Madonna w/ Avicii
Thursday, September 6
Better than: The VMAs.
If ever you need a concise summary of Madonna’s year, the billing for her New York dates will do nicely. There’s Madonna, her name in no way styled to resemble that of a party drug. And there’s Avicii, a Swedish stadium-dance wunderkind riding a mad-money trend of the same. They knew each other before, that sort of special connection that’s only forged by stage-bantering about ecstasy and producing hand-waving freakoutery the blogs over. Madge ether pretended to deny or actually, earnestly denied all knowledge of a drug she namedropped in bleary MDNA track “I’m Addicted.” Various DJs called her on her shit, then re-dredged the shit from all the ’90s morality campaigns. Deadmau5 got involved, as part of his year of omnidirectional trolling. Nobody involved looked good, but Madonna had the most to lose. “Is it all over for Madonna?” the Telegraph gasped, hands wrung and headline begging for response, and though the piece was a mess, a strawman battlefield, name-dropping Dylan and Leonard Cohen and girls screaming for One Direction and-and-and the Authenticity Madonna supposedly forsook for unilaterally witless electro, the mostly sneering comments suggest the opinion wasn’t unpopular.
But of course it’s not over for Madonna; she’s one of the biggest touring acts around, enough to pack Yankee Stadium and, later this year, Madison Square Garden. As well. Of course she’s making dance music. Madonna’s always made dance music, unless we’re calling “Into the Groove” onward something else. And she’s always jacked trends. “La Isla Bonita” is as authentically Latin as hot Cheetos (no Takis). “Like a Prayer” appropriates more canon gospel than some cults. “Vogue” does the same for house music and voguing; had MDNA been held half a year, it’d probably have a 2012 remake sampling Zebra Katz. The most mortal sins of MDNA, anyway, aren’t musical but contextual: witness Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime show, her audience addled by a middle finger already implied in the lyrics and her choreo hijacked by typically tiresome LMFAO. By comparison, Avicii is rock canon.
Speaking of Avicii, let’s get him over with. Nobody in the stadium gave seven shits about Avicii, let alone his earnestly competent set. It’s not his fault—with Madonna, he’s an opener of the “just happy to be invited” variety—but his sort of music, titanic dance that shoots subtlety to smithereens, assumes and only works if the audience is euphoric, or partying, or dancing, or even just involved. The dancers I saw, in order: a man bobbing about ironically, waving his ticket printout; two girls half-heartedly Benni Cinkling; Avicii, wilding out at imperceptible distance and gamely acting the future headliner; various dances of the mating variety from two rows up. None of this looks exciting under strobe lights. Nor does texting (which looks fidgety, like the sort of texting you reserve for the guys who’ve got you hung up) or milling about the stadium (which looks like milling about a stadium) or the traveling sale of $12.50 bottled margaritas (which looks like a sign of the apocalypse.) It was louder, flashier background music, a thumping soundtrack for distraction. EDennnh.
No, the people were here to see Madonna. They reserved their dancing and awe for her alone—for the queen, as holographic Nicki Minaj mentioned—and it shouldn’t even need mentioning in 2012 that she knows how to stage a show. More specifically, she staged several:
The set pieces. The first segment of Madonna’s set (called “Transgression,” in a series of titles you can now forget exist) was the only one with a storyline. It’s a familiar one, opening with repertory wailers and Gregorian gloom and towering gates to the unknown, like a theatrical re-enactment of an Illuminati ritual. Or perhaps that should be Illuminaughty. Glass shattered and the sky fell in and Madonna emerged in a hallelujah of light—but this is the MDNA era, so the rapture on hand was the sort with thumping beats and “Girl Gone Wild.” The history of that: Madonna sang “express yourself.” Professional scumsmear Joe Francis amended this, sometimes by coercion, to “express your shelf.” Madonna shrugged and embraced it, adding some venial transgression she’d previously exorcised by Catholic school. It’s possibly the worst song of her career; it’s definitely not a song that deserves to be summoned up like Jesus.
It gets better. Madonna shoots everybody during “Revolver” and “Gang Bang,” the former staged like “Hot Honey Rag” with holographic Lil Wayne and the latter like a pulp film where we’re to believe Madge only chooses dingy hotels that stock large crosses with their Gideon Bibles. They are ridiculous. They’re also remarkably compelling. The gunplay leads somehow to pregnancy, or at least to a prostrate “Papa Don’t Preach.” It’s worth noting here that Madonna elided “but I’ve made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby,” possibly in light of a reproductive rights backlash that’d make the first half impossible, it’s replaced by Madonna snatched up by zombies to “Hung Up” (inexplicably without ABBA sample) and thrown into hell, so the politics might not bear examination.
The sex pieces. Reworks and politics were something of a subtheme of the night. “I’m a Sinner” became sitar-enhanced, flower-boa’d hippie stuff, as if the sinning in question came from a pamphlet on New Age. “Like a Virgin” became a throaty, groaned ballad, preceded by some talk about baring emotions, not flesh, and accompanied by a shirtless guy’s portentous dressing, undressing and tightlacing of Madonna’s nevertheless-bare back. It was either a disturbing take on maturity, vulnerability and power play, or a dreary disaster and waste of a hit brought on by booze and hubris. I haven’t decided. As for the politics, said undressing also involved a large OBAMA back tattoo. This, plus an ad-libbed “Thank God for Michelle Obama!” got the biggest cheers of the night.
But back to the sex. It was tamer than the religious flagellation and dossier of controversy would have you think, only as depraved as a Reno Sweeney show. “Justify My Love” happened, but with what sounded like a Crystal Castles remix and a video that wasn’t The Video (more on that later.) “Erotica” happened for about five seconds. “Candy Shop” happened for far too many. Crotches were grabbed, as they are. Everyone involved looked better than you and me. The most annoying gripes about MDNA were the ones about Madonna’s age—oops, she wasn’t supposed to talk about sex past 50—and in a better world, this tour would quash them forever. Growing older means growing more competent, enough to turn seduction into four-to-the-floor inevitability. More aspirational. That these aspirations include Girls Gone Wild isn’t Madonna, merely the context she lives in.
Trend pieces, masterpieces. Why, yes, that was a “We Are The 99%” clip shown during the video montage of topicality during “Nobody Knows Me,” wedged between tributes to Tyler Clementi and more bullied teens than society should tolerate. (The bullying, not the teens.) This is the part of the MDNA tour that’s produced the aforementioned dossier of controversy, though it’s hard to imagine freedom of expression or tolerance raising too much of a ruckus at this point or in this venue. Yes, Madonna did allude again to Pussy Riot during her speech—she didn’t mention them by name this time, though an audience member behind me kindly shouted it in her stead. Yes, she is still splicing “Born This Way” and “She’s Not Me” into “Express Yourself” while mooning the audience, though you suspect, or at least hope, that neither she nor Lady Gaga really cares at this point. At one point these were shocking moments; now, they’re merely plot points. It’s more jarring that Madonna dressed “Express Yourself” up in “Give Me All Your Luvin” and its marching band kitsch, complete with cartoon flirting and Rosie the Riveter pinups in the accompanying video.
It’s telling that the second-loudest cheers of the night came during something that wasn’t even live: the clip show of Madonna’s old videos that preceded the far inferior, far lazier “Turn Up the Radio.” Each provided a hit, if you will: an involuntary smile. Maybe it was the conceit, maybe it was the Twitter feed, but I couldn’t help but think about the VMAs, which happened the same night: a ceremony arguably tailored to Madonna’s strengths and the venue of many of her iconic performances. According to Twitter and YouTube recaps, this year’s VMAs absolutely sucked. Kevin Hart did his best to recreate Mike Birbiglia’s standup-amateur dunderfuckery from Sleepwalk With Me, except he wasn’t acting. Frank Ocean had something a couple of Zeno’s paradox steps away from a moment. Various pop artists staged various OK renditions of various OK hits. The spectrum wasn’t unforgettable to decent; it was passable to embarrassing.
Meanwhile, here’s Madonna, tens of thousands of people and untold expenditures in spectacle strong someplace else. She doesn’t need the VMAs anymore, clearly, but whether she needs MDNA is more questionable. Avicii was a red herring; this wasn’t a dance show but a Madonna show with album-necessitated dance interludes. It’s remarkable how uninfluential it was. There were few rote club remixes. There were your standard pyrotechnic routines, but only for the tracks that demanded them; everything else was Madonna’s more standard theatricality. You could hardly call the dance tracks masterpieces (nor, for that matter, “Masterpiece,” a stagy ballad rendered obsolete by Madonna’s actual stage ballads), but even when they were embarrassing they were competent. At times, they approached transcendent—most of those times occurring during “I’m Addicted,” now in its rightful place as the set climax it and its M-D-N-A chant was always designed for. Drug references aside, it’s hard even to imagine people doing anything harder than tobacco to it; it’s too competent, as family-friendly as Rocco’s appearance during the show. Didn’t matter. For once during the night, the crowd pulsed as the music insisted. Hands were raised, seats were vacated. MDNA gone EDM, finally successful. If only that were the power of music, or even love—not just legacy.
Critical bias: A man can tell a thousand lies. I’ve learned my lesson well. I’ve also listened to “Hung Up” at least 20 times while writing this.
Overheard: Outside the stadium: “Is this a Steely Dan show in there?”
Overhead II: “I’m going to sinned an oldie but goodie.”—Madonna, as interpreted by the closed captioning. Nope! Good guess, though!
Random notebook dump: If only Madge were Protestant, we could call this move toward unsubtle dance Calvinism.
The Prayer Overture: Act of Contrition
Girl Gone Wild
Papa Don’t Preach
I Don’t Give A
Best Friend / Heartbeat
Express Yourself / Born This Way
Give Me All Your Luvin
Turn Up The Radio
Open Your Heart
Justify My Love
Like A Virgin
Nobody Knows Me
I’m A Sinner
Like A Prayer
Madonna will appear at Yankee Stadium again tomorrow and will play two shows at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 12 and 13; tickets for the Nov. 13 show will go on sale Sept. 14 at 10 a.m.