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.
Source: Special to The Record, Joshua Rotter