BOY CULTURE REVIEW: *** OUT OF **** STARS (MADONNA CURVE)
"Forgive me...I wanted the show to be perfect for you because my fans deserve it. And, quite frankly, I deserve it."—the late Madonna, Philadelphia, 8/28/12
After an interminable wait while she assaulted Europe with it for weeks, I was finally able to experience Madonna's MDNA Tour, complete with wall-to-wall firearms, religious iconography, most of her new album and some redemptive rays of light (but not "Ray of Light" itself) for those willing to submit.
Age is brought up a lot regarding Madonna, but how about addressing it from a different route—it's not that not many 54-year-old artists are still pushing the envelope, growing and taking new risks in their work so much as it's that very few artists who've been on top of their game for 30 years are doing it. In the musical arena, almost all artists either have no career or are reduced to oldies tours. Madonna, who can do and sing anything she likes, usually does, with no regard for ruffling feathers. That's bad-ass. That's MDNA.
It's easy to see why some have rejected the tour—it's dark, at times delving into a much more committed take on SM than her past flirtations with the topic, it begrudgingly offers classic hits of yesteryear and the bitch is not only out of order, she's apparently without a watch—Madonna came on at 10:30PM after two rolling boos for her tardiness which explains the quote that opens this post. (It needs to be mentioned, though, that there is a huge difference between being getting booed because they want your show to begin and getting booed because they want your show to end.)
But while MDNA is a tour to be admired rather than clutched to the heart and loved, it is nonetheless an overwhelming piece of theater. It is intelligent, unpredictable (something hard for Madonna to do when she's seemingly done everything already, some things more than once) and effortlessly artful. This is not to say Madonna's effort is not apparent—nobody could credibly argue that she doesn't work her ass off on this tour, dashing about her ingeniously designed stage with its generous opportunities for physical interaction or at least close encounters of the iconic kind. Rather, it's that Madonna seems 100% comfortable in this milieu, a world that encompasses edgy, experimental theater as well as a more traditional pop concert. She is at home (or at least it feels like it), she is smiling with confidence and she is having a ball.
The main thing that struck me about MDNA versus her other tours—and really, Madonna's tours can't be compared with almost anyone else's, with only Lady Gaga in her wake having attempted the template Madonna created as far back as Who's That Girl in 1987—is that MDNA is less artificially divided into sections. Though there are suites, there's far more artistic and stylistic and musical overlap than in past efforts, where you might find yourself with pop cultural whiplash after zipping from disco to Dietrich just because why not? I never felt, even with the suites separated by what are the best overall visuals from any Madonna tour, that separate thoughts were happening. Rather, MDNA feels like one cohesive rumination on a relationship, and it's pretty hard not to imagine it was borne of Madonna's failed marriage to Guy Ritchie.
I don't know what Guy did to her, but based on this performance, dude needs to get arrested—she is not just sad, she is devastated, and it makes for a fascinating two hours. It's hard to envision Madonna as vulnerable even after many years of some of the tenderest love songs you'd ever want to hear due to the strength she emanates as a woman and as an artist, but even Smaug the dragon from The Hobbit had a chink in his armor. Madonna's appears to be located close to her heart.
The show opens with a prolonged, um, religious chant that involves black-robed monks and an ominously swinging censer that was beyond spectacular as seen from the golden triangle. (I wouldn't give my golden triangle experience back for anything, but if you're dying because you can't get in, don't—you see much more of the show from the rows in front of the pit.) Madonna's always good at ratcheting up anticipation, often writing the word into her songs, but I would have suggested she pare this part down. The build-up became a little tedious at one point, even though her eventual appearance from behind a scrim (Who's That Girl Tour!) was of course orgasm-inducing.
"Girl Gone Wild" is a goddamn good song that deserves more love than it's been given, and it serves as a fine, rousing opener, featuring terrific dancing. Madonna looks alarmingly perfect, even with her Hilary Duff updo. I would venture to say everything about Madonna has never looked better on any other tour. You'd have to go back to Blond Ambition or even The Virgin Tour to find a comparably beautiful Madonna, and the clothes are sick.
"Revolver" is filler, a gun-filled almost-anthem featuring a larger-than-life Lil' Wayne projection dueting with the diva.
"Gang Bang" is one of the best bits Madonna's ever done on stage, an instant classic. The over-the-top theatricality more than makes up for the harshness of seeing her blow people away. It's been said before, but the Quentin Tarantino vibe is palpable as Madonna scales a wall in her stylized hotel set using a cross that doubles as a mini-ladder. Climbing the stairway to heaven while her lover gets ready for a trip to hell? Ah, he deserved it.
"Papa Don't Preach" appears in a truncated but faithful version that will be a welcome relief for casual fans not wild about hearing only music made in 2010 or later. "Hung Up"—a joyous, bubbly dance tune—is reinvented as a plaintive, cold, bondage-induced complaint. Seeing Madonna literally strung up hammers home the point of being restricted and controlled.
"I Don't Give A" becomes the second song with a projected duet partner, this time Nicki Minaj. Madonna sings this just as it appears on her album, strumming along with her guitar. I could have lived without this song in favor of a better MDNA tune ("Beautiful Killer" and/or "Love Spent" to the front of the line) or a past hit, but it does provide a hilarious moment for Madonna to stare imperiously at her subjects when Minaj utters the line, "There's only one queen, and that's Madonna...bitch."
Similarly, I felt Madonna did gas masks to perfection of her Drowned World Tour, so did not welcome their return for a labored mix of lesser songs "Best Friend" and "Heartbeat". Madonna's hard-workin' dancers tore it up, though. They're all sexy, but I like that Madonna doesn't often choose shameless gay-bait hotties who could be mistaken for Sean Cody models—it forces you to pay more attention to their moves, baby, not just their body parts, which pushes the narrative along. You can get mindless fun with boytoys at a pride parade.
The most obviously "other" part of the show is next, and I for one am a big fan of Madonna's majorette look. She looks gorgeous and it's cute but not cutesy, suggesting her cheerleader days from high school without looking juvenile. It allows for a majestic levitating marching band and it's also where we get a (team-) spirited "Express Yourself", which sounds fantastic and which is slyly mashed up with Lady Gaga's "Born This Way". Not so slyly, Madonna is still seguing into a couple of lines from "She's Not Me", which in my opinion takes this clever, sassy move into too-defensive territory.
"Give Me All Your Luvin'" sounds great, its bubblegum pop quality continuing the feel-good air from "Express Yourself".
Following it with the ebullient "Turn Up the Radio" is another note-perfect choice.
I was pleasantly surprised by "Open Your Heart"/"Sagarra Jo", however, which others have said they didn't like. I found her Basque-me-no-questions-I'll-tell-you-no-lies version of this #1 hit from 26 (!) years ago thrilling.
After a short speech (see above video) in which she reiterated her support for Pussy Riot and warned us not to get "fat and lazy" about rights or we'll find our "gay asses in jail," Madonna went on to extol the virtues of American democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
"Masterpiece" is Madonna's time to showcase her vocals. She sounds great and charms with this vulnerable love song. It may be recent and—relative to items from her oeuvre like "Crazy for You", obscure—but I'd wager this performance was among the crowd-pleasers. Love the Rebecca Carlson beret.
Following a screening of Madonna's new "Justify My Love" video (when they remade Psycho, it was a disaster—who knew remaking "Justify My Love" would be so killer?), Madonna emerged in one of her all-time greatest stage costumes, that fabulous metal bustier. "Vogue" sounded mostly tracked to me, but I loved her RuPaul sashay and that she continues to give us what is probably among her Top 3 songs of all time, artistically and commercially.
"Candy Shop" is a song I never needed to hear on tour again, yet Madonna has revisited it and made it not only listenable but a surprise highlight by means of a light dose of "Erotica". Sexy without being tawdry, this number is slick, accessible and allows Madonna an erotic moment of her own with boyfriend Brahim Zaibat, who has probably endlessly gone down where all life begins. I'll take Fifth Grade Chemistry, Jeff!
"Human Nature" is not one of my favorites by Madonna; it works much better as a manifesto than as a song. For my money, it's not a good idea to have that defiant song in the same show with "Nobody Knows Me" (the latter of which appears via an absolutely stunning video—one which still includes that Marie Le Pen swastika that Madonna was supposedly gonna be giving the kibosh???). She doesn't sound great singing it and it's not a big hit. It's also been performed a lot. Too much.
But I can tolerate a little "Human Nature"—it was "Like a Virgin" that felt like the show's sole disaster, at least from my challenged perspective in the golden triangle. Without being able to clearly see Madonna's emoting and her submission to the painful-looking corseting being inflicted upon her by a dancer (this was a real OJ and Nicole moment), I was left with only the vocals, and that wasn't enough. Madonna sounds like Lotte Lenya or, as she intentionally did on The Girlie Show's "Like a Virgin", Marlene Dietrich, and she drags this number out far beyond what I would say is the audience's tolerance for such tampering. If you were hoping to sing along to "Like a Virgin", good luck with that.
After the aforementioned "Nobody Knows Me" interlude, Madonna recovered quickly with an electrifying rendition of "I'm Addicted" and a feel-good "I'm a Sinner"/"Cyberraga" that for the life of me feels Hawaiian. "No worries" is a bit hard to swallow after seeing all the tough stuff that's on Madonna's mind, but the simple, smile-inducing presentation of these two MDNA numbers was a delight.
MDNA's greatest offering is probably its unabashedly joyous staging of "Like a Prayer", another of her Top 3 best songs. As cool as this song was on Sticky & Sweet, it was more soulful (go Rocco, who was jammin' in the choir to this) and lighter, much closer to the original. Madonna grinned from ear to ear while serving up this hard-earned cupcake.
As a final dose of sugar to soften any overworked nerves, she sent us out with a short but sweet "Celebration".
No, it didn't last as long as that endless "Hung Up" orgy on the Confessions Tour, but it was a positive ending to a not-so-happy story, one well worth absorbing, picking apart and seeing more than once.