-Madonna, “Girl Gone Wild,” 2012
In a recent opinion piece, The Observer argued that Madonna was entirely out of ideas, and that her best play at this point would be to step away from the limelight. In an unexpectedly well-timed twist, we ended up receiving a floor seat for the pop star’s Yankee Stadium concert last night–part of the widely criticized world tour that had occasioned our piece in the first place. We weren’t going to turn down the occasion to be vindicated–and, privately, we’d always kind of wanted to see Madonna live.
And, having seen the show, we kind of stand by our point. But only kind of. The MDNA Tour–named after Madonna’s most recent album–is heavy on not-so-strong new material; Madonna’s repeated exhortations to the crowd to sing along to new single “Turn Up the Radio” were met with silence. This crowd was ready to sing along to “Like a Virgin” or nothing. And when we went to the bathroom during the ballad “Masterpiece,” as scenes from Madonna’s most recent movie, W.E., played on the screen, the lines were very long. Everyone had had the same idea. The main problem with the new material? It doesn’t feel like Madonna, whatever that means: all it expresses is that the listener ought to dance, usually to an imported-from-Europe house beat.
But the creative blankness of Madonna’s current period–she’s not going through any phase, not a bride, geisha, voguette, or cowgirl–yields unexpected rewards. As her greatest work of the past has all hinged on specific and new personae, the blank, almost anonymous dance-pop Madonna of MDNA was at least an opportunity for remarkable showmanship. Are the ideas underpinning MDNA particularly great? No–the album’s not as rich as Ray of Light, to be sure. But in the music’s vacuity comes a certain commitment to clean competence.
Unlike at the overwhelmingly huge stage of this year’s Super Bowl, Madonna’s dancing was spectacular and her live vocals sounded crisp; freed of the obligation to put on different personae from act to act (her 2001 tour was divided into sections called “Cyber-Punk,” “Geisha,” “Cowgirl,” “Spanish,” and “Ghetto”; this time around, she was vaguely a majorette, at one point?), she arranged some subpar songs into exciting stagecraft. Sure, it’s not exactly revolutionary. In context, the gunplay and religious allusions that got so much criticism even worked, sort of. They were ideologically incoherent but propulsive in person; perhaps it’s time to accept that Madonna’s metier is the stage, and that she shouldn’t peddle her gaudy, larger-than-life act on the shrunken screen anymore. For, in person, the show never, but once, lagged.
The one slow moment was when Madonna stripped off her clothes to sing a cabaret version of “Like a Virgin,” crawling on the floor and revealing an ersatz “OBAMA” back tattoo. If Madonna must relive past triumphs, we realized while sitting in the crowd, better to commit, as when she belted a triumphant, note-perfect “Like a Prayer.” If an old idea still works, if only on the heart and not the analytical mind, why revise it radically? There’s something embarrassing about restaging public events simply for controversy, as with the kissing-Britney moment; that’s not what the few classic tracks played here were. They were just celebrations of a long career and a musician who can still move in all senses onstage, even if her recordings aren’t breaking sales records or new ground.
It wasn’t culturally relevant, but I liked the concert. Heaven help me.