Michigan’s most brilliantly famous star arrived home to thousands of welcoming arms last weekend for a two-day stop on her widely anticipated and massively theatrical Drowned World Tour. The first of Madonna’s two Palace concerts left some fans energized and inspired, while others left feeling cheated and disappointed. I experienced a little bit of both.
Happily, the show never dropped the visual-stimulation ball. Video screens blinked incessantly; hundreds of candles rose from secret trapdoors in the stage; sculpted, nearly nude male dancers hung from the rafters by their ankles like racks of meat during one costume change. A carefully choreographed fight-dance à la Crouching Tiger was dazzling, once you got past the pop-culture-regurgitation aspect of it all.
Two-thirds of the set list featured material from Madonna’s two latest albums, Ray of Light and Music. While Music was quite impressive, Ray of Light, save for the single, was a bit boring — thus lending to a few lackluster moments. Without a doubt, she could’ve included a few more oldies without looking like a total sell-out.
Transitions were smooth, from ripped punk to painted geisha to Spanish siren to silly cowgirl to disco queen, but contradictions arose from time to time, making one think that the stylist designed the wardrobe and the choreographer the dancing without looking at the set list. The Bay City wonder sang “Nobody’s Perfect” while trying to escape from a sword-bearing samurai. For the entrance, she ascended above stage level on a riser clouded in smoke — really, what else did you expect? — in punk-rock schoolgirl attire, low slung crisscross suspenders, all while singing one of her more mature ballads of late, “Drowned World/Substitute For Love.” The costume made sense one song later — “Impressive Instant” — as dancers appeared in mesh tubes rolling around the stage and pulling Madonna left then right in a surreal flexible knot of torn-and-tossed choreography.
Madonna’s dancing was limited compared to previous tours. She spent a good amount of time with microphone in hand or attached to a — gasp! — stand. She even tried out her guitar skills on stage, rocking power chords in the punk outfit, strumming in the cowgirl hat. At times it felt empowering, other times it was stifling. All this led to higher-quality vocals, but personally, I would’ve rather had more dancing.
As a whole, it appeared as though the 40-something Madonna had something to prove on this tour. She wanted to prove that her new material is good. She wanted to prove that she’s not just a chesty blonde with a mediocre voice. That she actually can sing live. That she actually can play an instrument. Which is fine — she’s still growing as an artist. And I’m all for artistic integrity, but when you charge $100-plus for tickets, plus parking, plus $6 for a medium Pepsi and soft pretzel, you have to think about your audience. I’m sure the majority of the fans in attendance would have rather she bounced around the stage singing a poor version of “Borderline.” She started to quench that thirst toward the end with a fun, heavily percussive rendition of “La Isla Bonita” and a playful “Holiday.”
But the materialist girl’s attempts at making some kind of political statement just ended up completely lost on the crowd. There were guns shooting and anime porn or maybe anime rape. What was that? Later on, larger-than-life screens displayed images of Madonna’s face battered and bruised, making the blast of screaming and clapping that followed just about as disturbing as the confusing visuals.
Such a massive production requires down-to-the-second staging, but even the dialogue seemed rehearsed — except for one quick digression when Madonna mentioned that she grew up only 20 minutes from the venue and probably either baby-sat, went to school with or was related to everyone in the audience. It might have been true. She went to my junior high and her stepmother used to baby-sit my neighbor. For that, I’ve gotta love her. The encore solidified this sentiment as Madonna the “Material Girl,” Madonna the “Lucky Star,” Madonna the “Vogue” dancer and other permanently ingrained images of her reinventions flickered across the screen to an engaging finale of “Music,” which ended with millions of little pieces of confetti fluttering to the ground.
All of these images proved that Madonna has nothing to prove. Sure, we could have done without the brief pimp-and-ho Kid Rock impression, complete with long fur and fuzzy cowgirl hat. The fake Southern accent in the cowpoke section was weird. And the Crouching Tiger part was a little much. But Madonna’s always been known for turning references to pop culture into another form of pop culture. Her Material Girl character is almost as famous as the character she based it on.
And although nothing really stands out from this tour that will compete with cone-boob status in the realm of memory, maybe that’s a good thing. She’s still probably the coolest Mom in the world — and one hell of an inspiration for everybody else too. And besides a strange urge to go to the mall, I left the show feeling pretty damn good.
I guess I’m a sucker for a confetti finale.