No two Madonna concerts are exactly the same. Well, save one moment: the instant she first appears on stage.
It’s not the actual entrance that repeats itself; whether she’s being lowered to the ground inside a giant disco ball or—as she entered the Wednesday, October 15 performance in Boston on her Sticky & Sweet Tour—raised up on a giant, jewel-encrusted throne, Madonna’s entrances are as varied as they get. It’s the expression on her face that is always the same: that stoic, transfixed gaze; those lips, curled into a victorious smirk; and that pure ray of confidence radiating from her third eye, commanding her ticket-holding minions to sit back and bask in the spotlight of entertainment royalty. It’s the kind of confidence that would be arrogantly annoying if it wasn’t tempered by an equal dose of childish playfulness, and genuine or affected, it’s the core appeal of the Madonna personality (music aside, of course) to millions of her fans.
If ever there was a night when that façade of confidence should have cracked, it was Wednesday. Only hours earlier that day, media outlets were abuzz with the news that Madonna’s relationship was (officially) on the rocks, and she was divorcing from filmmaker Guy Ritchie after nearly eight years of marriage. On a night like this, the average woman would be home on her couch in an old, ratty bathrobe, one hand in a box of Kleenex and the other in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
But Madonna’s not an “average” kind of gal, and instead here she was, strutting across the stage of the TD Banknorth Garden in fishnets and knee high boots, one hand on a microphone and the other, at any given moment, writhing against the crotch of either herself or a handsomely sculpted back-up dancer. From the opening number “Candy Shop,” in which Madonna invites us to “come on into my store, I got candy galore,” (hint: she’s not offering M&Ms), Sticky & Sweet was infused with the same kind of chest-thumping bravado and hip hop swagger that characterizes her latest album, Hard Candy.
It would be going too far to suggest that Sticky & Sweet be renamed Menopause the Musical, but the fact remains that whatever level of composure Madonna can famously muster at will, the show’s motifs—presented with her usual panache for symbol-heavy theatricality—reveal a few cracks in that normally assured exterior.
But once the opening number was followed immediately by the bumping, thumping braggadocio of “Beat Goes On,” and the defiant, eff-off anthem “Human Nature,” a clear theme emerged in the show, one that revealed unexpected insight into what may be Madonna’s biggest secret: here is a phenomenon ally successful performer who is nonetheless cursed with the perpetual need to prove herself, to herself. It would be going too far to suggest that Sticky & Sweet be renamed Menopause the Musical, but the fact remains that whatever level of composure Madonna can famously muster at will, the show’s motifs—presented with her usual panache for symbol-heavy theatricality—reveal a few cracks in that normally assured exterior.
In the first of several video interludes, Madonna appears as a bruised and battered boxer getting walloped for a TKO. Set to an intense remix of her Bond flick theme, “Die Another Day,” the video portrays Madonna as a fighter up against the ropes, splaying her shed blood across the video screen. It’s the first of several athletic images that Madonna, already established as an official fitness idol for the MILF set, will incarnate in the show. Next up, she dons retro gym shorts and jumps rope (double dutch!) for an old school redux of “Into the Groove,” and new track “Heartbeat.” In that number, Madonna feigns an exhausted coronary, only to be resuscitated by her dancers to croon that, “Once I get going, I am gone; I’ll keep it going all night long… You know, I feel it in my heartbeat.”
She also dons football player shoulder pads for “4 Minutes,” the Timbaland produced, Timberlake co-starring lead single from Hard Candy, a project that’s reliance on the hip wunderkinds of the next generation first began to fan many fan and pundit concerns of a mid-life crisis afoot in Madonna-land.
And of course, Madonna’s yoga toned body was front and center throughout the two hour show, evidenced by both her impressive feats of flexibility and, more simply but just as effectively, her effervescent energy and the giddy ease she continues to imbue her demanding dance routines. There were also plenty of trademark Madonna Moments of bawdiness, including one priceless gem where she simulated sex with her guitar while smoking an imaginary, post-coital cigarette. And just for the record, by the way, her singing was strong (though less so than on her last tour, 2006’s Confessions), the production numbers elaborate (though less so than on her last tour), and the set list’s prerequisite dose of classic hits were reinvented with modern flourish (though less effectively than on her last… oh, you get the picture).
The show subtly revealed a glimpse of Madonna as a dancing queen tenaciously clinging to her crown even though none are in a position to steal it.
But the real story is in the “what it all means” inferences drawn, and that’s where those delicate cracks in the star’s seemingly unflinching confidence emerged. Of course, there was the obvious reference to the failure of her marriage in “Miles Away,” a tender mid-tempo ballad in which Madonna grieves for a physically and emotionally absent lover; “This song is dedicated to the emotionally retarded,” she told the Boston audience when introducing the song. “You may know a few people like that. God knows I do.” And it didn’t take an empath to sense the sad note of irony in her voice during “You Must Love Me,” an Evita weeper in which she pleads, “What can we do for our dreams to survive? How can we keep all our passion alive as we used to do?”
Beyond these obvious allusions to temporary personal tumult, though, the show subtly revealed a glimpse of Madonna as a dancing queen tenaciously clinging to her crown even though none are in a position to steal it. Maybe it’s the critics’ nagging debates over her continued commercial viability, or maybe it’s the stress of trying to write the blueprint for an ongoing pop star career at an age where most have dashed their chances (Whitney), settled for middling indie credibility (Prince) or devolved into campy punch lines (Cher). But whatever the cause, there is a recurring motif of confrontation that underpins Sticky & Sweet, and by extension the entire Hard Candy album era: Madonna “eras” of course, being those important, multimedia convergences of music, fashion, attitude and lifestyle that define the latest in her shape shifting personalities, from virgin to whore and from geisha to cowgirl.
Closing the show with a grand finale performance of “Give it 2 Me,” Madonna pumped her fist high and assured us, “When the lights go down and there’s no one left, I can go on and on… Give it to me, no one’s going to stop me now.”
That level of asceticism has its benefits for fans; if Madonna wasn’t such a Type A personality, powerhouse and workhorse, we wouldn’t have the delicious pleasure that comes when in the middle of a performance we finally glimpse that impish, delirious excitement gurgling underneath. Through her music, Madonna has always told us it’s only on the dance floor that she can feel so free, and her shows always succeed the most when we sense that she is having just as much fun as we are; that her world could be crumbling down around her, just as it was on Wednesday night, but in the haven of the stage, the warmth of the spotlight, and the heavy, comforting blanket of applause and adulation, she is blissfully willing to surrender and forget.
I’ve long had a theory that when Madonna dies, it will be on stage. In the meanwhile, I hope she lives a little there, too. Right now, that would be her sweetest treat of all.
Words: Scott Kearnan
image via MySpace