Madonna pauses and glances for a moment at her reflection in the tabletop. “People have this idea,” she says, “that if you’re sexual and beautiful and provocative, then there’s nothing else you could possibly offer. People have always had that image about women. And while it might have seemed like I was behaving in a stereotypical way, at the same time, I was also masterminding it. I was in control of everything I was doing, and I think that when people realized that, it confused them. It’s not like I was saying, ‘Don’t pay attention to the clothes – to the lingerie – I’m wearing.’ Actually, the fact that I was wearing those clothes was meant to drive home the point that you can be sexy and strong at the same time. In a way, it was necessary to wear the clothes.”
So is it feminism she’s offering or a denial of it?
She considers the notion, then shrugs. “I don’t think about the work in terms of feminism. I certainly feel that I give women strength and hope, particularly young women. So in that respect, I feel my behavior is feminist, or my art is feminist. But I’m certainly not militant about it, nor do I exactly premeditate it.
“And when women didn’t like me, I just chalked it up to the reason women always have a problem with me: It think that women who are strong, or women who wanted to be strong or be respected, were taught this thing that they had to behave like men, or not be sexy or feminine or something, and I think that it pissed them off that I was doing that. Also, I think for the most part men have always been the aggressors sexually. Through time immemorial they’ve always been in control. So I think sex is equated with power in a way, and that’s scary in a way. It’s scary for men that women would have that power, and I think it’s scary for women to have that power – or to have that power and be sexy at the same time.”
Is that why so many critics seemed perfectly comfortable with male rock stars’ sexuality but were incensed by Madonna’s displays?
“Well, yeah! I thought about that, certainly. I’d think, ‘Why aren’t they letting all this stand in the way of appreciating Prince’s music?’ He was certainly just as sexually provocative, if not more than I was. I wasn’t talking about giving head. He was much more specific than I was.”
There’s a knock at the door of her suite, a reminder that it’s time to head over to the stadium. “Actually, I can’t complain,” Madonna says, getting ready to leave. “Plenty of people are getting my message. I’m not going to change the world in a day. I don’t know, maybe it never will be where men and women will be equal. They’re too different. I mean, it just seems like as long as women are the ones that give birth to children, it’ll never really change. I’m not saying that in a sad way. I think more and more women will be able to have more freedom to do whatever they want, and they won’t have so many prejudices thrown at them, but I think it would be too idealistic to say that one day we will never be discriminated against because we’re women.
“I don’t know, am I too cynical?”
Several hours later, Madonna stands onstage before 35,000 fans at Korakuen Stadium – outfitted in a brazen courset-bustier, executing fast, sure pirouettes and striking starkly bawdy poses that recall the cocky femmes of Cabaret and The Blue Angel. It rapidly becomes apparent that all Madonna’s talk about sexual pride was hardly trifling. Indeed, although it may come as a major surprise to many of her critics, there has probably never been a more imaginative or forceful showcase for the feminine sensibility in pop than Madonna’s current concert tour. In part, that’s because Madonna is simply the first female entertainer who has ever starred in a show of this scope – a fusion of Broadway-style choreography and post-disco song and dance that tops the standards set by previous live concert firebrands like Prince and Michael Jackson.
But there is more to the show than mere theatrical savvy. Actually, a majority of Madonna’s new song-and-dance routines amount to stirring statements about dignity and triumph. Some of these are simply fun – for example, the skit in “True Blue,” where the singer gets charmed and then used by a muscle-bound lady-killer (played slyly by the show’s choreographer, master break dancer Shabba Doo) but then wins the cad back. Other moments are both fun and serious, such as “Open Your Heart,” in which Madonna pulls off some eye-busting stripper-style moves that are not only enticing but also defiant and smart. And yet still other moments come off as unabashedly serious, particularly a rendition of “Papa Don’t Preach” that takes sharp aim at some of the current batch of male authority figures (including the pope and the president) who would presume to have the power to make key decisions regarding a woman’s control of her own body. (“Ronald Reagan,” Madonna says later, “is one papa who shouldn’t preach.”)
But it is in “Live to Tell” that Madonna makes her most forceful comment on feminine spirit. For the most part, the song is Madonna’s least theatrical performance. She sings her ballad of battered hope while standing stock-still at the front of the stage, under a giant projected photo of herself that strongly resembles Marilyn Monroe. At the song’s end, as the photo turns dark and deathly, Madonna slumps onto the floor, in a pose that suggests surrender and desolation, and then gradually forces herself back to her feet, as if recovering her strength and courage through an act of titanic will. It’s a moment that could be seen as a mourning of Monroe’s gloomy end or as a refusal of the very sort of despair that was the fate of the actress.
It’s also a moment that makes plain a link between the stars: like Monroe, Madonna is bent on epitomizing and championing a certain vision of female sexuality, and also like Monroe, she is often damned and dismissed as an artist for doing so. Whether this connection is apparent to the audience gathered here in Tokyo is hard to say, though this much is sure: in that instant in “Live to Tell” when Madonna rises from the floor and stands with her head erect, a decidedly feminine yowl – in fact, the loudest roar of the evening – greets the motion. It is an acclamation that will be repeated on several other nights in the weeks ahead, as the tour makes its way around America. Madonna will still have her detractors, but somehow little girls across the world seem to recognize a genuine hero when they see one.