Confessions of a disco queen

June 11, 2006


Still aggressively athletic at age 47, she crawls across the stage on all fours while wearing a pink/purple Lycra leotard; she rides a giant disco ball, and she feigns a kind of pleasure that can't adequately be described in a family newspaper while sitting astride a mechanical saddle as horses strut past her on the giant video screens and a troupe of bare-chested boy-toy dancers wearing ball gags do the same in the flesh.

Those video screens also flash images of starving children; natural disasters; members of the KKK; President George W. Bush; British Prime Minister Tony Blair; Adolf Hitler; Osama bin Laden; Zimbabwe's rogue President Robert Mugabe and Richard M. Nixon (Richard M. Nixon??), while the aforementioned dancers earn more of their pay by climbing around on a giant set of monkey bars and donning generic desert military garb for some parade-ground marching.

Wearing a crown of thorns, she also crucifies herself on a glittering 12-foot-tall cross; does a bit of a stripper routine around what the San Francisco Chronicle called some kind of "merry-go-round contraption," and even stands relatively still for a bit while fondling a Les Paul to play some mock punk-rock guitar -- a harried mom has to take a breather once in a while, after all.

Oh yeah, in between all of that, she does some singing.

You are forgiven for stifling a yawn midway through that long litany of carefully contrived, exceedingly well-choreographed shenanigans, because it can, of course, mean only one thing: Madonna is on tour again. Shock! Horror! Call the outrage police!

And wake us when it's over, please.

Indulge me for a second, you legions of angry Madonna fans who so enthusiastically fill my voice and e-mail inboxes whenever I question the infallibility of Our Lady of Ciccone, because I am trying to make a point some of you might even agree with: I am and always will be first and foremost a music fan. I could care less about videos and Broadway-worthy spectacles; I have no desire to see Cirque du Soleil. Call me terminally clueless, if you will, but I go to a Madonna concert for the same reason I go to any other concert: the music. And thanks to my survey of the reams of prose that already have been written about Madge's Confessions Tour -- estimated revenues: $200 million, according to Billboard -- I'm actually looking forward to it this time around.

With the release last fall of "Confessions on a Dance Floor," the 11th studio album of her 23-year career, popular music's all-time best-selling female chameleon finally had exhausted the variety of underground dance sounds she could plunder for mainstream consumption, and she'd otherwise run out of strange ch-ch-changes with which to reinvent herself after the nadirs represented by the Broadway turn of 1996's "Evita" and the folk-dance hybrid of 2003's "American Life" update of "American Pie." Uncertain of where to turn next, she confessed her plight in "Sorry," repeatedly singing the startlingly honest refrain, "I've heard it all before." Yes, indeed. And so had we.

So like the U2 of recent years or the Rolling Stones of the last two decades, Maddy followed the easiest path, partnering with producer Stuart Price, a k a Les Rhythmes Digitales, to essentially craft a Madonna-by-numbers self-tribute album. The obvious choice in her multi-platinum stratosphere would have been to follow the disc with a greatest-hits tour that sprinkled a few new tunes in between a set list devoted primarily to recapping her many chart hits, giving the masses what they allegedly want for their top-dollar ticket price of $380 a seat, if you count the Ticketmaster service fees.

Yet while she hasn't shirked from recycling the glitzy mega-production aspect of tours past -- and really, I can't be the only one who'd have welcomed a show without dancers, videos and umpteen costume changes, can I? -- Madge is actually offering more of a musical surprise, honing to the sounds that currently excite her most: old-school disco.

In announcing the tour last spring, the star said that her goal was to "turn the world into one big dance floor," and indeed, the Confessions Tour finds her skipping most of the standards that fill her two volumes of greatest hits. Instead, she's working hard to sell us on her last album by amplifying the songs' groovy merits in concert and trying to place them in the context of a hefty, heaping dose of '70s disco fever nostalgia. She covers Donna Summer's classic "I Feel Love." She offers a set piece clearly modeled on "Saturday Night Fever." And she wears that silly getup Olivia Newton-John sported on the cover of 1981's "Physical." (Still a trend-setter, Maddy prompted a Los Angeles Times fashion writer to gush, "It could mean only one thing: Leotards are back, baby!")

None of this is very original, but I'll take Madonna strictly adhering to a Disco Queen routine over her "I can do anything" stylistic dabbling any day. It is what she's always done best, anyway; what has always most suited her still shockingly limited voice, and most of all what she is excited about now -- which can only make for a more heartfelt performance, even if every single syllable and dance move have been methodically pre-programmed and set in stone.

The only downside to all of this is that La Diva is being almost fascistic in insisting that we party down, shake our rumps and boogie-oogie-oogie like it's 1978. At a recent show in San Francisco, she threatened the crowd that they'd better dance or "I'm gonna get pissed!" And midway through a concert in Las Vegas, she singled out a fan upfront who wasn't shaking his money-maker and screamed, "If you are only going to sit there, at least you can smile!"

Listen, Maddy, for ticket prices that represent half of what many of us pay for rent, we oughta be free to do pretty much whatever we want.