Elvis, for most of his life, was Elvis –– until he became, in the impudent vernacular of amateur historians, Fat Elvis, almost a separate entity and a symbol of talent in sad, lumbering decline.
Based on Monday night's lively concert performance at AmericanAirlines Arena there should be no fear that its 54-year-old headliner may soon transition into anything other than Madonna, just Madonna.
In an astonishing display of stamina and sexy provocation, the singer ran through a fast-paced two-hour set of more than two-dozen songs in a performance that included multiple costume changes and daring dance numbers in which the star was tossed and contorted into shapes that would challenge the body of someone half her age. As she strutted the catwalks jutting into the audience, or popped out of a hole in the stage in a new, skin-baring outfit, Madonna again displayed the sexy muscularity, energetic showmanship and boundary-pushing cheekiness that have been her trademark for nearly three decades.
There may have been some added pressure on Madonna to bring her best for the show, which will be repeated at the AAA on Tuesday night. The concert was being shot in 3-D for an upcoming DVD, and the extra energy the film crews sought was in short supply when the singer finally hit the stage just after 11:20 p.m. By that time, nearly two unconscionable hours after opener Paul Oakenfold had finished, the spaces between each time-killing song on the arena sound system were being filled by impatient boos and a chant of "Bullshit! Bullshit!" You can only watch gay men in skinny jeans bumping rumps with carefree cougars to "Sexy Back" for so long.
Madonna arrived on a stage filled by a mystical haze of smoke, robed monks and the deep rumble of Gregorian chants. But the singer quickly exploded this solemn scene with the frisky dance number Girl Gone Wild, from her new MDNA album. Clad in towering black heels, black leather top and rock-hard legs seemingly painted in black lacquer, with six bare-chested male dancers dragging her through a series of sexy poses, Madonna as fashionable, powerful, but vulnerable sex toy was an ongoing theme for the night.
The singer leaned on MDNA for about a third of the set list, with many of her biggest hits getting quick medley treatments or new, modern renditions. She had help from Kalakan, a trio of Basque singer-musicians from northern Spain, most notably on their treatment of Open Your Heart, which evolved into a spirited gypsy hoedown. It was one of many songs in which the singer's extraordinary team of dancers and choreography was on fine display.
Other highlights included a poignantly reimagined version of Like a Virgin, with Madonna in nylons, briefs, corset and an architectural bra that suggested Gaultier's famed dual cones. Astride the instrument as a lone pianist played the pop trifle as a solemn elegy, Madonna laid bare all the emotion of being "touched for the very first time." Many catcalls and sexy whistling ensued.
A stylish version of Vogue got an enthusiastic response, as did the tortured Love Spent, in which Madonna's strip-tease prompted fans to throw many a dollar bill onstage. There also was a spirited Express Yourself, with its sexy drum major motif and drummers hanging from the rafters (and, yes, Madonna can handle a baton).
At around 1:15 a.m., when fans' stamina seemed to be flagging, Madonna followed a Kalakan-aided version of I'm a Sinner with a rousing gospel take on Like a Prayer, with three dozen singers swaying behind her as she raised the dead. As the lights came up the crowd took to their feet in unison for a moving, sing-along, clap-along moment. The power of "Prayer."
Overheard in the ladies room near the end of the Madonna show: "She used to be good. Now she's just so... weird."
That one of the most polarizing figures in pop music history is being classified as unconventional is hardly news. Madonna became Madonna not because of her limited vocal ability or creative dance moves – she did it based on an unparalleled ability to provoke, a shrewd business mind and smart songwriting collaborations that helped her create dozens of ageless pop nuggets.
Now she's 54, keenly aware that she won't be able to perform a two-hour equivalent of a Broadway spectacle nearly nightly for six months – this MDNA tour launched overseas in May and wraps Tuesday after two nights in Miami – or that stripping down to a black bra and underwear, as she did toward the end of Saturday's Philips Arena show, isn't going to be met with catcalls and cheers for her impressively taut assets forever.
Those obvious realizations explain the throw-it-all-at-the-wall grandiosity in this show, a tremendous production that, at times, featured drummers suspended over the stage, super-cool see-sawing lighted cubes, 15 dancers in various forms of gaudy costumes and bare-chested muscles (the men, that is) and a gleefully nutso fashion show during Vogue. Ringmaster Madonna barely had time to sip from her bottle of water, and, while she can be criticized for many things – such as the rampant Auto-Tune and questionable singing during high-octane dance numbers – she always exhausts herself onstage for the benefit of a top-notch show.
The extravaganza was divided into four sections/themes that initially contained a stupid amount of violence. Revolver and Gang Bang featured her brandishing an assault weapon, waves of blood cascading across the seemingly mile-high video screens behind her every time she knocked off a bad guy like a black-clad Bond villainess.
In fact, much of the first quarter of the show was like watching a Cirque du Soleil production. You stood there with your brows furrowed in puzzlement, but didn't want to look away for fear of missing that one meaningful second. Then again, judging by the number of people nearby who spent most of the show texting and flipping through photos on their phones, maybe this time Madonna veered so far off course, not even she could temper our technological ADD tendencies.
But if there is a legitimate gripe about this tour, it isn't that she played songs from MDNA – it's her latest album, what did you expect? –- but that only a handful of those songs are good enough to warrant the spotlight.
The stripped, lovely Masterpiece, performed with Basque trio Kalakan, was a highlight of the tour de pomp (which began at 10:30 p.m. – a fact mentioned frequently since the tour began), and her snarky playground chant, I Don't Give A, which featured Nicki Minaj on video, might have been a hit in another era of music.
Of course there will be fans from Saturday's sold-out event who will grouse that Madonna didn't perform enough of her "hits," and they wouldn't be wrong. But for the past decade, no Madonna tour has included more than a handful of ‘80s radio fare, and most of those songs were recast into unrecognizability.
At least on Saturday, fans received a mostly faithful Papa Don't Preach, a rousing Vogue and a traditional roots version of Open Your Heart (again with Kalakan). The one true misstep was turning Like A Virgin into a supposedly sultry torch song, which Madonna performed in the aforementioned bra and panties, first flat on her stomach at the edge of the catwalk and then atop a piano, "Fabulous Baker Boys"-style. Of course it would sound ridiculous if she sang the song in its original incarnation, but turning it into sludge wasn't the way to go.
For those yearning for vintage Madonna, she made an appearance early in the show, when, clad in her drum majorette outfit and offering some pom-pom routines not likely to be seen on the sidelines of any Friday night high school football game, she dove into Express Yourself. In the middle of the song, Madonna snuck in the chorus of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," proving how it swipes the same melody line, then twisted the knife in that perfectly Madonna way by adding the chorus of her own She's Not Me.
Point taken. And the point is, even when Madonna is creating and performing a show that is more in her own self-interest than placating fans who still wear lace gloves and bows to her concerts, it's a necessary evolution.
We might not always agree with her direction, but, as Minaj reminds at the end of I Don't Give A: "There's only one queen – and that's Madonna."
Science has spent billions of dollars trying to discover the secret of perpetual motion ... or to determine if such a thing actually exists.
It does. And it turns out that most of the figures and equations of Newtonian physics are pretty much extraneous. Only one word is necessary:
For two hours Saturday night at The Q, the 54-year-old pop superstar proved that the only true law of physics is this one: a body in motion tends to remain in motion if its name is Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone.
Madonna and cast of acrobatic and rubber-limbed dancers -- including for one brief interlude her breakdancing son Rocco -- shucked, gyrated, twirled, and came within a hairsbreadth of becoming human superconducting supercolliders. The 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee ripped through 21 songs -- not counting medleys of some of her hits in the video interludes that divided the show and subsequently turned her MDNA Tour into four-part dissection of a career begun with the 1982 release of her self-titled album.
But it's really not fair to say that in those four parts -- Transgression, Prophecy, Masculine/Feminine and Celebration -- Madonna merely sang and danced. That's like calling a diamond a really shiny rock. Looking gorgeous in an array of outfits that signified the different periods of her life in musical stardom (and showed off a body that was cut but curvaceous, totally unlike the unhealthy emaciated look of her recent past) Madonna was able to not only meld but LEAD a company of dancers who could make both the Alvin Ailey and the Russian Bolshoi Ballet troupes envious.
Truthfully, for the first part of the show -- which began with a Gregorian chant that fed into Girl Gone Wild, and a bloody Revolver, Gang Bang and Papa Don't Preach, the heavy-handed vocal effects and strenuous dance movements made it seem likely that there were more taped vocals than live. Indeed, it wasn't until a breathy "Hello, Cleveland!'' from Madonna in full majorette mufti that it became absolutely clear that the microphone was more than a prop.
But the reality is that Madonna has transcended the typical concert. A Madonna show is a Broadway musical wrapped in an MTV video, enhanced by a shape-shifting set that was almost another member of the dance company. It wasn't until the penultimate tune, Like a Prayer, that a sense of spontaneity managed to cast off a feeling that every movement, every step, every shoulder shrug was carefully choreographed.
Vocally, it wasn't perfect. But Madonna never has been about pitch-perfect vocals. She began her career as a dancer and segued into singing. Did pretty well at it, too. Madonna easily could turn a show into a live greatest hits album. After all, her storied career has yielded a dozen albums and 14 No. 1 singles; just rolling through those would've left the crowd happy.
Happy, but not spent, which is how she left them Saturday night.
Her job wasn't made any easier by the opener, DJ Paul Oakenfold. Boring remixes of tired songs made his hourlong set seem like two.
Most Americans got their election returns Tuesday night from Brian Williams, Wolf Blitzer or one of the other distinguished anchors.
The beautiful people packed into Consol Energy Center found out who their next president was from, of all people, the woman who sang Like a Virgin.
It was quite a way for Madonna to spend her first night in Pittsburgh since 1985. To be exact, it started Tuesday night and ended Wednesday morning. She hit the stage around 10:45, thinking perhaps that the fans who paid hundreds for the tickets didn't have jobs to get to the next morning.
What her patient and long-suffering Pittsburgh fans got was a highly choreographed, highly stylized pop spectacle and an Obama victory celebration from one of the artists who helped re-define pop spectacle in the '80s.
She's had a knack for throwing her sexed-up dance-pop into the face of her Catholic heritage, and we didn't have to wait long for it Tuesday. The stage was set as a cathedral with robed monks performing a mass under a fiery, swinging thurible, when Madonna burst out of the confession booth in gangsta black to confess her sins and sing (along with the track to) Girl Gone Wild, the monks turning into her spectacular topless dancers.
It launched her very physical concert journey from darkness to light, breaking down roughly into religion, violence, sex and spiritual release.
Revolver took us from god to guns, with murderous Madonna and her girl dancers packing heat that went off during Gang Bang, blood soaking the video screens as she sang "bang bang, shot ya, shot my leather in the head" and did a balletic tussle with a dancer in a Tarantino-looking motel scene. Papa Don't Preach was a brief roll on the floor before she was manhandled and bound by military thugs doing a cool tightrope dance, which she joined, on Hung Up.
It was a relief when things turned sweet and bubbly, the 54-year-old Madonna marching around in a majorette uniform for Express Yourself, combined with its knockoff, Gaga's "Born This Way." "She's not me!" Madonna chanted with her backup singers, bringing us to the cheerleader pop of Give Me All Your Luvin', complete with a marching band suspended from ropes.
In the Euro-styled mid-section, things went off script when Madonna learned that her "baby," Barack Obama, had been re-elected. After the wild Eastern European dance on a jubilant Open Your Heart, she yelled "Do you know what just happened?!" and led the crowd in a chant "[f] yeah." When she heard a few boos, she said, "I love you too, but I want a president with a moral compass." It led her into an impromptu version of Holiday with a spinning "happy dance," as she called it, and a bit more emotion on the ballad Masterpiece.
We mentioned sex, right? Yeah. Things got racy, as she was groped by a dancer on Candy Shop, while singing "my sugar is raw," and she stripped down to a bustier and a thong for Human Nature/Like a Virgin, done as a slow dirge, showing off her most seductive vocal. The segment ended with her writhing around and rolling in money she asked people to throw on stage for Hurricane Sandy victims as she sang Love Spent.
Needless to say, it was quite a bit different than the '85 show when the young star pranced around in lingerie to simple catchy pop songs like Borderline and Lucky Star. That was an unforgettable one for her teen fans.
A lot of those same fans were back for this very different experience with the grown-up Madge. Between the eye-popping production, elaborate dances, the striptease and the night's historic events, Pittsburgh's Madonna fans will always remember where they were on Election Night 2012.
It only took 25 years, but the Twin Cities finally got its third date with Madonna.
The 54-year-old Michigan native filled the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Saturday, Nov. 3, with more than 13,000 screaming fans, at least a few of whom caught her only other two local gigs, way back in 1985 and 1987.
"It's been a long time, Minnesota," Madonna announced midway through the concert. "It's been too long, Minnesota. Sorry it took me so long to come back."
If 25 years wasn't long enough, the Material Girl made her faithful wait just a bit more, taking the stage at 10:35 p.m., a time when most arena acts are kicking off the encore. But Madonna isn't "most arena acts," and her show at the X proved that again and again.
Madonna packed the evening with eye candy, from her state-of-the-art stage to her muscle-bound, contortionist backup dancers. At one point, an entire marching band of drummers backed her up, while suspended from the rigging at the top of the stage. Necessary? Hardly. But that's how Madonna does it.
The stage morphed for each song, the entire cast changed costumes multiple times and nearly every song featured an unexpected twist. Even when she wasn't onstage, Madonna's presence could be felt, from the front row to the cheap seats. Cleary, this woman wants to make her concerts an event, and in that sense, she succeeded.
The major complaint, of course, is that she insisted on filling the set list with new material, much of which simply doesn't stand up to her big hits. On top of that, when Madge did dip into the back catalog, she switched up her old songs, performing them in new, not-always-successful arrangements. For example, she slowed Like a Virgin down to a crawl and paired it with Love Spent. Elsewhere, she pushed Open Your Heart and Justify My Love into murky waters.
Darkness hung over much of the first half of the show, when Madonna ran around the stage with firearms for Revolver and Gang Bang and, later, when she delivered a memorably disorienting version of I'm Addicted, one of the finest moments on her hit-or-miss new album MDNA. The concert could have used a bit more levity, for sure, but it did make the fun moments that much more giddy, like when she snuck Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" into her own Express Yourself, all the while dressed as a cheerleader.
She might be afraid to show her witch hands these days, and spent much of the show disguising them behind gloves, but she's still willing to flash a little skin. At one point, she backed her behind right into the camera and showed off a few bruises as if they were badges of honor.
And because she's Madonna, she wasn't afraid to speak her mind.
"I don't care who you vote for, as long as you vote for Obama," she said at one point. She followed up with a command: "You must vote 'no' on the marriage amendment."
Halfway through her two-hour show at the Sprint Center on Tuesday, Madonna acknowledged the raucous response she'd received from the crowd that nearly filled the place. And in so many words (including a couple that can't be printed here), she apologized. To paraphrase: This is the first time I've been in Kansas City. What took me so long?
She turned 54 in August; in May she launched the MDNA Tour, the ninth of her career. And if the first time turns out to be the last time she performs in Kansas City, then she gave a crowd a once-in-a-lifetime treat and an everlasting hello.
The show was a relentless and extravagant spectacle of sights, sounds and feats, a screaming locomotive of music, dance, theater, videos, lights, costumes, and cocksure attitude from a woman who may be in the midst of her sixth decade on earth but is hellbent on proving she's still royal and relevant.
She would make her fans wait. It was a few minutes past 10:30 p.m. when church bells rang, heralding the start of her show. From the start, she, her band and her small legion of dancers/acrobats/contortionists enflamed that mood. The stage was set with an enormous video screen in back that displayed a barrage of images and visual stimuli that competed with all the live action going on and with the music, which, a few times, felt incidental to the visual drama.
Madonna spent much of the show keeping up with her younger gymnast/dancers, most of whom who looked like they indulge in extreme cross-training and yoga twice a day. She would prove she was nearly as fit as they are, joining a slack-line routine and even dropping her drawers and revealing her sculpted buttocks.
The show followed its stated theme -- a journey of the soul from darkness to light. After the church bells tolled and the dancers, dressed as monks, set in a pendulum swing an enormous incense thurible, Madonna made her descent onto the stage, carrying an assault rifle. Firearms and violence were a big part of the first three songs. During Gang Bang, she shot and killed several assassins/would-be killers. Each time, that big video screen was splattered with blood (which looked more like pureed cranberries).
After the initial ovation, the first big eruption came for Papa Don't Preach, one of her certifiable hits. If this show has a weakness, it's the setlist, which favors heavily Madonna's latest album, MDNA, released in March. (She would perform eight of its 12 songs, more than one-third of the show.)
The crowd, which stood for nearly the entire show, seemed familiar with most of the new material; I Don't Give A, which featured a video appearance by Nicki Minaj, Turn Up the Radio and Give Me All Your Luvin', which featured a video cameo from M.I.A., all ignited outbursts of dancing and big sing-alongs. But with all the anticipation that preceded the show and as wound-up and giddy as the crowd seemed throughout, Madonna could have ripped a hole in the arena's roof if she'd uncorked a few of her biggest hits on a crowd that was surely primed for them.
Instead, she altered one of her biggest hits, Like A Virgin, into a gothic waltz on piano, making it sound like some tragic Leonard Cohen ballad. Vogue was played close enough to its original version to generate a big ovation. And the loudest, most cathartic moment came near the end, during a gospel-anthem version of Like A Prayer, which employed a 36-piece choir --- the best use of one since Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is." In a show that was rife with religious themes and imagery, that was its spiritual peak.
If "light" was this show's destination, she reached it, emphatically. After the church bells chimed again, Madonna and her crew uncorked the rubbery bubble-gum disco anthem Celebration, an invitation to a party and to "the dance of life."
As it was for most of the night, the stage was ablaze with movement and light and sound. Yet there was no doubt who was the force in the middle of all that color and motion: the woman who introduced herself to Kansas City two hours before and ultimately left it wanting more.
Madonna played Denver's Pepsi Centerlast night, and while for many the show was vintage Madonna (skimpy outfits, high production values, mediocre singing), some fans were offended by a scene in which she brandished guns.
The Denver area has seen a season of intense violence — including the movie theater shooting in Aurorain July and this week's shooting and arson at a Denver bar. And so for some,Madonna's on-stage antics, in which she shot at imaginary criminals and waved fake guns at the audiencwere perceived as insensitive.
Channel 9 KUSA reported that several fans called the station to complain.
Other fans weren't offended. "We can't let a psycho's actions determine how entertainers are allowed to perform," said Mark Douglass of Denver, who attended the show.
In August, Madonna told Billboard Magazine, "It's true there is a lot of violence in the beginning of the show and sometimes the use of fake guns - but they are used as metaphors. I do not condone violence or the use of guns. Rather they are symbols of wanting to appear strong and wanting to find a way to stop feelings that I find hurtful or damaging. In my case it's wanting to stop the lies and hypocrisy of the church, the intolerance of many narrow minded cultures and societies I have experienced throughout my life and in some cases the pain I have felt from having my heart broken."
If you had your doubts over the gay friendliness of the Greater Phoenix area, your opinion would quickly change if you were in attendance for the Madonna concert on Tuesday, October 16, at the US Airways Center in downtown Phoenix, Arizona.
A huge gay contingent turned out to hear the Diva, but they had to wait.
The concert was technically scheduled to start at 8:30 but started a little after then with a deejay spinning Madonna music. His performance lasted a little over an hour. The crowd erupted into cheers just after 10:20 p.m. when the giant Madonna curtain came down revealing the full stage. The house lights went down at 10:29 pm to more cheers. As if on cue, Madonna took the stage at 10:30 p.m. with a gothic/religious theme. A giant fixture meant to symbolize incense was swayed down over the front of the audience by "monks" clad in red.
Lady Gaga made it into Madonna's act. Just after 11pm, Madonna took a swipe at Gaga as she sang her Express Yourself standard interspersed with lyrics from GaGa's Born This Way.
Madonna turned political almost an hour into her show when she declared that Obama won the presidential debate tonight.
She told the crowd that she loved even Republicans. "I am a Democrat. But I love you if you are not, because we preach tolerance," the Diva said.
Madonna also made a dramatic statement against bullying. She showed off the name AMANDA written on her back. She explained that was in tribute to a15-year-old Canadian girl, Amanda Todd, who committed suicide because of antigay bullying. The star liked bullying to terrorism. She later showed slides of young people who have committed suicide because they were gay.
Briefly delving into the political dustup she got into in Russia the diva later joked to members of the audience, "Get a hotel room for that guys. You could get arrested for that in Russia." She later added, "No public displays of affection guys unless I am involved."
On her knees, she sought penitence with an assault rifle.
But as Madonna begged forgiveness for her misdeeds, she divined plenty more to come like a soothsayer of the naughty.
"My inhibition's gone away. I feel like sinning," she purred while wielding a faux AK-47 during a show opening Girl Gone Wild Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden, moments after striking a suppliant pose on a stage designed to look like an ornate church, complete with singers dressed as priests engaging in Gregorian chants.
Throughout her career, Madonna has acted as a pendulum between virtue and vice, favoring neither, embracing both.
Now, fresh off a bitter divorce, with a new album MDNA that's among her most unguarded, she has seldom seemed so human or humane.
She's wounded, angry, petulant and sad, but also emboldened, galvanized and empathetic.
Madonna spelled out these emotions in all caps during her seething and sultry two-hour, 20-song performance, which was divided into multiple segments separated by video interludes, the theme of which was emotional and visual excess hurtling down the pothole-heavy road to redemption.
First up was her wrath.
It was Madonna as a Charlie's Angel, clad in a curve-hugging black bodysuit, doing cartwheels across the stage and firing a pistol at invisible foes during Revolver.
Next, on electro slow burn Gang Bang, she was shooting masked assailants in the head inside a set designed to look like a seedy hotel room as blood spattered across a massive video screen in crimson bursts.
Her defiance reached its apex on I Don't Give A, a song that doubled as both an assertion of self-confidence and an angry kiss off to her ex, which Madonna performed while gripping a guitar, sucking her cheeks in and glowering at the crowd before her with eyes that doubled as daggers.
"I tried to be a good girl / I tried to be your wife," she sang. "Diminished myself /And I swallowed my light."
This hurt later turned inward on broken-hearted ballad Love Spent.
"Would you have married me if I were poor?" she sang with hand pressed hard against her stomach, eyes closed, looking pained. "If I was your treasury / You'd have found the time to treasure me."
And it wasn't just her former husband in her cross hairs.
Express Yourself, which Madonna performed dressed as a majorette backed by a marching band drumline suspended from the rafters, came buffered with a sample of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" (a song some have criticized for being a facsimile of the hit in question) followed by a portion of "She's Not Me," which could be read as a shot at the younger pop star.
Even some audience members received a little ribbing after Madonna learned the political persuasion of a self-identified gay Republican sitting upfront upon asking the crowd who was going to vote for Barack Obama in the upcoming presidential election.
"A gay Republican?" she scoffed incredulously. "It's OK. I love you so much that I forgive you."
A few songs later, after Human Nature, she'd drop trou and expose her backside to the crowd.
"Why does anybody show their ass onstage?" she asked of herself afterward. "So that people pay attention."
Aside from a palpable, often playful measure of impudence, the other main constant in the show was the way in which Madonna continually reconfigured past hits into something new, with some songs being barely recognizable from their original recorded form.
Basque folk trio Kalakan contributed pounding drums and three-part vocal harmonies to Open Your Heart, helping turn it into an old world incantation.
The blood was drained from Like A Virgin, rendering it a spectral, spare torch song that Madonna sang backed only by piano.
There was so much going on, both in song and onstage, that the show felt a little muddled in places, like someone trying to force together pieces of a puzzle that don't fit with one another.
But at the same time, the do-your-own-thing ethos at the heart of Madonna's catalog wouldn't be served with a played-straight greatest hits performance.
And so Madonna serves her audience by only being concerned with serving herself.
"If it makes you feel good, I say do it," she sang during a show-closing Celebration, and so that's exactly what she did.
Human contortionists festooned with wings. Robed monks, mysterious crooning priests. Gunfights in seedy hotels. Dramatized murder, with blood splattered on a billboard-sized video screen. A warrior-ninja spinning nunchuku.
These musical dramas and more highlighted pop singer Madonna's return to Los Angeles on Wednesday night, where she appeared at the Staples Center for the first of two concerts in support of her album, MDNA.
And that was just in the first act.
At various times in the second and third acts she brought out a floating drum line that played while hanging from the support beams, twirled a baton in unison with dancers/cheerleaders, and comforted a troop of soldier-dancers with an acoustic guitar, fiddle, and beat-based version of Masterpiece.
She floated on a chrome carriage above the stage, crawled on a staircase near the audience, clasping the hand of a fan. The joyous energy that lit up one middle-aged man's face as Madge focused her gaze on him could have powered the Staples Center.
Of course it did. She's Madonna, and nobody does this stuff better. Not Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Ke$ha, Rihanna, Christina or any of the other generations of pop stars who have used as a model Madonna's tightly crafted concerts/dance showcases/art projects/spectacles. Some of them may be better singers or more acrobatic, or offer cheaper ticket prices -- rafter views at Staples started at over $100, and good seats went for more than $300 -- but nobody has proven so adept at delivering the proverbial goods as Madge.
One piece of evidence: the suggestive way in which she incorporated the chorus of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" into Madonna's Express Yourself. Delivered as both an incitement and a generational bridge, the gesture embodied the ways in which Madonna has embraced her pop offspring.
Which is saying something, given that the album she's supporting is one of the least challenging of her career. A mostly failed effort at continuing her chart dominance by competing with pop artists now half her age, the approach on record felt a tad desperate, less dictating the conversation than chasing it.
She front-loaded her show with tracks from MDNA, crafting a film noir-inspired, acrobatically choreographed run of the first five songs on the album. From there, the drama built, both within her musical seductions and during breaks.
And as is her wont, she let loose on a mid-set sermon, this one focused on Russian band Pussy Riot, and the recent shooting of a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, allegedly at the hands of the Taliban. She protested with her voice, and with her music she shocked and awed.
Rolling on the floor during Human Nature, she stripped to her bra and turned her back to the crowd. The seductress pulled down her pants to reveal her derriere, above which on the small of her back was written the name "Malala."
The hits continued, moving through the set like a well-crafted mixtape: Vogue rendered in black and white; I'm a Sinner saw Madonna with a guitar playing to a version that morphed into a kind of Indian raga. Like a Prayer featured a choir of three dozen, consisting of the dancers who over the course of the night performed feats of balletic strength and agility.
Combined, the Queen of Pop delivered a grand spectacle, almost two hours of ridiculously joyous performance. No wonder tickets were so expensive. This was some serious business that required a lot of (shirtless, muscular) manpower, and just as much feminine energy and mystique.
Thirty-years after the release of her first single, Madonna remains as successful and controversial as ever – but has also become reflective over her long tenure as one of pop music's biggest names.
She spent her 30th anniversary performing a two-hour Saturday night show at HP Pavilion in San Jose as part of her MDNA world concert tour that touches sexual and religious themes just like past ones – but this time adds gunplay and violence.
So, what's the best way to celebrate three decades in the music industry? Madonna's answer seemed to be: 'Strike a Pose.'
"Take off some articles of clothing and let your hair down," is the advice she gave the audience. True to her word, the 54-year-old 'Material Girl' performed an eye-catching strip tease midway through the show that left her bare bottom showing and left little else to the imagination – perhaps a response to those critics who claim she's too old by showing that she can still mix pop music with sexuality and a level of sophistication better than any other entertainer.
After showing off her ass(ets) on stage, Madonna recounted: "I remember living as a broke ass in New York when I finally heard my first song on the radio."
"I'm proof that dreams do come true, so be careful what you wish for," she told the crowd of about 18,000, in between performances of some of her vintage hits dating back to the 1980s coupled with releases from her MDNA album that came out earlier this year.
One of her impressively performed classics was Express Yourself – in which she took an apparent swipe at Lady Gaga for being a copycat by illustrating just how easily "Born This Way" fits into the melody of her own song.
Aside from the strip tease, the numbers of costume and hair changes throughout the concert were nothing short of phenomenal. They ranged from her opening act where she pops out of a confessional in a virtual church scene, to playing the role of a deadly diva in a seedy motel shootout and posing as a cheerleader while escorted by a marching band across the stage.
Madonna's continued love affair with religious iconography could lead one to wonder if her live performances have not simply become a celebration of her own quasi-deity status.
Madge's Vancouver concert Saturday night was a testament to the 54-year-old's outlandish sense of self, a grandiose, overblown spectacle that was less about the pop superstar's music than it was about Madonna herself.
Besieged on all sides by rising pop icons looking to claim her crown, Madonna has steadfastly refused to back down and take the easy way out (ie. "play the hits"), constantly looking to reinvent herself. This never-ending quest to defend her stronghold has given us the maligned MDNA, a hodge-podge of a pop album that borrowed heavily from Madonna's past, doused in a 2012 EDM sauce. (French DJ Martin Solveig, who assisted in producing the album, was the opener Saturday night.)
The same could be said of her concert, where some of her older material was barely recognizable (Like A Virgin transformed into a piano-driven dirge, for example), most of it flanked by cuts from MDNA and baked into a two-hour show with a loose storyline based on themes like "transgression," "prophecy," "masculine/feminine," and "celebration."
In a nutshell: Madonna celebrates Madonna, with all the latest technological trimmings and choreographed/cinematic tips of the hat to everyone and everything from Quentin Tarantino to CSI and the Super Bowl.
The concept didn't always work and the first segment was so dance- and Auto-Tune-driven that the Queen of Pop's microphone sometimes seemed superfluous (though to her credit, Madonna seemed to sing a good chunk of her material live), but what the ears sometimes failed to get in the form of classic songs, the eyes got in spades in terms of presentation.
Kicking off with a Gregorian chant and more religious overtones than a trip to St. Peter's, Madonna quickly proved she still has the moves, leading her stellar group of dancers into guns-blazing renditions of Revolver and Gang Bang, with Madge putting a bunch of imaginary bullets into her crew.
Madge didn't hesitate to throw a few barbs at Lady Gaga, mashing Born This Way into Express Yourself and repeating, "She's not me!"
As Nicki Minaj said in her guest appearance on the stage's massive LED screen during I Don't Give A, "There's only one Queen and that's Madonna."
Based solely on presentation, Lady Gaga has her work cut out: A floating drumline and cheerleaders galore during Give Me All Your Luvin', a stage made of multiple square, LED-lined platforms rising and falling, acrobatics and costume design worthy of Cirque du Soleil, giant props including chandeliers and huge moving mirrors, it was all cutting-edge and state-of-the-art.
"I hope you can appreciate how hard we're working up here," Madonna said between re-imagined versions of Open Your Heart and Holiday, though she mercilessly teased a fan that didn't know the words to her song.
"You're wearing a T-shirt that says Open Your Heart and you don't know the words to the song? What the f---?"
But the sold out crowd ate most of it up with glee, especially when Madonna stuck to more faithful versions of her material, the classic self-indulgence of Vogue coming out in vintage black-and-white fashion photo-shoot style.
For all the controversy Madonna has generated on this tour so far -- the concert's violent imagery offending in the Middle East, the swastika overlayed atop politician Marine Le Pen's photo irking many in France, sarcastically calling Barack Obama a "Black Muslim" in the U.S., drawing the ire of the Russian church for promoting gay rights and backing punk rock band Pussy Riot -- the most shocking thing for many may have simply been the price of admission (up to $375 per ticket), which bordered on the sacrilegious.
When the concert finally culminated on a jubilant note with I'm Addicted, the Bollywood-inflected I'm A Sinner, ending with fan favourite Like A Prayer (complete with gospel choir) and Celebration, there was no doubt Madonna still had a firm grip on her pop crown.
Balancing newer hits with vintage pop killers must've been difficult for the people who put together Madonna's setlist for her recent tour. And at Wednesday night's show, fans heard most of MDNA and managed not to skip a single classic. No fan left dissatisfied. Cutting many songs to only two choruses made room for more performance, more magic and more impact. So the two-hour set was jam packed with power, never enduring a dull moment in the nearly sold-out venue at the United Center.
With most of the crowd of fans from the Celebration generation, hits from Confessions on a Dancefloor and latest MDNA weren't so enthralling. The stage was laced with black and white and red for Vogue, when the United Center finally filled with noise and motion. The show's other peak happened as cheerleader Madonna stomped and twirled to Express Yourself, mashing partly with Born This Way. Whether in jest or in disdain, the moment wasn't to be missed.
Opener, DJ Paul Oakenfold didn't have much capacity to rev up the crowd, house lights still lit and top-40 remixes uninspired, so it was up to the Queen of Pop to energize the audience and get them excited.
"I haven't had any Red Bull," she said sarcastically, and paused. "This is all me and caffeine." If this is Madonna high on caffeine, we never want to see her come down. She was revved up, and at age 54, showed no signs of slowing, even at the two-hours-long show's finish. It was astonishing how she kicked just as high and never skipped a beat or paused to breathe. The diva went on stage after 10 p.m., but still livened the crowd, many of which had surpassed their bedtimes.
For the most celebrated pop star of all time, this woman acted less like a superstar and more like a voice with a platform. She's known for her snooty character and fame-induced antics, but on Wednesday we were lucky to see a looser and more talkative Madonna.
Responding to fans in the front row, she joked "Hi, I love you too. Buy a T-shirt. I have four kids." It's rare for her to say much of anything to the crowd, and Wednesday's attendees got to hear Madonna telling stories and empowering concertgoers with some words of advice: "Do me a favor and don't vote for Mitt Romney." She even said goodbye to the crowd after final song Celebration and a fiery dance break in high-tops. Madonna never says goodbye!
Holy Hell, was the MDNA Tour a spectacle. No image fell short of mesmerizing, no move was less than passionate and no lyric sung without meaning. Madonna clearly hired the greatest dancers, the most talented designers, and the best-equipped production team to put together this tour. She had multiple costume changes and set changes, from church scenes (Girl Gone Wild) to motel shootouts (Gang Bang) to avant-garde cabaret shows (Like A Virgin). The concept was ambitious, and though somewhat disconnected, extremely entertaining.
A Midwesterner herself, Madonna poked fun at our neck of the woods before slowing down to perform Masterpiece, another MDNA highlight. "I've always loved the way you people say words like 'car', 'shop',… "Madonna," she embellished. At this point, the Queen had successfully engaged the crowd with her energy and amused folks with her sense of humor. Not halfway in, every fan's dollar was well-spent. The rest was a shock-value show that couldn't be priced.
Sometimes the best disappoint. It's rare, but it happens. Sometimes, though, the best are the best, and they show you exactly why they're the best. Seven years ago, I reviewed the Rolling Stones and the spectacle bordered on parody. About 10 days later, it was Paul McCartney, who took Mick & Co. to school. I went into those shows more of a Stones fan; I left the second one as more of a Beatles fan. A similar thing happened this year. If you told me three weeks ago I'd enjoy Madonna more than Bruce Springsteen, I would have never believed it. But after Madge's show at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday — the first of two — here we are.
It's not that I even want to compare them. I'd wager The Boss and the Queen of Pop have about three things in common. They became superstars in the '80s, they've both a truck full of Grammys and each has headlined ballparks in the last three weeks. There are more, sure, but you get the picture: they're not comparable as performers. But if I had to pick between the two shows right now, I'd tell you to shell out the money to see Madge. And I feel weird about it, because her version of musical theatre doesn't exactly execute the music part in the best way. Madonna's show is confluence of two entities that should lean heavily on each other, but one scores so much higher than the other that it's in a class of its own. Worth the price of admission, then, are …
Jaw-droppingly fantastic in every conceivable way. The show is split into four sections, each of which has a different look and feel. (BlogTO has a few great wide stills here, plus an interview with the people who designed it.) It's easily one of the top three visual shows I've ever witnessed, and that is no small feat.
The massive catwalk into almost the centre of the ACC made the arena feel tiny, an incredible achievement given how cavernous it can seem during some performances. Madge's team of dancers and tumblers were a neverending spectacle themselves, upstaged only by the 54-year-old centrepiece herself. Is the plastic surgery a little weird? Absolutely. Does it detract from the fact that she's 54 and putting on a show that would put a strain on most aerobic instructors? Nope. The sets and set pieces were so good, in fact, that they almost completely overshadowed …
Which I had more than a few issues with. For starters, it's difficult to say how much Madonna is genuinely singing. During the first act, she's buried in autotuner, if in fact her voice is buried at all. The first six songs were so choreography-heavy, the microphone seemed like a burden most of the time. I'd say we heard unfiltered Madonna on the hits — definitely on Express Yourself, Holiday, Human Nature and Like a Prayer — not so much on anything from MDNA, a stumbling block in and of itself.
The set was extremely heavy on this spring's mostly overlooked and very definitely maligned release. Of the 20 songs that were actually performed (a number of pre-recorded tracks with tour-only videos, including Justify My Love, played during set changeovers), just under half came from MDNA, and one came from her uber-flop film W.E. The track used for Hung Up — perhaps the only post-Y2K song that ranks among Madonna's best — was strangely flat, and the dirge-y, lifeless version of Like a Virgin was a massive disappointment. Sure, the tracks mentioned in the first paragraph were great, but, like I said, if you were coming for the music alone, you were probably disappointed.
Having said that, who comes to a Madonna show for the music alone? She's been the spectacle queen for the better part of 30 years, and currently shows no signs of slowing down. I vaguely hope she'll find a way to perform that doesn't involve stripping down to her bra and thong when she tours again at 56 or 57, just as I wish I'd never seen Mick Jagger preening like a 20-year-old at the age of 62. But given how well she pulled it off at 54, I guess we'll see.
Madonna's got her back up and it's fun to watch it goin' down. Just give into it.
To admit a fondness for this year's contentious MDNA album is to be shunned like a leper in an overwhelming number of "tastemaking" quarters, which is par for the course if you're the sort of Madonna apologist who might have already defended, say, 2003's similarly reviled American Life against an unswervingly hostile public — and to that this writer stands proudly guilty as charged — but likely a far more irksome fate at this point if you're Madonna herself. Madge's outsized sense of self-worth isn't taking MDNA's dismissal lying down, and the world tour she brought to the Air Canada Centre for the first of two back-to-back Toronto dates on Wednesday night has placed a bloody minded emphasis on the new stuff over the hits, whether you like it or not.
A bit of a bloody emphasis, too, for that matter. Following a grandiose, church-confessional intro set to the Catholic Act of Contrition, Wednesday night's ACC show burst headlong into a rendition of MDNA's Girl Gone Wild that concluded with Madonna stalking the stage with a mock AK-47 in hand as a segue into Revolver. She then proceeded to theatrically gun her dancers down one by one — including a paramilitary-looking chap who rappelled down from the ceiling — like a Bond-film villainess or one of Charlie's Angels gone hopelessly sociopathic while gore splattered in time to each kill across the high-def video screens behind her during a driving run through the new album's Gang Bang.
Somehow all that action-movie violence gave way to Papa Don't Preach and the equally unanticipated — not to mention equally fictitious — sight of Madonna hoisting a guitar around her neck for MDNA's feisty I Don't Give A… At that point, you were faced with a choice: either suffocate yourself with disgust at the sheer, pretentious, egotistical nonsense wasting untold millions of dollars in front of you or simply sit back and marvel at how seamlessly and spectacularly the modular, LED-lit stage kept rearranging itself into dozens of ever-shifting Q-Bert landscapes while an entire pep-rally drum squad levitated into view.
So, yes, restraint and good taste were hard to come by on the night. Ms. Ciccone did let this particular evening's interpolation of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" into Express Yourself slip by without calling undue attention to it, however, and interrupted the general ridiculousness of the proceedings at the midpoint to make a reasonably sincere plea for Western society to move beyond its overwhelmingly "white and straight and Christian" viewpoint.
"We're all in one room to celebrate love, correct? The only thing we have to get rid of is our big, fat f------ egos," she said. "We're all the f------ same … If we don't start treating each other with human dignity, this s--- is going down and we're all going down with it. Am I making myself clear?"
Not entirely clear, no, given that the speech was followed by a 40-foot-high "boudoir" video reel of Madonnas past and present in provocative, partially dressed poses and a stylishly appointed, all-in parade of black-and-white fabulousness to Vogue, one of the more unapologetically smashing monuments to egotism pop music has ever produced.
The torchy piano-and-voice version of Like a Virgin that followed was much less fun and entirely patience-testing in its self-indulgence — you could understand why the top-hatted piano player might want to strangle himself at the end of it, not why Madonna might want to strangle him — but quickly forgiven when followed up by booming dance-party versions of the MDNA tracks I'm Addicted and I'm a Sinner that sold them as the underrated pop hits they long to be. Like a Prayer followed to the crowd's overwhelming delight and maybe a touch of relief at hearing something concretely from the canon, then a rave-y, ultra-lit stomp through Celebration ended the night on a note of something like genuine … celebration. A slightly guarded celebration, maybe, given the lack of greatest hits deployed throughout the evening that built to it, but one that left little doubt that Madonna was still in charge of this spectacle and doing whatever she damn well pleased.
Some gluteus. Some maximus.
Part way through an outstanding display of pop Madgematazz late on Wednesday evening, the ring mistress Madonna slowed things severely down, rendering a hit that was once shiny and new as a melodramatic minor-key waltz. As a pianist in top hat and tails struck the notes of Like a Virgin, the famous blonde lady next to him pulled down her pinstriped pants, revealing a thonged, toned behind.
It was not a flash; the cheeky pose lingered, and then lingered more, as if to say, "behold it, jeer it, kiss it, but you don't you dare ignore it."
Ignore Madonna – why would we go to the trouble?
For the first of her two concerts here, the programs in the corridor were fetching $30, as if we didn't know this woman's act well enough by now. But then, this tour in support of her so-so latest album MDNA was spectacle like no other. The pomp was eye-popping and outlandish; the circumstance, exceptional and near-crazed. Many old hits were brought up to 2012-EDM speed. Dancers got up to all sorts of precision shenanigans, with Madonna, 54, keeping up to their choreographed big-production steps.
These are some of the things that happened: Gun-toting female dancers struck full-calibre poses and Madonna with an assault rifle wondered "do you want to die happy" for Revolver. A motel-room scene for Gang Bang was a bloodbath, with our heroine lethal with a pistol against all manner of male assailants. Nicki Minaj made a video cameo on the jittery rap of I Don't Give A, closing her bit with a sycophantic sign-off, "There's only one queen, and that's Madonna." The queen, meanwhile was up front at the arrow-tip part of the protruding secondary stage, using an electric guitar as a prop.
Majorettes appeared for Express Yourself, where Madonna implored that one should never "settle for second best" and then pointedly inserted a snip of Lady Gaga's sound-alike song Born This Way. It is hard to know exactly which way Madonna was born, but it is possible that her first cries were lip-synched. (She sang often at ACC, usually adequately and sometimes with cranked-up Auto-Tune effects).
Yes, that was a drum corps suspended in midair, hanging from the rafters for the cheer-leading single Give Me All Your Luvin'. A Basque choral trio appeared twice, as did Madonna's dance-happy son Rocco. Some stage-mom that kid has.
Video interludes were employed. Stage platforms moved up and down. Sometimes male dancers wore shirts. Vogue was set to an elegant art-deco scene, with the song itself stripped down to a pounding-beat rhythm. And if papa don't preach, Madonna did: "We're all the [bleeping] same," she exhorted, urging us to "treat each other with dignity."
The show closed with a hypnotic Celebration, but the preceding Like a Prayer was the highlight. All hands were on deck, with a choir that numbered more than two dozen. A gospel singer wailed on the mainstage while Madonna was on the floor of the front stage, writhing in orgasmic ways. "I hear your voice," she sang, "I have no choice."
And we know that feeling.
In a past era, Madonna might have been a minor star in the dying days of Vaudeville with occasional supporting roles in some elaborate Busby Berkeley movie.
The Madonna of the modern era is a similar construct: A cleverly considered, well-crafted celebrity image that almost disguises the fact that she's a fading pop singer with an ordinary singing voice she uses to pump out mediocre pop songs.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
In the 30 years Madonna has been plying her trade, dozens of pop singers have ridden up and down the charts before being cast onto the scrap heap of has-beens. It's a heartless business. But Madonna knows all about that. When she was in Scotiabank Place in her sweats for a sound check at 6 p.m. Monday afternoon, the doors were locked tight, even for ushers.
The celebrity entity known as Madonna has been too smart to fade away – and perhaps a little lucky and as the many fun loving Madonna lookalikes at Monday's show would attest, not without influence.
Madonna's live performance is a Broadway show on wheels, except that Broadway shows start at a reasonable hour. The start time on the ticket was 8 p.m. after all. When her show finally did start at about 10:20 p.m., it was fabulous, ushered in as it was by crimson robed monks to the cheering of the sell out crowd of about 15,000.
This cavalier attitude towards people who have decked themselves out and might have employed babysitters or have to get up for work in the morning – and who've paid through the nose to help keep Madonna in the style she has become accustomed – is weird and almost a throwback to the '60s when drunken rock bands routinely staggered on stage with regard for neither clock nor customers. Not that Madonna is in that wastrel category. Her onstage gyrations among a posse of superb dancers, and her well-sculpted physique, point to a 53-year old woman who is supremely fit.
She has stamina to keep up and change costumes at a rapid rate.
The name Madonna sells the tickets but at its core, this travelling road show is a sum of its slickly skilled parts – a show with a singer who might have the biggest role but who needs the others as much as they need her.
Stick her alone in front of a microphone with a guitar and she'd more likely be playing bars than arenas. In this company she shines like a star.
It seems like an odd comparison but the blood and shock for which Madonna has received flak is classic vamp Alice Cooper, a theatrical construct of Detroit's Vincent Furnier who cakes makeup and fake blood on his body by night and plays golf every morning as a regular millionaire rock star named Vincent.
Madonna's violent imagery around the likes of Revolver and Gang Bang are not thoughtless nor necessarily gratuitous but they are certainly made to shock. Alice wrote the book on rock shock though not with the same technological pizzazz.
Musicians usually tour when they have something to sell other than tickets. Madonna has MDNA, her latest waxing from which she draws much of the material for her show.
The big opener that leads into Girl Gone Wild was a statement of what the next two hours had in store for the patient thousands, that by all accounts have been reasonably tolerant and forgiving of Madonna's tardiness everywhere she has been.
In a sense it doesn't really matter what songs Madonna chooses to sing because the spectacle, with all its bells and whistles, is all. But many reviewers, during the European leg of the tour, have justifiably lauded her marching band visualization of Express Yourself.
Most people will grumble to themselves or each other, pack up their costumes and if there's another tour may think twice before spending their cash on Madonna tickets.
Forgiven, almost certainly, but — in more ways than one — not forgotten.
Along with a Lady Gaga mashup, the veteran singer brings to mind Quentin Tarantino, Marianne Faithfull, even Patty Hearst during Night 2 of her headlining stint at Yankee Stadium.
Since Madonna kicked off her world tour in June, her flair for drama has drawn the ire of Scotland (for using stage guns), Turkey (for flashing her breast), France (for superimposing a swastika on a picture and playing a too-short set) and the Russian government (for supporting gay rights and championing the imprisoned Pussy Riot bandmembers).
And yet, when it comes to the politics of provocation, Her Madgesty rules. Her perseverance in pushing buttons already has made the MDNA tour one of the year's biggest: Thus far, it has grossed $115.7 million in Europe and $111 million in ticket sales alone in North America.
So Madonna's dual New York City dates came with a knowing swagger. "I'm a New Yorker, too," she bellowed on Night 2 -- a rainy evening that lent shimmer and soul to her performance. The theatrics were finally welcome in this city that boasts a fertile history of enticement and iniquity.
Of course, one New Yorker remains a holdout. Lady Gaga has likened her de facto spirit animal's persistent stunt of live-mashing "Born This Way" into Express Yourself in concert to bullying. Madonna's finely toned ass, however, was covered by persistent onstage talk of tolerance supplemented with a moving interstitial montage remembering bullied gay men who recently committed suicide. You don't mess with a pioneering OG gay-rights supporter, you see.
For the most part, the show has remained the same: at once bafflingly and intriguingly all over the place and seemingly influenced by everything from Kill Bill to Mad Max to Xanadu . The locked-in set was too heavy on the new material, but in fairness, this type of hubris seems to afflict many almost-legacy artists from Madonna to Metallica.
And in an effort to embrace transformation, a handful of the old material was curiously restructured. Sure, it's interesting to hear "Like a Virgin" crooned Marianne Faithfull -style as an almost-dirge, but it isn't fun. The true crowd-pleasers were purist renditions of Like a Prayer and Vogue that elicited as many squeals as they did goosebumps.
The visuals were thick on metaphors. Madonna came out blazin' with machine guns and then pistols, blood-soaked Rorschach images on the screens behind her, as she negotiated the middle ground between religion and violence. She threw on a beret Patty Hearst -style and morphed into what looked like an audition for a Tarantino film.
That led to a dark, apocalyptic Papa Don't Preach, followed by rubber S&M escapade during Hung Up, then full-on majorette glee with Express Yourself. From there, crowds witnessed tribal drumming, dubstep, sexed-up writhing and even tai chi (Is it the new yoga? Discuss!).
Madonna has referred to her show as "part spectacle and sometimes intimate performance art," but really it's mostly spectacle. The 54-year-old's moves may be visibly slower than in previous tours, but there's no denying her indefatigable charisma
Aside from swapping out French right-winger Marine Le Pen 's swastika-laden big-screen image with her own, Madonna hasn't changed much of her show. Any placating came through sometimes rambling feel-good us-against-them monologues on the importance of togetherness and tolerance. ("We're in this shit together. We're family!") There was a patriotic bent to these declarations -- like, how lucky we are to live in America -- which roused her liberal crowd during this election time.
And why not? As a hardworking upstart from the Motor City who became the first woman to headline Yankee Stadium, Madonna truly embodies the American Dream. At the moment, hers remains a dizzying reverie of twisted fantasy and, yes, blonde ambition.
Napoleon Bonaparte, Catherine the Great, and Julius Caesar—all of them contributed to the modern day's notion of power. Which contemporary figure will be carrying on their legacies? Madonna.
Madonna Louise Ciccone is not only the biggest-selling female artist of all time, but also the most influential celebrity of the last 30 years. Just hearing the queen of pop's name stimulates thoughts of expertise, intelligence, controversy, and, most extraordinarily, fear. It has been 30 years since her debut single, and she has yet to be dethroned. Currently, Madonna is promoting her 12th studio album, MDNA, on her ninth concert tour of the same name. Last Tuesday, Sept. 4, she brought her arsenal of guns, crosses, outfits, and beautiful dancers to the city of Boston.
A few minutes after 10p.m., the blinding lights of TD Garden dimmed and an enormous censer descended from the ceiling, spewing incense. A band of hooded dancers appeared out of the murky darkness reciting Gregorian chants as Madonna's "Act of Contrition" echoed throughout the stadium. I was able to view a portion of the backstage from my seat, granting me the opportunity to see the Material Girl execute several rounds of intense stretches before stepping onstage. As her dancers hoisted the censer into the air, the glass surrounding her backstage haven shattered, revealing Madonna, microphone in hand and gun cocked. Her high-energy opening number, Girl Gone Wild, quickly transitioned into a full-fledged gun fight with her dancers during Revolver, which featured a healthy dosage of Lil Wayne on the big screen.
Madonna reminded us why she is the expert of combining performance and controversy during Gang Bang, an explosion of sexuality and violence that stirred up the audience. Armed with a pistol, she entered into a motel room and warded off dozens of masked criminals, all while tussling them on her bed. After taking out her last victim with a gun to his mouth, Madonna fell to her knees and belted out her first classic hit of the night, Papa Don't Preach. The song produced an almost tangible upheaval of excitement and nostalgia.
Given her unrivaled work ethic, she was sure to pick up some new tricks before her tour kicked off. In the MDNA tour, we not only see a new vulnerability in Madonna, but also witness her walk a tightrope during Hung Up and dabble in folksy music with a trio of Basque singers and drummers.
The cheekiest and most humorous part of the show was most definitely the following portion. Madonna and her dancers, all sporting cheerleader gear, rose onto the stage and belted my favorite hit, Express Yourself. She strutted past her drummers as they were all pulled into the air in an impeccable, single-file line. But because Madonna is, well, Madonna, she could not help but throw shade at an artist who, like the rest of us, is also inspired by the songstress.
Right when it seemed like she was about to wrap up Express Yourself, she transitioned into Lady GaGa's "Born This Way," poking some fun at the similarities between the songs. Throughout her rendition of GaGa's hit, the screens behind the stage displayed animated "little monsters" devouring cans of prepackaged food. Your faves would never.
There is also something to be said about the effort Madonna put forth in her brief intermission videos, which significantly contributed to the story she told throughout the show. In the first video, a morbid funeral procession took place as her dancers brutally fought one another on stage—an intense and quite gruesome visual. The next video featured the highly sexual soundtrack Justify My Love, and Madonna hiding from a gang of masked clowns in a luxurious hotel room. But the final video was perhaps the most impactful, played to the tune of Nobody Knows Me . A series of painful images were shown, displaying some of the prejudices and hatred our world faces, ranging from homosexual suicides to religious persecutions.
Although the concert featured many songs from her newest album, Madonna definitely pleased her fans with remixes of unforgettable classics like Vogue and Like a Virgin, to which she flashed her toned bum to the audience.
And then it happened - Like a Prayer. This performance inspired a volume of love and energy I had never witnessed before. Madonna worked every part of the movable stage as her large choir stood behind and belted the song's bridge. In less than two hours, I had experienced every human emotion and was left with a feeling of worthiness, self-love, and power. As she said her final goodbye, I looked around and saw that the energy of the entire audience was in sync and a magical sensation of wonder permeated the air. It was at this very moment that I had come to realize the power of Madonna.
In a "manifesto" about her latest tour, Madonna insists that the guns and violence that open the show are metaphors. "When you watch a film there are usually good guys and bad guys...Sometimes I play both." That last admission is an edifying one for an artist whose image has so often been taken at face value by both the media and the public. Duality—good and bad, light and dark, masculinity and femininity, freedom and confinement—has been a running theme throughout Madonna's 30-year career, and for better or worse, her MDNA Tour pushes it to the extreme.
The show opens with some kind of Mephistophelean ritual, with Madonna—dressed as a lip-synching jihadist turned Russ Meyer heroine—revealed inside a giant confessional. The violence, she'll tell you, is cathartic, an expression of aggression aimed at the church, society, and her ex-husband. The highlight is Gang Bang, an ostensible stage imagining of the much-talked-about Tarantino music video that will probably never happen, but the inclusion of an abbreviated version of Papa Don't Preach is dubious (a statement about the recent attacks on women's rights?) and, as Madonna's reinvention of the song both here and during her comparatively underwhelming Sticky & Sweet Tour prove, Hung Up (also out of place in this segment) should never be performed in any way other than its original form.
But, as has been the case for about a decade now, you have to take your medicine before getting to the "good stuff" at a Madonna concert, and after the dark, macabre first segment, the audience is instructed to express themselves, give her all their luvin', turn up the radio, and open their hearts. A mash-up of Express Yourself and Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" is ambiguous enough to play as homage, but the animation projected on the giant video screens that loom over the stage takes deliberate shots at Gaga, with "little monsters" gobbling up canned goods emblazoned with images of Madge's iconic cone bra and pony tail as well as David Bowie's Aladdin Sane lightning bolt. As Bill Clinton said during his speech at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday, it takes brass to attack someone for something you've done, but Madonna, famous for appropriating other artists' work, has always been the brassiest of them all.
While the apogee of 2006's Confessions Tour was the final disco segment, this show's creative climax comes prematurely, during the "Masculine/Feminine" segment. Rather than paying homage to Godard, though, it's a tribute to Madonna's own sexual personae, from Like A Virgin, reinvented yet again, this time as a piano waltz, to the non-apologia Human Nature, which is simply but cleverly staged as a hall of mirrors, to Candy Shop, which finally gets a desperately needed makeover. Like A Virgin turns Madonna's infamous sexual agency on its head, a male dancer tenderly wrapping a corset around her waist as she weeps before tightening the strings until she can barely sing. Through it all, Madonna gives one of her best, most vulnerable vocal performances to date.
Over-the-top spectacle largely triumphs, though, so moments like that, as well as Open Your Heart, performed acoustically along with Basque trio Kalakan's "Sagarra Jo," and a rousing performance of Like A Prayer, which had nearly all of Yankee Stadium clapping and singing by song's end, are welcome reminders that, for both Madonna and her fans, it always comes back to the music.
Gun-toting vixens. Blood-spattered motel rooms. Point-blank executions. Acrobatic militiamen. Gratuitous cleavage shots. No, this isn't a scene-by-scene breakdown of a new Quentin Tarantino movie, it's the first half an hour of Madonna's new live show which blazed into Yankee Stadium on Thursday night (and will be reprised Saturday night).
The shock-and-awe tactics have been a staple of her 30-year career, but right now they seem to be an especially savvy move. Madonna's latest album, MDNA, (released in March) was heavy on dance dynamics but light on killer pop hooks, and that imbalance has resulted in sluggish sales by her standards.
Not that it mattered one iota during the opening segment on Thursday because the extravagant sets, fantastically choreographed routines and the mini-movies projected on the stage screens were enough to divert attention away from the limp Euro-disco of Girl Gone Wild and the unconvincing dubstep influence that underscores Gang Bang — both of MDNA.
While those half-baked attempts to contemporize as a musician have fallen flat, Madonna's show remains a master class in performance and spectacle. Song-and-dance routines were a given, but the 54-year-old also pulled off a range of physically staggering party tricks including an extended fight sequence and a melodramatic walk across a tightrope. During a tongue-in-cheek piano-ballad version of Like A Virgin, she also spent several minutes writhing across the stage like a mortally wounded femme fatale. Whatever Madge is paying her personal trainer, it simply isn't enough.
There were moments where her cultural-chameleon act adopted some more absurd shades. I'm a Sinner in particular made an utterly perplexing transition from MDNA filler track to a faux-Indian hippie jam, complete with sitar twangs and Sanskrit chanting. It's the sort of thing that only a college kid returning from a gap year in Goa would have found interesting. For the rest of us, the bathroom felt like the less nauseating option.
But those dud moments were few, and it would have taken a lot more of them to truly spoil Madonna's homecoming. She may have decamped to London and taken on an air of refinement in recent times, but there's a smart-ass New Yorker still bubbling under the surface, and The Bronx responded ecstatically to those glimpses of the Ciccone sass. During Express Yourself, she couldn't resist issuing a sly smack down to Lady Gaga by seamlessly incorporating a chorus of "Born This Way" to illustrate the melodic similarities, and adapted the lyrics to include the line "she's not me" for good measure.
But the cheekiest moment of the night undoubtedly came when dear old Madge began to strip to the sound of Human Nature. With the stadium's attention fully focused on her barely covered behind, she used the moment to get political. "I'm not gonna show you my ass tonight — I'm gonna show you my feelings," she explained dryly, before completing the strip by revealing a badly scrawled "Obama" tattoo on her back.
Subtlety is not a strong point, but, as she has continually proved, being a pop icon is all about the grand gestures. And, after all this time, Madonna's are still the grandest of all.
Already thirty-four dates into the globetrotting MDNA Tour, Madonna embraced the opportunity to address her first American audience at Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday (Aug. 28).
"In my country we have freedom of speech. We have freedom of expression," she began in a mid-show breather, referencing her world tour, which began May 31 in Tel Aviv, Israel. She made a string of relevant references, from jailed homosexuals in St. Petersburg to a show of support for the recently imprisoned Russian punk protestors Pussy Riot. "Don't get fat and lazy and take that freedom for granted."
Being a socially conscious 53-year old performer capable of championing the MDNA Tour's theatrics, Madonna is setting a pretty good example. The first American performance of her ninth world tour was a show of strength for the pop star, as she and her ensemble tore through nearly two-dozen cuts from her ever-deep catalog. She generally avoided her earliest albums (with a somber piano rendition of Like a Virgin and Papa Don't Preach the main exceptions) and crafted an eclectic mix of highlights from her post-1980s material.
With the stage temporarily transformed into a cathedral, Madonna emerged amongst a legion of clergy-clad dancers to the tune of Girl Gone Wild, her new album's second single.
A song later, the EDM-flavored album cut Gang Bang made an appearance, with an armed and dangerous Madonna temporarily ditching the religious imagery to fight off potential assailants from her ensemble. Though she'd wind up wielding her guitar a bit later on, there's a good chance she spent just as much time wielding various firearms over the course of the evening. This set the tone for most of the performance -- one that was energized, jarring, and unafraid to push the pop envelope.
Song choices echoed this feeling as well. Though time was taken for a few tender, sentimental moments, passion and consciousness prevailed throughout the majority of the night's performances. On one end, Madonna took advantage of message-minded songs like Express Yourself to drape them in contemporary issues, and on another, she invigorated her more innocent fare with violent, striking dance numbers. In Hung Up, the singer literally hung herself, which helped liven up the 2005 hit, with its memorable synth hook edited out from much of the mix.
Madonna also continued the tour's tradition of inserting a partial cover of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," into Express Yourself. The elder singer hasn't been shy about pointing out the 2011 song's similarity to her own, which to the ire of Gaga.
Two artists on board (in spirit) were Lil' Wayne and Nicki Minaj, who appeared via jumbotron to perform their parts in Revolver and Give Me All Your Luvin', respectively. Madonna's son, Rocco, also made one of his now-routine appearances, dancing with his mom during part of the set.
Handling opening duties was DJ/producer Laidback Luke, who offered roughly thirty minutes of dance remixes in the early going. Madonna did not come onstage until well after ten o'clock (which she later apologized for) though the audience was understandably quick to excuse her tardiness.
The messages hit hard and fast as tour for 'MDNA' arrives in North America; next week it's NYC.
Forget marriage, motherhood and the kabbala. Madonna's startling new MDNA tour — which made its first American drive-by at Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Arena Tuesday night — finds her angrier, darker and more unhinged than on any road show of her 30- year career. It's an idea-intensive, message-packed enigma wrapped in a "what-the?" ethic that must be seen to be believed.
Where to begin?
Where all things Madonna must, of course — with her original nurturing place and nemesis: the church. MDNA kicks off in a shrouded cathedral, exuding ritual, mystery and no end of judgement.
That the star herself blasts into the scene miming her zippy electro-dance gem Girl Gone Wild may sound cheeky and even giddy, but she comes in bearing a gigantic gun — one which, before long, she points directly at the audience.
Those who like their art confrontational may consider this a (literal) bangup start. Especially since it's followed by Maddy mouthing Revolver, which treats sex as a deadly lure, animated by images of ammunition raining down from the heavens.
From there, the star launches into Gang Bang, which could be history's first disco murder ballad. Here Madonna blows away an army of intruders with enough relish to secure a starring role in the next Quentin Tarantino gorefest.
Unsurprisingly, scenes like this caused many critics who caught the tour's European dates to consider the show a disturbing downer. Clearly, that made Maddy self-conscious. Right before the American leg started on Tuesday, she issued a statement spelling out the breadth of her intentions. The long-winded directive stresses that she means the show to capture the "journey of a soul from darkness to light."
If so, that soul takes its sweet old time about getting to the light bit, and even then, it rarely stays there long. Even deep into the night, Madonna performed Human Nature, a song recorded during her most confrontational period, the mid- '90s.
She animated it with a striptease that was in no way meant to be alluring — though the star, at 54, does look smashing. Instead, the move aimed to reveal the depth of Madonna's defiant character, a role she by now occupies with unquestioned authority.
The late part of the night also included a willfully depressing version of Like a Virgin, which Madonna has rethought as a draggy ballad. Her Dietrich-esque vocal meant to make her sound like the most sullied, sex-weary woman alive.
With moves like this, Madonna certainly isn't making it easy on herself — or her audience. For a marquee figure like her to do so deserves praise.
The forward push extended to nearly every aspect of her music. She played no fewer than nine songs from her latest CD, and most of the hits she included could only be heard in snippets during costume changes.
For Open Your Heart, she featured three Basque singer/drummers to give the song some folkier and earthier filigrees. The piece also featured her son Rocco dancing along with the 20 featured pros.
While some segments appeared to be lip-synched, Madonna didn't shy away from revealing her voice for more of the night, often with solid results.
She didn't leave the politics in her show to implication. Yet again she announced her support for the jailed Russian art group Pussy Riot and used its members' struggle as a way to warn American fans not to get "fat and lazy" about their own freedoms.
As everyone knows, Madonna takes a shot at Lady Gaga by melding her own Express Yourself with a cover of the song by the younger star that sounds suspiciously like it, "Born This Way." In case anyone missed the point, she followed it with her own She's Not Me.
At another junction, a video image of Nicki Minaj reminded us "there's only one queen — and that's Madonna."
Naturally, being queen has its privileges — including being able to stage a show larded with statements and heavy on aggression. At times, such things hampered the show's momentum, seemingly in the service of jamming in more "messages." If all that made the show hard to adore, it also made it easy to admire.
A ritual, a blood bath, slacklining, a partial striptease, drummers in midair, traditional Basque harmonies, a psychedelic train ride — they're all part of Madonna's MDNA tour, which started its North American itinerary with an arena concert here at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night. It comes to Yankee Stadium next Thursday and Sept. 8.
Madonna has described the show in a statement as "the journey of a soul from darkness to light," and perhaps it is. Near the beginning, after tolling church bells and chanting, a gun-toting Madonna is besieged by assailants from all directions and dispatches them in self-defense as giant spatters of blood fill the video screen. In that opening segment she sings about jealousy, divorce and, in Revolver — with images of guns and ammunition — about sex as a weapon.
Yet the bad-gal nastiness soon gives way to more generous impulses, trading violent shock value for flamboyant showmanship. By the end she's sharing a big dance party. And the concert is less a story than an excellent excuse for extravagant, perpetually surprising production numbers involving more than three dozen performers, while it turns some of Madonna's past hits inside out.
Madonna, at 54, isn't giving in to pop obsolescence. The concert is a display of energy and nutty inventiveness, with Madonna costumed as everything from baton twirler to folk dancer. Featured among the musicians is Kalakan, a trio of Basque singers and drummers who bring medieval and folky elements to various songs, including a version of Open Your Heart that arrived as a kind of Basque jig, with Madonna dancing and singing alongside her son Rocco.
MDNA, the album that supplies nearly half of the show's songs, strove to connect Madonna with the latest highly commercial wave of electronic dance music. (The disc jockey and producer Laidback Luke opened the show with a set that remixed Madonna tunes alongside current dance floor staples.) But Madonna's spectacle doesn't confine itself to club land; its aspirations go further.
On this tour Madonna's usual steely determination shares the stage with a new warmth and acceptance. One song has Nicki Minaj, on video, declaring, "There's only one queen, and that's Madonna," and there's also some sly professional rivalry. Performing Express Yourself Madonna slips in an excerpt from Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," pointing up its very similar melody and cadence. But the show soon veers away from self-promotion. In a midconcert interlude Madonna spoke about returning to America after touring Europe, going on to reaffirm the importance of freedom of speech; she cited the jailed Russian punk group Pussy Riot.
While Madonna flaunted her toned physique — in Human Nature she stripped down to lingerie, with "No Fear" written on her back — she didn't hide her maturity. Gunplay aside, the concert's most startling moment was its new take on Like a Virgin, a hit from 1984. Backed by a piano player wearing a top hat, it became a waltz in a minor key, with Madonna singing in an uncharacteristically low, slightly scratchy register — her Lotte Lenya voice, unassisted.
A song that had been a chirpy claim to easy renewal became, instead, a memory of distant innocence. Hung Up, a more recent song that was originally catchy enough for a phone commercial, was reworked as something ominous and obsessive.
Madonna may never have an impressive voice, only an adequate and tenacious one. Perhaps its limitations help her write melodies that are easier for the vast pop audience to sing. Backing vocals and electronic effects often help her along onstage, though she does dare to expose her voice for part of the show. And Madonna still looks silly when, as she did in I Don't Give A, she slings an electric guitar and makes rocker-chick faces; it's odd that someone so physically disciplined can't fake better guitar moves.
But Madonna and her team do know how to dazzle. Her male dancers bounced on web tightropes in slacklining routines, twisted themselves in scary contortions and even wore some high heels. Vogue placed Madonna at a decadent party with a chandelier overhead, surrounded by dancers in angular black-and-white costumes, while she struck her own poses in a latter-day remake of her old conical bra, now a black-ribbed exoskeleton.
As Madonna sang Give Me All Your Luvin', a large drum corps in band uniforms pattered away, suspended in midair. It's hard to guess what I'm a Sinner has to do with a video train ride zooming through India, or how I'm Addicted connects to a group martial-arts ceremony, but both productions easily transcended the clichés in the lyrics.
Madonna's set started nearly an hour later than planned, the result of last-minute adjustments for its American premiere. After apologizing, she said, "I wanted the show to be perfect for you, because my fans deserve it, and quite frankly I deserve it." The details have always mattered to Madonna, and in this new extravaganza they add up. The effort is visible, but so is the delirious impulse behind it.↑ Back to top of page