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We should worship Madonna for her perpetual willingness to look, sound, and act ridiculous. For if we do, she will never disappoint us. So here we sit, our furniture, cars, and first-born bartered on Craigslist for tickets to Wednesday’s opening night of her robustly scalped Madison Square Garden six-show residency. And there she hangs. In the early stages of her two-hour extravaganza/ordeal—after a maudlin intro wherein interpretive dancers flail about during the solemn audio testimony of, say, a child-abuse victim or a former gangbanger—she emerges crucified on a life-size sparkly cross, with a mic helpfully attached so she can croon a draggy, canned-sounding version of “Live to Tell” while surrounded by Jumbotron images of destitute, AIDS- orphaned African children who’re occasionally swallowed up by CGI fireballs.
This is my professional reaction. Holy shit. It’s a sequence unparalleled in its combination of blasphemy, absurdity, melodrama, humanitarian grandstanding, and preposterous narcissism, all set to her second-best ’80s torch ballad. (“Crazy for You,” dawg.) This alone should justify the $12,000-per-seat admission. So why does it feel so unsatisfying? A Madonna concert dependably supplies (a) at least one hilariously offensive religious image, (b) a bit of Bono-bred social-cause pandering, (c) copious backup-dancer copulation, and (d) a few golden oldies to balance out the “Here’s one from the new album!” hostage taking. The “Live to Tell” assault combined ’em all for maximum impact . . . to incoherent, disastrous effect. I’ve seen Cher in concert, folks, and I’m telling you: This was ludicrous. But somehow bad ludicrous. Incoherent, disoriented, garish, light-all-the-firecrackers-at-once-and-just-see-what-happens ludicrous. The world is an infinitely more fascinating place with Madonna in it, turning empty spectacle into sincere emotion, and trendy pop bandwagon-jumping into timeless, profound beauty. Ironically, we sincerely adore her sincere attempts at irony. But she’s desensitized us to excess and lunacy— merely throwing orphans, fireballs, pelvic thrusts, and crucifixion tableaux at us randomly doesn’t cut it anymore. We demand a more thought-out and sophisticated brand of mindless spectacle.
Too bad. The new album in question, last year’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, is a deliriously vapid disco assault, charming in its relentless doofiness. Even a dopey tune like “I Love New York”—a less articulate ode to NYC than, say, Andrew W.K.’s, and man is that saying something—can sound transcendent if she sells it shamelessly enough. And she sure did Wednesday, thrashing haplessly on an electric guitar and climactically flipping off the thrilled, whooping crowd for a solid 20 seconds. That one stole (back) a bit of Kelly Clarkson’s arena-stomping thunder, as did triumphant jazzercise single “Hung Up,” though Madonna’s militaristic insistence on forcing us to shout “Time goes by! Slow slowly!” over and over and over felt less like a proud declaration and more like a desperate plea to halt the aging process. With all the retro poses she’s striking these days—of the show’s innumerable visual motifs, the Wednesday Night Fever disco phase, fusing her 2000 electro hit “Music” to “Disco Inferno” as she struck her best John Travolta pose in a shimmery white suit, hit the hardest—Madonna’s eager to prove that backward is the new forward.
At 47, she remains as thin, lithe, and profoundly attractive as science (and Pilates, or whatever) will allow—her outfits not too skimpy, but certainly skintight—and she holds her own amid all the copious backup-dancer copulation, flailing about as they whiz by on roller skates or leap ecstatically through a maze of chain-link fences, IKEA-worthy metal office tables, and sinister-looking gymnastic equipment. She slaps one around and stands triumphant over his body as “Sorry,” Dance Floor‘s finest hour, climaxes, but the Garden’s sound system fails her, watering down its bombastic, bass-heavy melody and rendering it wan and sleepy. Occasional breakdancing interludes aside, the tunes shouldn’t sound like they’re bleating from a boombox.
Even the golden oldies suffered: “Like a Virgin” earned orgasmic applause upon recognition early on, but wound up saddled with the same sweeping, robo-orchestrated Stuart Price treatment as all of Dance Floor, a newfangled clumsy chord progression robbing it of its cheesy simplicity. Undaunted, Madonna cavorted on a mechanical bull saddle/stripper pole hy-brid as the Jumbotrons flashed saucy images of . . . horse-racing accidents. Like the crucifixion debacle, you could write a term paper on that moment: precocious virginal musing vs. fear of breaking a leg and getting shot, a dorky ’80s pop classic ruined by 21st-century space-synth meddling, etc. But shit, man, it’s Madonna. Can we have the fun along with the dumb? “Ray of Light” (with more hapless guitar thrashing) got a few fists pumping, “Erotica” benefited from more Stuart Price sleaze, the “La Isla Bonita” choreography was Tony worthy, and “Lucky Star” was, uh, “Lucky Star.” Acceptable, but can you imagine a greatest-hits tour? As quietly great as Dance Floor is, will Madonna ever tour again without ramming a half-hour’s worth of feeble filler tracks—like the “controversial” “Isaac,” embellished via Middle Eastern wailing into a very poor man’s take on Enigma’s “Return to Innocence”—down our throats and indulge our lust for “Like a Prayer” or “Vogue” instead? How can someone so wed to outrageous decadence and shameless joy possibly not do this?
Instead, we settle for these brief flashes of old-time bravado and, even rarer, vulnerability. At one point our heroine sat down on the catwalk steps, visibly exhausted, content to merely look like an out-of-breath hot mom for a few seconds, apologizing for “fucking up words” and “falling all over the place”: a quick peek at the perfectionist insecurity that drives all this grandeur. She then sang a limp “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” profoundly inferior to “Crazy for You” or even “The Power of Goodbye.” She gave us everything she had, but not what we wanted.