looking back, so I can't see her pushing for a release or even wanting one to happen. The fact that so many people still consider it her high point, seems to rankle her considerably. But I can wish, can't I?

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