Why this? Why now? I'm Going to Tell You a Secret packages a live album from Madonna's 2004 Re-Invention Tour along with a DVD documentary directed by Jonas Akerlund and originally aired on MTV and VH1 last year (what, Madonna no longer commands a big-screen release?). Both discs are riddled with songs from her woebegone 2003 album, American Life, which was such a profound flop that her follow-up was labeled a comeback by simple virtue of its not sucking. The generally fabulous Confessions on a Dance Floor, despite its flaws, worked overtime to undo the damage perpetrated upon Madonna's career by American Life, and it proved she could still do stellar dance music and be, you know, fun. So why remind fans of something you've worked so hard to make them forget?
Maybe Madonna wants the last laugh at critics who panned her most "personal", "substantial", "topical", "political", and "ambitious" album to date. After all, Re-Invention was one of the highest-grossing tours of 2004. That makes it successful, but it doesn't necessarily make it any good, as the live disc-- Madonna's first ever-- handily proves. The show starts with Madonna reading from scripture, specifically the Book of Revelations, in a spaced-out but serious voice. The track is called "The Beast Within", and it's not exactly a welcoming start to a pop show. Describing a "beast with ten horns and seven heads," she intones: "And the whole earth followed the beast with wonder/And they worshipped the beast saying who is like the beast and who can fight against the beast/It opened its mouth and uttered blasphemous words against God."
As if the song itself weren't enough, "The Beast Within" segues smoothly into... wait for it... "Vogue". That progression, from revelation to rump-shaking, from religious doom to secular dance, is hilarious and utterly absurd. I'm Going to Tell You a Secret gains almost all of its entertainment value from such kitschy extremes and bizarre juxtapositions. The full minute of gunfire and explosions that kicks off "American Life" is the pinnacle of the show's oblivious excess, and that song's pro-Madonna metal-rap is the album's most ridiculous moment. But then there's her cover of "Imagine", written by a celebrity as out of touch with real life as Madonna herself. She even prefaces it with the solemn request, "Please listen carefully to the words of this next song. We need to make the world a better place."
No wait, I've got it: The most absurd element is the bagpipes that kick off the "hip-hop" portion of the show. Bagpipes!
I'm Going to Tell You a Secret is all the funnier for the seriousness with which Madonna attacks such moments, which gives the proceedings a camp quality. Not good camp, like Liza with a Z, but good-bad camp, like The Apple. The show would be better if the songs were better, obviously. She highlights too many of the bad tracks off American Life, but even when she does dip into her impressive back catalog, the results are less than stellar. "Vogue" is the same version we've been hearing for sixteen years, and despite her introduction that "this is a no-sitting-down song", her tepid version of "Like a Prayer" doesn't give us any reason to stand up. It's the final set (well, most of it anyway) that reveals what the show might have been. Not only does she have some amazing songs in her canon ("Holiday", "Into the Groove", "Music"), she possesses the talent, power, and money to make them exciting and fun.
The documentary fills in some of the head-scratching moments from the album: Madonna does a simple backbend during "The Beast Within", pathetic in her earnest but mistaken conviction that it is both erotically suggestive and gymnastically impressive; her dancers, dressed in fatigues, buck wildly to the explosions that begin "American Life"; and while the bagpipes play, she and her posse sport a kind of hip-hop kilt that's one of the most unsexy articles of clothing ever designed. But the film is more noteworthy for the access director Akerlund has to the "real" Madonna. His camera follows her to dancer auditions, to her dressing room, to her hotel room, to her romps with her children (Rocco, by the way, steals every scene he's in, hilariously deflating the pretensions of everyone around him).
While her show is empty spectacle-- which would be perfectly fine if she weren't so obviously desperate to say something substantial-- her life as portrayed in this documentary is cloistered and withdrawn, marked by hours of quiet Kabbalah study but very little self-reflection. Whether intentionally or not, Akerlund reveals Madonna's supreme lack of self-awareness, from her embarrassing attempts at poetry (it'd be cruel to quote her verse here) to the condescending tone she takes with her dancers to her incredibly irresponsible visit to Rachel's Tomb despite the warnings of her host country and her security team.
But the real surprise on both the album and the documentary is that Madonna doesn't seem to be enjoying herself at all. "I had some fun back then," she remarks to Akerlund's camera, referring to her wild days as a Material Girl and Sex goddess, "but you know, fun's overrated." No, it isn't-- Confessions taught us that much. On I'm Going to Tell You a Secret, Madonna is deadly serious about "waking people up." The secret she's going to tell us is the secret of life, the key to world peace and personal fulfillment. She'd pompously have us believe she's got it all figured out. Worse, clouded by her unwavering sense of mission, Madonna completely misses the fact that her songs have become a shared language among people who have very little common ground. Her music has been changing the world for more than two decades now, but sadly she seems unaware of this, her one true "secret" to pop cultural unity.
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