No one pulled the plug on Madonna at Hyde Park. Well, Who would dare? Judging by the content of this show, she might garrotte, kick, shoot or whip any antagonist, then make a sanctimonious speech about world peace over their broken and bleeding body.
It was a typically sensationalist and schizophrenic Madonna production, mixing sex, ultra violence, religion, kitsch and politics to bizarre but entertaining effect.
It has been an interesting week of Hyde Park concerts, with big guns all impressing in very different ways. Springsteen did it with charisma, emotional content and dynamic rock power. Paul Simon did it with subtlety, detail and complex musical interplay. Madonna did it with lights, dancers, giant video screens, hydraulics, costume changes, flying drummers, tightrope walking, cheerleaders, a basque folk trio ... And music too.
I have criticised Madonna in the past for an over reliance on backing tracks and backing singers to fill in the vocal gaps while she's doing her yoga moves. But amidst the autotuned super choreographed dance productions, the real highlight of this show was a stripped back version of Like A Virgin, performed to piano and violin in the style of Brechtian cabaret. Fragile and intense, it openly embraced the ever present subtext of her age, displaying a sexual vulnerability that was far more resonant and effective than her brief stint as a superannuated cheerleader during Give Me All Your Luvin'. I honestly did not suspect she had that performance in her. It suggests that she might actually have somewhere creative to go as her pop appeal wanes.
Her latest album, MDNA, has been a bit of a flop, in large part I suspect because she's trying too hard to keep up with the kids. Live she plays to different strengths, emphasising her showomanship with enough drama and spectacle to cover up the gap in class between her classic hits and rather more feeble recent stabs at electropop. The opening section is actually quite unpleasantly aggressive, particularly the blood spatter and multiple murders set piece for Gang Bang, although its hard to deny that aggression suits her. Madonna stomps around the set in black leather like an aging dominatrix, which is hard to equate with the love in at the end, with monks, Bhuddists and gospel singers joining in a happy clappy version of Like A Prayer.
But Madonna makes no attempt at consistency. Perhaps that's part of her genius, everything and anything goes. During Express Yourself, she even threw in a few bars of Lady GaGa's 'Born This Way', then danced around singing "She's not me, she's not me." For sheer wacky mass pop entertainment, Madonna proved herself more than equal to the challenge of all her young pretenders.
The Queen of Pop, Madonna, has left the building. Seconds after the last echoes of the closing number, Celebration (which saw Rocco Ritchie dancing with his mother and sister Lourdes) faded out, a couple of luxury cars were seen speeding out of the back of the stage. There would be no encores, no coming back for more, no extra songs to make up for a very late start: Madonna's show leaves nothing to chance or spontaneity.
Everything is meticulously calculated and bears little resemblance to what we would normally call a "concert", including some suspiciously pristine vocals in the middle of very choreography-heavy songs.
The MDNA Tour, like all other Madonna tours, is more akin to musical theatre than music gig. Huge, spectacular, often slightly tacky, obvously expensive, it feels like a very long Glee fantasy sequence crossed with a particularly lavish Eurovision Song Contest performance, with better songs and a lot less humour.
The tracks from her latest album, MDNA, struggle to keep up not only with her earlier material, but also with some of her more recent output : Human Nature and Hung Up seemed to get a far better reception than any of the newer songs, with the possible exception of Girl Gone Wild and Give Me All Your Luvin'. A slowed-down, BDSM-themed re-reading of Like a Virgin drew quite a few hisses and boos from the crowd; elsewhere, honesty paid off, as in the case of a rousing, relatively simple performance of Like a Prayer that had everyone on their feet.
The blame may in fact lay in the poor quality of the sound for anyone not standing directly in front of the stage. The overall feeling was that some of the audience were quite simply left out of the show, which lost most of its punch when viewed from a distance.
And, of course, the controversy, this time in the form of chaste mooning. All somewhat expected from the woman who has been courting controversy for over thirty years, to the point that we have become desensitized to it; and even her tongue-in-cheek, passive-aggressive insertion of Born this Way into Express Yourself only served to remind us of how Lady Gaga's affectionate, generous approach to live performance is her most valuable asset.
Madonna deserves credit for her longevity and staying power, but there is little she can do to tweak her stage persona without losing status. Gaga gets smacked upside the head by a giant bar and soldiers on through the rest of the gig; Madonna sees a flag land on the stage at her feet and kicks it back down. And there, children, lies all the difference in the world.↑ Back to top of page