As I gazed across the pulsating crowd at the United Center, I began to wonder how many people there were actually old enough to know the vast musical canon of Madonna. It is hard to believe that she has been doing music for over 30 years, with hits that have sold over 300 million copies worldwide. Unlike any other star of her generation, Madonna continues to find new ways to reinvent reinvention and stretch boundaries like an infinitesimal rubber band.
The MDNA 2012 World Tour stopped into Chicago, bringing her incredible star power, theatrics and controversy. Guest DJ and producer Paul Oakenfold, opened the show with his brand of electronica, trance and progressive house music. His one hour set included beaming light displays and heavy bass lines. There are many people that don’t identify Madonna with this popular genre of music. Subsequently, that is no longer the case. Like a chameleon, Madonna has once again changed her sound, which became more apparent as the night wore on.
Her opening song called “Girls Gone Wild”, off her new album MDNA, was an upbeat, electronica-infused track that really set the crowd afire. She was dynamic and energetic; all the while maintaining a balance between space and sound. Her voice is still strong, but at times she chose to lip-sync during more physically demanding sets. She was wiry, slinky and alluring. Madonna was (and still is) sexually explicit with her artistic expression. Clearly, years of physical discipline has allowed her to remain as limber and fluid as her younger counterparts on stage. She was sure to deliver hits like “Respect Yourself”, “Like a Prayer” and “Vogue” with the same intensity they are known for. Although many might say she is merely a caricature of pop culture, Madonna is still very much an artist and musician. The best example of this came via “Papa Don’t Preach”, which featured a three-piece percussion group. At first it is almost unrecognizable. It was a very unusual style that provided an innovative flavor for such an emotionally conflicting song. I guess you could call it a “techno-folk” sound.
Despite minor missteps, the night went off without too many issues. There were times, however, when her new songs seemed to lose the audience momentarily as they struggled to identify with her less recognizable music. Since her career spans three generations, it’s not hard to understand why that would be. Her popularity is as diverse as it as has ever been. However, songs like “Revolver”, which featured rapper Lil’ Wayne and “I Don’t Give A…”, which featured Nicky Minaj did little to appease the crowd, creating a slight disinterest. A variation of an old edict comes to mind: Just because you can work with young and popular acts, doesn’t mean you should. And it certainly doesn’t mean the work will be successful. These tracks fell a little bit flat. In addition, her rather brazen attempt to fool people into thinking she is a competent guitar player made for a few puzzling looks in the crowd.
Madonna continues to lace her music with controversial imagery. Several songs included large scale video vignettes that highlighted societal ills and other “hot button” topics. She continues to be a staunch supporter of gay/same sex rights; a message that was interspersed prominently throughout the show. “Gang Bang” is a dark, driving, clubby song, with a vast array of sound effects (e.g. police sirens, gunshots). During the performance, Madonna attacks several of her dancers on stage with a fake gun, in a roaming “Paradise Hotel”. It is vintage Madonna; thumbing her nose at convention while daring you to look away.
It is safe to say that no artist has managed to change with the times while remaining culturally and socially relevant more than Madonna. She continues to perform with a presence and determination unlike any other. Consequently, it begs to ask the questions: Will she ever pack it in? Will the large-scale tours ever stop? The throngs of her screaming fans have clearly indicated that they aren’t interested in the answer.
by Mark A. Moore