Archive forJuly, 2004

LADY KABBALAH, CHILDREN AT HER FEET

    What slump? I, for one, thought Madonna’s Reinvention Tour was an improvement over her chilly Drowned World extravaganza – if you could look past the BS.

It was high time my Best Man Ed and I did a little pre-wedding bonding. It had also been an embarrassingly long time since I’d visited his house in Boston.

So: how do two guys like us “bond”? Paintball? Laser Tag? Too alpha-male for us. Bar-hopping? Too straight. A Sox game? Ed knows even less about sports than I do.

Or we could just get in touch with our geekdom (in my case) and queendom (in Ed’s case) and see Madonna live.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I visited Ed in Beantown, and we drove down to Worcester, Mass. for the latest stop of Mrs. Ritchie’s 2004 Reinvention Tour.

Like everyone else, last year I took my share of potshots at Madonna for her ill-conceived, poor-selling American Life album. As of this writing, it’s her lowest-selling album in history. You read that right: with its cume falling somewhere between gold and platinum, American Life has sold worse than everything Madonna’s released in America, including the out-of-print 1987 club-mix compilation You Can Dance and the Who’s That Girl soundtrack. Hell, even the latest Modest Mouse record is days away from outselling American Life.

If you’re about to see Madonna live, this bad news for her is very, very good news for you. As I wrote in my blog post last year, a humiliated Madonna is an entertaining Madonna, one with something to prove. A comfortable Madonna coming off a big hit record – the woman behind 2001’s overhyped, overpriced, HBO-broadcast Drowned World tour – can be insufferable. Just to be safe, I kept my expectations for the Reinvention show rather modest.

Maybe that’s why I was rewarded. I had a fine time in Worcester, and – with all due respect to , who still prefers his Drowned World experience – I think the current tour is a much better summation of Madonna’s impressive career, and makes a better case for her as an artist.

Some observations I made at the show:

  • Madonna has finally made peace with her past. In interviews, Madge openly admits that she never wants to sing “Like a Virgin” again as long as she lives. That’s understandable for an artist with one or two ominpresent hits, but Madonna has tons, and not performing anything from early in her career would be, well, perverse. That’s the main reason Drowned World disappointed so many fans, who paid more than $200 and heard only one song older than 1995. (That one song? “La Isla Bonita.” WTF?) Madonna probably realized she couldn’t pull that stunt again, especially after a flop album. Hence, “Reinvention”: she needs the old hits, but to keep things interesting for herself, they’ve been rearranged. “Papa Don’t Preach” gets funked up; “Like a Prayer” gets stripped back; “Deeper and Deeper” becomes a torch song. The night’s big winners: “Burning Up” and “Material Girl,” which were transformed into beefy rock – Ms. M herself strapped on an electric guitar and riffed along (respectably, I might add). “Material” was especially surprising; Madonna hates being called “the Material Girl” by the press, and that’s the last song from her catalog I expected to hear in 2004. Playing it for her fans, who sang along heartily (me too), showed Madge is a good sport. Oh, and the rocked-out “Burning Up” kicked ass.

  • Madonna has figured out how to use her voice. The woman’s range has never been operatic, but as she’s aged Madonna has figured out how to make the best of what she’s got. The show opener, “Vogue,” was taken down an octave and slooooowed down ever so slightly, which keeps M from running out of breath amid all her onstage yoga poses. “Into the Groove” was in a slightly friendlier key. “Frozen” became more languid. The result of all this almost imperceptible tinkering: Madonna sounded pretty darn good. And unlike duet partner Britney, she really didn’t seem to be over-relying on backing tracks (read: lip synching). Give Madonna props: she does actually sing.
  • Madonna really did release a turd album last year. I went into the show expecting to hear a good chunk of American Life, but it’s telling that she played only four or five songs from it. Despite a precision-military dance routine, “American Life,” the song, remains one of the dumbest singles in Madonna’s canon, veering from pleasant chorus to plodding verse to downright embarrassing rap. The other recent tracks were forgettable, with the exception of the recent club hit “Nobody Knows Me,” which sounded punchy and fresh. Otherwise, this is not an album from which you’re going to hear Madonna drawing material in the future. Maybe it’s the tired songs, or maybe….
  • Madonna should not try to be political. I realize these are serious times we’re living in, but not every artist needs to address the geopolitical scene. Besides, no one listens to Madonna for voting advice (her self-serious endorsement of Wesley Clark late last year was such a laugh). The one thing on which and I are in total agreement about this concert was that Madonna can and should lose the political stuff. You would have expected some anti-Bush commentary along with her paramilitary chorus line, but actually “American Life” wasn’t Madonna’s most misguided mishap; it was her straight-faced cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” This transcendant song, which everyone seems to want to cover but no one can do right, barely worked when the wealthy former Beatle sang it. (”Imagine no possessions,” John sings in the grand foyer of his secluded mansion.) Coming out of Madonna’s mouth, it just seems crass. And I swear to God, Madonna’s way-cool video display suddenly turned into a Sally Struthers billboard when “Imagine” started: video of starving children, prisoners of war, body bags. What is this, a statement or video wallpaper? Madge’s Kaballah references were somewhat less embarrassing, limited mostly to some Hebrew characters splashed on the video wall during “Like a Prayer.” For all she’s teased about her born-again Judaism, Madonna knows how to be discreet when bringing up religion; someone should’ve told her politics is that other topic you don’t bring up in polite company.
  • Madonna likes her fans again. I think. The best news on this tour is Madonna seems to be reconnecting with the smart-party vibe that’s fueled her best art. Coming three years after the Cirque de Soleil–style Drowned World extravaganza, Reinvention is itself a spectacle – catwalks, skate ramps, bagpipers, break-dancers – but it’s not encased in glass like some spectacular tours are. It’s a circus, one that feels interactive and, to an extent, welcoming. About that catwalk – like U2 in its successful, stripped-down 2001 tour, Madonna used various stage structures to get herself deeper out into the audience, and it made a difference. The show felt less passive. Madonna will always be a diva, but maybe she’s our diva again. It was one of the quieter moments, but the heart of the show may have been that old ballad “Crazy for You” – it’s a bit dated now, but when our hostess dedicated it to her fans and then belted it out on a small platform poised near the rafters, you could tell Madonna was working to win back your love. If nothing else, she got back a little goodwill – well, from me, anyway.

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