Wishing Madonna a happy birthday…
Madonna in Paris
The Olympia Hall was first opened in 1889 by Joseph Oller, creator of the Moulin Rouge. From 1929 it became a cinema, until after the liberation of France from German occupation in 1944, when it was revived as a music hall free to allied troops in uniform. Re-launched in 1954, the Olympia has since hosted legendary performances by artists from Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel and Marlene Dietrich, to rock acts including the Grateful Dead and Jeff Buckley.
Madonna has long had a love affair with Paris. She first visited the city in 1978 as a twenty year-old dancer for disco star Patrick Hernandez, the one-hit wonder who briefly found fame with his international hit, ‘Born to be Alive’. During the Blond Ambition tour of 1990, Madonna became a muse for designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. The gold cone bra she wore onstage has become part of her iconography. And in 2000, Madonna collaborated with the Paris-based record producer, Mirwais Ahmadzai, on one of her finest albums, Music.
On the evening of Thursday, July 26, 2012, her show began with a video montage of past hits, cranked from a vintage radio dial. Madonna appears onstage in shadow, singing and playing guitar to her latest release, ‘Turn Up the Radio.’ Slowly her band members are revealed – including musical mentor Monte Pittman – and she struts down a catwalk, greeting fans. As the song ends, Madonna blows a kiss to the audience and mouths ‘I love you.’ She dons a beret and is joined by dancers, and the Basque Country’s Kalakan trio, for a reworking of her 1987 single, ‘Open Your Heart.’ This is a soulful, drum-heavy version, with joyful, gypsy-influenced dancing. At one point, Madonna twirls alone on the catwalk, singing the familiar chorus, and the years seem to fall away.
The dancers are then seated while Madonna makes a speech. To the fans who camped in the street, she says, ‘I don’t take you for granted.’ She talks of her pride at being invited to the Olympia: ‘I walk in Edith Piaf’s footsteps – no, I crawl in her footsteps.’ She then praises the radical spirit of France. During the 1920s and 30s, she reminds the audience, black artists like Josephine Baker, marginalised in America, came to Paris. ‘France opened its doors to people who were different,’ she says.
She responds directly to Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National Party. In a video for ‘Nobody Knows Me’, shown during the MDNA tour, Madonna’s face is overlaid by Le Pen’s, with what looks like a swastika in the background. (In fact, the image is not the infamous Nazi symbol, but its reverse – an ancient peace sign.) ‘It was not my intention to offend anyone,’ says Madonna. ‘My aim is to promote tolerance.’ She goes on to mention the economic turmoil sweeping the globe, and a growing mood of fear that leads people to point the finger at others. This section of the show has an intimate feel, perhaps because Madonna is performing not in an arena or stadium, but a theatre with a capacity of 2,000. It is a rare opportunity to connect with a smaller audience, and she seems to relish it.
She introduces ‘Masterpiece’, the Golden Globe-winning theme from W.E., as ‘a song about love and disappointment’. Once again she is accompanied by Kalakan, and a violinist. Hearing Madonna singing this torchy ballad at Olympia evokes memories of the great female artists who preceded her.
In an interlude, a revamped version of her sultry 1991 hit, ‘Justify My Love’, is played, accompanied by a grainy, monochrome of Madonna in lingerie – watching, and being watched. Onstage, a group of male dancers perform a rather sinister mime in clownface.
Madonna returns with her full troupe for a spectacular performance of her 1990 dancefloor gem, ‘Vogue.’ At first masked, she then reveals herself in another guise. Wearing a masculine shirt, tie and trousers, blonde hair pinned back in a chignon, she cuts an androgynous figure – topped by a black, wired Gaultier corset. A backdrop video shows images of old-time Hollywood glamour, shuttered like a Venetian blind.
The closing bars roll into a rearranged ‘Candy Shop’, the suggestive track that opened the Hard Candy album of 2008. This remix has a warmth that the original lacked, adding a retro House flavour reminiscent of Stevie V’s 1989 club hit, ‘Dirty Cash.’ The bordello setting recalls Madonna’s Sex era, and the tactile choreography of ‘Why’s It So Hard’ from The Girlie Show tour of 1993. With a slippery mixture of sensuality and athleticism, Madonna performs an erotic dance with her current boyfriend, the 24 year-old Parisian Brahim Zaibat.
She then recreates on stage the video for her 1994 hit, ‘Human Nature’. Dancers grope at her body while she wanders through a hall of mirrors. At the close of this song, Madonna strips down to her black lingerie and walks away. For a woman in her fifties, this is a provocative act. In recent years, Madonna has been criticised for refusing to ‘act her age’. Though highly sexualised, this is really an act of defiance. Once again, Madonna asserts the right to express herself.
She returns in a black Burberry trenchcoat, brandishing a gun, with a group of identically-dressed female dancers. The opening bars of her 2003 Bond theme, ‘Die Another Day,’ is mashed into a guitar-led performance of ‘Beautiful Killer,’ a bonus track from MDNA and fan favourite. A video montage features the iconic French actor Alain Delon, star of 1960s New Wave cinema, and the inspiration for ‘Beautiful Killer.’
This part of the show is not included in the MDNA Tour setlist, and so offers the audience a truly different experience. The next song, ‘Je t’aime…moi non plus’ is a cover of the scandalous 1969 duet featuring songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and his lover, Jane Birkin, which reached No1 in England but was banned in the UK. Madonna duets with one of her dancers, whom she handcuffs and ties to a chair. She then writhes on the floor with abandon, and finally shoots her lover in the head. The gunplay also features on the MDNA Tour, but ‘Je t’aime’ is a one-off tribute to her French fans. The show ends here, with Madonna retreating in silhouette, rather like James Bond.
Whatever controversy this ending may have provoked among media critics was quickly overshadowed by the audience’s mixed reaction to her departure. Some fans, surprised and angry that the show had only lasted 45 minutes, began chanting ‘Bitch’ and throwing bottles at the stage. This led to bad press for Madonna. The performance was billed as a ‘showcase’, which denotes a shorter length than the two hours of a standard MDNA tour date. Many artists today routinely perform for one hour. However, it seems that some fans were not aware of this distinction, and had paid highly to attend.
It has also been rumoured that the dissenting fans may have been supporters of the far right, and had planned to sabotage the show. Madonna hinted at this when she released a statement on her official website.
Playing the Olympia was a magical moment for me and it was a real treat to do this special show for my fans and be so close to them. Unfortunately at the end of the show – after I left the stage – a few thugs who were not my fans rushed the stage and started throwing plastic bottles pretending to be angry fans. The press reports have focused on this and not the joyous aspect of the evening. But nothing can take away or ruin this very special evening for me and my fans. When I looked out in the audience, everyone I saw had a smile on their face. I look forward to having this wonderful experience again.
You can watch the director’s cut of Madonna’s Paris show here.