Madonna’s The Girlie Show tour recently turned 20, kicking off as it did on September 25th 1993. Its logistics almost seems quaint now - at only 39 dates and lasting barely 3 months, it bears little comparison to the mega-tours which are the norm nowadays. As a concert, however, its imprint is evident all over pop. The Blond Ambition tour of 1990 had taken Bowie and Broadway as its palimpsest, Madonna stamping her authority to create something daring and iconic. Afterwards she had vowed to never tour again. By 1993, however, Madonna was in the eye of the worst backlash she had ever faced following the perfect storm of her Erotica album, Sex book and Body of Evidence film. The critics had savaged all three (which, to be fair, was justified with the film) and while prurience ensured the Sex book was an instant sell-out, Erotica proved to be Madonna’s lowest-selling studio album to date. All three projects, of course, had sex at their core: having turned the controversy surrounding Blond Ambition and the panting Justify My Love to her own advantage, Madonna no doubt felt emboldened in her daring. It wouldn’t be the last time that she misjudged the mood of her audience but it perhaps remains the most spectacular and most informative. Labelled as ‘desperate’ and every other epithet still deployed today against women who use their sexuality in ways deemed ‘unacceptable’, Madonna didn’t apologize and she didn’t back down. She understood what most critics did not - that Erotica was an astounding concept album far beyond what any of her peers (save Prince) were capable of rather than limp, lazy titillation (viewed through the prism of the album, the Sex book makes much more sense than it does taken as a standalone project.) Added to the hubris built over the preceding few years, this passionate belief in her work meant that Madonna came out fighting. Thus, her pledge to never tour again was revoked and The Girlie Show was born.
The show’s truculence was evident from its (very NSFW) opening moments where, heralded by a mysterious Pierrot figure, a topless female dancer descends to the stage on a pole. The nudity would grab all of the attention yet it’s Pierrot (who appears at several moments throughout the show) who is crucial to TGS. Originally a buffoonish figure, Pierrot came to be a romantic, tragic figure who symbolised the misunderstood artist. In that sense Madonna’s identification with the character during this era was easily understood - it’s no accident that TGS ends with Pierrot revealed as Madonna herself:
There was however a subtler message in Pierrot’s use. As academic Susan Youens put it, the clown was:
…an archetype of the self-dramatizing artist, who presents to the world a stylized mask both to symbolize and veil artistic ferment, to distinguish the creative artist from the human being.
This context adds a layer to TGS, in particular Madonna’s climactic removal of the Pierrot mask to expose her face. Madonna has always been guarded about her personal life - to the point where her second mention of being raped in 20 years has been seized on as new information this week - and instead gives us glimpses of herself in her work. Yet even when she’s explicitly playing a character - the first line of both Erotica and TGS is ‘My name is Dita’ - the work is taken as a description of her quotidian life. This era, then, saw horrible misogyny whereby singing about sex meant that (for example) it was open season on Madonna’s relationships, with the ‘I Hate Madonna Handbook’ offering ‘Madonna Ex-Lover Trading Cards’ as one of its ‘jokes’. With Pierrot, Madonna was making the distinction which so few others were willing or able to make at the time (and unfortunately many still seem incapable of making): between herself as an artist and as a human being.
This is, of course, a distinction which quickly flies out the window whenever a pop female shows some flesh. Madonna managed to turn her response to it into dazzling pop art. It’s usually missed that Madonna’s first appearance in TGS, performing Erotica, is back-dropped by boxers:
TGS, then, is a combative show and its main sections (called Dominatrix, Studio 54 and Weimar Cabaret) all draw on (and subvert) common perceptions of decadence, hedonism, selfishness and moral decline. The Studio 54 section is an astounding piece of pop theatre which depicts the arrival of AIDS into an age of unabashed pleasure and sex. It pointedly portrays a mass orgy (at once summoning and dismissing the reactionary ‘sex = death’ message) from which Madonna rises to sing the defiant Why’s It So Hard, a song which in this context serves as both gay rights anthem and feminist battle cry. Indeed, lines such as “What do I have to learn to know what’s right for me? What do I have to know?” serve as apt response to the words of Sinead O’Connor and Annie Lennox this week. Both refuse to believe that Miley Cyrus can possibly understand what she’s doing and both have used the language of self-harm to describe flamboyant sexualisation. Madonna’s been there, done that, still not in a mental institution as a result.
Once we understand TGS’s critique of moral puritanism and defence of the ‘pop artist’, everything clicks into place. Holiday is performed in military attire in front of an enormous American flag while Madonna sends up knuckle-head machismo; Like A Virgin is performed as an imitation of Marlene Dietrich, whose own cabaret deliberately highlighted the artifice inherent in performance art. Madonna once famously said “I am my own experiment. I am my own work of art.” André Gide once wrote that ‘art begins with resistance.” In TGS Madonna ponders the position of the pop artist and the limitations placed upon it. As Norman Mailer put it:
Most people, no matter how brilliant, are vessels. Once you come to the end of what is interesting in them, you can touch the side of the jar. There will be nothing afterward but repetition of what you have learned already. It might take a night, a year, or half a lifetime, but once you can reach the side of the vessel, a good part of the larger feeling is gone. And the clue to discovering that a masterwork of personality is naught but one more vessel is that you can never win an argument with a glass jar. A vessel is a vessel. Beyond is the void.
So it was agreeable talking to Madonna. She had not settled yet on any of her boundaries. Perhaps she never would.
Mailer was writing after Madonna had gone even further than TGS, with the infamous David Letterman interview in 1994 remaining one of the most extraordinary television appearances by a major star. Later that year, Bedtime Stories (despite the obstinate Human Nature and its accompanying video) would begin softening her image, a process which would culminate in Evita and her re-emergence as a spiritual earth mother with Ray of Light. No matter - when it really mattered, she came out fighting. When today’s pop acts try on different personas, experiment with their sexuality and channel notoriety into their work, they are moving in spaces which Madonna played a large part in creating (and since then she’s battled to push different boundaries, most notably related to age). It’s for this reason that TGS remains my favourite Madonna tour and one of her career highlights.