The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: Lady Madonna Storms Philly
A report on Madonna's MDNA tour — first stop Philadelphia! — from the redoubtable Carol Cooper——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
As I write this Thursday night, I can hear Madonna singing from Yankee Stadium through the window of my Harlem apartment. In fact, the sound mix on 'Girls Gone Wild' and 'Papa Don't Preach' gets so good that her vocals cut like a Samurai sword across a perfectly balanced backing track and the audible appreciation of the crowd. The concert seemed to start just as Vice President Biden ended his televised speech at the Democratic National Convention.
I, of course, saw the smaller, arena-sized production of this spectacle in Philly last week, which kicked off the North American leg of her MDNA tour. But we early birds were warned that unless we saw the stadium show we weren't seeing Madonna's definitive version of this show.
Be that as it may, Philly inspired me to contemplate the live performance Madonna put together for her fans this year, and nothing could be more inspiring as I share these thoughts than hearing her rock Yankee Stadium from a few blocks away.
MDNA, but for one letter, alludes to Ecstasy. But like the dance party drug, Madonna promises no unalloyed pleasures. Even as early as her Blonde Ambition tour Madonna was performing more to prove thematic points than to entertain. Unlike lesser pop stars who also think their songwriting is strong enough to support artistic, "attitudinal" staging, only Madonna sustains the palpable strength of character to pair the blood-splatter visuals of Dexter to a homicidal song about her ex-husband and somehow make it a gleeful collective catharsis.
Shifting from girl backup dancers to male dancers from song to song also creates interesting juxtapositions you wouldn't see from, say, Katy Perry, Gaga, or Taylor Swift. To begin with, it's her manly queens that get to strut and ki-ki through 'Girls Gone Wild', while her guerilla girls butch it up and flash rifles through 'Revolver'.
A raw, defiant Nikki Minaj appears via video like Madge's adolescent alter-ego to bring ghetto realness to the coda of 'I Don't Give a F***'. And it was Nikki's chirpy yelps which gave generational balance to the magnificent gospel singer who contributes a solo near the end of the show during Like A Prayer. Madonna actually genuflects onstage to this diva's wail, much as she visibly salutes the talents of the many side-performers she borrows from diverse traditions—Basque/Indian/Hip-Hop/drag balls—who help Madonna push the envelope of the acceptable sound of contemporary dance pop.
There are periodic momentum problems within the live show because Madonna refuses to program all the uptempo tracks into a seamless attempt to peak the crowd then keep them in a kinetic frenzy like a deejay would. Instead she will slow things down for elegiac meditations on relationships: like 'Best Friend' or the Golden Globe-winning 'Masterpiece'. That she leads into the latter with a languid 'Open Your Heart' transformed by the Bollywood sway of Kalakan's 'Sagara Jo' lets the mod-era lilt of 'Masterpiece' allude both to the inspirational diversity of the Beatles and to the imperialistic history of the land which gave her a British ex- husband.
Speaking to the risky sacrament of marriage, the church backdrops featured throughout this show repeatedly shatter or dissolve via projected images which telegraph all five "stages" of the MDNA experience (ranging from "Transgression" to "Celebration") and underscore the jittery momentum of the pacing. Opening in a shadowy gothic cathedral with buff monks ringing a bell, the set shifts to reveal a open chapel showing stained-glass windows streaming with sunlight and grace.