May 26, 2004
by Kelefa Sanneh
Madonna calls her new traveling show the Re-Invention World Tour, and, if anything, the name seems a bit too obvious. (You don't see John Kerry crisscrossing the country on a tour called Lots of Speeches.) For more than two decades she has stayed in the spotlight by shunning it every year or two, retreating to remake herself and then returning anew.
When you imagine Madonna, you don't see a single image but a time-lapse photograph, with one persona melting and warping into the next. it's an open-ended process, and when she's at her brilliant best, it's easy to believe that she could keep reinventing herself forever. But where do those old selves go? That's what Madonna tried to figure out at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Calif. on Monday night, when she played the first date of a tour that's scheduled to end in Lisbon in mid-September. (Her six-night stand at Madison Square Garden begins June 16.) This was a dense, dizzying, often incoherent, sometimes exhilarating night, starring a great performer who often found herself shadowboxing with her own past lives.
Madonna's last album, "American Life" (Warner Brothers/Maverick), wasn't a big success, so this is in some small sense a comeback tour. Her seemingly happy marriage to Guy Ritchie, her new career writing children's books, her diminishing interest in sexual provocation: all of this may make Madonna happy, but it doesn't keep her fans salivating. So her new tour is designed to remind them why they loved her in the first place.
The night began with an ominous recitation from the Book of Revelation, and then Madonna emerged in a sparkly bustier for "Vogue," a tribute to New York night life that now sounds more like the soundtrack to an instructional Pilates video. 'strike a pose," Madonna sang, and then she did, supporting herself on her forearms while her booted and stockinged feet kicked the sky.
Madonna's old infatuation with decadence has largely given way to an obsession with physical and mental health: her Web site, Madonna.com, reports that she requires "25 cases of kabbalah water provided backstage nightly," and she paid cheerful but earnest tribute to her new favorite spiritual beliefs throughout the show: near the end she sang "Papa don't Preach" while wearing a T-shirt that read "Kabbalists Do It Better.'
This meant that she had to find ways to reinterpret some of her older songs. Sometimes she did it gracefully, as when she sang a stripped-down "Like a Prayer" while Hebrew letters on the screen above her gave way to images of a black gospel chorus. And sometimes she did it clumsily: during "Material Girl" she made her famous (and complicated) declaration "Cause we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl" and couldn't resist adding, "But not really!'
Madonna's clashing identities collided brilliantly during the dazzling second act, a military dream sequence that evoked a world of panic and confusion. It started with "American Life," the electro-pop title track from the album, newly pumped up with a roaring guitar riff. She emerged in fatigues and a beret, backed by a troupe of dancers dressed as soldiers and religious figures, including a cardinal and a woman dressed in a spectacularly self-defeating garment best described as a micro-mini-burka.
By song's end the soldiers had stripped the faithful to their shorts and T-shirts, but the military drills continued, with Madonna acting the part of sergeant. There was a spine-tinglingly cynical version of "Express Yourself': as she sang, "What you need is a big, strong hand/To lift you to your higher ground," she raised a rifle above her head.
"Burning Up," a seemingly innocuous club classic from her first album, was even nastier. As Madonna, still wearing her fatigues, sang the refrain "I'm burning up, burning up for your love" static on the screens above was replaced by scrambled camcorder images. War and sex and videotape: it was impossible not to think of Abu Ghraib, though she never made the connection explicit. "Unlike the others I'd do anything/I'm not the same, I have no shame/I'm on fire," she sang, evoking a different sort of warfare.
There were times when Madonna seemed somehow oppressed by the weight of all her old selves, times when it seemed that she just wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over, as a straightforward singer-songwriter. This confessionalist urge marred the "American Life" album, and it marred the middle part of this concert too. There's something really depressing about watching Madonna present a video of children from around the world (it included a plug for Spirituality for Kids, a cabala-inspired organization) while singing John Lennon's "Imagine."
Ever since 9/11 "Imagine" has been everywhere, and it's probably time for singers to give that chestnut a break or at the very least to stop treating it as a high-minded protest song. When Madonna sang, "I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will live as one," she sounded vaguely presumptuous. What does us mean, coming from someone like Madonna? Pop stars? Americans? Britons? Children's-book authors? And who exactly is you? In other words, Madonna is far too slippery and far too savvy for this sort of faux-na sentimentalism. That's precisely why people love her. Having created all those old selves, she Can't now disown them, she can only play with them.
And during the concert's exuberant final act, that's what she did. The stage was given over to a bagpiper and a drum corps, and Madonna and her dancers emerged in matching kilts, racing through a handful of old favorites: "Get Into the Groove," enhanced with video clips from Missy Elliott; a nostalgic singalong on "Crazy for You'; a galloping tribal remix of "Music." When it was all over a screen covered the stage, emblazoned with the words, "Reinvent Yourself' advice, perhaps, from one Madonna to another.