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When we got to the venue, I went to the box office with my email confirmation and was redirected to the booth to pick up my tickets and wristbands. This booth was a little different than “Will Call”. It was simply titled “Madonna Friends and Family Tickets.” Cue heart attack number one.
After waiting in line with my baby blue and gold wristband with my mother and sister for an hour, the doors opened and we ran to the golden triangle we would call home for the next six hours of our lives. I texted Guy Oseary’s assistant, Sam – yes, you got that right, texted her- to come out and say “hello” to thank her for helping me organize my tickets, and the conversation went a little something like this: “Madonna loved your video. She watched it again from her home on her T.V. Enjoy the show!” Cue heart attack number two.
By this point, I’m on Cloud 9. My friend David [Robert] called me to go have a quick beer before the show, so I went to meet him (I still had about two hours before the show was to start). Not even five minutes pass and my mother calls to let me know Madonna’s team had come to look for me. Needless to say, I didn’t finish my beer. I return to find Guy Oseary with his camera taking pictures of fans before the show, as he is known to do. He notices me, so I go to shake his hand. He pushes my hand away and comes in for the biggest bear hug I’ve ever given someone (my attraction to older Jewish men is now in full-effect). I thanked him for the tickets and he thanked me for “everything.” Me?! He then goes on to say that “we love you.” We?! Cue third and final pre-show heart attack. I am already losing my shit by this point.
Madonna comes on stage at around 10:30 PM and performs like the Queen she is. She was definitely more into this show than I’ve seen in videos of the tour before (yes, I can tell you exactly what has happened at each show). She was smiling, she was glowing, she looked fantastic, she sounded fantastic and she was having so much fun.
The highlights of the show for me were definitely “Express Yourself” – performed as a majorette leader: you could not wipe the smile of her face with a million dollar bill; “Open Your Heart” – a Basque, folk street party, complete with son Rocco by her side, reminiscent of Madonna and the little boy from the music video; “Masterpiece” – I knew my mom wouldn’t be able to control herself for this song and, as expected, as soon as I saw her cry, I couldn’t help myself; “Holiday” – only performed once before on this tour, Madonna gave Toronto a vacation as she did a long, sing-a-long version of the most-performed song in her catalogue. The entire night was just magical.
During “Vogue,” “Like a Prayer” and “Like a Virgin,” I could smell her. During “Turn Up The Radio,” I am convinced she winked at me. I have never been happier in my entire life, and nothing or no one could have made it better. My life is complete.
See you in Mexico, Madonna.
As these lines, the opening exhortation from “Girl Gone Wild,” the opening track from MADONNA’S new long-player, MDNA, reverberated around the cavernous environs of the TD Garden, and a large digital crucifix adorned the Jumbotron onstage, and cloak-covered minions toiled onstage amidst the swinging of an enormous thurible with frankincense bellowing out, most in attendance probably thought they knew what they were in for: some light blasphemy, a circus-smorgasbord of dancing, and a smattering of hits from the Material Girl’s three-decades-deep catalogue.
And they would be kind of right, but mostly wrong. And I could even pinpoint the moment we all realized how wrong we were, easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy: it was when Madonna herself emerged to begin the opening lines of “GGW,” decked out in all-black everything, holding aloft a massive machine gun pointed at the air. As the song bled into her little-heard 2009 jam “Revolver,” and then into MDNA curiosity “Gang Bang” — well, let’s just say Madonna took the capacity crowd into a dark place that few were expecting minutes earlier from this queen of ’80s pop music.
Before I delve into the nasty details, though, let’s back up and get some perspective on what we’re talking about here: this is Madonna, who is, yes, a pop music artist with more Number 1 hits than Elvis. But she is also an artist who, for most of her career, or at least since she has had complete control of her aesthetic and output, has strived to confront and provocate not only a society that has misunderstood her, but an audience that has attempted to reign in her most outre impulses, wanting nothing but poppoppop. Madonna’s career, especially in the past 10 years, has been a matter of giving the world the pop they crave, but with an aftertaste of shock and awe, of upping the ante of shock as she grows angrier and angrier.
Because, let’s face it, Madonna is one of the angriest pop stars ever. With good reason, too, since she is probably the most hated beloved pop star, with her every move eviscerated by a public that still pays attention to her while doing so. Every album may hit the upper reaches of the charts, but not without a chorus of shouts regarding her irrelevancy; and then there’s her continued attempts at a film career, now as a director with the 2012 release of the much-revilved W.E.; and perhaps just the general apathy of the public to a hardened bitch continuing to reign supreme decade after decade, when so many probably wish she would just stop with the effort and do the rounds like other stars her age, trotting out the hits in a retrospective nostalgia-fest that acquiesces to the acknowledgement that she is embodied by her ’80s heyday.
To which Madonna’s metaphorical retort last Tuesday was KAPOW as she BLAMMO’d her ski-mask-covered henchmen in a sick Theater of Cruelty display that was both shocking and captivating. She played out a series of scenarios that all revolved around her as a gun-wielding moll obliterating assailants, with the Jumbotron displaying blood spatterings in a grotesque jolt that couldn’t help but turn ugly the rave party that the faithful had turned out to see. It reminded me of a production I once saw of Titus Andronicus, with a stark white backdrop rendered bloody with the pulp of murder by the end. It really was kind of a waking nightmare, as she kept us captive through her darkest violent fantasies, which when you get down to it has been her thing since she put out her Sex book in 1992 and forced the public’s face into the dark netherworld of her most twisted imaginings.
And it got darker: a brief respite in the form of “Papa Don’t Preach” was cruelly interrupted when Madge was accosted by a crew of facially-obscured miscreants who were decked out in what could either be described as the tattered uniform of a band of serial killers or terror cell members; she had a black bag put over her head and she was hog-tied to a pair of long poles and carried to centerstage, where she serenaded us in this captive state to the dulcet tones of 2006 megahit “Hung Up.” It was ironic I suppose, but also an awful juxtaposition, with “awful” in the truest sense of the word. It reminded me of the terrifying tune from Public Image Ltd.’s 1979 Metal Box album, “Poptones,” a shattered account by a soon-to-be-murdered woman as she focuses regrettably on the pop song blaring on the radio of the car her attackers threw her in as they drove her to a secluded woods that would be the place of her demise.
Like “Poptones,” Madge knows that taking a pop song, whether it’s “Hung Up” or “Papa Don’t Preach” or “Girl Gone Wild” and transferring it from the usual setting into one of terror and shock imbues the song with dark pangs that didn’t seem there before. The way that she pleads “Don’t stop loving me, daddy,” sounds so much sadder; “time goes by, so slowly” is so much truer with a bag on your head and a gun to your head. In the wrong hands, music can be torture, if even through association. As a filmmaker in a post-Tarantino world, Madonna knows this, and this whole escapade seemed far more cinematic in terms of the re-framing of her pop aesthetic than any of her previous tours.
Ms. Ciccone eventually loosened her grip on us by the one-third mark, after a rambunctious runthrough of “I Don’t Give A” assured us that she indeed D.G.A.F., except that she definitely G.A.F. about her meticulous control of her own spectacle. After the jolt of the opening portion, everything seemed more alive, if only in its display of her own effort. When “Open Your Heart” had the airwaves awash with its soothing melody in 1986, it seemed like a lightweight pettifour in Madonna’s oeuvre; but tonight, lines like “I’ve had to work much harder than this for something I want, don’t try and resist me” felt so sincere, and so ominous.
The centerpiece of this show, after the Grand Guignol of the opening’s shock, was the towering softstep of “Vogue,” followed by an intimate runthrough of her 1984 breakthrough hit “Like A Virgin.” For the former, Ciccone emerged with pulled-back hair, black straight pants and a white work shirt; for this number she didn’t so much dance as oversee her dancers with exacting precision, nimbly strutting and jigging around her coterie with assured command. It was a certain kind of full circle for this former dancer who walked away from the craft to try her luck in NYC’s post-punk world, famously telling her final instructor, the legendary Pearl Lang “I think I’m going to be a rock star.” Lang may have finally approved of Ciccone’s poise this evening, or maybe not — again, Madonna’s whole career has revolved around avoiding situations where she needs that kind of approval or acceptance. Which explains why she has always had a lyrical preoccupation with dancing solo, and also why her confrontational moments seem less aimed at anyone present and more at herself and her own expectations of herself.
“Like A Virgin,” then, was the moment of frailty after the juggernaut of assurance that was “Vogue”; alone and half-naked on the catwalk with only a lone piano as accompaniment, Madonna took the bounce-y sass of the original arrangement and stripped it bare until it quietly screamed its message of a longing for things to be what they once were. “Your love thawed out what was getting cold,” she intoned, pawing at the floor in a combination of agony and ecstasy that was a strangely internal performance to be taking place in an enormous hockey arena. The hushed low-key nature of the song in some ways showed that this show wasn’t for the masses, but for Madonna and her alone, her need to exorcise her inner debates even if it meant laying prostrate for all to see. Even as we all left the building a half-hour later, ebullient with the endorphin rush of the one-two punch of “Like A Prayer,” resplendent with a full choir backing its heartfelt power, and the electro-whump of “Celebration,” it was the moments of fragile honesty that remained in memory.
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 last year’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.
And for the religiously curious 54-year-old singer-songwriter-dancer — raised Catholic and now a Kabbalah worshipper — maybe that’s appropriate.
“We’re all in one room to celebrate life, correct?” she said at one point in the spectacle-like show, which featured plenty of moving stage parts, big video screens, slick lighting and Jean Paul Gaultier-designed costumes.
But it definitely took a while to move from dark to light.
A stern, dramatic opening began Madge’s one-hour-and-55-minute show supporting her latest dance disc, MDNA, as dancers dressed in burgundy monk outfits rang bells and marched across a church-like setting, complete with stained-glass windows, while a giant incense holder (thurible) swung over the heads of a couple hundred audience members lucky enough to be squeezed near the front of the stage inside a point-shaped catwalk.
Madonna kicked the night off with Girl Gone Wild, dressed in a form-fitting black shirt and pants, but it wasn’t really until the next song, Revolver, that she really got our attention as she and her dancers wielded guns, which Madge herself would put to repeated use during the next number, Gang Bang, set in a cheap hotel room bearing a giant cross on the wall.
In that room and on the catwalk, Her Madjesty repeatedly shot intruders.
Pardon the pun, but it was overkill.
Making up for those mis-steps were a short version of her classic Papa Don’t Preach, her later hit Hung Up — with her dancers in camouflage and balaclavas and performing on slackropes (as opposed to tightropes), and Madonna even strapped on a guitar on the new song I Don’t Give A, as the front of her catwalk was elevated.
But it was the first burst of colour with The Material Girl and her female dancers dressed up as drum majorettes in white and red uniforms complete with twirling batons for Express Yourself and Give Me All Your Lovin’ where the concert really came alive a good half-hour into the proceedings.
And while it took a while to get used to a drastically reworked Open Your Heart, featuring the Basque trio Kalakan, when the song took off, it really took off, due in no small part to the presence of her young son Rocco (with ex-husband Guy Ritchie) who bust a few dance moves and came back to the stage repeatedly as the show progressed.
“We just have to feel that it’s coming from the heart,” she explained of new versions of her old songs, and she had a point.
Madonna’s daughter Lola Leon (with Carlos Leon) was also listed as a performer in her tour program but with all of her female dancers brunette, it was actually hard to tell which one she was.
Needless to say they could all dance well.
Madge also didn’t hesitate to promote her critically panned film W.E., which showed at TIFF last year, showing clips from it while she sang the movie’s Golden Globe-winning song Masterpiece.
But possibly the biggest crowd pleaser was Vogue, which saw her and her dancers dressed in different black and white ensembles.
She even chugged back a martini before taking on Candy Shop/Erotica and the most provocative song of the night, Human Nature, which saw her strip down to her bra, with the words “Free Pussy” stencilled on her back, and lower her pants entirely to reveal a thong and fishnet stockings from the back.
That was followed by a slow, solo piano version of Like A Virgin that saw Madonna climb up on the piano.
As the concert neared its end, Madonna was dressed Joan of Arc-like in a Medieval warrior outfit of a shiny silver split gown and pants as the theme of church reared its head again while she sang I’m A Sinner with the help of Kalakan, and Like A Prayer with her dancers and Rocco dressed like a church choir in black and white.
The song ended with what looked like huge Hebrew prayer tablets as the backdrop.
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.
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.
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