Standing in the center of Times Square (literally, balanced on the thin curb dividing northbound and southbound Broadway with walkman and cellphone in hand), I thought of the now-middle-aged Madonna, 20 some-odd years earlier, ordering her cab driver to drop her off “in the middle of everything.” Had it really come to this? Failed attempts at securing guest-list status through industry connections for the pop icon’s invite-only Roseland gig in September of 2000 had led me to days of torture-by-radio and pathetic group strategery. The DJ finally disclosed the location of the giveaway and somewhere downtown Madonna fans were falling all over themselves, scurrying across streets and getting hit by cars, all while Z100’s street team secretly (and deviously) handed out tickets to random passersby, oblivious to the chaos. There was something unclean about the whole situation, but hey, it had been seven years since the performer had taken the stage proper, so it was worth a little blood and tears, right?
That’s what Madonna does best: the hunger she creates in the public is often more palpable than the art in her pop. Most new Madonna fans (a.k.a. Britney fans) probably can’t even remember the last time she went on tour, let alone recall the groundbreaking theatrical tour-de-force that was 1990’s Blond Ambition, a show that bulldozed the boundaries of pop music and substantially raised the bar for its live interpretation. But it’s more than anticipation fueling the hunger for the epithet-denouncing Material Girl’s new Drowned World Tour. At this rate, we’ll have to wait until lil’ Rocko starts dabbling in the new-new coke before Madonna puts on another show. (On second thought, that might not be too far off, but even then, she’ll be well into her fifties.)
So it’s not exactly a “farewell tour” but it’s certainly being treated as such (tickets priced at an unusually lofty $250 are going for thousands on eBay). Once again, critics and fans alike have sneered at the lack of classic tunes, and while complaints seemed unwarranted in the past (more than half of the material from 1993’s the Girlie Show pre-dated 1991), “La Isla Bonita” and “Holiday” are the only ’80s-era songs to make the cut this time around. Always the most non-conformist of capitalists, Madonna fills the spaces between hits with edgier numbers like “Candy Perfume Girl.” In fact, album cuts comprise 50% of the show’s material. This show is for true fans—critics (and hits) be damned. But who still cares about “Like a Virgin” anyway? Much more criminal is the omission of the brilliant “Like a Prayer,” the dramatic “Vogue,” and even, dare I say it, “Take a Bow.” Instead, the bulk of Drowned World is culled from last year’s Music and 1998’s Grammy-winning Ray of Light (the tour’s name is lifted from the opening track of that album, inspired by J. G. Ballard’s apocalyptic novel, The Drowned World).
Like many icons before her, Madonna calls New York home (though she was born in the Midwest). When her show landed in the Big Apple on July 25, 2001, there was a certain sense of bittersweet “arrival” in the air—or maybe it was just the brutal humidity or the pre-show mist of dry ice that summoned more screams than your average afternoon at TRL. (Nonetheless, it was opening night in the biggest city in the world and Madonna later dedicated the very personal “Secret” to its residents, who, she informed the audience, “inspire the fuck outta” her.) After a dramatic and well-sung (albeit demure) entrance, Madonna and her gas-masked entourage moved into the high-energy thump of “Impressive Instant.” The simple ode of devotion is transformed into toxic infatuation thanks, in part, to a virulent and possessive dance routine.
And “Instant” only gives one a taste of the yarn Drowned World ultimately unravels. Like every satisfying trip to the theater, the show aims to convey a message while it entertains. Madonna is every ounce the performance artist, and her shows are as much about visuals as they are about the music, with exclusive videos, images, and montages littered strategically throughout five themed “segments.” The second segment opens with a stunning video performance of the track “Paradise (Not for Me)” while several nude dancers hang cocooned and writhing upside-down from a minimalist, gothic treescape. The interlude was no doubt designed to give the singer time to assemble her Geisha costume (full with 26-foot sleeves) in which she’ll emerge for the song “Frozen.” From there, she sinks forsaken at the foot of her lover/master during “Nobody’s Perfect,” an act of penance and humility. The cycle of songs tells the tale of an abused woman and her indignant retaliation (the frenetic “Sky Fits Heaven” techno-battle incorporates martial arts and harnessed flying) and the character’s ultimate liberation. “Mer Girl” dramatically interweaves her mother’s death, her daughter’s birth, and her fear of the man she “cannot keep,” while an image of her bruised face finally cracks a smile as the on-stage Madonna sings: “I ran and I ran…I keep running away.”
The obligatory Cowgirl segment falls a bit flat if only because it follows the high-drama and acrobatics of the Geisha storyline. However, it found Madonna at her most talkative on this particular evening. She had been, for most of the show, distantly down-to-business. The performer sang a quaint mock-country western tune (convincing accent and all) about “taking life’s lemons and making lemonade” (she debunked press reports that the ditty was about cannibalism). A French-techno/acoustic revamping of the powerful “You’ll See” segued into the final, hit-heavy portion of the show. Not surprisingly, charged-up versions of “Music” and “Holiday” were the biggest crowd-pleasers of the evening. An amazing video montage of Madonna throughout the years distracted from the actual on-stage antics of “Music,” but her level of enthusiasm for being in front of an audience once again was never in question. Having the distinction of being the only song performed on every one of the pop star’s five tours, “Holiday” (updated here with a sample of Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better with You”) has seemingly become an old friend to Madonna and her longtime backup singers, Niki Haris and Donna DeLory. It’s in these final, all-too-brief moments that Madonna’s message comes in loud and clear. You know the words: something about coming together and having a celebration.
By the end of the night I realized I was witnessing one of the greatest performers of our time during the peak of, perhaps, one of her last great tours. Yet it wasn’t difficult to play objective critic. Seeing pop royalty wield an electric guitar seemed bizarre yet oddly natural, and while her vocals were emotive and on-pitch throughout the show, she often seemed trapped in her head voice. The singer’s Spanish-inflected performances both on-stage and in the studio have always seemed authentic (or at the very least, genuine), but an electronic-infused Spanish version of “What It Feels Like for a Girl” and a stripped-down acoustic version of “La Isla Bonita” felt anticlimactic. Yet from its futuristic techno-lighting to a breathtaking black-and-white montage that recalls Ron Fricke’s cultural journey Baraka, the show was technically flawless, further evidence of the Big M’s perfectionist blond ambition.
Though her cowgirl image is easily her least significant incarnation to date, Drowned World proves that Madonna is still unmatched in her ability to lift cultural iconography into the mainstream. The Geisha cycle is epilogued with hard techno beats and violent imagery taken from the groundbreaking Japanese anime film, Perfect Blue. The story’s main character, Mima, a former pop star haunted by ghosts from her past, dreams of becoming an actress but resorts to porn gigs in her search for success. Those who thought Madonna hung up her handcuffs along with the notorious Sex book should look again closely. With its themes of chaos, dominance, and, ultimately, celebration, Madonna’s Drowned World explores her ever-fervid intrigue with both imposed and pious restraint.