Of all the many criticisms that have been levied against Madonna over the years, resting on her laurels has never been one, and anyone expecting her extravagant Staples Center show in support of last spring’s “MDNA” to be a comfortable greatest hits revue was sorely mistaken. Displaying a steely eyed desire to dazzle with ingenious, maximalist spectacle and continue pushing her music into unexplored corners, Madonna’s two-hour Wednesday night perf was exhaustive, masterfully executed and almost terrifying in its scope. It’s a shame it wasn’t much fun.
Madonna, as her lifelong detractors never tire of pointing out, is 54 years old. This is true, but the implication that her age should preclude her from still putting on a big, sexy pop show couldn’t have seemed more ridiculous than it did Wednesday night, with the impossibly fit singer running through consistently arduous choreography without breaking a sweat or missing a cue. Admittedly, no dance-pop diva has yet managed to maintain commercial relevance into her golden years, but Madonna has been frustrating conventional wisdom for several decades now, and should be uniquely qualified to break this duck.
Yet in order to do that, she simply needs better new songs than those on offer, which accounted for around half of the night’s set. From the Deadmau5-lite of show opener “Girl Gone Wild” to the insubstantial pop-rock trifle “Turn Up the Radio,” material from “MDNA” provided the show with a plethora of stumbling blocks, and further questionable setlist decisions kept the packed aud more subdued than one might have expected.
The set included no material from Madonna’s twin artistic peaks — “Ray of Light” and “Music” — and many of her canonical hits were rearranged in such a way to minimize audience involvement. “Hung Up,” her last truly great single, was shorn of its Abba sample and disco beat, “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Open Your Heart” were drably stripped-down, and “Like a Virgin” was rendered into an unrecognizable piano dirge, with Madonna speak-singing in full Dietrich mode atop a baby grand.
Organized into five distinct acts, the show opened with a mock Catholic liturgy, as the star emerged wearing a Jean Paul Gaultier-designed hijab and powered through an intense three-song volley. All these songs featured Madonna brandishing a gun, and the theme reached its apotheosis during “Gang Bang,” as Madge mimed executing a succession of ski-masked assailants, with blood and viscera splattering across the three 40-foot video screens as gunshot sound effects rang out.
Those inclined to take offense to Madonna’s antics might have been offended, and those inclined to see deeper semiotic meanings in her every gesture surely found plenty to analyze, but this opening set was little more than empty provocation. (Having exhausted her potential for sexual, religious and political shit-stirring, simulating gory onstage killing sprees must have just seemed the natural next step.)
But when the staging concepts worked, they worked brilliantly, and overall production values were impeccable. The best of the show’s sequences featured a sort of mini-“Orlando” narrative, as Madonna gradually progressed from a butch suit-and-tie ensemble to a skimpy bustier. Not only did the sequence feature her best songs — the elaborate “Vogue” procession was a clear highlight — but it also demonstrated the star’s gift for switching gears on a dime.
At the close of “Human Nature,” Madonna performed a lubricious, derriere-baring striptease, then immediately segued into a heartfelt tribute to 14-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafai, shot in the head by Taliban militants. Coming from just about anyone else, this move would have seemed tactlessly schizoid, yet in Madonna’s hands it felt strangely logical, so sure is her command of an audience.
Madonna’s singing typically takes second priority to supporting the overall spectacle, and a few numbers were clearly carried by backing tracks. Yet most of her singing was live and in the moments when she hunkered down to really focus on her vocals — especially on soundtrack number “Masterpiece” and the climactic “Like a Prayer” — their character shone through well.
In an era when pop stars go out of their way to be accessible and slavishly appreciative of their fans — think Lady Gaga’s nearly hourly appeals to her “little monsters” — Madonna’s steadfast refusal to be likable was weirdly refreshing. Whether she was hectoring a fan for smoking weed in her presence (it affects her singing, she explained) or baiting the occupants of $400 seats for being “rich people,’ her prickliness only enhanced her appeal. Yet there was nothing clever about her shade-throwing inclusion of Gaga’s “Born This Way” chorus into her own nearly identical “Express Yourself,” followed by a chant of “she’s not me.”
In pop, as in politics, queens rarely seem more vulnerable than when they’re nervously defending their throne.