Thrills and chills in an epic set
“There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna.” So declares Nicki Minaj, closing her verse on “I Don’t Give A,” off the Material Girl’s dozenth studio album MDNA.
Saturday night at the New Orleans Arena, Madonna proved the point. Her set amounted to nearly two hours of high drama and total sensory assault, delivering arguably enough audiovisual bang to make the near-$400 price tag on floor seats at the Arena worth the sticker shock. There were hydraulics, fire, lasers, breakdancing clowns, contortionists, acrobatic slackwire-walking, gunfire, quasi-political video and pro-voting speechifying and – of course – more Catholic imagery than the Pope could shake his fancy scepter at.
In pop star years, Madonna’s lengthy reign – 2012 marks 30 years since the release of her first single – makes her the monarchic equivalent of Queen Victoria, longevity-wise. In his March review of MDNA for Slate magazine, rock critic Jody Rosen attacked the question of how, at 54, Madonna can still, audaciously, try to make the kind of dance-pop that keeps fans a third of her age out on the floor til daybreak, feeling like the very deepest secrets of their heart are being revealed by the DJ’s choice. Many divas of a certain age retreat gracefully to the world of ballads, Rosen pointed out, standing with dignity behind the power of their voices.
Madonna, of course, is not a world-class singer. But that was never the point. What delivered her to the top is her sense of theater; a beautifully dramatic control of image and narrative that made her one of the greatest actresses of the twentieth century, while all the time playing herself. “Madonna’s message has always been power,” Rosen noted. “That’s not something you age out of.”
Saturday’s show was a theatrical tour de force: exuberant, intimate, disturbing, well-crafted and genuine all at once. With apologies to the von Trapps, how do you solve a problem like Madonna? (Answer – you do not. You just strap in and go where the ride takes you.)
Among the thrills, there were still a few off notes. One, why does Madonna like to put on a guitar, as she did for at least three songs Saturday night? Two, a reimagined “Open Your Heart” performed with the traditional Basque singing trio Kalakan (who guested on multiple songs) chanting and drumming along in a dark, medieval tone, was a brave idea but never seemed to sync up, plus, her voice seemed breathless and even flat.
During “Gang Bang” (which includes the refrain “Bang bang, shot you dead, bang bang, shot you in the head”) followed by “Revolver” (which features a verse from Lil Wayne and, Saturday night, included a big-screen video of Wayne towering over the stage, wearing creepy Opus Dei robes) there was enough violence for a Hong Kong horror flick. The singer and a cadre of beehived, black-clad backup dancers stalked the stage caressing an armory’s worth of weapons; one Tura Satana clone ran her tongue over Madonna’s pistol. During an interlude that saw the singer holed up noir-camp-grindhouse style, in a set representing a divey 50’s motel, half a dozen masked assassins attempted to take her out. With her many guns, she dispatched them with relish. At each shot, a spray of lumpy, highly realistic blood splattered on the big screen – again and again and again. After shooting down her final attacker, she relaxed on the motel set’s bed and slugged from a bottle – then straddled the “dead” man and ground her crotch in his face.
As if we hadn’t gotten the point, she strutted to the front of the runway, chanting, “Die, bitch,” and variations on that theme just long enough for discomfort.
The house of horrors wasn’t over. During an abbreviated “Papa Don’t Preach,” Madonna was shackled and carried off by a group of performers wearing weird and frightening animal masks; while she was offstage, shirtless, gas-mask wearing dancers performed sideshow-worthy contortions, mimicking frighteningly realistic torture, with violent moves soundtracked by the apparent crack of bones breaking under the beats of “Best Friend.” Shakily shot black-and-white scenes of a Gothic graveyard played in the background.
After the gory interlude of shock theatre, mercifully, Madge changed into a majorette’s uniform and grabbed a baton for a bouncy, classic version of “Express Yourself,” accompanied by a drumline in marching uniform that hovered in midair from the rigging as they pounded away. “Oh yay,” my seatmate said with audible relief. “Let’s have a happy song to dance to.”
“Express Yourself,” backed on the screen with fifties-style clip art of cakes, housewives, Rosie The Riveter and muscular sailors snuggling one another was a high point of the set for several reasons: its faithfulness to the original recording, its lofty production value, its over-the-top energy level, and its sly acknowledgement of the debt Madonna’s descendants owe to her. Mid-song, without missing a beat, Madonna slipped out of her own tune and sang a verse of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” which is, musically, unquestionably similar to “Express Yourself.” Mutual admiration, or a call-out? Either way, fans were happy to dance to what was essentially two idols, old and new, in one.
As is the prerogative of royalty, Madonna took her liberties. A plurality of the set list was taken up by tracks from 2012’s MDNA, but the canon of her catalog was still represented – though most of those were arranged in such a fashion as to feel wholly new. “Like A Virgin” was sung in the melodramatic manner of a Weimar-era chanteuse, slow and sad, with Madonna draped across an upright piano. “Justify My Love” played while a battalion of dancers dressed as threatening clowns break-danced. “Holiday,” “Into The Groove” and “Ray of Light” played under a montage of vintage video, fuzzing in and out like a radio searching for a signal.
Madonna took the stage just after 10:30 p.m., though many fans arrived closer to the 8 p.m. start time stated on the ticket. However, nobody I saw seemed overly impatient with her. As her opening DJ pumped thumping house beats from the stage, the halls of the sold-out Arena felt like one big, raging cocktail party, with throngs of costumed fans sipping drinks and mingling. There were Boy Scouts, Roman centurions and Mormon missionaries, one Pope, several nuns, three Marie Antoinettes (two female, one male) and, of course, multiple homages to Madonna’s many iconic looks represented by both genders. (The “Music”-era cowgirl Madonna in white suit warred with classic “Like A Virgin” Madonna for most popular.)
Parts of Madonna’s set were genuinely terrifying. Parts were passionately transcendent. Still others – though few enough – were head-scratchers. She scared us badly, she thrilled us madly, and she pushed the envelope in ways most entertainers of her stature simply do not dare to.
As the singer herself acknowledged on the mic with compliments to the costumes in the audience, it’s difficult to beat New Orleans on a Halloween Saturday night for a killer show. But handily, Madonna did exactly that. The MDNA tour is one for the scrapbook.