More than a decade has passed since Madonna's admission in the 1991 documentary "Truth or Dare" that she knows she's not the best singer or dancer in the business. "But that's not what I'm interested in," she added. "I want to push people's buttons."
And push them she has over the course of a 22-year career marked by album sales of 140 million copies worldwide but littered with so much sexual controversy that it's safe to wonder whether her legacy will be one of lurid scandal over professional achievement.
If the current "Re-Invention Tour" -- which opened a three-night Northern California run Sunday in San Jose -- is any indication, Madonna is now making a conscious bid for the latter. Displaying markedly improved vocal skills, the 45-year-old mother of two sang, danced and even played guitar for the sellout crowd, presenting herself as an all-around performer. Tickets are still available for tonight and Wednesday.
More telling, however, is the fact that Madonna has ditched much of the sexual content of past tours for overtly political images. It would appear that Madonna is seeking to re-invent herself as a mature artist with relevant opinions on war and peace and not just the battle between the sexes. It's no coincidence that the evening's sole cover was of John Lennon's "Imagine."
From the opening sequence of the Eastern-sounding "Justify My Love" -- where she appeared onscreen alternating between a Salameh-styled harem girl outfit and more modest political-prisoner garb -- Madonna made it clear that she is now a political warrior. The enemy is no longer the societal pressures that seek to stifle women's sexual urges, but warmongering political forces.
The song's closing line -- "I'm coming soon from underneath" -- took on new meaning as the toned superstar emerged from beneath the stage. Madonna then launched into such recent numbers as the overtly political "American Life," during which her dancers, dressed in military fatigues, performed pushups under video images of approaching helicopters. As they maneuvered around the stage, hugging and pushing each other away against images of suffering children, the former Material Girl appeared in her Che Guevara-inspired beret, army shirt and camo pants, singing of materialism's inherent injustice.
Although the visuals were dire, Madonna injected a touch of humor and optimism into the number when on screen, a President Bush lookalike lighted a makeshift Saddam Hussein's cigar before kissing him on the cheek.
"Are you ready?" the singer asked the crowd, as she continued the war motif with "Express Yourself." Like many of her most popular songs, the 1989 hit has been updated for the tour, a process that in some cases transformed the familiar into something totally different. As Madonna and her backup dancers performed rifle maneuvers, the tune -- no longer about women's rights to express their needs -- became an order to fans to express their disgust with the current administration's policies in Iraq.
More followed. There was a rocking "Burning Up" with Madonna on guitar, and an "Into the Groove" remix featuring Missy Elliott rapping onscreen while Madonna, donning a white T-shirt and long plaid kilt-style skirt, sang and kicked her heels up in an updated Charleston.
"I hope no one is sitting down right now," she warned before launching into a soulful "Like a Prayer" as Hebrew words -- not the Catholic imagery long associated with the song -- were displayed on the screen behind her. Madonna kept the Kabbalistic tone going, donning a black "Kabbalists Do It Better" T-shirt for "Papa Don't Preach."
The most heartwarming moment of the night came when the star thanked the audience -- one person held a sign reading, "Thank you for 20 inspiring years" -- by dedicating "Crazy for You" to "my fans, who have dressed like me for the past 20 years."
Drums beat heavily on the closing "Holiday," as effervescent a pop tune as Madonna has recorded. She performed a variety of dance steps to its percolating beat, everything from the bus stop to the electric slide.
This being Madonna circa 2004, however, politics were never far off, as the song played out amid a backdrop of various national flags. The effect was to imbue the lyrics -- "We're gonna have a celebration/all across the world, in every nation/It's time for the good times/ forget about the bad times" -- with an anti-war message the self-described boy-toy of the mid-'80s could hardly have mustered.
Confetti rained from the ceiling and the song kept up its superficial bubblegum beat, but its mood had been altered to strike a note of more serious celebration. In that, it was a fitting closer to a concert that represented Madonna reinventing herself as a mature artist even while continuing to supply what the fans want.
Captivating, absurd, always entertaining,Madonna mixes it up in San Jose show. And is that an anti-war message we hear? Tribal love dance ends show
Chronicle Pop Music Critic, Neva Chonin
8 juni 2004
Madonna's concert Sunday at San Jose's HP Pavilion landed on the 60th anniversary of D-Day. The military tie-in seemed especially apt four songs into the show, when the star appeared onstage to perform the title track from her latest album, "American Life," backed by video screens showing war footage.
This wasn't a chronicle of France's liberation but a darker glimpse at carnage from other, morally ambiguous conflicts: Bombs razed villages; Iraqi and Vietnamese children bled and wailed.
Through it all, a khaki-attired Madonna and a phalanx of dancers dressed as soldiers, nuns, mullahs and priests got into the groove. The crowd cheered obliviously, horrific video images notwithstanding. Note to Madge: When making an anti-war statement, dance beats, star turns and choreographed stage moves distract from the message.
Madonna has always delivered mixed messages, whether flashing pictures of the pope during a song about teen pregnancy ("Papa Don't Preach") in her '80s heyday or going on a vigilante vengeance spree in the video for her latter-day single "What It Feels Like for a Girl." She makes her statements and lets fans interpret them as they will. That's the essence of her two-decade stardom -- at her best, she manages to be all things to all people.
Her "Re-Invention" tour incorporates this melange of personae into a two- hour show that plays like Cliff's Notes to her career, with each new Madonna morphing into the next in a hypnotic jigsaw of sex, lies and videotape. At the first of her three San Jose concerts (there are still floor tickets available for the shows tonight and Wednesday), Madonna was alternately stunning, perplexing and absurd. Most important, she was always entertaining.
The concert highlighted the way in which spiritual iconography has replaced the star's '90s sexploitation, from kabbalah text swirling along to "Like a Prayer" to screens filled with Catholic religious art during "Mother and Father." The night started with a biblical recitation, as Madonna's video image fractured from Whore of Babylon splendor to minimal asceticism. The singer then switched moods, rising from the stage in a glittering bustier and hot pants to recite "Vogue" against a museum backdrop filled with -- what else -- a series of shifting Madonna portraits. This was the night's first production number, with dancers strutting in 18th century garb while a backup band and two singers held down the musical front.
As this is a "reinvention" tour, Madonna has found various ways to retool her repertoire. Some of the best interpretations were those in which Maddie dispensed with lavish theatrics to play artist: "Frozen" and "Like a Prayer" were pared down to musical numbers built around Madonna and her band; "Burning Up" and "Material Girl" became singer-songwriter spotlights as Madonna showed off her competent guitar skills.
The larger ensemble songs were hit and miss. "Express Yourself," another military-themed presentation ostensibly meant to celebrate individuality over indoctrination, shot itself in the foot when Madonna crooned, "What you need is a big, strong hand/ To lift you to your higher ground" while being elevated on the back of a rifle.
But a DJ breakdown of "Music" captured a certain club-land euphoria, and the night's final song, a remix of "Holiday," was a confetti-strewn tribal love dance that fittingly ended the night at the point where Madonna's career began.
For the night's greatest-hits segment, Madonna changed into a kilt and a "Kabbalists Do It Better" T-shirt and joined a bagpiper (yes, a bagpiper; don't laugh, it worked) to cut loose with "Papa Don't Preach" and "Get Into the Groove" (featuring a video cameo by Missy Elliott). A schmaltzy "Crazy for You" followed, dedicated to "all my fans in the Bay Area who have stuck with me for the last 20 years."
Just because something's saccharine doesn't mean its sweetness is insincere -- and one of the tour's most discussed and vilified moments, a cover of John Lennon's "Imagine," smacked of verisimilitude.
When Madonna announced the song by saying, "I didn't write this next song, but I wish I had, and I hope someday it becomes a reality," she sounded as close to bald honesty as a consummate gadfly can.
And here's the punch line: As a treacly international montage of children flickered across the overhead screens and Madonna ran through Lennon's well- worn paean to peace, the audience finally seemed to get it. No whoops greeted the sight of battered war kids; instead, lighters rose and the crowd sang along. Madonna, it seems, still knows how to work a cultural wave