Madonna is a transcended human; she is beyond labels and above critique. She is a mother, but perhaps a misguided one; she is a wife, but publicly tears her soon-to-be-ex to shreds; she is a woman, but is more domineering, muscular, and offensive than even the most masculine figures in modern culture. She is a humanitarian, but garners nearly $5,000,000 per concert. (hence her Hard Candy alternative persona, "M-Dolla.") So who--or what--is Madonna? Why do I even care?
There's something magnetic about Madonna. I can't explain it in written terms; it takes sweeping hand gestures and a little caffeine. But I was not musically aware of Madonna until this April, where I compared her to "a fine cheese." She is fine but not cheese. Dear Lord, I can't believe I just wrote that.
Fast-forward to November 16th, in Houston, at the The Sticky and Sweet Tour.
Following Hard Candy, an album far inferior to Music and Confessions but a definite slow-burn, expectations of her performance were high. I wanted to witness Madonna's power in action, I wanted to understand her better. Well, she's still an enigma, but maybe that's the point.
Madge appeared on a throne for the opening act of the show, singing "Candy Shop." I get the choice of "Candy" as the opener--"Come on into my store/get up off of your seat, come on onto the dance floor"--but whether it was an effective way to energize the audience, I'm not so sure. She followed that with the disappointing "Beat Goes On" (THERE WAS SO MUCH POTENTIAL!) and an odd but decent version of "Vogue" meshed with the trumpets of "4 Minutes." "Vogue" was a blast, but she disappeared so quickly after the final note that the audience kind of just stood there with eyes glazed over.
It's worth noting that the video interludes--in other words, Madonna's wardrobe changes--were excellent, so there was truly never a moment without stimulation. Especially good was "Get Stupid," where Obama flashed onscreen alongside MLK and JFK (so many Ks), without a bit of irony considering they were both assassinated at the prime of their influence.
The second portion of the show, dubbed "Old School," was fantastic (whew!). She played "Borderline" on a candy-coated electric while jumping rope and wearing the single greatest pair of little red shorts ever invented, died and rose again for "Heartbeat," and in one of the show highlights, semi-raped a bunch of Madonna lookalikes onstage for "She's Not Me." Her voice lowering to a bitter growl, she screamed "Bitch!" and "Wannabe!" to her lookalikes while tearing off their clothes--all classic Madonnawear. There was a sexy bride, a cone-boobed amazonian, and a reformed-pre-Sex-Spanish-influenced-red pantsuit Madonna. (Sorry, there's really no other way to describe it.) "We all know girls like this. You know, the kind that wear your clothes, act like you. F*** your boyfriend."
After a brief repose, Madge rose from the floor on a piano singing "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You," a weak track from Hard Candy. The music was not memorable here, but the effects were stunning--water splashed from screen to screen, swirling up a center screen of tiny digital bulbs around her piano. This led into the weakest portion of the show, "Gypsy," but there was one exception: Madonna gave a beautiful performance of "Miles Away," believably speaking with the audience about her trip to Texas. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to come to Texas this [tour]. I'm kind of glad I came!"
I won't linger on this portion of the show, where she butchered "La Isla Bonita" by mixing it with some random "Fiddler On The Roof"-like dance routine and a Gogol Bordello-inspired dance track called "Dolli Dolli." Yeah, I don't know it either, and yeah, it wasn't that great.
Keep in mind, when Madonna isn't "that great," she's still phenomenal. I was on my feet the entire show, and never once did I feel a tinge of disappointment. I was soaking with sweat by the end, and I would pay double my original ticket price to see her again. The "Gypsy" sequence was just messy, with too many dancers and too many songs mashed into one.
The final concert theme, "Rave," was just that. If you can picture thirty thousand people jumping up and down to "Ray Of Light," laser lights searing the stadium fog and a bass so heavy your beer quakes, you've got a pretty decent idea of the "Rave" sequence.
Madonna had clearly saved the best for last. A more-exciting-live version of "4 Minutes" was the kick-off, followed by the strongest performance of the show, "Like A Prayer." "Prayer" is not my favorite Madonna song by any stretch of the imagination, but in person, it was--buckle up people, it's about to get punny--spiritual. Energetic and (*gulp*) rapturous, the room was on fire. It was electric.
After a bittersweet modified performance of "Hung Up" with electric guitar, Madonna finished on the highest note possible. "Give It 2 Me" was musically alive. M-Dolla flung herself at the center stage, enveloped by her backup dancers in a robotic interpretation of Far Eastern videogaming. That song is hyper, but live? It's almost hard to handle.
The show ended with the entire stadium buzzing. The concert was mind-blowing--there were weak moments, no doubt, but for a 50 year-old pop star, Madonna's on the top of her game. She's authentic and, at least on tour, a tangible icon.
Although, no matter how quickly she gyrates or how many times she mocks Guy Ritchie, she still is and may always be a complete mystery.