The phrase “Queen of Pop” is not dependent on the most record sales or video plays or Grammy Awards or number-one singles; were that the case Mariah Carey would probably wear the crown. Like King of Pop and king/queen of soul, hip-hop, and Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World, it’s an affectionate nod to those musical icons who’ve infiltrated our subconscious to the point of no cultural return. Their image defines both them and us. By the time Madonna sang, or, more accurately, shared “Like a Prayer” to her MDNA Tour fans at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, she didn’t just forever claim the crown, she kicked it off into the bleachers for mere mortals to enjoy.
For almost 30 years “reinvention” has defined Madonna’s thrill ride, but, as this concert proved, something new has taken hold: permanence. Gone are the days when we speculated over her next hairstyle or iconic re-creation, and that’s because Madonna has metamorphosed into her greatest, and most original, creation yet: A male rock star. Forget Britney or Rihanna, Madonna’s joined the ranks of Bono, Mick, and Elvis. Shooting her way out of a church to the beat of “Girl Gone Wild,” Madonna opened the show by strutting and slithering and commanding the immense stage, in tight, tight black, heels, signature blond hair, and a gun. If you haven’t figured it out yet, world, don’t fuck with this bitch.
Much has been made of the violent section of the MDNA tour, and Madonna was rebuffed in the press—and not in a polite way—for not taming the production after the Colorado Dark Knight shootings. What her detractors don’t get (and who don’t seem to care that men with weapons grace the media daily) is that Madonna shooting male lovers while blood splatters across the screen is the smartest symbolism the Material Girl has proffered up in years.
In “Gang Bang” the star is a whiskey-drinking cheap-motel chick gunning down each man who enters her room, with a crucifix backdrop providing the Catholic angst. By the time she’s captured, and the opening chords to “Papa Don’t Preach” reverberate through a crowd that’s as familiar with them as they are every criticism and controversy and pure pop fun that’s accompanied the tune since 1986, it somehow all makes M sense.
There isn’t a woman on earth who’s a better example of female empowerment, and whether or not Madonna’s shooting down Catholicism, misogyny and sexism and ageism, the millions who fire verbal shots at her on a daily basis, Elton John, or all of the above, she’s earned her armor and she’s not afraid to use it.
The MDNA tour, like most of Madonna’s productions, relies heavily on her latest release—sentiment is not a virtue in her forward universe. MDNA was a commercial disappointment, but it’s a fan favorite, and this is a show for believers. “Turn up the Radio” had Madge as a guitar-strumming rocker, “I Don’t Give A” showed her off as a defiant survivor, and “Give Me All Your Luvin” brought out a marching band—literally—which turned into a surreal FAO Schwarz-like experience, as colorful musicians drummed while suspended on wires above the stage.
If there’s one thing Madonna’s learned since she first stepped onto a stage in a cross-laden wedding dress, rolled across it, and humped it till the end of time, it’s never to be swallowed up by pyrotechnics. Despite a trove of male and female dancers, and video backdrops and set maneuvers, the star is always front and center—often literally, with a smartly designed triangular set that moves the show out into the audience.
Now that touring has become her norm, she’s also learned that fans need to hear the hits for satisfaction. Never mind that Madonna has too many to please everyone, she nailed “Express Yourself,” with its much ballyhooed mash-up of Lady GaGa’s “Born This Way” thrown in near the end. No offense, Gags, but it’s actually more suited for Madonna’s pop-tacular voice. “Vogue” was stylistic and chic, and, dare we say it, mature? And “Like a Virgin” was a slow-tempo wink to a song that both haunts and honors her beginnings.
Her fun, and ours, also lies in a new-found sense of almost-unpredictability. “Human Nature,” in which she strips down to a bra—and famously flashed a breast in Turkey—ends with Madonna taking a deliberately slow exit so we can see what’s written on her back; she’s scribbled everything from “No Fear” to “Obama” to “Pussy Riot” to “For Give.” Halfway through the show she’s also taken to talking social issues, again, although the night I saw her it was more of a swear-laced ode to loving they neighbor. Until her Yankee Stadium show earlier this month, I don’t think anyone expected her to add “Holiday”—or most of it—to the set, and that’s a Madonna spontaneity we’ve never seen before. (Since the AC show, she’s also included “Love Spent,” arguably one of the strongest tracks off MDNA, an album, I should add, whose singles have been dictated by the unfortunate belief that female pop stars are not allowed to age.)
An even smarter surprise would have been to replace a couple new numbers with classics, like “Dress You Up” and “Live to Tell” where last tour’s “Candy Shop” and “Human Nature” were repeated. This is trifling stuff, however, and Madonna’s gotten much smarter since her hit-missing “Drowned World” tour a decade ago. Her skills as a singer and performer have also improved on every tour. The lady works at her craft.
I don’t normally write concert reviews, nor do I give them particular credence. The press sits in the first few rows of a venue that can seat up to something like 65,000 people, and I’m fairly certain those in the nosebleed seats get a different perspective (M’s Confessions concert had me sitting with the regular folk and itching to leave by halftime). Madonna is a showman, not a brilliant song stylist, her concerts are performance pieces, not AC/DC three-cord guitar-fests, and much of the fun of MDNA might be lost if you’re staring at monitors all evening. That said, there were so many highlights to the show, and nary a dull moment, that if you can swing it, splurge. If you’re only interested in Madonna’s ‘80s hits, and want a rehash, you’re likely to be disappointed. And, quite frankly, she doesn’t seem to want you there to begin with.
Madonna spends most of MDNA on her feet, exhausting us just by watching her stamina. When she finally takes a sit-down breather, it’s for “Masterpiece,” her one ballad of the evening. As pop-sentimental-sweet as the tune is, it’s the ending that reverberates. Madonna stands up and walks center stage, waits a beat, and sings the last line, “nothing’s indestructible.” It’s her only lie all night.
Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall Photographs of Madonna, Courtesy of Matthew Rettenmund, at http://boyculture.typepad.com/.