It’s Madonna’s job to create buzz. Hence the name of her Sticky & Sweet Tour—only slightly less misleading than her 2004 Re-Invention Tour, which suggested a career change but settled for a big-band version of “Deeper and Deeper.” In her latest show, Madge enters stage in an “M”-encrusted throne grinding to “Candy Shop,” but it’s not quite the 50-year-old porn romp you might expect. By the time she transitions to “Human Nature” and Britney Spears shows up in a video trapped in an elevator and echoing, “I’m not your bitch/Don’t hang your shit on me,” it’s the same as all her shows: A remixed mind-fuck.
Before “4 Minutes,” the Top 5 duet with Justin Timberlake, it had been seven years since a Madonna single seriously contended on mainstream radio. (Part of me wanted to think she was selling out with Hard Candy. The same artist who sampled Main Source on “Human Nature” was suddenly tapping…Timbaland? But then the Pharrell-produced “Heartbeat” and “Give It 2 Me” are both as pure and as fake as anything she’s made since her debut 25 years ago.) But as always, she’s also in the news for a couple other things: her directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom, and her maybe-it-did-maybe-it-didn’t-happen affair with Alex Rodriguez, which prompted Adam Sternbergh in New York to theorize that her “true art” is that “she’s so good at making us talk about her.” It’s a cliché to say Madonna is a queen of self-promotion, but Sternbergh’s scarily misogynistic description of the singer as a “hyperbaric cougar” and an “asexual-android” gets at what has nagged the singer for years: the media’s constant fascination with eviscerating her.
So it’s no surprise that Madonna’s new show comes off not unlike an act of self-defense. She dresses in a boxer uniform for a “Die Another Day” backdrop, emphasizing her already-muscular arms. Unlike your run-of-the-mill diva, Madonna is willing to get dirty for her art, and she sometimes gets lost in her backup dancers’ routine, though she’s quick to remind the audience, “I’m still the one in control.” Even so, Madonna has always been willing to make fun of her own image. During “She’s Not Me,” she makes out with a younger version of herself (the horny bride from the 1984 VMAs), and then kicks her to the curb.
The most overtly political moment is a montage called “Get Stupid,” which starts with an image of a swastika and ends with images of John Lennon and Barack Obama. A song about the freedom to dance (“Beat Goes On”) becomes an anthem for political frustration, and it’s the only moment that’s generated any real controversy, but she doesn’t say anything about either the Republican or the Democratic candidate that she hasn’t said before. The power of any great Madonna song is implicit: “Say what you like/Do what you feel/You know exactly who you are.”
Past becomes present at a Madonna show. The singer is known for reinventing her old material—no classic is sacred (this time she turns “Ray of Light” into even more of a drug-induced European dance party). There are some uninspired rock-star moments (basically anytime she holds an electric guitar), but Madonna’s ability to redefine and recontextualize every song is still awe-inspiring. A little bit of her Erotica-era cheekiness reappears during Sticky & Sweet, from putting her dancers in bondage outfits during a mashup of “Vogue” and “4 Minutes” to jumping rope during “Into the Groove,” the backdrop of which pays homage to her old friend, the late Keith Haring.
Sternbergh’s right in a way: “Of course it’s Madonna.” She makes the rules, but she also breaks them. Like a sex instructor, Madonna rules over her audience and tells them when they’re allowed to get off (at one point mock-masturbating over someone’s head). And when the words “Game Over” flash on the screen at the end of the show, you’re just happy to have played along.