On Top of Pop

Has there ever been a money machine quite like Madonna?

To get a sense of Madonna's cultural heft you didn't have to look too hard at the audience gathered for her recent sold-out concert at Sunrise's National Car Rental Center. Just a quick sideways glance would do. To Kulchur's left was a squad of eighth-grade girls, erupting in squeals of delight as they spotted Rosie O'Donnell in the section below. To Kulchur's right was a fortyish-looking couple, calmly toking up. They had two daughters of their own -- ages 18 and 24, the wife explained -- but there was no debate over just who in the family was getting to use their pair of tickets. "Besides, we bought them T-shirts," she added without a shred of guilt, proudly displaying the $30 booty. ("This camouflage Madonna camisole is perfect for a Saturday night," a merchandise catalogue stacked near the bathrooms helpfully pointed out. "You'll be too fresh for the army, but just right for the clubs.")

Gazing around the rest of the arena only broadened the rainbow coalition that Madonna has assembled: Aging hipsters sat alongside squeaky-clean teenyboppers; voguing queens struck a pose next to Aventura soccer moms; had she able to snag a ticket, Kulchur's own mother would have been there, too. It's hard to imagine any other time these disparate groups would find themselves in the same room together, let alone cheering in unison.

Even more impressive is Madonna's ability to hold pop's center stage in the process. Beyond her multiplatinum record sales and the $50 million-plus her Drowned World Tour is set to gross, what other artist could nab the front page of the Miami Herald simply by putting on a show? No Cuban-exile bomb threats here, no ominous rumor of civil unrest. Just an old-fashioned pop show. Moreover Madonna long ago stopped pushing the public's buzz buttons on sexuality and style, a role currently ceded to Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw. Nowadays Madonna is famous simply for being ... Madonna.

The work of a boy toy is never finished: Madonna conquers popdom -- again
AP/Wide World Photo
The work of a boy toy is never finished: Madonna conquers popdom -- again

Just as intriguing, all this occurs as the entertainment industry is consumed with talk of the deepening national recession. According to the trade journal Pollstar, this year's Top 50 concert tours so far have grossed 12.6 percent less than last year's Top 50, with a 15.5 percent drop in the number of tickets sold overall. Amid the resultant hand-wringing, even as seminal an act as the Rolling Stones have reportedly postponed plans for a worldwide farewell tour, fearing a lackluster response. Similar downturns have been recorded in the publishing world of books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as in Hollywood, where one favorite guessing game is to predict which studio honchos will be axed over the disappointing performances of blockbuster bombs Pearl Harbor and A.I.

Madonna's own record label, Maverick, has felt the crunch, too. Last month, after losing an estimated $60 million over the past two years, parent Warner Bros. apparently delivered an ultimatum to its hitless subsidiary: Maverick's president was ousted, and five other execs were canned.

Still Madonna's own star remains undiminished. "I've been working in this business for five and a half years, and this is the hottest tour I've ever seen," said Kelly Feig of Prime Tickets and Tours, a Miami-based ticket agency that sold front-row seats to Madonna's Sunrise shows for $3850 -- many to wealthy Argentines and Colombians jetting in for the occasion. "It's what the market will bear," Feig added. (Considering that Madonna's Vegas show is commanding $9000 per ticket, Feig was offering a relative bargain.) Many of these choice seats, Feig explained, are diverted from Ticketmaster and sold directly to Prime Tickets and several other large agencies across the nation by the concert's own promoters -- not street scalpers. These promoters then pocket at least half the inflated final price. "They deny it," Feig laughs, "but everybody's just trying to make money." Especially when the economy is puncturing the hype of the music business and forcing fans to get choosy.

"The Janet Jackson tour is doing absolutely awful," Feig reveals, also naming the Miami stop of the highly publicized MTV Total Request Live Tour with Destiny's Child as another flop. Even more surprising: "The Backstreet Boys were huge two years ago, and now they're doing nothing for us."

A good-size chunk of the local Madonna hysteria is the result of her identification with South Beach, whose own growth and -- ahem -- subsequent maturity mirror the Material Girl's. Most of the A-list celebrities, including Madonna, who helped cement the Beach's international media image have moved on to the next chic grazing spot, as have the bulk of the modeling set. These days what runway hopefuls do arrive hail largely from Latin America, not Illinois and Kansas, and their time is spent working the floor at trade shows, not fashion shoots.

Yet South Beach as an international tourist destination is bigger than ever, repositioned as an exotic Las Vegas with the allure of sex standing in for gambling, drawing hordes of conventioneers and weekend warriors alike.

Clubland's savvier hands are busy making the transition to this post-Versace terrain (even the fabled Versace mansion itself is slated to become a high-end hotel and restaurant), none more so than Madonna's original gal pal, Ingrid Casares, a veritable poster child for the new sobriety. Chopping up lines of cocaine on the dinner table is out, at least in mixed company. So is sexual ambiguity and all-night dancing, replaced by child-rearing and Kabbalah study. (Or was that last year's craze? Isn't it yoga now?)

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