SAN DIEGO — "Well, how was she?"
That's what the woman at the hotel desk asked sarcastically when I checked in after seeing Madonna's long-awaited Southern California concert debut here Friday night. She knew I had been at the show because I was carrying a large souvenir program.
"Well?" she repeated impatiently, defying anything positive about this sexy young performer who has emerged as such a hot--and most controversial--pop figure that she has been on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine twice in the last five months. The issue surrounding Madonna: Is she a legitimate pop star or simply a fly-by-night pop tart?
I would have voted for "star" even before the concert, but I knew I was going to have a hard time convincing the desk clerk and most of the rest of the free world--who equate Madonna's bimbo/boy-toy image with lack of talent.
On the defensive, I told the clerk: "You're not going to believe this, but Madonna's show was real good. In fact, I've rarely seen a more confident or convincing debut. She's not a great singer, but. . . ."
"Great? I'll say she's not great. Want to try mediocre?"
"But you're missing the point," I continued. "She's a perfectly adequate pop singer who shows signs in a song like 'Crazy for You' of even being a good one. But singing isn't what she's about. Madonna's a personality who has simply used pop music as a vehicle for launching a career.
"On strictly a pop scale, she is far from the stature of Chrissie Hynde or Laurie Anderson, but her personality and ambition make her infinitely more interesting than a Pat Benatar. She was terrific in her film debut in 'Desperately Seeking Susan,' and she'll probably move on to other areas of show business."
At this point, a bellhop asked who we were talking about.
"Madonna," he said, his eyes widening. "How'd she look?"
"I told you," the desk clerk laughed. "That's really all anyone cares about--how she looks."
Welcome to the great pop debate of 1985.
Friday's show was at San Diego State University's Open Air Theatre where all 9,000 seats for shows Friday and Saturday night were sold in less than two hours. But there were times during the show when Madonna could just as easily have been on a burlesque stage.
There isn't any nudity on this debut tour (teasingly titled "The Virgin Tour"), but Madonna has this constantly sexy attitude, both in her teasing asides to the audience and in her dress. Madonna once said she tries to look like Ronnie Spector's voice used to sound on hits like "Be My Baby" and "Baby, I Love You": sexy, hungry, totally trashy.
It's a perfect definition of her outfit: a fashionable jacket and micro-mini skirt designed to look like graffiti artists had taken spray cans to it just before show time, a sparkly lingerie harness and black lace stockings that stopped at the knee. She also wore the usual assortment of ornaments: crucifixes, a peace medallion and enough bracelets to cause a metal-detection device at the airport to overload.
Madonna represents a contemporary fantasy figure that revives the glamour, innocence and raw sexuality of many of Madonna's own teen heroes, including Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. Like the early Monroe, Madonna may portray a bimbo, but there she's clearly no pushover.
There are unsettling aspects to her character: The tart image could give unsophisticated teen-age girls the wrong idea about the role of women, but there is a question of whether they take the boy-toy symbolism any more seriously than the young rock fans take the "devil worship" imagery of heavy-metal groups.
On stage Friday, Madonna was in almost constant motion, moving her hips in ways that would have made Elvis envious and sometimes crawling around on the floor in the sensually inviting style of Prince. Oh yes: She also sang, while her six-piece band captured the frenzied techno-pop nature of her dance-conscious record hits like "Holiday," "Material Girl" and "Like a Virgin." The only break in momentum was a drab battle of the synthesizers when she went off stage to change costumes.
Though the audience was on its feet throughout, it often seemed that Madonna was operating beneath her potential in this pop format. It's important to demonstrate that she can handle herself live, but the simplicity of pop concerts doesn't begin to tax her ambition or talent. In fact, she has so little to do other than express this aggressive, sexy attitude that the show seemed long at just over an hour. She was at her best when working off an idea or concept, such as injecting a witty bit of "Billie Jean" (complete with mock Michael Jackson moves) in "Like a Virgin," or involving her two male dancers in a scorching acting out of her "Burning Up."
Surprisingly, the female fans in the mostly teen and collegiate audience responded the strongest. Many even dressed like Madonna. "She is living out our fantasies," one 16-year-old said. "She's able to be something that our parents would never let us get away with . . . that whole 'slut' image. I'd never really want to be like that, but it's fun seeing someone else do it on stage. It's usually just the guys who get a chance to do that."
Then she said, nervously: "You're not going to quote me, are you? My mother would kill me."
The star also was to appear Sunday night at the Pacific Amphitheater. Madonna and the great pop debate of 1985 will resurface Friday for three sold-out nights at the Univeral Amphitheatre.