When Madonna’s first album came out nearly 30 years ago in 1983, it was remarkable not only for its raw sexuality but for the infectious, bubbly optimism demonstrated in its best-known songs.
Songs like “Holiday” and “Lucky Star” are not only delicious post-disco dance numbers but they are forward-looking, feel-good statements of intent.
At age 54, Madonna today does a lot of looking backward as well, and it’s not always as fun and optimistic. But leave her to do what she does best and eventually she has a point to make — a better day is coming.
And so goes the narrative of her latest tour in support of her 12th studio album MDNA, which stopped in DC at the Verizon Center Sunday and Monday night. At the sold-out show Sunday night, she went through at least four different acts over two hours, which comes to an end with a totally giddy and exuberant celebration of all of the reasons the dance floor has loved her for so long.
The first act is all dark and gangster (after a ridiculously overwrought religious ceremony to open the whole thing). Much already has been said about how the album MDNA is a reaction to her divorce from mobster movie director Guy Ritchie and it really shows in the stage production as well. The catchy “Girl Gone Wild” gets us dancing but the set is really arrested by her production of “Gang Bang,” where she goes on a extremely cinematic shooting spree with the help of an elaborate seedy hotel room rotating around the stage and a big screen depicting splattered digital blood every time she pops a cap into one of her dancers (who in reality fall a bit short of being all that menacing).
From there, I am utterly impressed with the inclusion of “Papa Don’t Preach” from True Blue, an album that I feel gets short shrift from Madonna herself sometimes. She then dazzles with her disco declaration “Hung Up” from 10th album Confessions on a Dance Floor — which was her best album in a long time mostly due to its purity of vision and simple but effective production. But even some of the overproduced tracks on albums like Hard Candy and MDNA sound better live, particularly when Madonna stands up in the middle of a stage with a guitar in her hand and strums away to more authentic versions of them.
A dance interlude set to video follows and Madonna is back — with majorettes. The change is so stark that it makes our heads spin but my concert date Yassie and I are sitting in the big summer movie blockbuster of concert performances — not our more typical arthouse cinema. Madonna blends Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” into her own “Express Yourself,” and she owns it. It’s part gracious nod to a performer that everyone sees as her successor and part simply outperforming said successor. It’s wildly entertaining to me; Yassie is impressed that some of the choreography owes a great deal to Bob Fosse but disappointed the Material Girl herself doesn’t undertake some of the more daring moves.
There are happier songs on MDNA and we are reminded of that with “Turn Up the Radio” and “Give Me All Your Luvin'” — the latter of which I absolutely adore despite the faults of its overproduced and terribly cluttered appearance on the album. Sadly, the song gets very little attention before I am again pleasantly surprised by True Blue’s “Open Your Heart,” which is less of a chirpy version than offered on the album but still really well done.
It’s soon time to get back into suits — cabaret style and before we know it, we are into a splashy production of “Vogue,” as true to the original as ever. A few songs later, we get a highlight of the show, an amazingly stripped down version of “Like A Virgin,” with Madonna singing slowly, starkly over (literally at points) a single piano accompanying her. I am gobsmacked. Yassie is impressed. It’s powerful and breathtaking.
We close with a show-stopping rendition of “Like A Prayer” — always considered the go-to track for those who have only a passing familiarity with her catalog. Then the show ultimately wraps up with “Celebration,” the catchy party anthem from her 2009 career retrospective of the same name. By the end, she presented something from almost every studio album, skipping a middle period of Ray of Light, Music and American Life on this tour.
If you were never going to go to a Madonna show, there isn’t anything I can say that would have changed your mind. But it’s the spectacle and the scope that is part of the fun of the show — and this really was a pretty good show. Madonna was a consummate performer.
In turn, Madonna basked in the glow of the audience and returned their affection in a way that one can we she’s talking to 18,000 people or so. She took the time to chatter away with the audience — at one point asking a fan in the front row to “write what you think about me in four letters” with a magic marker on her back. (One word: “sexy.”) She’s good at keeping those touches that we expect from younger musicians in smaller venues and still making it feel real.
Madonna is much the same as she ever was and I have to chuckle at people who once embraced that and now scold her for being too outrageous. In some ways, we grew up while she did not. And as with “Celebration,” she retains that youthful optimism despite her sometimes jaded lyrical outlook.