Rebuilt Like a Detroit Car With English Upholstery, Madonna Ritchie Returns to Town That Made Her

Madonna Louise Ciccone’s Drowned World 2001 Tour surges into New York City on Wednesday, July 25, for a five-show stand at Madison Square Garden, but to call it a homecoming misses the point. It’s more like relaunching a multimillion-dollar product. After sharpening her act in the celebrity-starved sticks–Europe and Philadelphia–Madonna has come back to the Town That Made Her to hawk yet another version of herself.

And it’s not a particularly user-friendly version. Though she hasn’t toured in eight years, Madonna 2001doesn’t rump-shake to her greatest hits or fuss with small talk. She doesn’t even push the illusion that she’s available anymore, having married a square-jawed film director 10 years her junior, given birth to a second tyke and adopted the icy mien–and accent–of her new hometown, London.

Of course, Madonna, the ultimate showbiz chameleon, has packaged and repackaged herself many times before. A cursory check of Ms. Ciccone’s multiple personalities reveals the chunky Dicktease Madonna (circa “Lucky Star”), the spiffed-up Monroe Madonna (“Material Girl”), the Mrs. Sean Penn in Hollywood Madonna (“Papa Don’t Preach”), the Divorcee Madonna (“Like a Prayer”), the Beatty Madonna ( Dick Tracy ), the Creepy Madonna (“Erotica”), the Maybe-I’m-Over-Madonna Madonna ( Bedtime Stories ), the Chilly Harper’s Bazaar Madonna ( Evita ), the Dr. Andrew Weil Madonna (“Ray of Light”) and the current, Gold-Toothed British Punk-Rock Cowboy Madonna (“Music”).

Most celebrities last no longer than two acts in the American spotlight. Madonna is well into her tenth , but that only makes the stakes higher this time. On July 21, the first U.S. date of Madonna’s Drowned World tour, you could practically smell the tension despite all the Tommy Girls and Drakkar Noir Guys walking through the parking lot of the First Union Center in Philadelphia. If the 42-year-old Madonna pulled it off, these fans were saying to each other, it would be a triumph, a renewal of an old bond, a sure sign of her greatness. If she didn’t, well, another great pop-music icon would be a step closer to a New Year’s Eve booking at Caesar’s.

“She looks damn good,” said Rebecca Kulp, 33, as she made her way to the arena’s entrances. Ms. Kulp had been buoyed by recent photographs of Madonna and her sinewy, Linda Hamilton- Terminator 2 arms. “She’s ready to come back.”

“Yeah,” said Ms. Kulp’s friend, Tom Calabria. “But these people, ” he said, nodding to a trio of bare-shouldered teens bopping to “Music” outside a Jetta, “weren’t even born when her first album came out.”

It’s hard to believe that being alive for the release of “Holiday” could become a cultural badge, like Woodstock or Vietnam, but it’s happened. Madonna fans, like Stones or Springsteen fans, now span an arc of almost 20 years, and like their respective idols, they feel a bit entitled as survivors. After all, the girls with the gravity-challenged hair who swooned to “Crazy for You” in the early 80′s are now professionals and mothers, and the boy toys who vogued in the Village a decade and a half ago are now bankers and lawyers and restaurant owners. Then there were the newer acolytes, who started with “Like a Prayer” and stole Sex from the junior-high library, and now there are younger, frisky teeny-bopper fans who prefer “Music” as a stiff, 100-proof alternative to Britney Spears.

The First Union crowd looked clean and rich, nothing like the dusty, greasy crowds you’d find at arena shows in the 70′s, when kids would go see Sabbath, smoke something and stumble home. Actually, the fans at the First Union Center were rich–Madonna, you’ve probably heard, is charging Plaza Suite prices for the Drowned World extravaganza, with the top seats in Philadelphia commanding $5,000 a pop from scalpers.

“We paid $130 for $45 tickets,” a 19-year-old college student named Josette Bradley said. She was sitting on a bench with friends outside the arena. “We’d have spent $200–$300 at the most.”

I asked Josette where she and her friends had gotten their tickets. “A bookie, ” she said, and her friends laughed wildly.

“We wudda paid $1,000 !” another friend, Shannah Schodle, said. “Madonna has been creating music for, like, forever . There are 60- and 70- year-olds around here!” Ms. Schodle said the first Madonna song she could remember hearing was “Papa Don’t Preach.”

Their friend Amy Baldridge, 22, guffawed. “I always thought that song was called ‘ In Trouble Deep ,’” she said. She sang a bar: ” Papa, don’t preach / I’m in trouble deep.”

Everyone laughed. It was like how kids in the 70′s used to think the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” was called “Teenage Wasteland.”

I asked Josette and her friends if they thought Madonna, approaching middle age, was still, you know, cool.

” Definitely ,” said Kerry Saulino, 21. “She’s fuckin’ Madonna.”

Fuckin’ Madonna , of course. “She changes her image, ” Ms. Schodle said, ticking off those old bromides that Madonna fans and crummy rock critics always recite. “She goes with the age .”

“Even though she is older now and had a kid or two, she’s been able to maintain that she’s cool,” Ms. Bradley chimed in. “But that porno record [ Erotica ], I didn’t like that. “

“That was kind of disgusting,” Ms. Schodle said. “But it’s all right. People make mistakes.”

It was getting dark; it was time to go inside the arena. There, I almost smashed into Chrissie Dougherty, 21, racing down the corridor near the booths selling $3 waters and $45 Drowned World T-shirts. Dressed in a lacy black vintage dress with a poofy skirt and plastic loops around her wrists, she looked like a chiffon Ghost from Madonnaland Past. She also looked young. Shouldn’t she be listening to Britney Spears, or at least Nelly Furtado?

Chrissie’s friend, Chrissie O’Donnell, butted in. “Madonna kicks total ass over Britney Spears,” she announced.

“Do not compare Madonna and Britney,” Ms. Dougherty said. She sounded slightly angry, like I’d ragged on her mother. “They are not the same person.”

“She’s fuckin’ Madonna , dude,” Ms. O’Donnell said.

The lights in the arena darkened abruptly, and the crowd inside began to scream. ” Omigod !” Ms. Dougherty howled, tugging Ms. O’Donnell away. “We gotta fuckin’ go.”

A few minutes later, Madonna surfaced, rolling onto the First Union stage via slow-moving conveyer belt, like a very pretty loaf of Wonder Bread in a Key Food checkout line. She was blond (thank goodness) and dressed entirely in black but for a ripped white, red and black tartan–a Jean-Paul Gaultier-designed nod to her new homeland, punk rock, and known kilt-wearer Guy Ritchie. The band laid into “Drowned World,” an electro-orchestral cut from the New Age-y 1998 album Ray of Light, and as Madonna’s mouth opened, the standing, screaming, bananas crowd hushed as much as a standing, screaming, bananas crowd can quiet itself at moments like that.

They were listening carefully to Madonna’s voice. Much has been made during Ms. Ciccone’s career about her pipes or lack thereof; for years, the singer’s subpar voice was seen as an Achilles heel, the unconquerable roadblock to her being taken seriously as a singer, no matter how great her songs. To me, this emphasis on vérité always seemed a bit strange and wrongheaded; given Madonna’s legend as an all-around showperson, it wouldn’t have mattered much to me if she’d stepped onto the stage and sung into a big red hairbrush.

But it mattered to the crowd. She was singing, and yessir, she can sing. She’s not going to make anyone forget Nina Simone, but Madonna’s formerly carpet-flat voice has morphed rather elegantly into a smooth, not-yet-husky rocker mama’s. As it curled around the spare lyrics of “Drowned World,” the crowd’s relief felt palpable. Madonna was singing, they seemed to be saying to themselves, and she did not suck.

On the second number–the buzzy, distorted disco anthem “Impressive Instant”– Madonna’s Drowned World posse sprung into effect. As she hopped around the stage, the star of the show found herself surrounded by skinny-limbed dancers wearing black gas masks, who appeared to have wandered onto the stage from the clashes outside the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy. There was some major dancing, shimmying and gesticulating inside enormous black tubes; one of the dancers fired off a round from a fire extinguisher below Madonna’s kilt.

What the hell all of it was supposed to mean, I don’t know. Was it a protest against globalization? Racism? Ticketmaster ? Madonna herself described the Drowned World Tour as a hybrid of “flamenco, country-and-western, punk, rock ‘n’ roll, Butoh dance and the circus”–an indulgent proclamation that made Madonna sound like the artistic director of a modern dance troupe … or a street performer from Park Slope. The key was to sit back and enjoy it, and not henpeck for higher meaning. When Madonna turned to the crowd at the end of her third song, “Candy Perfume Girl,” and shouted, “Fuck you, Philadelphia!”, it was silly to try to divine whether she was trying to dredge up the woozy ghost of Sid Vicious or making an ironic statement about the secret hatred that every celebrity must have deep down for the fans. I just figured she was eager to get to New York.

The show’s broken up into four parts–loosely described here as the Punk part, the Geisha part, the Cowboy part and the Disco Queen part. The Geisha part–part Kurosawa, part Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , part worrisome colonial fetishism (Madonna’s really taking this U.K. thing to heart)–is the standout. The act begins with four near-naked men suspended from the ceiling like Christmas ornaments as a Geisha-ized Madonna sings on a video screen. Then the actual Madonna takes the stage in a black kimono with 50-foot cuffs and eventually ends up soaring above the crowd, strapped to a theatrical harness. It’s a staggering sight: $50 million dollars’ worth of gross concert revenues, dangling on a string.

The Cowboy part is the weakest of the four segments, and not because this audience member felt a brief, discomfiting rush watching Lourdes and Rocco’s mama grind her pelvis into a mechanical bull named Jesus during her performance of the kinky “Human Nature.” It’s just the weakest because its about … cowboys. I mean, really: Madonna, the East Village chick to end all East Village chicks, was never at home on anyone’s range, and she proceeds to drive home the point by adopting a twang to introduce an allegedly rib-tickling ditty called “The Funny Song.” Said song is not that funny, of course, but Madonna’s drawl is much worse; if it’s true that she’s adopted a Londoner’s inflection, let her stick to that.

Of course, we’ve learned to love Madonna for her excesses–be they metal-bound nudie books or dalliances with N.B.A. players–and Drowned World is brilliantly excessive. There’s a weird, preternatural confidence about this presentation, as if Madonna knew she could toss these incongruous ingredients (a little bit of Sondheim here, a little bit of Patti Smith there) into the stew and make it hum. It’s not a by-the-numbers crowd-pleaser (those wanting a Jimmy Buffet-style chestnut-fest should scalp their seats on Seventh Avenue), but it’s marvelously riveting.

It’s also the kind of sweaty performance that should make us feel guilty about the way we’ve been throwing around the word “superstar.” To see Madonna, at 42, is to reconsider Ben Affleck, to say nothing of Ms. Spears.

She’s still imperfect, of course. For all the hullabaloo about her recent records, Madonna was late to electronica, late to country-and-western chic, and she discovered hip-hop ghetto fabulousness about the same time as the kids in Waukesha, Wis. She has hopeless taste in movie projects, and I still haven’t the slightest clue about the Butoh dance and the circus. But Drowned World is a dazzling, finger-in-your-eye return. Fuckin’ Madonna , indeed.