Because big exaggerated mustaches are the new French house music
Something occurred to me yesterday when I was typing up my Live Earth running diary: Madonna and the Beastie Boys both performed at the big extravaganza’s London show, and it might’ve been the first time the two of them shared a stage since the Like a Virgin tour. Things have changed. There were no giant inflatable penises or visible lingerie in evidence. Madonna almost certainly did not make out with MCA backstage (or, if she did, ew). These days, the Beasties are comfortably riding off into obsolescence, releasing an instrumental funk album even though they know no one will buy it, while Madonna is uncomfortably thrashing around, unsure what to do with the constant media attention that she once reveled in. From what I could see on TV, neither of them particularly enjoyed their time onstage. The Beasties, though, managed, to conjure at least some slight memory of their long history of disruption; Money Mark was the only guy on the NBC’s entire three-hour Live Earth special to jump over his keyboard. Madonna, meanwhile, stiffly and joylessly purred her way through “Hung Up” and pulled the unforgivable sympathy-grab of bringing out a kids’ choir for “Hey You.” The part where she and her humorlessly campy backup dancers crawled faux-sexily across the stage-floor near the end of “Hung Up” was the stuff of nightmares. But in the closing seconds of “Hung Up,” something sort of amazing happened, something that trumped anything the Beasties did: she yelled out, “Come on, Eugene,” and Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz, spastically amped, ran out onstage and danced, not quite getting the choreography right and generally filling he screen with a form of charisma that couldn’t be further removed from whatever it is Madonna has these days. I had no idea what the hell was going on.
Turns out I should’ve paid more attention to Live Earth’s run-up press. Madonna had specifically recruited Gogol Bordello (or at least Hutz and violinist Sergey Ryabtsev) to help out with her show, and they’d had to cancel some big festival appearance to make the show. Immediately before the performance of “Hung Up” that NBC showed, they’d both been out to assist on a six-minute version of “La Isla Bonita,” one of Madonna’s best songs ever. The combination of Gogol Bordello and Madonna is the sort of thing that YouTube was invented for; it was all over the internet the next day. It’s a trainwreck, of course, but it’s an oddly lovable trainwreck. The biggest cliche that I could possibly write about Madonna is that she’s managed to maintain her career thus far by reinventing herself at every turn.
That’s not quite been the case lately; her decade-long metamorphosis into a glassy fake-British art-collecting baby-collecting alien has pretty much sapped any widespread pop appeal she ever had. Still, she’s always been pretty great at picking collaborators: Jellybean Benitez, Nile Rogers, Babyface, Mirwais. Her 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor was better than it had any right to be, largely because of the contributions of producer Stuart Price, whose main previous claim to fame had been releasing a pretty good new-romantic big-beat album as Les Rhythmes Digitales in 1999. But the Wikipedia page on her next album suggests a disappointingly obvious patchwork of collaborators: Price again, Swizz Beatz, Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, Mika. Pharrell produced Live Earth charity-single “Hey You,” but that song somehow manages to display no trace of personality, his or hers. I have no idea whether her Gogol Bordello collaboration will extend beyond that one song at Live Earth, but it’s a good look for her, if only because it could go some way toward lifting the air of unapproachable royal iciness she’s built up lately.
Everything about the pairing between Gogol Bordello and Madonna is counterintuitive, which is sort of why it works. For one thing, “La Isla Bonita” is a song about a tropical paradise, and it’s hard to think of a place less tropical than Ukraine, Hutz’s homeland. Madonna’s theatrically rolled R when she introduces her “Romany gypsy friends” would seem to indicate that they’re onstage for purposes of exoticism, but Hutz already sort of exoticizes his own background, so it’s almost as if he beats Madonna to the punch. Gogol Bordello is arguably the best live band on the indie circuit, and Hutz’s outsized showmanship is a huge part of that. But his showmanship is some unpredictable live-wire shit, the exact opposite of Madonna’s sterile, micromanaged stage-show, which looks to be choreographed within an inch of its life. Madonna’s backing dancers all look like animatronic mannequins, and when they stand on the same stage as insane, bug-eyed Hutz, they look like they come from a completely different planet. But “La Isla Bonita” is a good enough song that it beautifully survives Hutz’s gypsy-punk reworking. Banging away at an acoustic guitar that seems totally inaudible and blurting delirious cookie-monster gibberish, Hutz sprays dirt all over the stage’s sheen like Ol Dirty Bastard forcing derangement into Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.” And when Madonna tries her own stiff variation on gypsy-dancing, it’s hopelessly awkward, almost human. She could use a bit more of that.