Who's that girl this time around?


July 11, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

The irony of Madonna calling her current jaunt the "Re-invention Tour" is rich -- the singer has spent her entire career reinventing herself.

Pop's wiliest female chameleon followed in the footsteps of Andy Warhol and David Bowie as a deft appropriator of underground ideas who has always excelled at taking those notions into the mainstream. For 20 years, she has changed with each new album and tour, expertly staying one step ahead of the times and the trends.

Now, at age 45, Madonna is at a difficult crossroads: How does she remain relevant and seem fresh and exciting when her primary role as a sexy dance diva and sultry provocateur has long since been usurped by a new generation of younger, chirpier and even more risque sirens?

Here's What you'll hear

Madonna's set list has remained unchanged as she's toured the globe throughout the Re-Invention Tour. The show lasts about 105 minutes -- that's a little more than $3 a minute, if you're keeping track -- and there is no encore.

Here is a look at the songs the artist will perform in Chicago.

"Vogue" (from "Dick Tracy," 1990)
"Nobody Knows Me" ("American Life," 2003)
"Frozen" ("Ray of Light," 1998)
"American Life" ("American Life," 2003)
"Express Yourself" ("Like A Prayer," 1989)
"Burning Up" ("Madonna," 1983)
"Material Girl" ("Like a Virgin," 1984)
"Hollywood" ("American Life," 2003)
"Hanky Panky" ("Dick Tracy," 1990)
"Deeper and Deeper" ("Erotica," 1992)
"Die Another Day" ("American Life," 2003)
"Lament" ("Evita," 1997)
"Bedtime Story" ("Bedtime Story," 1994)
"Nothing Fails" ("American Life," 2003)
"Don't Tell Me" ("Music," 2000)
"Like A Prayer" ("Like A Prayer," 1989)
"Mother and Father" ("American Life," 2003)
"Imagine" (John Lennon cover)
"Into the Groove" ("Like A Virgin," 1984)
"Papa Don't Preach" ("True Blue," 1986)
"Crazy For You" ("Crazy for You"/"Vision Quest," 1985)
"Music" ("Music," 2000)
"Holiday" ("Madonna," 1983)

Chicago fans will have the opportunity to witness her latest transmogrification when she performs at the United Center tonight and tomorrow and again on Wednesday and Thursday -- that is, if they can afford the steep ticket price, which is $317.50 with Ticketmaster "convenience fees" for much of the arena. (Scattered seats remain; call 312-559-1212 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.)

Maddy has been laying the groundwork for a shift in perceptions about her public persona for some time now. Over the last decade, she successfully emerged as a brilliant businesswoman, serving as the nominal head of Maverick Records (the label that gave us Alanis Morissette, the Deftones and the Prodigy, among others), though the company was recently bought out by the Warner Music Group.

Her film career has been more of a mixed bag. (Anybody remember "Swept Away"? How about "Shanghai Surprise"? Didn't think so.) But on the personal front, she at long last settled down with her director husband, Guy Ritchie, embracing the role of mother and branching out as an author of children's books. And she has made a big deal out of her spiritual reawakening via her study of Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism.

Madonna hasn't fared nearly as well when it comes to reinventing her music. Her last concert jaunt, the 2001 Drowned World Tour, found her awkwardly avoiding the hits from the first two-thirds of her career, leaving some fans grumbling and drawing criticism for seeming "distant and removed" onstage (as if she was ever a particularly engaging and personable performer -- she has always seemed to be acting out scenes from her videos rather than living in the moment on stage).

The singer's last new album, 2003's "American Life" -- her 14th studio effort overall -- was a soggy commercial and critical disappointment. She turned away from the playful techno sounds that powered 1998's "Ray of Light" and 2000's "Music" in favor of more static electronic backings, way too much acoustic guitar and some very stilted rapping. And for once she seemed oddly out of touch with the pop zeitgeist.

"I don't know who I am -- I don't know who I'm supposed to be," she crooned in "X-Static Process," and that statement seemed to sum up her general artistic confusion.

The former Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone of Bay City, Mich., tries to resuscitate "American Life" by performing six songs from that disc on the Re-invention Tour, and reviewers have claimed that the material holds up better in concert than it did on album. But even more surprising is what's missing from the show: Namely, the sex.

Like Prince, another controversial, enigmatic and genre-crossing superstar who first made his mark in the '80s, Madonna has excised most of the R-rated material from her current stage show. There are no conical bras, no acted-out S/M routines and no lascivious voguing (just a lot of tamer posing and some fake yoga moves).

Publicly, Maddy is crediting the change in tone to her spiritual reawakening, just as Prince has cited his conversion as a Jehovah's Witness. But shrewd performer that she is, she also knows that despite those killer abs, she no longer has the pinup-girl appeal of a Britney Spears or a Christina Aguilera. Tawdry striptease shenanigans would not only appear a bit unseemly now, but maybe even a little ridiculous.

Not that the Re-invention Tour is ultra-serious -- far from it.

Among the gaudy spectacles that Madonna offers this time around are a mohawked skateboarder riding a half-pipe ramp set up in the middle of the stage; a V-shaped catwalk that descends from the ceiling of the arena; 10 dancers; five costume changes; three trapeze artists who swing, sway and contort high above the crowd; one tap dancer in white tails and top hat; a troupe of kilt-wearing bagpipers and an apparently striking vignette in which the star is strapped into an electric chair. (Alas, it isn't really plugged in, and no one pulls the switch.)

What does any of this have to do with anything? Nada, nothing, not a darn thing! But it sure is fun to look at -- gosh, golly, gee-whiz!

"Madonna has created a new performance hybrid, one that lifts and blends elements of Broadway, Cirque du Soleil, Rock the Vote rallies, art installations, extreme sporting events, church sermons, disco dances and gun-spinning military drills," reviewer David Segal wrote in The Washington Post.

That sounds like some kind of an accomplishment. But is it really worth $317.50? And what about the music -- isn't that supposed to be why we care?

Well, yes and no. Madonna's fans have always attended her concerts as much for her fashion trend-setting, her excessive, "just like the videos" eye candy and her hot-topic button-pushing as for her always-just-passable singing.

Madonna has returned to performing many of her older tunes, and she remakes them with new, relatively stripped-down backings from a lean and mean six-piece band (plus two backing singers) and the huskier vocals that have long since replaced the helium warble of her early years. These MTV staples are interesting primarily because we haven't heard them for so long, as well as for the fact that she's added some incongruous touches like the bagpipes and martial drums that now color "Into the Groove."

Less promising is a mid-evening acoustic set, which consists of "Don't Tell Me," "Like a Prayer," a dreadful rap during "Mother Father" and a misguided cover of John Lennon's "Imagine," which is set to a barrage of images of war-ravaged children flashed on the four giant video screens. Which brings us to the button-pushing.

When "American Life" was released last year, Madonna was forced to pull the video for the title track and first single from circulation only days before it was set to premiere on MTV and VH1. Shot by director Jonas Akerlund (who had worked with the Smashing Pumpkins and the Prodigy) before the start of the war in Iraq, it found the star tromping along a fashion runway with dancers dressed in military fatigues.

These scenes were intercut with images of war, and one of several alternate endings found the diva tossing a hand grenade at a look-alike for President Bush. The video was attacked by the press, and Madonna withdrew the clip after the networks implied they wouldn't air it. It was a rare example of controversy working against the artist rather than for her, as it did with her run-in with the Catholic Church over the clip for "Like a Prayer."

Nowadays, though, Bush-bashing and anti-war sentiments are all the rage -- witness the success of "Fahrenheit 9/11" by director Michael Moore, who sat front and center during one of Madonna's recent shows at New York's Madison Square Garden -- and the Re-invention Tour is full of video montages of bombed-out villages, not to mention an image of a Dubya look-alike buddying up to a stand-in for Saddam Hussein.

Madonna's politicking isn't particularly sophisticated -- it's accompanied by a dance number in which the troupe is clad in camouflage gear and carrying fake rifles -- and the most direct commentary that she makes on the subject is the simplistic statement, "Stop all wars!"

As a dictate from the Queen of Pop goes, this isn't nearly as much fun as "Express yourself" or "Give it up, do as I say" (from "Erotica"). But this is the new, serious and spiritual Madonna. And if you don't really like this year's model, you probably shouldn't fret.

She'll be back to reinvent herself yet again in another year or two.


Just what the heck is Kabbalah?

Throughout the Re-invention Tour, the video screens frequently flash Hebrew letters that are never translated. Madonna wears a symbolic red string around her wrist; she sings the last few songs wearing a T-shirt that reads "Kabbalists Do It Better," and she'd like us to call her "Esther," please.

What the heck is she going on about now?

Welcome to the world of Kabbalah -- which Madonna, who was raised as a Roman-Catholic, calls her new "punk-rock, anti-establishment" religion.

Kabbalah -- which is alternately spelled Cabala, Caballa, Kabala, Kaballa, and Qaballah, thanks to the vagaries of translating Hebrew -- is generally interpreted to mean "to receive" or "to accept," but it is often used synonymously with "tradition." It refers to a collection of mystical Jewish writings involving symbolical interpretations of Hebrew Scriptures.

Believers hold that these teachings -- which involve the nature of divinity, the creation, the origin and fate of the soul and the role of human beings on earth -- have been passed on as oral tradition from the mouths of the prophets since the creation of man. But most religious scholars hold that the bulk of them date from the medieval era.

Kabbalah has been trendy among Hollywood types since the mid-'90s. Roseanne has called it "the last hope for the world," and other adherents have included Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand and actress Sandra Bernhard (even though women were discouraged from studying the religion until the last century).

"I'm a little bit irritated that people think that it's like some celebrity bandwagon that I've jumped on, or that, say, somebody like Demi [Moore] has jumped on," Madonna recently said in an interview with ABC-TV's "20/20." "We don't take it lightly.

"Paris Hilton did come to the Kabbalah Centre once, because her parents brought her," she continued. "They wanted to help her and they were desperate and they brought her there and she had a meeting and she left, and suddenly, Paris Hilton studies Kabbalah. I mean, that's what happens, and people ... they don't know the whole story."

In the no-longer-Material Girl's case, the whole story includes the fact that she was inspired by the religion to change her name in order to draw on a "new source of energy." Hence the new moniker Esther, from the Biblical tale of a woman of limited means who went on to become queen of Persia and save the Jewish from annihilation.

Oddly enough, there is no mention in the Scriptures of Queen Esther ever having worn a T-shirt proclaiming, "Persians Do It Better."

Jim DeRogatis