Madonna: One Pony Trick


June 16, 2006


In covering "I Feel Love" as the second song on her top-dollar, whiz-bang Confessions tour -- which stopped at the United Center Wednesday on the first of a four-night stand continuing Sunday and Monday -- Madonna made a rare mistake in the corporate-imaging department.

A huge hit in 1977, "I Feel Love" was the first international chart-topper entirely comprised of an electronic backing track, brilliantly crafted by producer Giorgio Moroder. But its real power came from the gospel-trained Donna Summer, whose soulful, sexy and very human singing created the illusion of a woman making love to a machine.



While there certainly are moments of inspiration in the Confessions show -- as well as plenty of spectacle -- there is very little soul. Madonna does her Madonna thing as the electronic rhythms pulse for two hours, drawing the connection between '70s disco and new-millennial electronica. But she isn't the woman who gives soul to the machine; she is the machine itself.

And it's a cash register.


In addition to the $50 T-shirts and $95 hoodies, souvenir vendors hand out a full-color eight-page "Official Merchandise Catalog" offering additional goodies such as a $50 Madonna riding crop ("the bottom is decorated with an M disco ball!") and Madonna wine ($100 for a bottle of cabernet, $25 for the "premium de-alcoholized California red table unwine").

The music first: Madonna's vocals were much better than on 2001's Drowned World tour. Finally recognizing that the strength of her limited range is in the lower register rather than the old helium chirp, her singing -- augmented though it was by tapes and three backing vocalists -- shined on percolating grooves such as "Get Together," "Forbidden Love," "Sorry," "Like It or Not," "I Love N.Y." and "Ray of Light."

Heavy on newer tunes and short on signature '80s hits, the set ran together like an energetic rave tent super mix, and it only fell flat when it departed from the futuristic disco theme -- as on the misguided Middle Eastern jam "Isaac/Shofar" or the revved-up version of "La Isla Bonita" -- or slowed the beats per minute, as on the flaccid acoustic numbers "Drowned World" and "Paradise Not for Me."



Anticipating that the well-heeled crowd would just rattle its jewelry instead of clapping -- or dancing, the reaction she really wanted -- Madonna scripted her stage patter to include several eruptions of anger at non-boogieing fans. (Everything in the show is the same from night to night.) She referred to the paying customers as the nastiest of cuss words no fewer than three times. Listen, Maddy, for $350 a ticket plus service fees, you should really leave our moms out of it!

Now for the spectacle: As you may have read, we got incredibly athletic dancers, roller skating, videos of political boogeymen, children struggling with AIDS in Africa and a self-crucifixion. It was all trite and tired -- the cross routine, in particular. If Maddy really wants to push buttons with religious symbolism these days, she should flash a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed. Look at the publicity that generated in Denmark!

Instead, the visual nadir was the so-called "Equestrian segment," which found our gal doing the nasty atop a grown-up version of a carousel horse.


The Equestrian segment references both Madonna's recent horseback riding accident -- she flashes her X-ray on the video screens -- and a sado-masochistic sex game called "pony play," which the Web site defines as "one person taking the dominant human role of 'master,' 'owner' or 'trainer' and the other person playing the submissive role of 'pet' or 'pony.' "

It should be noted that throughout the night, the 47-year-old singer moved with the lithe grace of a 14-year-old gymnast -- a testament to the power of yoga. The only complaint here came from the long breaks between segments. Madge was offstage for 20 minutes of the 120-minute show, which started 75 minutes late. That means people paid almost $4 a minute for the time they did get to spend with her -- nice work, if you can get it.


Noting that air conditioning troubles her delicate vocal cords, Madonna has insisted upon a median temperature of 80 degrees at other arenas on the tour. Though execs with promoters Live Nation declined to comment on the A.C. at the United Center, it was as hot and humid as a picnic in a swamp. The highs on Sunday and Monday are expected to be 78 and 82. Be prepared to sweat -- and not necessarily for the reasons Madonna would like.