More than ever, it seems, we live in an age where you’re not supposed to take pop music seriously. This isn’t difficult to comprehend – we do, after all, live in an age where taking almost anything very seriously is frowned upon – yet it’s easy to forget that there are artists who have been working on the premise that ‘pop music will never be low brow’ (as Lady Gaga put it, prior to a massive backlash which has led her to already describe her next album as lacking ‘maturity’) for decades. In my 17 years of gig-going I’ve learned that there really is no other pop show quite like a Madonna one. Sure, the ‘theatrical’ influences of her tours (themselves heavily influenced by David Bowie’s work) hang heavily over shows by scores of other artists, yet a big production and ‘themed segments’ is typically as far as it gets. Make no mistake about it: at times Madonna’s shows are performance art on a grand scale.
Previously this was perhaps most pronounced on the Drowned World tour, a dark, violent and largely classic-free show which demanded a lot from its audience. It’s rare for pop shows to demand much. For all of their merits, today’s pop superstars tend to deliver hit and after hit, quickly skating over lesser-known album tracks. Whatever the cause and effect of the situation this has coincided with audiences which have become lazier and more obnoxious, refusing to indulge songs they are unfamiliar with and seemingly determined to ruin things for those who do wish to listen by screeching loudly throughout.
This is more pronounced in stadium gigs, where many clearly go along expecting to hear classic hit followed by classic hit. This has never been Madonna’s style and the MDNA tour is no exception. In terms of its tone and themes it reminded me heavily in places of Drowned World – a dense, spectacular and steely show which took it as given that pop shows can be high brow. Perhaps the crucial difference, however, is that Drowned World played to the 19,000 capacity Earls Court while MDNA played to 70,000 people in Hyde Park.
The venue was definitely the problem here: Hyde Park’s volume limit (due to it being a residential area) meant the sound never packed a punch while its flat terrain saw scores of people around us building mounds out of wood chips in order to try and catch a glimpse of the lady herself. The curfew also meant that the show, clearly intended to begin under the cover of darkness, had to begin in daylight. A casual listener expecting to hear selections from Celebration for the evening would already have had to alter their expectations – these problems could only have further alienated them. Saying that, anyone attending a show called MDNA who hasn’t listened to the album of the same title probably deserves everything they get
For a big fan such as myself, the show was an absolute treat. The opening section stretching from ‘Girl Gone Wild’ to ‘I Don’t Give A’ was simply stunning. There was a lot going on, both physically on stage and thematically, with a dark, aggressive and violent exploration of a ‘girl gone wild’. The symbolism of Madonna emerging from a confessional booth in a cathedral, dressed in a funereal take on her wedding dress, is difficult to beat. The following songs, imagery and choreography saw her celebrating her position as a feminist icon while linking her failed marriage to her status as a lapsed Catholic. ‘Revolver’ saw her surrounded by female dancers, celebrating sexuality before being boxed in and fighting off male assailants in the demented ‘Gang Bang’. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ and ‘Hung Up’ were re-interpreted as a communique to God, a plea for Him to send a sign as Madonna tries and repeatedly fails to ‘walk the line’ before finally accepting her identity and proclaiming ‘I Don’t Give A’. Transgression is undoubtedly one of the most truly theatrical sections of a music concert I’ve ever seen and I can’t wait to see it again.
Flowing neatly from her ‘acceptance’ of herself, Madonna returned to the stage to perform a truly joyous version of ‘Express Yourself’. This old classic united the entire park in song, so much so that the sly dig at Gaga with the snippets of ‘Born This Way’ and accompanying video of ‘little monsters’ eating mass produced product was almost unnoticeable. The production of this section was just incredible, with drummers suspended in mid-air for ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’ and a visual assault on the senses.
The third section was the most interesting to me, as a fan. It kicked off with an imperial take on ‘Vogue’, possibly her most iconic song and certainly one of the most iconic songs in pop. Given what followed, it seemed as if she was reminding everyone of her unassailable position in the pop pantheon. The following three songs were, quite simply, a massive ‘fuck you’ to those who take glee in attacking her these days – for her age, for her sexuality, for her music. The performance of ‘Candy Shop’, the much-ridiculed opening track to the maligned Hard Candy, seemed pointed enough but in following it with the defiant ‘Human Nature’, Madonna made the message clear: no regrets, no compromises. The point was rammed home with an odd, mournful version of ‘Like A Virgin’ which saw Madonna stripped and on the floor just as in its legendary MTV Award performance in 1984. Unlike then, however, this Madonna was aged, tired, emotional. It was a rare glimpse into the psyche of an artist who has been on the pop treadmill for 30 years and still receives many brickbats for it. The segment ended with Madonna being strapped tightly into a corset – constrained and back in character, ready for another performance.
It was a pleasure to hear ‘I’m Addicted’ live but this was definitely one which needed the music to be LOUD. ‘Like A Prayer’ of course managed to overcome this problem – again, the entire park was as one for a truly euphoric sing-a-long which is definitely one of my all-time favourite gig moments. A brief, playful rendition of ‘Celebration’ (featuring one of several appearances from Rocco, clearly having the time of his life) and it was all over.
Madonna was definitely on form – she looked, moved and sounded better than on Sticky & Sweet. The tour passes suggest that the tour will continue into 2013, which raises the hope that (as with her last tour) she will return for an arena date. Fingers crossed as this intelligent, often-subtle show would work much better in such an environment. It’s nonetheless remarkable that, 30 years into her career, Madonna can remind you of the transcendental brilliance of pop at its best and its unifying power – both before and after the gig, the streets and bars of central London had an air of celebration, packed as they were with people wearing Madonna t-shirts. It may not be fashionable to take pop music too seriously or to earnestly proclaim your love for it – with Madonna, I’m unable to do anything else.