At the height of her public controversy, Madonna appeared to have only the gay fringe's support. Her daring made the rest of the culture turn its back—a tragedy because she was never more exciting and vital than in the years between her "Like a Prayer" video and Erotica album, her only full-length masterpiece (two if you count Abel Ferrara's Dangerous Game), refusing to flatter a racist, sexist, and homophobic hegemony by challenging and rewriting its modes of coercion and domination. Which is to say, this was the only time Madonna was radically ahead of the curve, devoted to flattering more than just her own ego by defending and mainstreaming the vibrant ethos of the gay subculture, all the while getting funky for those too scared to do so. Madonna is not so deep anymore, but her Confessions Tour at least inspires audiences to bump n' grind.
Only one other time, after the release of American Life, would Madonna be as unpopular, but the people's contempt for the singer was more understandable this time. Some might say Madonna had to suffer so Green Day could prevail, but hindsight is 20/20 and the pedantic American Life still isn't very good even now that the majority shares her anti-war stance. Once you got past the shock of her "American Life" music video (the director's cut, that is), you were left with a clutter of rants that were superficially and forcibly ironic, self-absorbed, and musically abrasive. A savvy, brilliant businesswoman, Madonna understood this, which is perhaps why she distances herself—and us—from that album, performing none of its songs during her new tour.
Madonna's latest album, Confessions on a Dance Floor, is very good, but it's also deceptive; instantly gratifying, its slick, infectious beats make it very easy to ignore that Madonna is still harping on the same fame-money-ego notes she started beating during Ray of Light. (This is not an album you want to think about exactly, but working out to it is a blast.) Drenched in impossible-princess imagery and pumped with protean, tendril-like musical textures, the album invites submission, and this feeling of being sucked into a cosmic abyss is mirrored throughout the first part of the show, which begins with the singer fabulously emerging from a disco ball to sing a medley of "Future Lovers" and that song's impetus, the greatest dance song of all time, Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." Madonna is taking us inside her disco ball ("Would you like to try?"), making us complicit in another one of her cocooning spectacles before thrilling us and letting us out in a blaze of disco-burning ecstasy.
Thank God Madonna fell off a horse or she might not have had enough visual material for this concert. She makes her pain seem fashionable, opening the show with footage from her equine-nightmare photo shoot with Steven Klein and using X-ray scans of her broken bones as background for "Like a Virgin." She's no longer a virgin, of course, but she can still do a mean slide down a stripper pole onto a motorcycle-seat-as-saddle, flaunting throughout her performance her super-human powers of perseverance. Madonna's ability to turn everything into a fashion statement—and stretch it out impossibly thin—has become almost pathological: A great song like "Get Together" is splendidly sung (whoever tweaks the levels on her mic is a genius), but its celebratory, keep-it-together message is compromised by the contradictory feelings of bondage (oppression) conveyed by having two backup dancers equipped with reins around their heads.
Madonna's Erotica period was exciting because she was pushing stripped modes of expression—not just physical nudity, but retro cinematic and musical styles, from funk to Warhol—over video-era trends and high-fashion gloss. This was to fiercely address that pop culture was insufficiently accounting for the sexual agency of all its citizens. "The Beast Within" musical interlude during The Girlie Show was that concert's tour-de-force: a striking, fascinatingly politicized work of performance art that foregrounded gay sexual desire, challenging Bill Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy by illuminating the psychological havoc it was aggravating. That triumph of complex socio-political awareness is deeper than Madonna's performance of "Forbidden Love," during which two men of color act out a disco-zombie dance of romantic disaffection. Behind them on the screen: a spectacle of blood corpuscles connecting to form symbols of hope and unity. Madonna is trying to convey how oppression is internalized, but her codification of emotional crisis is somewhat bloodless. The performance, though hypnotically choreographed, reveals Madonna to be as overwrought a semiotician as Godfrey Regio, whose Naqoyqatsi also benefits from a great soundtrack.
More than a decade ago, Madonna and Mary Lambert gave the image of a burning cross the thrill of ecstatic importance—rewriting intimidation as liberation. Now Madonna is propping herself before a disco-cubed cross, singing "Live to Tell" for dubious reasons. In interviews, the singer invites our interpretations, and, in response, Slant's music editor scanned a critique of the Catholic Church's failure to adequately address the AIDS crisis in Africa, but this message doesn't resonate because Madonna's messianic stunt actually works to call attention away from the multimedia blitz that surrounds her (on the screens above: a countdown that tolls Africa's AIDS orphans, and the faces of some of these children intercut with Bible verses). Madonna seems to believe AIDS is her cross to bear, but she doesn't attempt the heart-to-heart with her audience that gave feeling to her rendition of "In This Life" during The Girlie Show, when she was passionately devoted to raising our consciousness. She doesn't fully convince us of her sincerity and "Live to Tell" becomes the concert's one serious moral lapse.
To enjoy the first half of Madonna's show, without reservation, is to condone the singer's propensity for self-congratulation. During an eight-song stretch, we are reminded, among other things, that you can break your bones if you fall off a horse ("Like a Virgin"), that Madonna still cares about AIDS ("Live to Tell") and gays ("Forbidden Love"), and that parkour is really awesome ("Jump"). I'm not sure what all of this has to do with the audience, or what her performance of "Isaac" is meant to indicate other than a passing interest in the shape of desert dunes, but it's a welcome segue into the much-stronger second portion of the show: She totally rocks "Ray of Light" and "I Love New York," and she thrashes on stage to "Let It Will Be" so vigorously it's as if she might perish by song's end. Since she's now in New York, Madonna didn't have to preface her performance of "I Love New York" with the noblese oblige Los Angelinos had to suffer during the initial leg of the tour. It was in L.A. that she indicated that she was singing about the Big Apple as a "state of mind," and this idea is mirrored in the white-line backdrop of the New York skyline, whose towers fiercely slide off the screen with every "get off my street" outburst. I'm not sure that Madonna's switching out of the song's "Isn't that where they golf?" lyric with a line about sucking Dubya's dick entirely quells the song's red-state condescension, but the rhyme is so striking only one of the president's lunatic apologists would take insult.
Madonna's concerts would scarcely warrant scrutiny if each one wasn't a multimedia spectacle, a synthesis of live theater and interactive video installation to be looked at and judged for the connections, dimensions, and consequences of its many parts. Her Confessions Tour, though spotty and compromised but often breathtaking, is something of a coup after the fierce but icy theatrics of her Drowned World Tour and the shrill aggression of her Re-Invention Tour. Maybe there was something in the air at Madison Square Garden on the eve of our country's birthday, but Madonna, at times, risked a personal connection with her fans unseen since the Girlie Show, affectionately enticing people to come together and, as a result, turning New York City into a thumping block party.
Madonna is still dealing with politics, only now she's expanding the range of her target practice, tempering her rage with humor. Her performance of "Sorry" isn't one of the concert's highlights, but an interlude set to a remix of the song gives lyrics like "Save your words because you've gone too far" an interesting political edge. Images of fascists past and present—from Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin Dada to George W. Bush and Tony Blair—flash across the screen, with sputtering text and footage of war atrocities sifted into the mix. The image of Madonna singing in her "Sorry"-video leotard is questionably spliced into this otherwise excitingly edited patchwork (the music stutters, and so do Bush's lips), but this is still preferable to the bratty poses the singer evinced throughout her "American Life" music video, which unimaginatively and ironically mixed fashion with real-world politics. Compared to that mess, this interlude's brio feels ecstatic—a collage of Godardian weight you can dance to.
But it's the concert's final stretch that's Madonna's triumph, stirring a tingly, almost poignant feeling of dance-party vertigo—that celebratory come-together vibe of her Blond Ambition and Girlie Show tours that really seeks to involve the audience. The roller-boogie "Disco Inferno" interlude that kicks off this part of the show is unbelievable, and her performance of Stuart Price's "You Thrill Me" remix of "Erotica" is a smash: She discofies the song but keeps its sex appeal, choreographing it to simple, Latin-infused dance maneuvers that are ecstatic. The video backdrop to "La Isla Bonita" mirrors the voluptuousness of Madonna's dancing, and she emerges as a soul butterfly fluttering to the disco heavens during a remix of "Lucky Star" that actually makes the song sound good. Finally, she brings the house down, inviting our sweaty-rapturous participation with "Hung Up," a song that might have been the biggest hit of her career if Americans weren't so averse to dancing—for inspiration. By getting the audience to sing along with her, Madonna convinces us that she's not just hung up on herself, but on her fans as well. This fabulous finale is a reminder that Madonna's music need not be motivated by sex or politics to be good as long as it displays a smidgen of heart and soul. Perhaps this is an indicator that this ballsy shape-shifting Robot Maria's great stone face is one step closer to melting away.