Madonna’s got her back up and it’s fun to watch it goin’ down. Just give into it.
To admit a fondness for this year’s contentious MDNA album is to be shunned like a leper in an overwhelming number of “tastemaking” quarters, which is par for the course if you’re the sort of Madonna apologist who might have already defended, say, 2003’s similarly reviled American Life against an unswervingly hostile public — and to that this writer stands proudly guilty as charged — but likely a far more irksome fate at this point if you’re Madonna herself. Madge’s outsized sense of self-worth isn’t taking MDNA’s dismissal lying down, and the world tour she brought to the Air Canada Centre for the first of two back-to-back Toronto dates on Wednesday night has placed a bloody minded emphasis on the new stuff over the hits, whether you like it or not.
A bit of a bloody emphasis, too, for that matter. Following a grandiose, church-confessional intro set to the Catholic Act of Contrition, Wednesday night’s ACC show burst headlong into a rendition of MDNA’s Girl Gone Wild that concluded with Madonna stalking the stage with a mock AK-47 in hand as a segue into Revolver. She then proceeded to theatrically gun her dancers down one by one — including a paramilitary-looking chap who rappelled down from the ceiling — like a Bond-film villainess or one of Charlie’s Angels gone hopelessly sociopathic while gore splattered in time to each kill across the high-def video screens behind her during a driving run through the new album’s Gang Bang.
Somehow all that action-movie violence gave way to Papa Don’t Preach and the equally unanticipated — not to mention equally fictitious — sight of Madonna hoisting a guitar around her neck for MDNA’s feisty I Don’t Give A… At that point, you were faced with a choice: either suffocate yourself with disgust at the sheer, pretentious, egotistical nonsense wasting untold millions of dollars in front of you or simply sit back and marvel at how seamlessly and spectacularly the modular, LED-lit stage kept rearranging itself into dozens of ever-shifting Q-Bert landscapes while an entire pep-rally drum squad levitated into view.
So, yes, restraint and good taste were hard to come by on the night. Ms. Ciccone did let this particular evening’s interpolation of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way into Express Yourself slip by without calling undue attention to it, however, and interrupted the general ridiculousness of the proceedings at the midpoint to make a reasonably sincere plea for Western society to move beyond its overwhelmingly “white and straight and Christian” viewpoint.
“We’re all in one room to celebrate love, correct? The only thing we have to get rid of is our big, fat f—— egos,” she said. “We’re all the f—— same … If we don’t start treating each other with human dignity, this s— is going down and we’re all going down with it. Am I making myself clear?”
Not entirely clear, no, given that the speech was followed by a 40-foot-high “boudoir” video reel of Madonnas past and present in provocative, partially dressed poses and a stylishly appointed, all-in parade of black-and-white fabulousness to Vogue, one of the more unapologetically smashing monuments to egotism pop music has ever produced.
The torchy piano-and-voice version of Like a Virgin that followed was much less fun and entirely patience-testing in its self-indulgence — you could understand why the top-hatted piano player might want to strangle himself at the end of it, not why Madonna might want to strangle him — but quickly forgiven when followed up by booming dance-party versions of the MDNA tracks I’m Addicted and I’m a Sinner that sold them as the underrated pop hits they long to be. Like a Prayer followed to the crowd’s overwhelming delight and maybe a touch of relief at hearing something concretely from the canon, then a rave-y, ultra-lit stomp through Celebration ended the night on a note of something like genuine … celebration. A slightly guarded celebration, maybe, given the lack of greatest hits deployed throughout the evening that built to it, but one that left little doubt that Madonna was still in charge of this spectacle and doing whatever she damn well pleased.