Madonna's circus comes to town


August 29, 2001



And so the Material Girl turned electronica-powered Earth Mother finally materialized here in Chicago, appearing before an adoring sold-out crowd at the United Center on Tuesday night.

Did her 75-minute performance justify the considerable hype and outlandish expense?

Could anything?

Let us grant her this, though: At 43, the dance diva and pop princess is as magnetic as ever, aging gracefully, and clearly retaining her provocative crown.

Vocally, Madonna was never in better form, wisely eschewing the helium chirp of her early disco days in favor of a lower, throatier, sexier growl that, if not technically perfect (or even very good), at least had plenty of personality.

Especially impressive: a soaring "Ray of Light" and a beautiful "You'll See."

Physically, this mother of two moved like a girl a third her age, though she generally avoided Janet Jackson-style high-energy aerobics, and she seemed to be pacing her dancing throughout. (A trick stolen from Mick Jagger: Grab a guitar and you've got an excuse not to move as much.)

Overall, the Drowned World Tour represented some of the very best things about the modern arena concert, as well as some of the very worst.

The sound was pristine, the lights, videos, and stage sets were amazing, and the show ran with the perfectly timed precision of a huge Disney spectacle (though it was definitely rated R, with bits evoking S&M and bondage, and a disturbing Japanimation rape sequence).

Madonna did very little pandering to the crowd aside from some corny, affected country stage patter, and she refused to yield to the deadly narcotic of nostalgia, focusing on her relatively inventive new material instead of a rote greatest-hits set.

But here's where the problems start. The show has been the same every night, with zero spontaneity. If you saw Sunday's HBO special, you saw Tuesday's United Center show, as well as every other show across the country and in Europe.

You have no doubt read about the four "phases"/personas/costume changes: the futuristic "Blade Runner" techno punk, the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" kabuki samurai, the ghetto-chic cowgirl, and the Spanish madam.

The perfect presentation of the above clearly took precedence over in-the-moment emotion in the music. During "Paradise (Not for Me)," Madonna wasn't even on stage. Were the vocals live or canned? Nobody cared, and that probably shouldn't be a surprise, given that the singer has achieved her fame primarily through the ultimate prefab medium of MTV.

Expert media manipulator that she is, nothing Madonna does can ever be read on just one level. In addition to offering nifty eye candy, the personas cited earlier successfully steal a little of the thunder of every other female superstar to emerge in the last decade: from the Dixie Chicks, to Jennifer Lopez, to Courtney Love--to say nothing of those younger blonde Lolitas led by Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

In the end, Madonna was better than all of them--and that's exactly what she intended us to say. Once again, she whipped us into a frenzy. And once again, we kneeled at her boots and begged for more.