Madonna on Tour
The New York Times, October 6, 2008
Music Review | Madonna
Aerobic, Not Erotic: The Concert as Workout
By JON PARELES
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — “Tick-tock, tick-tock,” Madonna’s backup singers sang as video screens and subwoofers blasted to life at the Izod Center. Time obsesses Madonna on her Sticky and Sweet Tour, which made its first American stop here on Saturday.
Time means beat and rhythm, and it means the pop history encapsulated in the hits Madonna has been making since 1982. It also means the aging that she defies with workouts, image makeovers and what looks like plastic surgery. At 50, Madonna can no longer be seen as a clubland ingénue, a Hollywood glamour queen, an iconoclast rejecting a Roman Catholic upbringing or a kinky provocateur, and she won’t be any kind of dowager yet. Time has brought out her core: careerist ambition and a combative tenacity.
Has there ever been a colder pop sex symbol? For all the invitations in her lyrics, Madonna has always projected more calculation and industriousness than affection. She works; her audience looks and pays, becoming another conquest.
“I can keep on going through the night,” she insisted in “Heartbeat,” from her latest album, “Hard Candy” (Warner Brothers), which provided nearly half the concert’s songs. That was the point: There she was, 50 be damned, strutting, pushing her dancers around, even doing double-Dutch jump-rope steps without a tangle.
Madonna built her stardom on her assets — her ear for hooks and beats, her looks, a predictive fashion sense and an instinct for pushing cultural hot buttons — and the Sticky and Sweet show insists, even demands, that they still have their effect.
She pumps up the volume, piles on the beat and mixes the unstoppable and the baffling, the thrilling and the ridiculous. The set had four thematic sections: the present-day dance floor, the old school, the big wide world, and political and spiritual aspirations (via the dance floor). For thumping electro songs from “Hard Candy” she had the album’s hip-hop guests — Kanye West, and Pharrell Williams — performing on towering video screens, sharing the proudly mercantile sentiments of songs like “Candy Shop.”
The old-school section, with a backdrop of animated characters invented by the artist Keith Haring, riffled through original elements of hip-hop culture — break dancing, D.J. scratching, double Dutch and graffiti — along with (inexplicably) some pole dancing. Since punk and hip-hop were contemporaries, Madonna also picked up an electric guitar for an enthusiastic punk-pop version of “Borderline.” Her moves were aerobic, not erotic; in one song, other dancers spotted her as if they were personal trainers.
Then came a high-fashion, geographically scrambled international romp, as dancers did flamenco, tango, Indian and Middle Eastern moves. The Spanish-language “La Isla Bonita” moved to Eastern Europe as Madonna brought out a Gypsy-style band, with fiddle and accordion. It accompanied her in the one song that exposed her voice: the ballad “You Must Love Me,” with woeful sustained notes.
Madonna turned to messages: a save-the-world video that torpedoed its good intentions with overkill, juxtaposing John McCain with Hitler and Barack Obama with Gandhi. Although her outfit and a mop-with-bangs wig made her look like a bad 1970s comic-book character, Madonna was close to inspirational in an electrocharged version of “Like a Prayer,” with golden-rule religious teachings projected overhead. She followed it awkwardly, with guitar-slinging rock versions of “Ray of Light” and, returning to earthly things, “Hung Up,” with a feedback finish. She wants punk’s old rebel credibility.
“No one is ever going to stop me,” Madonna proclaimed in her finale, “Give It 2 Me.” But as the show ended, the last glimpse of Madonna was a video close-up of her sweaty, unsmiling, exhausted face. She had worked hard, and showed it.
Madonna performs on Monday, Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
Beats and Hot Buttons
Times Topics: Madonna