Provoking For Peace

Irreverent as Always, Madonna Goes Political

On The Town | Anna Claessen | October 2006

Top prophet Madonna crucifies herself to try to save the world from iteself (Photo: Creative Commons)

In a surprising turnabout Madonna, the pop star that became famous as "The Material Girl", is now using her celebrity for the cause of political change.

Performing in front of 85,000 paying fans in Horsens, Denmark on August 24th, toward the end of her "Confessions" tour, she directly addressed the politics of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, taking on the conflict about Israel and Palestine to a slideshow of the harm George W. Bush had caused.

The language of her protest was at times raw. "We want peace. We don’t want war. Fuck George Bush. He is a whore," she led the chanting, stirring the crowd to sustained shouts, cheering and fists raised in the air.

Later in her show to the song "Like It or Not", a video filled the screen behind her with images of natural disasters, war, dictators, Osama bin Laden, soldiers firing and people dying. A filmed sequence of George W. Bush was repeated in a closed loop, like a broken record, with a voiceover of "Don’t talk, don’t speak, I’ve heard it all before" mixing the images with the words appearing on the screen as she shouted them out.

Concertgoers included all ages, although most appeared to be between 20 and 30. A group of Icelanders attending the concert joined in the shouting. Even Amber McNeel, a 24 year old American from Salt Lake City, Utah agreed with the mood of the event.

"The statement made by Madonna was that Bush is as bad as Islamic extremists," she said. "He makes unjust accusations, such as the basis of the Iraq war, and as a result thousands of innocent people have been killed."

Most controversial was the song "Live to Tell" when the singer appeared on a giant mirrored cross wearing a crown of thorns.  To some it was pure heresy, especially the Vatican and Orthodox, who believe the act to be ridicule and a blasphemy and wanted her to remove the crucifixion. But the meaning of the cross was to some a mystery.

The singer claims that her crucifixation was done in the name of charity. While she was on the cross, a digital counter lit up enumerating the children in Africa dying of the disease and images of them flashing behind her encouraging the audience to do something about it. Like it says in the lyrics of her song "Live to Tell." "How will they hear? When will they learn? How will they know?"

The message resonated with concert goers. McNeel, who had seen the Madonna concert once before in Las Vegas, Nevada, saw the song as a statement that people need to open their eyes to what is going on in the world. She went on to say that "too few people in the United States take an active stand in politics until it affects them personally."

Icelander Ásdís Claessen, 31, and a sister of this reporter, described it as a way of saying that all the religions of the world are really the same, about peace. However analysts were less convinced.

What this has to do with crucifixion was a mystery to Dr. Dietrich Seidel, professor of Western religions at Webster Vienna. "Why go through the detours of shocking people to get across a message?" he wondered.

Dr. Michael Freund, an editor at the Austrian daily Der Standard and head of the Media Communication department at Webster Vienna, was neither appalled nor surprised by the act. "She has played with religion for over 20 years," he said. "Maybe it has something to do with her upbringing, her name or maybe to get attention. I don’t consider this provocation a serious political statement."

The anti-war theme was strong at the concert. In Forbidden Love dancers portrayed the fighting between Israel and Palestine, until, in a challenging reinterpretation of Christian orthodoxy, the singer re-enacts the Passion story, coming down off the cross to help the warring parties co-operate.

Dr. Seidel did not find this acceptable. "Do we have to go to that level to communicate?" he wondered. "Why go through so much pain to get to a positive message?"

The audience however seemed to get it or at least accept it, since many websites the following days after Madonna’s performance were filled with praises for the concert, in spite of its being ridiculed in the Danish newspapers, who refused to see it outside the realm of entertainment.

"The so-called concert by the world famous star in Horsens had nothing to do with music," criticized Henrik Queitsch in the Ekstra Bladet (Extra Paper). The newspaper cited serious technical problems that put a damper on the audience’s experience. At most 10 to 20 per cent of the spectators could see what was going on the stage, he complained. The rest had to make do with seeing figures as small as matchsticks singing and dancing on a distant stage.

"Why pay 700 kroner ($120/£70) for a concert that could only be seen on a screen?" agreed Erik Jensen, a critic at the newspaper Politiken (the Politician.)

The only woman reviewing the concert, Sigrid Hvidsten at Dagbladet (Daily magazine) saw the event with quite different eyes, however. "If God is a woman, her name is Madonna," she wrote.

Madonna uses many of her performances to raise money in her longstanding campaign for the treatment of AIDS. It may have to do with her having she lost friends to the disease, and she dedicated the song "In this Life" on her Erotica album in 1992 to them. The singer has also been a major supporter of amFAR, The American Foundation for AIDS Research, as well as a long list of AIDS organisations, donating the profits earned by specific songs dedicated to AIDS relief, and auctioning off VIP tickets or even her clothes.

According to US Billboard magazine 1.2 million people attended Madonna’s 60 shows making her "Confessions" tour the highest earning show by a female artist, making $193.7 million (€151.2 million). The previous record belonged to Cher’s Farewell Tour that included 273 shows in three years (from 2002 to 2005) that made $192.5 million (€150.26).

Whether Madonna is really trying to promote peace in the world, or to cause outrage or simply to try to make a difference her efforts appear to at least be making people think.

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