Thursday, September 02, 2010

Madonna's Holiday II: Performance

In my previous post I focused on Holiday's music and lyrics. But what of Madonna's performance? Your own mileage from M's vocals may vary, but for me her Holiday vocals are terrific: they're characterful, but in a non-showy way that doesn't compete with the groove and that sells the vibe of the music. Most memorable for me are the various 'Oh yeah's, 'Hol-i-daye!'s and 'It would be-ee so-o nice's that occur as little response-line (see my previous post for discussion of Holiday's call-and-response structure) sub-dramas throughout the record. In the final third of the record especially, M's voice rasps a little as it tickles quickly across the runs of notes on these occasions, which I find incredibly fun and even moving.

Madonna's voice isn't a Donna Summer or Annie Lennox (or even a Shannon) powerhouse, but it is the voice of a dance music true believer. She really does want to 'let love shine' through the medium of the sort of time-out from life's pressures that a truly celebratory dance record affords. We need a Holiday. Yes, we do. And, by God, we've got one while this record plays. The upshot is that Holiday is a 6+ minute record that everyone wishes would never end. Interestingly, as far as I'm aware, no one else has ever been able to cover Holiday with any profit, let alone with real authority. This is surely in part because Madonna herself has consistently and very publicly explored new versions of the song, effectively stamping herself all over it - see examples below. But it also may simply be the case that Madonna's original recording maximized the potential of the underlying song, which would have been a trifle coming from anyone else. (Tellingly, Holiday was offered to and rejected by at least two other artists before Madonna and her producer 'Jellybean' Benitez grabbed it with both hands.) We provisionally conclude that what appears to be true is true. Madonna nailed her parts on the record, and 'Jellybean' Benitez (with a crucial assist from Zarr's piano) aced the rest.

Of course, performance on an original record isn't the whole story about a lot of the best pop music. In addition, there's at least what you look like and, if you're v. lucky, how you move and perform, especially live. Holiday entered a recently MTV-ed world relatively unloved and without an official video, but this setback in fact ended up foregrounding Madonna's strengths in post-(recorded performance) dimensions of pop success. Not having a video to sell Holiday for her led Madonna to perform (normally with her brother Chris Ciccone and her friend Erica Bell[1]) as a live dancer on every North American and European TV show that hosted lip-synching acts that would have her. Many of those performances still astonish: Madonna's dance-training is evident, and she's in constant motion in a way that sells both the record and herself as something new and interesting. Her work ethic and entrepreneurial/take charge drive was also apparent. Message received: v. sexy, possibly destined to give certain sorts of puritan feminists fits, but no foolish floozy this one.

While M. in 1983/1984 has a version of what we might call the 'cool but approachable, white-girl, club chick' look of the period (think Bananarama, say, in their fondly remembered Shy Boy video), M's not trying to 'be cool' or just 'be seen' or, as in Bananarama's own case, just half-heartedly shuffle towards being mobile. Rather, she's a hard-working dancer in action (who's obviously watched a lot of Soul Train growing up!), and that action is highly aerobic. It's worth noting that aerobics classes were huge, and growing and differentiating fast in the early '80s (think Jane Fonda workouts, the cheese-ball Travolta movie Perfect, and the like). In an only slightly subterranean way, then, Madonna's highly aerobic dance performances for Holiday are part of that explosion, building a new bridge between night-time club-culture and a woman-centered, day-time world of classes and exercise.

Consider in this light the following fragment of a performance of Holiday on a French magazine show:

While a lot of club-kids (perennially, at least for a period) aspire to be aloof, posing, quasi-decadent night-people, M. herself is happy to get her leg above her head for you. By a pool. In the sunshine.

Or consider M's performance of Holiday on Top of the Pops early in 1984:[2]

The crowd starts whooping as the aerobic energy from the stage starts to hit them, particularly when tightly choreographed, snaky, sensuous, sideways movements suddenly accompany the lead-off Chorus, after the Intro has been accompanied by a sucker-punch combination of more relaxed movement and dancer smiles all around. By the time we come back from the piano solo, Madonna (and Chris and Erica) are at the front of the stage, arms raised in triumph like they've won the World Cup! But then they surprise us again by breaking back into further cool, choreographed moves. We are so there. It's a landmark pop moment/performance, electrifying, and star-making in a way that's hard to appreciate these days, i.e., post-Madonna. A sexy, cool NYC chick, but one who, like Elvis and MJ, could really move, and who had every beat and gesture planned, truly stood out in 1984. There'd never been anyone like her.

Holiday was born in and designed for clubs, i.e., environments similar in scale and kind to the TOTP studio. On one level, then, Holiday's success in that setting shouldn't have surprised. But what of live performances in vast arenas, before 50K+ people? Would Holiday scale up? In early 1984, one wouldn't have necessarily expected Madonna's dance-pop to be especially at home at something as big and messy as Live Aid, but in fact she ruled the (admittedly rather shambolic) US end of that mid-1985 event (her final 'Now I know you're mine' from Into the Groove sounded downright sinister to some ears that day!). At any rate, as her opening number at Live Aid, Holiday got Madonna off on the best possible foot:

A personal favorite among Madonna's many stunning Holidays is the rocked-out version from the Who's That Girl? tour in 1987, i.e., from the first relatively rough/relatively fallow period for Madonna (both professionally and personally) since her 1984 breakthrough. Just because your latest music is uninspired[3], your current movie stinks, and your marriage to Sean Penn is on the rocks, doesn't mean you can't still slay 'em live (and arguably be in the best voice and dancer shape of your life):

Watch the whole thing: 'Let's have some order here'. At this point, M. on stage is a whirlwind and something like the best Howard Hawks gal ever (which is to say, a serious candidate for 'best gal ever' period, let's face it), notwithstanding that her movie in that vein was a disaster.

Other notable Holidays include the performance recorded in Truth or Dare from the Blonde Ambition tour:

and a performance in Brixton in 2000 at which Madonna described Holiday as having for her a special connection with London (presumably referring to 1984's TOTP triumph):

Lastly, consider a fan's omnibus history of Holidays:

In sum, although it may be, in various ways, overly simple and naive, Holiday has been a perfect vehicle for Madonna. Its uncluttered aerobicness has always allowed her basic, formidable and attractive personality to shine through, while the convincing 'we'-ness/egoless-ness/persona-free-ness of its lyric sidesteps the principal liabilities of that (wannabe then actual) superstar personality (too much ego, about which a supplicant audience ends up knowing too much, general insufferableness, and so on). Performing Holiday live has been an on-going showcase for Madonna's interpretive chops and for her dance and performance skills more generally, but I suspect that M. especially continues to love Holiday because of the holiday from ego and talking about herself and persona-generation that it represents. Each time she sings Holiday, Madonna gets to be partly reborn as that before-she-was-famous club-kid who just wants to lose herself in dancing, and who wishes we were on the floor with her.[4] It would be-ee so-o nice. We are so so there.

Many people have tried to create sunny, inclusive, utopian dance tunes that appeal explicitly to what's universal in us, and many have failed. Madonna's first big success, however, does precisely that, making a foundational, dance-pop standard for the ages.

[1] Important early solo performances/lip-synchs of Holiday include spots on Solid Gold, hosted by glamorous Marilyn ('Up, up, and away') McCoo, and, especially, on American Bandstand with Dick Clark. The latter isn't currently available on youtube, but it's downloadable here. Madonna's notorious 'I plan to rule the world' interview with Dick Clark after that performance, is downloadable here.

[2] The TOTP performance was broadcast on Thursday, January 26, 1984, a day before Madonna (w/ Chris and Erica) performed both Burning Up and Holiday on The Tube as part of a special broadcast from Factory Records' famous Hacienda Club in Manchester. Bizarrely, however, the Hipster-reality-distortion-field that still surrounds both The Tube and Factory/Hacienda has caused numerous people, e.g., here, to misrepresent M's Hacienda spot as her 'first UK TV appearance' or 'her first appearance outside NY' or whatever it may be, and quite generally to pretend that her much more successful TOTP appearance (much more widely seen, much better lit, shot, and sounding, and so on) never happened.

[3] Although that's a relative judgment - relative to Madonna's hardly putting a foot wrong up to Who's that Girl? For example, I like Causing a Commotion a lot (and love its 'silver screen' 12" remix). It would be a crown jewel in other acts' allegedly Imperial Periods. But it's definitely second- or even third-tier Madonna. It's the sort of stuff that can be a 'fan favorite', but it's not world-beating or new-fan-making.

[4] One of Madonna's other, early signature songs, Into the Groove, makes this pre-fame, happy, but also touchingly yearning and lonely club-kid idea of Madonna that's implicit in Holiday, completely explicit: 'I'm tired of dancing here all by myself/Tonight I want to dance with someone else!' ITG's an amazing song and record, but that little bit of explicit auto-biog. and persona-generation makes it, I believe, less distinctive and useful overall to Madonna than Holiday is. That is, ITG is on one level just more confessional/talking-about-herself stuff, and why shouldn't M. want a break from all that? Moroever, insofar as ITG does self-describe, to that extent it raises questions of age-/status-appropriateness that Holiday doesn't. That is, it's hard for someone who's been enormously successful for 20+ years to sing convincingly and explicitly about being dance-partner-less, whereas Holiday's giddy, utopian wishes always work. In sum, M. has excellent reasons to treasure Holiday, and to simply enjoy performing it more than she evidently does ITG.


crazyrabbits said...

I know this entry was posted a year ago, but I wanted to comment on it.

There was an original video made for "Holiday" -

The video was pulled before release, and had Madonna, Christopher and Erica dancing in front of a "painting" with an onlooker inside who walked out to see the dance routine.

plague said...

@crazyrabbits. Thanks for that link. I vaguely knew that there was an abandoned/never used vid. for Holiday but I'd never got around to seeing it (or if I did, I thought it was just some grungy choreography rehearsal tape rather than a fully-fledged vid.!). Anyhow, if I ever publish these Madonna posts more formally, I'll be certain to note that Holiday wasn't strictly (just practically) video-less.