Better than: Pop music's current Madonna-wannabe starlets.
Madonna's MDNA tour is a mostly-dark assault to the senses, and many have focused on its controversial themes, words and antics. At Staples Center last night, we were looking at the bigger picture: No one in pop music comes close to Madonna's spectacle, her unbridled physicality on stage or her arsenal of hits. And no one better plays the sexy provocateur, even three decades on.
This point was made midway through the show when Madge, clad in the white majorette get-up from “Give Me All Your Luvin” mashed her hit “Express Yourself” with Lady Gaga's similar-sounding “Born This Way,” adding a chant of “She's Not Me” to hammer home the point.
The dig was about more than the song, obviously. But she could have been singing about any of today's pop princesses: Rihanna, Britney, Christina, Pink, J-Lo, Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, and even edgier artists such as Robyn and Peaches, and recent collaborators MIA and Nicki Minaj, both of whom appeared on giant video screens during “Luvin.” The entire lot would surely admit to the queen of pop's influence.
She has obviously been influenced by her predecessors in turn; Stefani's “Hollaback Girl” really came to mind during this sequence. All would be hard pressed to keep up with Ms. M on stage, though. Madonna not only danced throughout, she had some major fight sequences, tight-rope walking, baton twirling, flipping (while tied up), kicking, and of course lots of writhing. It was maybe slightly less vigorous than her last tour, Sticky Sweet, but, then again, she's four years older.
There comes a time in every woman's life when she must ask herself: Can I pull this off at my age? Whether it be a sexy outfit or after-dark debuachery, nobody wants to be that grandma on the dance floor or the desperate, cleavage-bearing cougar grasping at their youth in the club. We're happy to report that 54-year-old Madonna comes off as neither here and she pulls off almost everything she attempts, from badass gun-toting babe at the show's start for “Girl Gone Wild” and “Gang Bang,” to submissive sex kitten during “Hung Up” to androgynous vamp during “Candyshop” and “Human Nature/Erotica” to gilded rock goddess during “I'm A Sinner.”
Though she looked and moved great, Madonna's vocals weren't always so great. It was beside the point during the more eye-candy filled segments, but when she attempted to get intimate and dramatic it was hard to ignore. The singing was a fairly seemless combination of recorded tracks and live vox, and she definitely sounded wobbly and went slightly off key a few times, such as during “Open Your Heart,” which was already weak due to a strange musical re-arrangement.
The re-worked hits were likely a little frustrating for longtime Madonna fans. “Like A Virgin” as torch song was way too slow, and despite the star's topless-but-for-a-lace-bra garb, boring. And “Papa Don't Preach” was disjointed and off-putting, especially following the violent, blood-splattered intensity of the opening sequence. Then there were all the hits she didn't play…
This was a tour to highlight MDNA, Madonna's EDM-heavy “divorce” record. It was most definitely not a greatest hits show. Would that have been more fun? Yes. The Jean Paul Gaultier-drenched runway rouser, “Vogue” was our favorite part of the show. So fierce. We got chills. Dance-heavy moments kept our attention, even if the references were all over the place. The aggressive, even violent themes were compelling (though we could've done without the glamorization of guns) and the trio of white Basque singers/drummers added an old world, almost Hari Krishna-like feel to some songs, though no better than the original versions.
And let's not forget the religious imagery — a Madonna must on tour — which opened the show. The references to Catholicism and her beloved Kabbalah did get a bit tired by the end of the almost two hour show, but it was all put into exuberant context when a gospel choir came out near the end for a celebratory sing-along to “Like A Prayer.”
That crowd-pleaser should have probably ended the concert, but Madonna came out one last time for the ravey climax, an lively stomp for “Celebration,” that punctuated points she made earlier when she took a break to speak about how lucky we Americans are. “Support those who support you,” she told the crowd, stopping short of political endorsements. “Do not take your freedom for granted!” As a woman expressing herself musically and stylistically, pushing boundaries for over three decades, that is one thing Madonna has never done.
Personal bias: Her self-titled debut was the first pop album we ever owned.
The crowd: Gay guys, 40 somethings and rich people (whom she called out during the show to dance).
Random notebook dump: Nobody wears a black lace bra like Madonna…. still.