So Madonna’s holed up in a fleapit motel, glugging shots of bourbon. She’s just shot this guy, who may have been her lover, as per the lyrics of Gang Bang, one of the more arresting electronic tracks from her most recent album, MDNA. As she recovers, masked assailants come at her, one by one. The 53-year-old dispatches each of them gymnastically, like a cross between Catwoman and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Cool! Madonna’s murder spree goes some way to even out pop’s ridiculously unfair body count. In murder ballads by guys like Nick Cave or Neil Young you lose sight of how many women meet their end by their man, “down by the river”.
Each time she offs a dancer, though, blood and gore spatter across the giant video screens. Is it shocking? Well, slightly, yes. The violence is pretty graphic, given the smattering of kids in attendance, and those onstage. Madonna’s son Rocco, 11, is one of tonight’s guest performers; he’s dressed at one point as a skinhead in DMs and flopping red braces for reasons best understood by his mum’s stylist. But then young Rocco is probably inured to his mother’s little ways by now. He’s probably seen her rub her own crotch more times than he’s had hot dinners, and is perfectly blasé about the prospect of the former Mrs Ritchie shooting her way out of a confessional booth with a machine gun, as she does on the set opener, Girl Gone Wild.
It’s little surprise that the MDNA tour should focus so heavily on songs from Madonna’s lastest album, one that received a mixed reception, but for every Masterpiece (honk!) there are thrilling rewinds and remixes. For all the firepower on offer, the marching band treatment given to Express Yourself steals the show. Conceivably Madonna’s greatest song, it features marching drummers suspended from the sky, and a snide interpolation of Lady Gaga’s soundalike Born This Way. Even better is the slow, prone waltz of Like a Virgin which showcases Madonna’s generous lower register and, if we are to take the walking stick she brandishes literally, seems to examine love in maturity.
Given Madonna’s latterday directorly bent, it’s little surprise, too, that this tour should be full of complex dramatic set pieces choreographed with the kind of athletic precision usually lent to sword-fighting scenes at the RSC. The visuals become all the more important tonight, given the sound restrictions for all gigs at Hyde Park, not least Bruce Springsteen’s recent show, now infamous for cutting off Springsteen and McCartney. I could hear fine but was fortunate enough to be stood in the privileged golden triangle at the front. Over towards Marble Arch it may have been a different matter.
Certainly, there is rarely a moment tonight when the information coming from your eyeballs and eardrums isn’t being pooh-poohed by your rational brain. Is the trigger-happy motel scene really giving way to some Cuban santería and tightrope-walking zombies? Are these prison guards bullying dancers in orange a nod to Guantánamo? And, after so many years wearing one, is Madonna really singing a song in Basque? She is. The Kalakan trio are Basque musicians occupying the folkish slot last filled by Gogol Bordello in 2008. Their cadences lend themselves to a nicely revamped Open Your Heart. Soon, though, we’re into Sagarra Jo, a song about crushing apples which apparently also works as a statement against prejudice.
Is it all quite preposterously heterodox? Probably. Are the dancers numerous and extraordinary, though, as they always are on Madonna tours? Absolutely. Violence aside, Madonna does show the odd sign of mellowing out the carnival of Vatican-baiting irreligiosity and dry-humping that has accompanied her roadshow for nigh on 30 years. We open tonight with a Greek Orthodox church scene and a smoking censer swinging from a rope, and quite swiftly end up in a place where lascivious masked gimps have trussed another writhing masked unfortunate to a pole. We get to see her G-string and most of her bum. But this is all pretty tame by previous Ciccone standards, not least recent performances in Paris and Istanbul, where her mammary glands got some airtime.
There is, though, no let-up in the sheer physicality of Madonna’s commitment as she hoofs about and is thrown around. Vocally, she gives way to backing singers and Autotune when in full flight, but tonight’s show is persuasively live, complete with the odd bum note and plenty of banter.
London’s Hyde Park is a strange sort of hometown show for the repatriated New Yorker, who made a valiant fist of going native here 10 years ago in the interests of her former relationship. You might argue that the trigger-happiness is quintessential Americana; that Madonna is glorifying firearms with the irrepressible brio of a born-again New Yorker showing her former Notting Hill neighbours how the west was won. Her age-old message about female control and self-affirmation remains strong. But on MDNA, album and tour, it’s inflected with the bitterness of break-up. I Don’t Give A lays quite bare her side of the divorce proceedings (“I swallowed my light”). Throughout, the men trying to undo her seem to be standing in for someone who is in the audience tonight: her ex-husband. You can only wonder what the little skinhead makes of it all.
Source: The Guardian