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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.
But many others – “I’m Addicted,” “Girl Gone Wild” – are forgettable efforts while “Gang Bang” is merely an annoying refrain over a throbbing beat and screaming guitars.
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.”
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