For the first part of Madonna's concert last week, it seemed as if her main inspiration was the netherworld. The opening segment featured a frightening cross, a mix of Hebrew cantorial and Christian music, and satanic creatures. The video clips on the screens showed gothic images from cemeteries, setting a mood you would expect from Ozzy Osbourne. After the warm-up by DJs Offer Nissim and Martin Solveig, Madonna burst forth from a booth on the stage and opened with a fast-paced dance to "Girls Gone Wild" from her new album, "MDNA." Images of destruction and violence filled the screens and there were even more during "Revolver" and "Gang Bang." In a black jacket and Chanel gloves, shooting at her dancers with pistols and a Kalashnikov rifle, Madonna did some acrobatics with her dance troupe, making it feel like the set of a Quentin Tarantino movie.
The opening concert in Madonna's new world tour, just before she continues with on to her next stop in Abu Dhabi, was full of electronic guitar playing by Madonna herself and a range of exotic motifs.
As had already been leaked during the rehearsals, Madonna decided to do a song to sting Lady Gaga. Gaga, herself purely a cut-and-paste creation from the pop culture of the past decades, studied Madonna more carefully than any other artist. When Gaga released the song, "Born This Way," the difference between inspiration and imitation was particularly blurred, given that it sounded more like a cover version of Madonna's "Express Yourself." In her concert, Madonna did what many just hummed in their heads when Gaga's song was first released, combining the two songs in what sounded like a natural pairing, while still singing "Express Yourself" as a recommendation of sorts to the young singer. Madonna ended the medley with lines from another of her songs that summarized the Gaga issue as "She's not me." It was an edgy form of payback accompanied by a mischievous lifting of her skirt, but you couldn't help wonder about the world's top-grossing artist capitulating to an ego battle with her younger successor.
Even before she made her peace speech at the concert, according to which "if there is peace here in the Middle East, then there can be peace in the whole world - it depends on you, you're the future, don't forget," Madonna donated hundreds of tickets to Israeli peace activists. Yet in one of the concert's most politically loaded and intense segments Madonna was not even physically present onstage. During the song "Nobody Knows Me," Madonna's image flitted across the screens, rapidly changing clothes into soldiers, nuns and traditional Moslem dress while the dancers, dressed as policemen abusing prisoners in orange uniforms, looked like a musical version of Guantanamo prison. The screen clips turned to heated social protests and banners from the Occupy Wall Street protests such as "We are the 99%" and "Eat the Rich," then, as Madonna sang "Nobody Knows Me," to photos of teens who committed suicide in recent years because of homophobic harassment.
These were a rare few moments of blunt and well-executed political pop, but they immediately became lost in the relentless succession of darting backdrops in addition to all the other stimulation. Religious symbols and sex, shots fired and blood flowing, and policemen chasing protesters were all mixed together, and the effect was a visual version of electric shock. But as the concert progressed, along with the intensity of the stimulation, the emotional effect of it all was minor.
Madonna has several doomsday weapons in her repertoire and they can hardly be criticized; despite the absence of many familiar hits, she did roll out some of them, while for others she created versions that were too adventurous for an audience that wanted to hear its good old favorites.
She sang "Like a Virgin" in a quiet version with piano accompaniment which made it a little difficult for the audience to turn it into a massive group sing-a-long session. Nevetheless, there were many who insisted on trying.
During the song, a dancer caressed the singer and wrapped her in a snug girdle. Then Madonna sang "Gimme All Your Lovin'" standing as she did during halftime at the Super Bowl - without Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., but with the addition of loud tribal beats. "Open Your Heart" also had a tribal arrangement and was performed with the Basque trio Kalakan. At its height, Madonna and the dancers lost themselves in a trance and the stage looked like a Capoeira circle with the Alayev family.
Among the dancers on stage were Madonna and Guy Ritchie's son, 11-year-old Rocco, who switched between the costumes of a punk rocker, skinhead and monk during. Later on, Minaj did appear on screen for a guest performance and concluded with the message, "There's only one queen, and that's Madonna." The peak performance came with "Like a Prayer," which Madonna sang with the addition of an 80s house beat, including familiar elements from the song's clip such as a gospel troupe and the star kneeling in prayer.
The visuals were very creative - video screenings, constantly shifting stages and drummers who hovered in the air - but the music did not live up to the many references to the exalted empire of Madonna.
Many of the songs were just off the mark; hits the audience was waiting for were not done interactively enough; lesser songs were giving too much time and space. The concert was faithful to her last album: In both, it was apparent that the effort of maintaining her status, staying relevant and recreating the outrageousness she was associated with in the 1980s and 1990s was weighing on her.
The most powerful moment of the night came when all the lights were shut and the concert was about to start. At that moment tens of thousands of colorful cell phone lights flashed in the audience and were aimed at the stage in the hope of catching Madonna's emergence, creating an incredible image of a flickering field of shiny fireflies. It was a shared and intense moment of excitement and anticipation. After that, the next two hours were a letdown.
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