Friday, December 12, 2008

Top Ten Madonna Moments of 2008

It was by no means a bold prophesy to predict that we'd have an embarrassment of Madonna riches on our hands this past year.

With her countless projects and exhaustively crammed 2008 schedule, from "Heartbeat" to heartbreak, the most famous woman in the world didn't fail to
keep her name bouncing around the zeitgeist, notwithstanding a turning-point American election, a global economic crisis, and the unabashed headline-sucking of interchangeably wannabe starlets.

The media couldn't get enough Madonna, even in the (rare) times this year when it seemed like flying under the radar was her M.O. Whether it be a paparazzi fest in the Mumbai slums at the tail end of her long Indian vacation, feverish reportage of a Marilyn Monroe historian's confusion of
Sex-era Madonna and her onetime muse, or the pile-on of bad buzz during preparations for the Sticky & Sweet Tour - least of which was the almost-too-perfectly-timed release of "estranged" brother Christopher Ciccone's poison-penned book - the line between sanctioned product and leaks from within the Great Madonna Media Dam became increasingly blurred.

So much happened in the world of Madonna, in fact, that no less than her seventh career Grammy (for
The Confessions Tour DVD) is but a minor historical footnote of the past twelve months. The woman had a lot going on.

The following ten events best illustrate what made up the significant signposts of a busy time for the busiest lady, Madonna '08:

10. Madonna hosts UNICEF/Gucci fundraiser (February 6). It's redundant at this point in her career to use the word "controversial" with anything associated with Madonna. Sure enough, some critics sniped that her co-promoted gala fundraiser - with proceeds going to Raising Malawi and UNICEF - was a front for Kaballah and Madonna's eyebrow-raising spiritual endeavors. Others, concerned that the party smacked of commercialism with its direct tie to the Italian fashion house, claimed the head-spinningly star-studded affair - which attracted the upper echelon of the A-list (Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow) - violated U.N. ethics rules by being held on the organization's grounds. The bash took place as scheduled and, all told, raised $5.5 million for the causes, a rousing charitable success that silenced her detractors. Later that month, an emboldened Madonna again channeled her inner event-planner, this time on a decidedly more earthly plane, and filled the party circuit void created by the recently-ended writers' strike. Her hush-hush February 24 post-Oscar bash, co-hosted with Demi Moore and held on manager Guy Oseary's L.A. property, enlivened the picket-ravaged town for one brief, shining, ultra-exclusive night. Madge and Demi wore matching golden Diane von Furstenberg gowns and served absinthe to the talent-heavy throng of elite guests. After a winter of organizing such high-wattage events, it's clear that if that whole music thing doesn't pan out, Madonna now has an alternate career - party promoter! - on which to fall back.

9. Filth and Wisdom premieres at the Berlin Film Festival (February 13). There is an old Hollywood truism that goes, "Whatever Madonna wants to do, Madonna does" (see: Dick Tracy, Evita, Swept Away). Back in 2006, Madonna repeatedly said she wanted to helm a film. And so it was. After revealing her intention to direct, she did indeed realize her vision. Defying those who shrugged off what they perceived as mere narcissistic rhetoric, Madonna got down to business. She co-wrote a story, put together financing, and installed herself as the lenser. The resultant labor of love is a semi-autobiographical ensemble piece starring Eugene Hutz (of Gogol Bordello and Madge-at-Live Earth fame) that was shot in and around London throughout 2007. The few reports from the set that did trickle in were predictably not kind toward our budding auteur, perhaps foreshadowing the project's fate. But not before a glimmer of hope had emerged: After evolving through development from a short to a full feature, the film saw the light of day at a splashy first screening at the 58th annual Berlin Film Festival, the reputable global birthplace for such titles as Rain Man and Sense and Sensibility. The main draw for Filth and Wisdom was of course its hugely famous director, who gamely walked the red carpet and participated in a Q&A panel. Hopefully just completing the vanity project and getting such a preeminent launch was its own reward for Madonna ... because the knives came out; reviews were mixed to terrible, and M struggled to find distribution for the movie. Ultimately, it got a limited release, and box office was downright dismal. So why, exactly, is this cinematic flameout so important? In light of the international attention fixed on the project, we're reminded of another Hollywood truism: "When Madonna fails, she fails spectacularly."

Madonna turns 50 (August 16). When was the last time a celebrity's birthday received so much press? Madonna was alternately lavished with praise and lashed upon hitting the big five-oh, the former for her amazing ability to stay so vibrant and fit, the latter for her seeming inability to wear "age-appropriate" garments for too terribly long. She didn't mark the day with that long-rumored Central Park gig. Guy Ritchie threw a party at London hotspot Volstead to celebrate with almost a hundred of their closest friends. Since she was only a week away from kicking off her world tour, she was back at the gym the next morning. When asked how she felt about reaching the half-century mark, Madonna laughed and said, "Wait a minute. Stop right there - is it a landmark for a lady? I don't see it as a milestone but everybody keeps mentioning it. I see it as another excuse to have a birthday party." If she wasn't going to make a big deal about turning 50, someone had to. It was the perfect day to open up discussions about persistent sexist and ageist industry double-standards, Madonna's long career, and those evergreen plastic surgery rumors. And her 50th was an inkblot by which analysts could face down their own places in life, eliciting people's perspectives on mortality ("Yes, Virginia, there is a Madonna, and she isn't going to live forever ...") and nostalgia ("... but, wow, do you remember her pissing off the Pope during Blond Ambition? I feel old.").

Madonna strikes a deal with StubHub (May 9). Madonna bedded down with ticket reseller StubHub and maybe cheated on her fans in a move that reflects capitalism at its finest. News that the superstar reached an agreement with the eBay-owned company to profit, basically, off of mark-ups in the so-called "secondary ticket market" infuriated fans and industry watchers. (Music blog Idolator, for example, posted a piece entitled "StubHub: The Official Scalper of Madonna Tickets".) Madonna's new label and 360-degree promoter, LiveNation, obviously needed to recoup some of the expenses of sending one of its marquee acts on the road in a downturning economy. The gross of all face-value tickets was not going to cover all the outlays of cash required of the tour and yield a sizable enough haul to justify LiveNation's substantial payout to Madonna, so Madonna and LiveNation taking a chunk of the profits of the prominent reseller made fiscal sense. By securing an agreement with StubHub, Madonna and LiveNation were also given a modicum of control over the marketing for such resales. When brokers and ticketholders wanted to unload their in-demand stash, they most likely turned to StubHub with its guarantee policy and quality control, and LiveNation and Madonna could feel assured in directing prospective buyers to the site. "Forget trying on Ticketmaster," they would essentially say when seats were suspiciously gobbled up, "and head to StubHub!" While the deal was a disappointing reaffirmation to some that the Material Girl's in it just for the coin, it again reframed Madonna as business savvy: If anyone should be making money off of fans' willingness to pay beyond the established ticket prices, why shouldn't it be the artist herself?

Madonna debuts Hard Candy material at Roseland Ballroom in NYC (April 30). "Get up out of your seat. Come on up to the dance floor," she commanded. Madonna earned her seventh number one album (second only to Barbra Streisand) with the April 29 release of Hard Candy. Her eleventh studio album - the last with Warner Bros. - is a blend of slick urban production and dance beats featuring contributions from Pharrell Williams (whose production on the suggestive "Candy Shop" and Grammy-nominated "Give It 2 Me" provide a love-it-or-hate-it litmus test for his skills), Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, and Kanye West (offering expendable rap on standout "Beat Goes On"). Critical reception was immediately lukewarm (overproduced or airtight? Instantly dated or forward-thinking?). To promote the album and ensure its "event" status in these file-sharing times, Madonna gave three free performances, the first of which was a jam-packed show at the site where the Music promo tour roared into New York in 2000. Eschewing a distinct "look" for this particular era, Madonna forwent cowboy hats and henna tattoos for an uneasy collision of athletic boxer edge ("hard") and visuals of literal sweets ("candy"). About 1,800 fans lucky enough to win a contest or brave enough to wait for hours outside the venue witnessed Madonna premiere the new songs. (The show was simulcast online by MSN.) "Candy Shop" became the latest in a string of Madonna songs made cooler live (see also: "Impressive Instant" and "Future Lovers"), and energetic closer "Give It 2 Me" gave her backup dancers a nice platform to exercise, while uptempo ballad "Miles Away" allowed Madonna to strap on a guitar, as she did for a noisy, hard rock-tinged "Hung Up". She also juiced this millennium's "Holiday", "Music", with an '80s backbeat sample and retro New York vibe. Timberlake joined Madonna on stage to perform their hit duet "4 Minutes" as they darted around roving video screens. Madonna later took the show to Maidstone, England and Paris to shore up international support. Meanwhile, the album has rivaled American Life for the dubious distinction of being Madonna's least-selling domestically to date (despite gold certification). On the other hand, it is one of the best-selling worldwide albums of the year, increasing Madonna's global tally over three million units.

5. I Am Because We Are premieres at the TriBeCa Film Festival (April 24). Madonna hit the film festival circuit again to introduce the documentary she had been writing and producing since 2006. I Am Because We Are, directed by Nathan "Madonna's gardener" Rissman, is a film about the struggles of African nation Malawi's populace in the face of hunger and malnourishment, political instability, and AIDS, with a keen focus on how these ills affect the country's millions of orphaned children (including Madonna's adopted son, David). The generally well-received movie explores - through profiles of several Malawian orphans, interviews with luminaries such as Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu, and input from relief workers - as per an official blurb, "all sides of the dilemma, from responsibility to victim mentality." First stop on this movie junket was New York City's seventh annual TriBeCa Film Festival, where the first screening was instantly oversold, a sign that Madonna's name could lure fans to a message movie. Five additional SRO screenings followed. Then, on May 22, seventeen years after Truth or Dare arrived at the Cannes Film Festival, Madonna went back to the glitzy French seaside fete to unveil I Am Because We Are, but the good intention behind the movie was dimmed by the huge yacht party - ironic, no? - thrown by Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller to honor Madge. Madonna even did buddy Michael Moore a favor and pressed the flesh at the Traverse Film Festival in their shared homestate of Michigan on August 2. People camped out to see her, and the little-known festival - that Moore helps program - suddenly made headlines. Sayeth Mr. Moore, "[Madonna's] presence here in Traverse City will have a profound impact on people." Said impact could manifest in humanitarianism ... or maybe concert ticket-buying. It was at a panel at Traverse where she giddily announced her world tour's Detroit homecoming, the first since 2001's Drowned World Tour. Unfortunately, the good news about her return may have come too late; the Detroit show, on sale several months after other markets, was the poorest-selling on the tour.

"4 Minutes" becomes Madonna's 37th Top Ten hit (April 2). With all due respect to Elvis Presley, the King has been displaced by the Queen. The lead single off Hard Candy, a Grammy-nominated ditty sung with Justin Timberlake against a chunky trumpet rhythm, vaulted into the Billboard Top Ten and became Madonna's 37th song to do so. That number nudged past Elvis' previous record of 36 Top Ten hits. "4 Minutes" soared to and then stalled at #3, giving Madonna her biggest hit since 2000's "Don't Tell Me", and Madonna found herself in the Top Five in twenty-eight countries. Anticipating the popularity of the song thanks to JT's presence and Timbaland's polarizing, trademark hitmaking production, Madonna shot a high-concept, high-gloss video that was nominated for a choreography VMA. In the clip, Madonna looks amazingly young as she nonchalantly flees a black, amorphous CGI entity devouring everything in its path (parking lot, supermarket), and she doesn't seem out of place gyrating next to the decades-younger Timberlake. Riding the song's digital download success and taking advantage of the immediacy of the internet, Madonna even hit YouTube on April 16 and encouraged fans to upload covers of the song. Concurrent with the song's breakthrough was a ubiquitous PermaSilk shampoo commercial to which Madonna had licensed the distinctive "4 Minutes" hook. By the time Hard Candy was released, everyone could finish the following sentence: "We only got four minutes ... " Speaking of the lyrics, someone still needs to hold Madonna accountable for the line "What I need is a you intervention, yeah." Really, Madge?

Madonna is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (March 10). The powers-that-be at the Cleveland-based museum dedicated to influential musical artists nominated and voted to include Madonna in her first year of eligibility. She was inducted alongside Leonard Cohen, The Dave Clark Five, John Mellencamp, and The Ventures at a ceremony held in New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Her lengthy acceptance speech, if a bit self-indulgent and marred by the loving but annoying heckles of a raucous fan in the upper balcony, was shockingly delivered in her old whiny American accent (yay!) and touched nicely upon all the noteworthy Madonna Legend highlights, from her Breakfast Club band to the major producers, songwriters, and managers she's worked with. Without being overly cloying, she recounted her mythological ascent and thanked the various players that helped shape and support her twenty-five year career. Just as Grandmaster Flash before her symbolized the Hall of Fame's inclusion of diverse styles of music, the welcoming of Madonna into the hallowed inner sanctum of industry icons further acknowledged the redefinition of "rock and roll" to incorporate genres like pop and dance. This huge milestone would have been ranked even higher but for a slew of cheapening distractions: demerits for the garish outfit and hair/make-up; the innuendo-laden introduction by Justin Timberlake that bordered on disrespectful at best, offensive at worst; and letting Iggy Pop utterly murder "Ray of Light" during his post-induction "tribute" performance. It wasn't Madonna's most graceful evening, which is unfortunate considering the weight of the honor. However, in keeping things "edgy" (in her mind, at least) by, say, wearing a transparent dress and mentioning use of Ecstasy, Madonna reminded the music bigwigs and, by extension, us that she wasn't going to accept what boils down to a lifetime achievement award with a silent bow and then disappear.

Sticky & Sweet Tour kicks off in Cardiff, Wales (August 23). Okay, let's just get the bad news out of the way first: Madonna's fourth major tour in seven years, while breathtaking in sheer spectacle, was saddled with the same stale structure (i.e., dramatic video opener, four sections, didactic political montage, sporadic guitar playing, extended closing singalong, LCD screen catchphrase finale). Some audiences griped that there were sound problems. Entire segments of the show felt rehashed, a pinch of the promo tour here, a pastiche of Live Earth there. Many (or, more than usual) numbers appeared to have a distracting backing track. The official show start time became a laughable afterthought as she angered some with diva-level tardiness. Oh, and Australian fans got hosed ... again. Now the good news: The very, to borrow a word used in nearly every single review of the tour, aerobic nature of the show was utterly exhausting and awe-inspiring in equal measure; Madonna proved to be the inimitable dynamo of lore. While that (yawn!) controversial, heavy-handed "Get Stupid" video had more eyes rolling than minds changed, stripped of its context within the show, we're left with a great hybrid song cobbled together from several Hard Candy tracks and given an urgency lacking in Madonna's last few albums; expect it to find a second life on iTunes playlists everywhere. "Dress You Up", "Open Your Heart", and "Everybody" were just a few of the songs resurrected by fans during a first-of-its-kind request and singalong portion of the show, unique at each performance. Madonna again proved her formidable power over the press by constantly making admittedly facile, headline-grabbing comments about easy-target conservative V.P. candidate Sarah Palin and voicing her support for Barack Obama and gay marriage in California. Madonna truly re-invented her back catalog with a surprising setlist that incorporated at least one song from every studio album (except Like a Virgin). And more great moments: Pharrell Williams and Timbaland appeared in Miami! Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake joined the show (alas, separately) in L.A.! Madonna Double Dutched! She actually sang "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" in Argentina! She rode a car down the runway! She mashed up "Vogue" with "4 Minutes"! She joyfully evoked buddy Keith Haring! Now the best news of all: Madonna will break her own record as Sticky & Sweet wraps in Brazil as the highest-grossing female-led tour of all time. Phew!

Madonna confirms her divorce from Guy Ritchie (October 15). Not everyone can name Madonna's latest album or tour, but everyone under the sun knows that Madonna is getting divorced. From "I Deserve It" in 2000 through "X-Static Process" in 2003 to "Miles Away" in 2008, we were treated to a somewhat insider's view of the evolution of a marriage in song, but the Mrs. Ritchie chapter has now been closed. We've been hearing the constant speculation for years, seemingly since December 22, 2000, when Madonna married the British director (and father to son Rocco) in Scotland. This year's round of doubting the strength of their union began in earnest when Guy was a no-show at several important Madonna functions, including the Filth and Wisdom premiere and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Tabloids called in the body language experts to analyze the increasingly rare joint appearances they made. Quietly, Madonna had retained Paul McCartney's divorce lawyer. Later, amid the aforementioned health concerns, grueling tour rehearsals, and baby brother drama of the torturous summer of 2008, the troubled-marriage rumors that plagued the superstar couple were particularly ablaze: The bizarre love triangle of Guy Oseary clients Madonna, Yankees baseball player Alex "A-Rod" Rodriguez, and Lenny Kravitz - with A-Rod's wife, clandestine rendezvouses, and secret getaways to Paris thrown in for good measure - appeared too surreal to be true. Conspiracy theorist tabloids then decided that Madge and Guy were wagging the dog to spike ticket sales after already agreeing to divorce after the tour. But then Guy reportedly had a change of heart and demanded the dissolution happen sooner. It all came to a head on October 15, when flack Liz Rosenberg acknowledged the divorce was happening. Sticky & Sweet barreled on, and a rather quick settlement was announced, ruining the hopes of those who were expecting and perhaps rooting for an ugly battle. After all, a dirty fight seemed all but certain based on the nasty gossip about both sides that started polluting the blogosphere and tabloid universe after the divorce was confirmed. Armchair therapists will debate what did the marriage in; was it a cocktail of adultery, Kabbalah, M's reported desire to move back to NYC, friction over David's adoption (finalized on May 28), ego-fueled industry rivalries, or some/none of the above? Divorce is not easy on anyone, and Madonna would be forgiven if she wilted a bit from the stress. But perhaps boding well for healthy singledom was her first public appearance since a divorce settlement was imminently expected. When Madonna stepped out in a grassy Louis Vuitton skirt for a UNICEF event on November 19, no one paid much attention to the queer dress, as it was indisputably the best Madonna has looked in years (insert "Who's That Girl?" joke here). She'll survive. And probably thrive. Remember how creatively fecund Madonna was after her divorce from Sean Penn? Let's hope the next Like a Prayer awaits ...

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