There’s a new Madonna on stage, and the transformation is the biggest shock of her big summer Re-Invention tour.
In the first stop, at the Los Angeles Forum on Monday, Madonna cast herself in a role she has never so forcefully tried before in concert: As a full-on singer. ‘Re-Invention’ certainly conforms to the music-video-era concert style that Madonna single-handedly pioneered – complete with flashy visual images, detailed choreography and fixed props. But she spends far more time than before simply belting in front of a band, just like an old-fashioned musician. Some lip-synched enhancement did seem to persist. But Madonna tried to sing with a careful new sense of purpose.
As ambitions go, it was roughly equivalent to watching Janet Jackson suddenly present herself as a concert pianist at Carnegie Hall. That’s more of a jolt than the not-too-Islamic sight of a bare-legged dancer draped in a miniskirt version of a burka.
Or the video of George Bush and Saddam Hussein lovingly batting their eyes at each other.
Or the moment when Madonna, for some baffling reason, was strapped into an electric chair.
As it turned out, Madonna’s beefed-up vocals were one of the most enjoyable elements in a show that is by turns pretentious, exhilarating, preachy and a blast.
Never one to lack force of will, Madonna is trying to accomplish an enormous amount with this event. Re-Invention is a career retrenchment tour. Her last album, the lumbering American Life, was the first commercial bomb of Madonna’s 21-year career.
Many fans were also disappointed that her last tour, in 2001, featured few old faves.
This time she’s giving the people what they want.
She features more than a dozen of her biggest smashes in the 24-song set, from Papa Don’t Preach to Holiday. It’s fantastic to hear these undying hits so well-performed and so inventively staged.
Madonna, 45, is also trying to gain back some of the edge she lost in her recent incarnation as a children’s-book-writing, Kabbalah-studying, married mother of two. But to seize the moment again, she relies on one of her least-appealing traits – self-importance.
A major motif of Re-Invention is Madonna’s anti-war protest. It’s not often presented with what you’d call subtlety.
In the creaky song American Life, dancers sternly march around in military fatigues as images of bloodied and terrified Iraqi children flash on the video screens. It ends with the Bush-Hussein image.
Later, Madonna performs what has become one of the most cliched anthems of unity – John Lennon’s Imagine – in front of images of wounded or angry kids.
Even Holiday features a video backdrop of flags from all over, eventually bringing together Palestinian and Israeli symbols.
Do we really need Madonna to become Joan Baez? Why isn’t she content just to be Cher?
Luckily, the show’s self-righteousness doesn’t cancel out its more joyous, creative and musical moments.
Vogue had the best fashion style, combining French Revolution with Frederick’s of Hollywood.
Burning Up found Madonna as a rock star, fronting the band with an electric guitar.
And the final super-hit section of the show couldn’t have offered a more exciting pop punch.
While you might have thought Madonna had run out of cultures to plunder, she has come up with one more for this segment, inspired by husband Guy Ritchie: the Scottish.
The whole cast sported full-length kilts, shimmying to hits like Into the Groove and Music.
It was remarkable to hear Madonna singing so powerfully in Like a Prayer, Crazy for You and Deeper and Deeper.
If only that payoff didn’t come as part of a more general, nagging need to be taken dead seriously.
The fact is, Madonna’s most convincing message remains the one she offers at the start of her classic Into the Groove – ‘and you can dance.’
She’s best when she makes it impossible for us not to.
Source: New York Daily News, Jim Farber