Monday, February 13, 2012

Elton John vs. Madonna: The Real Super Bowl

Last Sunday the stage was set for a Super Bowl showdown of epic proportions. The two sides had met before, and there was clearly a lot of bad blood between them, so there was a lot at stake in the rematch: pride, bragging rights, the chance to avenge a humiliating upset loss.

I refer of course to Elton John and Madonna, who have been locked in a bitter blood feud since Elton's acceptance speech at the 2004 Q Awards, where he won the (honorary) Classic Songwriter Award and Madonna won the Best Live Act Award. Elton said a perfunctory word of thanks before devoting the rest of his remarks to his fellow winner: 

"Madonna, best fuckin' live act -- fuck off! Since when has lip-syncing been live? I think everyone who lip-syncs when you paid 75 quid to see them should be shot." Madonna's flack countered soon after: “Madonna does not lip-synch, nor does she spend her time trashing other artists.” Indeed, it must be noted that this feud is pretty one-sided in terms of public sniping. This comment is the closest Madonna has come to (publicly) insulting Sir Elton, though I imagine that behind closed doors her comments on the matter were tart enough to make her almost drop her mysterious accent. In any case, that was just the volley for serve, the regular-season game, if you will, before their first showdown on the big stage: this year's Golden Globes, where both Elton and Madonna were nominated in the category for Best Original Song. Madonna's song "Masterpiece" was for the movie she herself directed, W.E., while Elton's song was probably for some animated Disney thing that kids don't even like. Oh, all right, I'll look it up... Ah, yes, it was "Hello Hello," from the animated Gnomeo and Juliet. (It's like I'm psychic or something!) In an apparent lapse of chivalry, Sir Elton told reporters on the red carpet that Madonna "hasn't got a fucking chance." I haven't looked this up but I do believe that Sir Elton is the only knight of the Queen's order to have been photographed in a Donald Duck outfit. I Spotifyed both of these songs, neither of which I had ever heard of until the celebrity news machine started hyping this epic battle, and my unbiased opinion is that I would rather listen to my teeth being hammer-drilled than listen to either of these songs again. With gun to head, I would have to say that Madonna's is slightly less awful than Elton's, and apparently the Hollywood Foreign Press Association agreed, because she won the award. (There were no other nominees.) Madonna gave a rambling acceptance speech about how she wrote the song at the last minute, just kind of tossed it off amidst her million other duties as director and producer of the movie, which I suppose might read as a tweak at Elton, but she stayed clear of any direct response to Elton's taunts, thus averting the world's gayest rap beef. (When your venue is award show podiums, you've got a very gay rap beef.) Facing the press after the ceremony, Madonna said of Elton, ”I hope he speaks to me for the next couple of years. He’s been known to get mad at me so I don’t know. He’s brilliant and I adore him so he’ll win another award. I don’t feel bad.” Sir Elton's husband was not as gallant: "Madonna winning Best Original Song truly shows how these awards have nothing to do with merit. Her acceptance speech was embarrassing in its narcissism. And her critisism of Gaga shows how desperate she really is." Meow! When it was announced that Madonna would play halftime at the Super Bowl, Madonna seemed to have the upper hand. Not to be outdone, Elton booked a big Pepsi commercial to air in the third quarter, thus allowing him to get the last word and setting up the world's second gayest rap battle. (Award show podiums: slightly gayer than the Super Bowl Halftime Show). In an ABC News interview promoting the commercial (a news interview promoting a commercial -- God bless America!), Elton tartly offered Madonna one piece of advice: "Make sure you lip sync good."
Now look: I'm not sure how much of a feud this feud really is. I'm not at all sure that Elton wouldn't say the exact same thing to Madonna's face while he handed her a flute of champagne aboard an 80-foot yacht while they troweled Fleet Week, fishing for their dinner. We are talking about the cattiest queen ever to don a pair of oversized sunglasses, and the woman who understands catty queens better than anyone -- better than they even understand themselves.  But it was a big story in the 24-hour-news celebricycle, so I think we have a responsibility to determine who won: Madonna's halftime show or Elton's commercial? Madonna went first, and it is hard to imagine that on a visual level, even Elton wouldn't drop his queeny jealousy long enough to enjoy the sight of his rival being carried in on a litter by 144 bronzed, muscular Romans in gold lamé fetishwear. No matter how awesome Elton's Pepsi commercial turns out to be, it has no chance at even faintly challenging Madonna's decision to overtly ram 14 minutes of homoerotica down Football Nation's throat in terms of audacity or cultural relevance. The Pepsi commercial could be directed by the Coen Brothers and it will still be a Pepsi commercial. Before she even opens her mouth, Madonna's two points ahead, not unlike the safety that gave the Giants an early lead in the game. Madonna 2, Elton 0. As soon as she does open her mouth, it's clear that Elton is not wrong about the lip-syncing. There was an awful lot of debate amongst my friends about whether she was singing live or not, but that debate should have been settled even before she began the first verse of "Vogue." The voice coming out of the speakers is doing things that human voices can't do -- namely sample and repeat itself -- and the movement of her mouth did not quite match the sound coming out. I don't have a problem with the lip-syncing in this case: a single person at the center of a football stadium needs a lot of razzle-dazzle if they're going to get any kind of entertainment across, and choreography on the scale that Madonna brought (cartwheels, stairs, simulated tightrope bouncing) tends to undermine one's singing. I have definitely seen footage of Madonna singing loud and dancing hard at her concerts back in the day -- you can always tell for sure when someone isn't lip-syncing. As I remember, she always hit the notes and stayed on key but she also sounded a little husky voiced, like a gym teacher, and I have to say that takes a little of the awesome out of it. So maybe she really doesn't lip-sync as a rule but made an exception for the Super Bowl (most likely under withering pressure from the producers)? I dunno. I don't care if Madonna lip-syncs. Has Madonna's appeal ever had anything to do with her voice? I have seen a lot of articles over the years about the cultural impact of Madonna and her various personae and her mastery of PR and spectacle and even the quality of her material, but I don't think I've ever read a word of analysis of her as a singer, as a transmitter of emotion through song. Somehow, amazingly, the most famous singer of the last 30 years is not really famous for singing. She's famous for performing. I have known more than a few very, very big Madonna fans in my time, and I have been party to quite a bit of Madonna discussion, and nobody ever talks about her voice: they talk about the costumes, and the setlist, and the choreography. I mean Jesus, look at this. That's the stuff she really has to get right to please her audience. So if lip-syncing is what it takes to get that stuff right, of course she should do it. Right? Would you rather hear the sound of her chest caving in while she's being twirled in a cartwheel while trying to sing, or would you rather see the dance move happen without the distraction of the singing getting weak? Either way, Elton puts some "I told you so" points on the board because he called her out on it years ago, she's denied it, and he's now definitively proven right. Elton 3, Madonna 2.
Cee Lo.
The rest of the first half is a mixed bag. Madonna makes a direct play for youth and relevance by having the guys from LMFAO, who I finally learn are the ones responsible for that one song I hear three times every Friday night and who prove tragically inept at pretending to scratch records, mash up with her on "Music"; she rolls out a very crappy new song, "Give Me All Your Luvin'," with guest rap verses by living cartoon villain Nicki Minaj and laconic British politirhymer M.I.A., who flips the bird at the camera in a craven effort to replicate some of her hostess' early-90's provocations; and she appears maybe to have sung live on the closer, "Like A Prayer," with ex-M&M mascot Cee-Lo playing the role of the gospel chorus on the outro. I really thought she sang this part live, but the second time I watched it I saw a lot of sounds not matching the mouth so maybe she lip-synced that too.   Going into halftime, Elton had to be nervous: the video effects projected onto the field were amazing, the choreography was impressive, the sound mix was good, and Madonna looked great. She seems to have put on a little weight, and it suits her. She was starting to get a little old-ropey. I'm sure Botox has its advantages, but nothing tightens the skin like 10 or 15 pounds! My football-scoring gimmick is starting to feel a little unwieldy; let's call it a touchdown and two field goals. Madonna 15, Elton 3.
The Pepsi commercial begins the third quarter, and with his first line -- "No Pepsi for you!" -- Elton reminds us why he has done so little acting over the years. Though to be fair, John Barrymore couldn't make "No Pepsi for you!" work, it is an outrageously terrible line. His outfit is of course ridiculous, but it  doesn't even move the weirdness needle compared to some of his past outfits. It actually kind of suits him. The shoes are a nice touch, but they just remind me of all that gold Madonna had. So much more gold than a pair of platform boots. This commercial is very well shot, and the scenery and costumes are teriffic. After Elton completely fails to sell two more awful lines of dialogue, a young lady I'm told was the recent winner of The X Factor, Melanie Amaro, comes out and starts singing a dubstep remix of Aretha Franklin's "Respect." Elton taps his toe and clutches his Pepsi. The song ends and Elton begrudingly gives the girl a Pepsi with the only line that could ever be worse than "No Pepsi for you": "All right -- Pepsi for you."  It is an undeliverable line and Elton does nothing with it. The girl declares, in the only line that could ever be worse than "All right -- Pepsi for you," "No -- Pepsi for all," and showers Pepsi on everyone in the court and drops the King into a pit where he meets Flavor Flav. Somehow they resisted what must have been a powerful urge to put a rimshot in at the end. They didn't do it, but I'm sure it was discussed. So wait -- this commercial is over and Elton John didn't sing at all? Not a word? After all that? How do we score a performance like that? I hate to not even give him a field goal, but I don't see where he scores any points here at all. It looked good and the costumes were great, but it wasn't funny and he was terrible in it. Even if you thought Madonna's halftime show was terrible, we can probably agree it was better than this. The one thing this clip makes clear is that Elton John would make the greatest American Idol judge ever. How can he possibly not be doing that? Who has not offered Elton John enough money to break young singers' hearts on national TV twice a week? Because that person should be fired. They should get rid of all three of the current judges and replace them with Elton John. (He has to be wearing that King's outfit though.) The fact that he's so perfect for it makes me want to give him a field goal, but the fact that he isn't already doing it makes me want to take it away. Ah, let's just give it to him, he loses either way. Final score: Madonna 15, Elton John 6.

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