Madonna trades memorable music for gaudy spectacle


July 13, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS  Pop Music Critic

Over the course of her two-decade career, Madonna has accomplished many things: She has been a champion button-pusher, a fashion trendsetter and a provocative performance artist.

The 45-year-old singer has also recorded some extraordinary music (along with a fair amount of pop fluff). But judging from her spectacle-laden performance at the United Center on Sunday, that's the accomplishment she cares about least.

The dance diva's skimpy 105-minute show -- the first of four in Chicago -- certainly gave her fans a lot of high-tech, whiz-bang gimmickry for their hard-earned dollars. (The top ticket price: $317.50.) But the music was essentially an afterthought.




When: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday

Where: 1901 W. Madison

Tickets: $45-$300; scattered seats still available

Phone: (312) 559-1212


Judged against the standards of, say, the Cirque du Soleil, a modern Broadway production or the videos-come-to-life concerts by Madonna offspring such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, it was a heck of a show. But call me old-fashioned: I went for the music. And in this department, the Reinvention Tour needed serious reanimating.

After starting 40 minutes late and turning off the arena's air-conditioning in order to preserve her platinum pipes, Madonna played a mere 24 songs -- that's counting the ponderous "I am a prophet" faux-Biblical introduction -- and she wasn't even onstage for three of those.

Yes, the set list spanned her career, and she overcame her longstanding reluctance to play her older hits. But several of these were delivered in arrangements that were so bizarre that they played like parodies. That is, unless you agree that bagpipes and martial drummers were always lacking in 1984's "Into the Groove."

(What was with the Scottish kilts and the odd choice of sonic filigree? Maddy and British director Guy Ritchie were married in a Scottish castle and like to vacation in the highlands -- that's the only fact that I could find to explain this strange detour, one of several in the show that made no sense to anyone besides the singer's self-indulgent choreographers, set designers and wardrobe artists.)

"Vogue" was reimagined as a soundtrack for the court of Marie Antoinette; 1983's "Burning Up" got some incongruous, generic heavy-metal guitar and "Lament" from the musical "Evita" served only to underscore that Madonna was poorly suited to perform in musicals like "Evita." (And no, the set piece that found her strapped into an electric chair wasn't enough to distract from her melodramatic crooning.)

The singer also played six songs from last year's abysmal techno-folkie flop, "American Life." Contrary to what some critics have said, the material fared no better in concert than it does on the flat and uninspired recording. Madonna continued to overuse the electronic vocoder effect on her voice (perhaps to mask the insipid lyrics), the sultry come-ons of her "Erotica" era were still sorely missed and the show came to a screeching halt with the dumb and stilted rap in the middle of the maudlin "Mother and Father."

Musically, however, the nadir was an anemic, histrionic and soulless electronic reading of John Lennon's "Imagine" set to a barrage of video images of children from around the globe plagued by the ravages of hunger and war. (War and hunger = bad! Imagine no possessions = good! That is, after you've gone into hock buying concert tickets.)

As a political commentator, Madonna made Bart Simpson seem as sophisticated as Noam Chomsky. And her attempts to enlighten us about her arcane spiritual belief system didn't fare much better --though she mysteriously traded in her "Kabalists Do It Better" T-shirt for one that read, "Italians Do It Better."

Imagine no facile preaching from Madonna. It's easy if you try. Or have you really forgotten the Material Girl who fellated a water bottle in "Truth or Dare" and acted out pretty much every risque fantasy imaginable in her dirty-picture book Sex?

In the end, if you removed all of the spectacle -- the half-pipe skateboard ramp, the bagpipers, the fake explosions, the dancers' military drills, the descending catwalk and the multiple video screens -- you had an aging singer with an impressive catalog and a voice that (at least on the dance numbers) is arguably stronger than it's ever been.

Sadly, Madonna lacked enough faith in these assets to rely on them being enough to entertain us. Instead, she beat us over the heads with yet another dizzying and superfluous MTV-style visual assault.

The most radical reinvention that Madonna could have chosen at this point in her career was to simply emphasize the music. (You know, that stuff that "makes the people come together/Music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebels/ Think of yesterday.")

Believe it or not, Maddy, it's your music that will endure when all the rest is gone, after the last bagpiper has hung up his kilt and the skateboarder no longer has enough hair to grow a Mohawk.