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The last time I was here it was for Oprah Winfrey. She’s an amazing woman, a woman I look up to and admire. We don’t have a lot of role models in the world these days.
She’s done a lot to change the world and I’m very grateful to her for that, but you don’t need to be Oprah Winfrey to change the world. You don’t need to be me to change the world. You just need to be you. You need to turn your lights on baby. You need to let your light shine.
I know you’ve heard it before, but could you remember after the show to let your light shine, to treat one another with respect, to not vote for Mitt Romney.
Madonna was in town, and though she’s one of the most famous celebrities in the world – and also one of the priciest, as evidenced by those $355 seats – her first of two concerts Wednesday at the United Center had all the hallmarks of a cult artist indulging a serious art-pop fetish.
The easy route would’ve been a greatest hits tour, but even at 54 – something of a godmother to two generations of pop singers from Britney Spears to Lady Gaga – Madonna appears to get bored much too easily to do something that rote. She’s almost perverse in the way she tries to upend and reconfigure her songs to fit a theme, and this was no exception – a self-described two-hour, four-part “journey of a soul from darkness to light.”
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Got that? Sometimes it wasn’t always easy to follow Madonna’s lead. Where’s this going, exactly? And how much of this was gratuitous shock theater rather than soul baring personal statement? But there was no denying the blend of art, artifice and sheer sensory overload. Besides the 16 dancers, four musicians and two backing singers, a stage that stretched into the middle of the arena and the sumptuous visuals made for something grandly watchable. It made every other recent arena tour that traffics in spectacle look rather puny in comparison. And somehow, a few emotional payoffs snuck through the dazzle, too.
Once regarded as a chirpy ingénue destined to burn up her 15 minutes and fade, Madonna has turned reinvention into 300 million worldwide record sales and nearly 30 years of stardom. She has taken a few knocks this year as her latest album, “MDNA” has tumbled down the charts soon after a muddled halftime performance at the Super Bowl.
Though the album was panned as a late, unsuccessful attempt to ride the coattails of the burgeoning electronic dance music movement, it was sold short. It was that rare recent Madonna album with an emotional center, with several songs zeroing in on the toll of her broken marriage, and that filtered into her performance Wednesday.
Her concert tours use music as just one of many elements in a multimedia scramble of dance, performance art, theater and video, and “MDNA” was no exception. The visually spectacular first segment was set in a Gothic cathedral with shafts of light piercing through the “windows” and hooded monks ringing a bell and burning incense, suggesting some strange hybrid of Kubrick’s ritualistic sex scenes in “Eyes Wide Shut” and a foreboding Medieval ceremony. The set morphed into a tawdry hotel straight out of Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” with Madonna gunning down masked assailants with disturbing glee, smearing the joint with blood and curse-splattered bravado. The music rumbled with menace, Madonna’s voice Auto-tuned almost beyond recognition, the once-bouncy “Papa Don’t Preach” and the exuberant “Hung Up” slowed and twisted to a crawl.
A parade of drummers, some of them suspended from ceiling wires to make it long as though they were floating above the stage, exuberantly flushed out the bad vibes on “Give Me All Your Luvin’.” Segment 2 was more organic, and exuded a highly unusual quality for a Madonna tour: something like warmth. She still uses her guitar, which was often barely audible, as more of a prop than an instrument, and her voice remains thin. But her dancing was energetic, and at times astonishingly athletic. “Open Your Heart” inspired an ensemble performance that suggested a mating of gypsy kicks and hip-hop break dancing.
The next segment was all ice-queen Berlin cabaret, topped by an oddly moving, slowed-nearly-beyond-recognition “Like a Virgin.” Here was Madonna’s signature song (or at least one of them) sung from the perspective of a much older woman looking back on her life, trying to conjure up a feeling she could barely remember, let alone ever experience again. It concluded with a tortured, erotic ballet involving Madonna, another dancer and a corset. A vulnerable Madonna? You saw it here first.
After that, the singer sent her fans home dancing with the sound of sitars on “I’m a Sinner,” a choir on “Like a Prayer,” and an aerobics class sponsored by Kraftwerk on “Celebration.” Amid a fleet of fluorescent modules, she was briefly the dance-pop icon of the ‘80s and ‘90s again. Some of her fans would surely be glad if she stayed there for an entire concert. But for Madonna that would mean turning into a nostalgia act, and she’s not having it.
Wednesday night at Chicago’s United Center, the first of two concerts there this week, Madonna again slipped the chorus of Gaga’s “Born This Way” into the bridge of her own “Express Yourself” — it’s a seamless match, for sure — but let it go without comment. Well, almost. She shouted a bit from “She’s Not Me” at the end.
It seems like pretty catty paranoia from the indisputable queen of pop, as if the Material Girl — a 1 percenter if ever there were — has adopted the Republicans’ new slogan (“We built it!”) and its false sense of rugged individualism. Madonna broke ground for women in pop during the ’80s and easily can justify her worldwide love, but her success is a pastiche quilt, a smart synthesis of the best of the best. Wednesday’s show only lengthened the long list of film and music artists she herself flatters by imitation.
In fact, the opening of her two-hour concert — full of the usual impressive showmanship, heavy hoofing, mish-mash religious symbolism and garish exhibitionism — finds the Gen-X megastar, now 54, retooling gruesome scenes as if acting in a Quentin Tarantino film. (Or is it ex-husband Guy Ritchie’s?) Kicking through a church window and brandishing a machine gun, Madonna and her legion of dancers careen through several violent set pieces, including pointing weapons into the crowd several times then blowing away various assailants — their blood splattering across the three-story video screens — while singing, “I wanna see him die / over and over and over and over …” (“Gang Bang”).
Her typical cheap shock tactics aside, it’s not exactly a comfortable thing to watch at the end of this particular summer in Chicago.
In a previous statement, Madge has described this “MDNA” tour, supporting her new album (widely lambasted, though I didn’t hate it), as “the journey of a soul from darkness to light,” as well as “part spectacle and sometimes intimate performance art.” The Broadway-level production does eventually lighten up, though it’s mostly artless and nearly all spectacle. Robed monks quickly turn into shirtless hotties (“Girl Gone Wild”), cheerleaders and little drummer boys prance about (“Give Me All Your Luvin'”), there’s the requisite cross-dressing and hand jive (“Vogue”), and the whole thing ends in a “Tron”-meets-Tetris, feel-good dance party (“Celebration”).
The finest moments, though, are in the middle — without all the hoopla. She sings “Turn Up the Radio” alone at a mike on the catwalk strumming a guitar, nothing else. “Open Your Heart” becomes a rhythmic Basque arrangement, with the full ensemble of dancers casually hanging like real people instead of choreographed cogs. (Here she’s also joined by her 11-year-old son, Rocco Ritchie, busting moves and grinning from ear to ear.) Next, “Holiday” actually feels like one, relaxed and spontaneous.
It’s a refreshing, natural few moments, and it gives Madonna a chance to squeeze in some yammering about Oprah (she was last in United Center early last year for the TV host’s big farewell) and delivering an impromptu homily about self-empowerment and treating “one another with dignity and respect.”
Performer, heal thyself. Your legacy is secure, and it would be cemented for a whole new generation — Wednesday’s crowd was, well, my age — if you took Gaga under your wing instead of clawing at her all the time. Go teach her a thing or two. Girl needs it.
Note: Those with tickets for the Thursday night show (and babysitters at home) should be aware the posted show time is 8 p.m., but on Wednesday (and at most other shows on the tour) Madonna didn’t start until 10:20 p.m. (DJ Paul Oakenfold fills an hour of this time spinning records. Zzzzzzz.)
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