Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Prim Madonna Makes the Music — and the Fun — Seem Oddly Immaterial -- Chicago Concert Review

Photo credit: Nuccui DuNuzzo/Chicago Tribune
Concert Review

w/ opening DJ set by Paul Oakenfold
United Center, Chicago
September 19, 2012

I hope you completely disagree with this review.

For if you attended Madonna’s concert at the United Center on Wednesday night, or will on Thursday or caught any other show on her MDNA Tour, there’s about a 98% chance you paid at least twice if not many times the $45 + fees I spent on a seat way up high behind the stage.

Especially as someone who has derived far more than entertainment value from many a phenomenal concert experience, I truly wish you absolutely loved Madonna’s performance.

But I didn’t.

It’s not that I don’t like Madonna. Although I won’t purport to have been the biggest fan of her music or persona throughout the nearly 30 years she has reigned as the world’s most popular entertainer—or close to it—I think she has a terrifically impressive catalog of true pop gems. Though not quite as infectious as her early stuff, her latest album, MDNA, is rather solid with several songs catchy enough to supplement a setlist. And although I've liked some more than others, I have sufficiently enjoyed the three concerts I’ve seen over her last three tours (’04, ’06, ’08, all at the UC) to truly have been looking forward to this one.

It's also not that I don’t appreciate theatricality or conceptually-thematic concert performances. In fact, it’s my love of musical theater that has prompted me to explore and enjoy Madonna’s work as an artist and performer over the past decade. I understand that she develops a meticulously planned production for each tour, complete with regimented set pieces, dance numbers & videos and often sparse on greatest hits, and delivers the same show every night in every city.

As someone who has come to love Broadway theater almost as much as I do rock ‘n’ roll, I have no pronounced problem with this predictability. Although my preference tends to be for concert acts who bring a bit of variance and spontaneity to every show, I mostly just love watching great performers deliver great performances, especially those whose joie de vivre elevates that which is scripted and staged.

So I didn’t really care that Madonna took the stage at 10:20pm for an 8:00 show—although it certainly didn’t help to stifle my yawning throughout. (Famed British DJ Paul Oakenfold "performed" for nearly an hour to open the evening.)

I take no issue with her splitting her show (per her setlist; this one’s from Toronto but it’s the same) into four theoretically thematic quadrants entitled Transgression, Prophecy, Masculine/Feminine and Celebration. And I have no particular aversion to her opening the show with pseudo-religious imagery followed by 20 minutes of Tarantinoesque gunplay and violence accompanying some not-so-famous songs. (For more on this, see the video I included at bottom.)

I don’t even much care—in light of Elton John’s charges that Madonna lip syncs on stage—whether or not she did any live singing or that she was heavily augmented by backing tracks if she did. (I did find it a bit humorous when she held a guitar she clearly wasn't actually playing.)
But when the audience dances more at an Elvis Costello show than at a Madonna spectacle, which also featured fewer jubilant sing-a-long moments than your average Radiohead gig, the balance between artistic statement and plain old "give the folks who paid nearly $400 (face value for the prime seats) a shake their ass good time" is, IMHO, way out of whack.
It wasn’t just that I had no real idea, or much interest, in whatever Madonna was trying to say with all the mishegaas—my vantage point may not have helped, but I saw it all with the aid of video screens—but beyond anything I recall at the three previous shows and anathema to her stature as a performer and provocateur, worst of all I found myself rather bored.

An otherwise adequate sprinkling of sparkling chestnuts like “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Express Yourself,” “Open Your Heart” and “Vogue” came and went in rather rote fashion, sandwiched among the dogmatic messaging and considerably less delectable newer songs.

While at 54, Madonna is still in tremendous shape for a person of any age, she looked—at least as I perceived from the video close-ups—somewhat tired and withdrawn, even though she hadn’t perfomed since Saturday. Though on the prior tours, there was also an egomaniacal self-importance to Madonna’s stage presence that made her come off somewhat robotic, last night she was all the more so a prim Madonna; I noticed her crack a smile just once.

To her credit, she gave a full 2-hour performance with some rather elaborate choreography, but if it’s too harsh to say she was merely going through the motions, the whole thing just seemed rather joyless and even soulless.

Even her stage patter was markedly stilted and sour. At one point she told some folks up front—who had undoubtedly paid a small fortune to be within the general admission cocoon—that they should “buy lots of t-shirts” because she has four kids and shoes aren’t cheap. I certainly suppose she meant this to come off jokingly, but when it was followed by a rant about how we should all do our part to change the world—“you don’t have to be Oprah; you don’t have to be Madonna”—it felt all the more perplexing. Just a thought, Lady M, but what if those $355 tickets were only $250 and included a $100 donation to feed people in Africa; would you still be able to clothe your children?

As bogged down as this review might be getting, that’s pretty much how I felt throughout the concert. While a stripped-down—Madonna herself and the song—version of “Like a Virgin” at first felt like the most impassioned moment of the show, even it became somewhat tepid by song’s end. And while the crowd got to do a bit of dancing during “Holiday” and “Like a Prayer,” even these felt less effervescent than they should have. I know the thought of me shaking my groove thing might make you lose your lunch, but I damn sure should’ve been inspired to do a good bit more of it.

Obviously, any concertgoer will have their own perspective of any show, and I expect—and genuinely hope—that many attendees liked this one much more than I did. But even so, I can’t imagine they wouldn’t have loved it even more if Madonna had included some more buoyant, straightforward renditions of “Material Girl,” “Lucky Star,” “Into the Groove,” “Ray of Light,” “Music” or even some of the ones she sang.

I appreciate Madonna’s ambitiousness and realize it’s unfair to compare an artist for whom I have middling regard with my all-time favorite musician and performer. But whereas anyone paying attention at Bruce Springsteen’s recent Wrigley Field shows would have noted the overarching thematic strains pertaining to financial hardships, personal struggle, perseverance, etc., in sum the Boss and his band gave the fans a celebration. You were asked to think, you were even asked to donate to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, but you also sang along loudly, played some air guitar, did a little dancing (in the dark) and went home happy.

While I believe that Madonna’s legacy is also that of a first-rate performer and I respect that she has—at least in her mind—something important to say about our times, at the end of her show on Wednesday night (which technically finished on Thursday morning), I was just happy to go home.

I found this video on YouTube. I did not shoot it nor upload it and it likely isn't from Wednesday night's Chicago show. But it depicts Madonna's most violent production number, done early in the show, for a song called "Gang Bang." If you love it, more power to you--and her--but it didn't do much for me.

No comments: