All photos: Kevin Carroll
When Madonna Ciccone announced that ticket prices for her Fall tour could exceed $300, she told her fans to “start saving your pennies” because she’s “worth it.” To her credit, the Material Girl has earned the right to justify this incredible rate. She’s been a cultural icon for three decades, racking up over 300 million records sold, making her the best-selling female recording artist in history. The 54-year-old mononym celebrated 2012 with a performance at the Super Bowl with Nicki Minaj and MIA in anticipation of her 12th studio album, the electronic dance music-focused MDNA. Yes, all of her music is “dance music,” but while Madonna is usually on the forefront (“Vogue,” “Like a Virgin”) or just slightly behind where the dance industry is heading (“Ray of Light,” “Hung Up”), MDNA feels obsolete on delivery, a relic of where music was in 2007, not ’12.
The selection of Benny Benassi as the MDNA Tour’s opener was highly suspect. Benassi is acquainted with Madonna from remixing “Celebration” and producing two MDNA songs. His performance was about what you’d expect from an Italian super-DJ playing in a joint hockey/basketball arena full of gay men and aging women. He opened his hour-long electrohouse-heavy set with a remix of Bob Marley’s “We Jammin” and continued with his version of Red Hot Chilli Pepper favorite “Otherside.”
I question the selection of Benassi for two reasons. First, Madonna’s audience is not particularly EDM friendly. I saw drunk grandmothers wearing tutus and fingerless gloves. They wanted to groove to “Papa Don’t Preach,” not gyrate to “Levels.” Benassi’s occasional ventures into unfamiliar subgenres were not appreciated. Tonight was the night I learned that the gays don’t like dubstep.
Second, I don’t mean to wax philosophic, but EDM is a collective sound. The exorbitant ticket prices barred most danceheads from the Verizon Center. The venue itself was also unfavorable to movement, given the tight space between seats and conservative security. Madonna once sang, “Music makes the people come together / Music mix the bourgeoisie and the rebel.” Apparently ideological priorities shift after going through a nasty (and expensive) divorce.
As a member of the press, I got pretty good seats (#humblebrag), so I was dismayed to witness Benassi spend most of his set checking his iPhone, occasionally looking up to blast his 2002 summer club hit “Satisfaction” and a remix of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” from the arena’s soundsystem. I feel Benassi was booked on this tour as an afterthought, the Material Girl gifting her Italian friend for enabling her electronic music addiction. This is a bummer, because Madonna could have given this opening spot to an upcoming act that would have recognized this opportunity and turned out an inspiring performance. MIA and Nicki Minaj can do their own thing, but may I suggest Miguel? Jessie Ware?
I should note that the few who did show enthusiasm were rewarded. An energetic fellow in a tanktop was featured on the arena’s video screens flailing about and practicing his moonwalking. A star was born after a cameraman zoomed in on our dance hero spastically jump-kick the air. I later saw security escort him down into the general admission pit, compensation for entertaining the crowd far better than Benassi did.
Here’s a list of songs Madonna did not play Sunday night: “Ray of Light,” “Into the Groove,” “Music,” “Borderline,” “Frozen,” and personal favorite “Material Girl.” The evening’s set focused heavily on the dark themes of partying and overindulgence found in MDNA. The same type of cheeky humor you would expect from a 54-year-old mother who would dare to name her album a double entendre of her name and a club drug was on display throughout the evening.
The production was immaculate… as it should be, if you’re spending half a paycheck on a concert. The large main stage was backed with three massive video screens, flanked by two catwalks that joined into an extended dance stage. Between the two stages was a small general admission pit where her superfans dwelled, some wearing bras as outerwear, many wearing wings, all caked in make-up.
The two-hour performance began at the surprising time at 10:30, a late start for a Sunday night concert when the median age in attendance must have been 35. The Verizon Center has an agreement in place with WMATA to stay open until 1 a.m., but let’s not ignore Madonna is being intentionally obtuse by inconveniencing her fans with her needlessly late start time.
The first person on stage was not Madonna, but a trio of druids who began chanting, ringing bells and pushing a giant lantern full of incense. I knew Madonna has always had an interesting relationship with the Catholic Church, but I figured her obsession with Kaballah quelled these thoughts. Looks like I was wrong. The appearance of gremlin-winged dancers signaled that shit was about to get real weird real fast.
A shadow appeared in a hovering “glass confession box” above the stage. A backing band, hidden in the stage’s extremities, started into “Girl Gone Wild.” Our first appearance of Madonna occurred when she shot up in the box with a rifle, shattering the video screens’ glass in a manner fitting Stone Cold Steve Austin. For a two-time-divorcee with a 16-year-old daughter, Madonna is in incredible shape. She showed off her ample bosom in a leather suit to begin the performance, later revealing a tight thong during “Human Nature.” Don’t get me wrong, Madonna still looked like an old-ass lady dancing around on stage, but she did look like one pretty-ass old-ass lady. Her work ethic must be incredible, as she did not mess up a single step or lyric throughout the night. This show was as professional as it was strange.
The performance was divided into four, thirty-minute sets. The first was called Transgression and alternated between the absurd and the genuinely terrifying. A massive Lil Wayne dressed as a bishop appeared on the huge screens to deliver his rap to “Revolver” as Madonna and her female dancers pranced around with automatic rifles. MDMA’s “Gang Bang” was performed as Madonna fought off attack-dancers in a motel room. I expected many things from this Madonna concert. I did not expect to see the Material Girl kill a guy with nunchucks.
A slowed down, minimal version of “Papa Don’t Preach” ended with Madonna wrapped up in chains… and not in the sexy ’91 Madonna sort of way. Her dancers lifted the bound blonde around her set, flipping her around on slacklines (think ground-level tightropes that acrobats bounce on) as she sang “Hung Up.” She closed the first set by picking up a guitar to play “I Don’t Give A” as Nicki Minaj, dressed-as-a-nun, proclaiming in a video that “There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna, bitch!”
After a dark transition video featuring a mash-up of “Best Friend” and “Heartbeat,” Madonna reappeared dressed as a majorette for the second set of the evening, Prophecy. She performed “Express Yourself” with a twirling a baton, including lyrics from “Born This Way” to emphasize the similarity between the two songs. I don’t know if this was a slight or a nod to Lady Gaga—Madonna has called Gaga “reductive” for exploring similar ground—but the politics of the moment went ignored. Many fans were pleased by the inclusion of the instant Gaga classic, myself included.
Female cheerleaders with pom-poms joined Madonna on stage for “Give Me All Your Luvin.” In the most impressive visually moment of the evening, a marching band suspended high above the scantily clad women appeared from behind the central video screen, drumming along to the Madonna-school yard chant.
She was joined by her guitarist and keytarist on pillars for “Turn Up The Radio,” which ended with Madonna asking her audience, “Why does it feel so good to say motherfucker?” She took a few moments to thank her fans for coming and encouraged them to dance because, “Do you know what they say about sitting? It gives you a fat ass.” The druids from the opening song returned, robes gone, to drum along to the fan-favorite “Holiday” and “Masterpiece.”
The third section, Masculine/Feminine, began with Madonna coming out on stage in a reworked version of her famous cone bra along with very, very gay looking dancers to perform “Vogue.” Understand I use that word ‘gay’ not as a pejorative, but as the most apt word to describe a group of shirtless, waxed black men creating invisible boxes in front of their faces. After a rendition of “Candy Shop” featuring lyrics from “Erotica,” Madonna strut around the stage for “Human Nature,” ripping off her androgynous clothing to reveal a firm thong to the shock and delight of the crowd.
Madonna asked a fan to write a four letter word on her back—he wrote SEXY—prior to a piano-only version of “Like a Virgin.” As she sang this sobering rendition, vastly reworked from her spritely ‘80s hit, a tall, shirtless dancer placed a corset on Madonna, pulling it tighter. As Madonna sang the set’s final number, “Love Spent,” she rolled around in front of the stage, similar to her famous VMA appearance in a wedding dress. Only this time she was rolling around in fake money, quite a mixed signal to send her fans who saved their pennies to see Madonna spend most of the night either performing her wack MDMA songs or mutating her classics into unrecognizable fare.
Madonna’s final set, titled Redemption, didn’t start until midnight. The video tribute to gay teens who have died to bullying was genuinely moving. (In an interesting twist, just an hour north another piece of anti-bullying performance art was on display simultaneously in a far different setting.) But considering the time, the audience wanted to see the hits and go home. Instead, we had to sit through a cybergoth Madonna rush through “I’m Addicted” and watched her perform a psychedelic version “I’m a Sinner” on top of a simulated moving train while hare krishnas danced around the stage.
After almost 2 hours, Madonna finally gave the crowd what it wanted: a massive, collective sing-a-long to one of her monster hits. “Like A Prayer,” featuring her dancers miming a gospel choir, got everyone in the audience hyped, testifying that “Just like a prayer / I’ll take you there.” At the song’s apex, Madonna dropped to her knees and asked the audience to sing the chorus as Hebrew writings flickered on the video screens.
This was was a genuinely awesome moment, one that reminded us how powerful Madonna’s songs could be. As she moves into her fourth decade of making music, Madonna is still a capable entertainer blessed with a still-taut frame. But her strongest role is not a dancer, nor a singer but a businesswoman. I don’t know too many other entertainers who can convince 20,000 fans to drop $300 and stay up until 12:30 on a Sunday night to experience one incredible song. To answer the phrase that Madonna asked her fans, was her performance “worth it?” I concede it was. But then again, I didn’t pay for it.