Madonna needed this tour. Not just for financial gain but for creative returns as well. Having scanned less than 700,000 copies, the supposed former material girl's tenth studio album, American Life, has become the singer's first bona fide flop in over 20 years in the business. (Add to that her less-than-amicable departure from Maverick Records, the company she co-founded 12 years ago, just two days before the kick-off of her six-night stint at Madison Square Garden.) American Life may be more sonically cohesive than 2000's critically-lauded Music, her first collaboration with French producer Mirwais Ahmadzai, but the album marks the first time since the '80s that Madonna hasn't completely reinvented her sound. Sure, it's a refinement of the dance-meets-folk style she and Mirwais fashioned with songs like “Don't Tell Me,” but it stops short of being a full-fledged evolution. It's even divided her most loyal fans.
So what better way to boost your creative (self-)esteem than by launching a full-scale tour, playing against type by embracing your old material, and scheduling more than three-quarters of your concert dates in the country that has all but turned its back on you? (During her previous “slump” in 1993, Madonna played a scant five shows on her own home-turf, opting instead for dates in Europe, Australia, and South America, where she was arguably more appreciated.) Though it's been reported that the 45-year-old has been suffering from exhaustion, and while there's no doubt the industry suffers from ageism, the “she's too old” conjecture as an explanation for her dwindling sales is as flimsy as a recycled French techno beat: Madonna had one of her biggest hits (“Music”) at age 42 and was at the top of her game during 2001's Drowned World Tour. Some would argue that all she needs is one good dance song to put her back on the map (and the radio), or maybe a great live show to remind us why we loved her in the first place.
Enter the Mother of Reinvention. Madonna would probably prefer Mother of Evolution, or even Revolution. But maybe she's finally, and playfully, owning up to the “reinvention” idiom, or perhaps she's simply appropriating the moniker the media has shoved down her throat for two decades. Either way, it's an apt title: Not only have Madonna's old hits been reinvented musically (most impressive is a big band version of “Deeper and Deeper”), each song has been reinterpreted for 2004. “Express Yourself,” presented alongside a rocked-out “American Life,” not only encourages individual freedom, but Dixie Chick-sized dissent, with rifle-swiveling to boot. The message was not lost on this audience member, particularly after being squeezed into a press screening of Michael Moore's gloriously one-sided Fahrenheit 9/11 the night before. (Apparently Madonna saw it that night as well, and she gave the film—and its director, who sat not-so-inconspicuously in the audience—a rebel-rousing endorsement.) At the screening room, people sat on the floor just to see Moore's anti-Bush polemic; at the Garden, people stood on their feet to see—or not see, in the case of the oblivious voguers sitting in front of me—clips of Madonna's “American Life” video (long overdue but, perhaps, right on time) projected on giant screens while the singer and her multi-culti army strutted their stuff on a giant catwalk.
Like Fahrenheit 9/11, however, Re-Invention often seemed like it was slapped together. It's much less theatrical than Drowned World and, while it's more interactive, it lacks the fluidity that made her last tour so supremely over-the-top, if not completely emotionally engaging. Re-Invention's macabre intro, a multimedia variation of Steven Klein's 2003 “X-STaTIC PRO=CeSS” photo installation, set to the singer's haunting, bibilical spoken-word piece “The Beast Within,” and the show's opening number, “Vogue,” gave new meaning to the slogan “strike a pose” but things quickly fell into archetypical “rock concert” patchiness. Though her vocal chords—not to mention her quadriceps—were in peak form, Madonna should never just stand there and sing in front of a microphone, as she did during “Frozen.” And while it was a hoot to see her strap on an electric guitar and sing classics like “Burning Up,” Madonna has always been more about the now, pushing herself (and us) forward, and leaving the past, well, in the past where it belongs. The religious and political images presented throughout the evening were often disconnected or completely unrelated to the songs being sung, and the meaning of some, like a series of Hebrew characters during “Like a Prayer” and mathematical equations along with DNA helixes buzzing through an irony-free “Material Girl,” will be lost to some. On the other hand, images of a couple wrestling and caressing each other, their faces and genitals darkened by shadows so as to preserve their androgyny, as well as a montage of morphing flags during the finale, were evocative of the show's central theme of unity vs. violence.
Anyone who's followed Madonna throughout the years knows that you've got to take your medicine if you want to get to the good stuff—in this case, an exhilarating performance of “Like a Prayer,” with the audience filling in as the choir, an acoustic-meets-techno “Mother and Father,” and an explosive remix of “Holiday.” What Madonna seems to have forgotten recently—the thing that she's always been keenly aware of—is that medicine is more potent (and easier to swallow) when it isn't being force-fed. The bulk of Re-Invention's newer material might seem hyper-political to the casual spectator, but listen closely and even such celebratory fluff as “Music” and “Holiday” are politically charged. She didn't have to write a literal protest song (“American Life”) or sing somebody else's (“Imagine”); her own protest songs were already written and the message is still clear: “We can turn this world around…Come together in every nation.” Maybe the best thing that can come out of Madonna revisiting (and reinventing) the past is that she, and we, will be reminded of what she does best: making us forget about the bad times, come together, release the pressure, and have a holiday.