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Madonna Competed With All the Women She Once Was at Her Xcel Show

In a 2-hour show celebrating her career, everything was just how the pop superstar wanted it. Yet something was off.

Kevin Mazur, Getty Images

“Time goes by so slowly,” Madonna sang during her ABBA-abetted 2005 disco hit “Hung Up,” about halfway through her two-hour-and-change nostalgia-drenched extravaganza at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center Tuesday night, and I’ll admit there were other moments when I checked my phone and had that same thought. 

Not that the first-of-her-kind, one-of-a-kind superstar/icon/legend/insert-superlative-here (I’ll call her anything you want besides Madge—what am I, the Daily Mail?) hasn’t earned her long-postponed victory lap. Not that I begrudge my contemporaries a little of the old “remember when” that so many arena shows provide or younger fans a “wish I was there” moment. Not that I regret attending, overly discussed late start and excessive heat aside. Not that parts of the show weren’t amazing as fuck. But for all the glitzy spectacle, all the eternal hits, all the expert choreography, what was often missing from the show was, you know, Madonna.  

Oh, physically she was very much present. After the engaging Bob the Drag Queen, who began the night in full Marie Antoinette regalia, pumped us up in his dual role of hype man and MC, the star revolved onstage in an elaborate black gown topped with a futuristic headpiece, like some revered Naboo dignitary. And from that moment forward she left our sight only intermittently for costume changes and maybe to catch her breath. 

And whenever she stepped away from the show’s clockwork treadmill and slipped into mouthy broad mode, Madonna was irresistible, saying shit like “Nobody appreciates the Midwest like a girl from the Midwest” and pulling on a bottle of Bud that was almost certainly just a prop. “Wherever I am is the greatest place in the universe.” Pause. “Does that sound arrogant?” Pause. “I hope so.” Never change, girl. 

Material was hardly a problem: I counted more than a dozen stone classics, a handful of terrific additional originals, a short Prince tribute, and (oh well) “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” That doesn’t even include the snippets of hits (hers and others’) tucked into the mix here and there. (Chic’s “I Want Your Love” during “Holiday,” very nice.) Maybe she skipped your favorite (justice for “Borderline”) but it was inevitable that she’d skip somebody’s favorite.

But I can’t be the only curmudgeon who thought her performance lacked a certain spark, showed an ebbing of her absolute command of the stage. As great as her catalog is, she didn’t always invest much in it vocally. I’m not talking about the sometimes wobbly notes or the backing tracks doing the heavy lifting whenever a melody dipped below or sailed above her comfort zone—that’s easy enough to excuse. Disparaging Madonna’s vocal skills has always been a pastime for point-missing dopes: She was the scrappy fan who transparently lacked a disco diva’s soulful pipes and made up for her physical deficiency with pure enthusiasm and self-regard.

But her oldest oldies in particular don’t demand pitch or breath control or technique so much as absolute commitment to put them over, and Tuesday night Madonna was showing these hits off, rather than selling them. When she ended the night with “Bitch I’m Madonna,” a song it’s safe to say she loves more than any of the rest of us, the 65-year-old singer was surrounded by dancers outfitted in various Madonna personae through the years, even Mae Mordabito from 1992's A League of Their Own. She was repeatedly underscoring a point she’d already made. All night, she more than proved the depth of her legacy, which no one in the room ever doubted. But methinks the bitch doth protest too much. 


I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take it back to the start of a setlist consciously built around the passing of time. Madonna led off with “Nothing Really Matters” from 1997’s Ray of Light, a song about new motherhood, fitting for a night she’d be joined by three of her children onstage. Its opening line, “When I was very young” was her version of “once upon a time,” cueing up her journey through the past that underscored the story we all knew and revealed very little. 

We got to re-live the Madonna myth, the Detroit kid taking on NYC with just $35 dollars and a dream. Bob’s voice invited us to Danceteria. Madonna strapped on an electric guitar for “Burnin’ Up” and shouted out CBGB. In an extended skit, Bob was a highhanded door guy keeping Madonna out of the Paradise Garage. Scuzzy Koch-era lower Manhattan was transformed into a kind of urban decay theme park.

Here were some of the most buoyant hits of her career: “Holiday,” “Everybody,” “Open Your Heart,” “Into the Groove” (weirdly using the “let me show you some moves” lyric from her 2003 Gap ad with Missy Elliott instead of the ”boy you’ve got to prove” originals). And here was cultural memory as kitsch, turning this world around to bring back all of those happy days. As dancers paraded about in punk-wave outfits and the star herself reverted to a short skirt with an embroidered jacket, this segment had about as much edge as a jukebox musical.

Then again, Madonna at her best is capable of transcendent kitsch that pierces the soul. This first segment ended with her descending into the stage, a dancer lying still as a corpse. She would return to sing “Live to Tell,” hovering high above the stage in a little box, and the screens displayed famous casualties of the AIDS crisis, beginning with the likes of Keith Haring and Herb Ritts. At first there was one person per screen, then two, then four, until each screen showed too many squared photos to count, a fairly chilling and effective visualization of the spread of HIV, as the song itself became a sort of in memoriam.

The main stage was a series of concentric circles, like a wedding cake. At one point these platforms even caught on fire, and who could complain about that? The series of catwalks extended midway into the arena were well-utilized, and in an unusual choice, two screens that descended often blocked the view of those of us in the stands whose seats were closest to the stage. There was no live band, though occasionally an instrument would appear onstage, often held and occasionally played by the star herself, or by her son, David Bando.

There was always something to look at onstage, especially if you prize beefcake. Before “Like a Prayer,” the male dancers were shirtless in a carousel-like contraption. First they pushed it along like laborers, then they flaunted their flesh, writhing with breathtaking muscularity while hanging upside down. Truly, no pop star has ever used gay men to accessorize as brilliantly as Madonna has throughout her career. 

Unfortunately, the moment was spoiled by a snippet of Sam Smith and Kim Petras’s “Unholy,” (we get it, you keep up with the times). And then Madonna seemed swallowed up in the presence of the others, and the song didn’t quite soar. I’m not saying I’d rather hear a gaggle of tipsy onetime wannabes belt “Like a Prayer” out at karaoke, but they might come closer to capturing its spirit.

The next “act” could have been titled Remembrance of Orgasms Past. Following the sound of a T1 modem connecting, Bob appeared on the screens as a kind of S&M Max Headroom, calling the ’90s “an age of innocence” with less irony than I’d have liked. For “Erotica” the dancers, and Madonna, dressed as boxers; it was followed by “Justify My Love,” which kept getting hinted at without ever quite blossoming. Failing to generate heat, this segment was kind of a period piece, a case study of what scandalized media consumers at the start of the ’90s.


Madonna being Madonna, of course there was also utter nonsense. Early on, she introduced us to a living mannequin who acted as her stand-in throughout the show. Intermittently, at least—this bit of business seemed to be abandoned and then picked back up through the night, though Madonna did (fittingly, I guess ) sing “Crazy for You” to her/it. I was reminded that one of the reasons grad school postmodernists loved Madonna back in the ’90s was the excess of imagery she gave them to over-interpret while using words like “bricolage.”

But what really had me saying, “All right, she’s still got it” was a bonkers interlude called “The Beast Within.” As Madonna intoned a reading from the Book of Revelation, her dancers, dressed in vaguely “biblical” outfits that also made them look like Dune extras, bore her, scarlet-clad, aloft like she was the Whore of Babylon. It made no sense to anyone who wasn’t Madonna, and it led up to an onscreen Gurdjieff quote and then… “Die Another Day,” which Madonna tackled like it was a profound foray into the mystic and not just a James Bond theme. (Duran Duran should start preceding "A View to a Kill" in concert with an extended reading from the Bhagavad Gita.)

Madonna’s children provided some of the night’s most striking moments. “They actually worked for it,” we were assured, and given their mother’s work ethic I don’t doubt it. Mercy James, 18, played a florid piano intro to “Bad Girl,” drawing from Prussian composer Charles Mayer’s "Le Regret, op. 332,” and mom even climbed up on top of the instrument. Eleven-year-old Estere shined during “Vogue,” which was preceded by an elaborate ballroom sequence that also featured Minnesota’s own Manila Luzon. 

This was all Madonna’s way of reminding us she was way ahead of the curve when it came to celebrating/profiting off drag culture. Similarly for “Don’t Tell Me,” with its digitally clipped acoustic guitar, she and her crew showed up in cowboy duds, as though to tell us that she was yee-haw back when y’all were yea high.

Everyone fled the stage after “Vogue,” leaving Madonna to be arrested by cops and to sing a quick bit of “Human Nature”—if this was a commentary on the criminalization of drag, it was more oblique than necessary. In fact, given the overall political landscape, some direct words about LGBTQ+ issues were in order, at the very least a call for trans rights.

An acoustic version of “Express Yourself,” with a cello accompanying Madonna’s guitar, worked well, especially because she was so snippy with audience members who hadn’t turned their phone lights on as instructed. (Unlike most arena performers, Madonna is not one to count on her fans' spontaneity.) And this turned into a quick, winning Prince tribute by way of “Kiss.” (Unlike most arena performers, Madonna knows to stay away from “Purple Rain.") 

And then it was on to the charming ersatz Latinx exotica of “La Isla Bonita.” In fact, this was such an effective segment overall that of course Madonna had to spoil it by singing Andrew Lloyd Webber while draped in a Pride flag, raising her fist, and shouting “No fear!” And by “spoil” I mean make it perfect in that shamelessly squirm-inducing way Madonna has of going too far. 


The night’s wackest moment came when a silhouette of Boy Toy-era Madonna and Michael Jackson sang "Billie Jean” and “Like a Virgin” at each other, passing his fedora back and forth, while archival photos of the two stars flashed on the screen behind them. Even setting aside Jackson’s, er, tarnished legacy, the effect was gross, like being trapped in some ’80s-themed diner where the servers wear deely bobbers and there’s a Rubik’s Cube on every table.

Understandably, the ghost of Michael and Prince haunted the show. In addition to her “Kiss” quickie, the latter was summoned by way of son David, wailing away on a Cloud guitar and wearing the chainmail-masked cap that Prince wore during that ’90s period when he was not Prince, with the intro to “Let’s Go Crazy” intoning in the background all the while.

If I were someone who believed in some grand cosmic order, I’d make something of the coincidence that the three pop titans of the ’80s—Madonna, Michael, and Prince were all born in 1958. And if I were Madonna, I’d be as freaked by their deaths too. Shortly after remembering Prince as a collaborator and a friend, she noted the passing of “so many of my peers,” adding, “There’s death everywhere.”

She quickly passed on to the lesson that this taught her: “So let’s celebrate life.” And as a celebration of her life and career, this show surely succeeded. Late in the night, a video montage showed clips of her through the years, touching on the belittling she’d received, the scandals she’d stirred up, even testimonial to her influence from Beyoncé. She closed this off by insisting that her most radical career move has been to continue doing what she does. “To age is a sin,” she stated flatly.  

After all, no one demands that male musicians retire. (Well, some people do, but no one expects them to listen.) Yet to put it bluntly, the advantage that aged rockers like Jagger or Springsteen have over her (maleness aside) is that they don’t have to hit their marks—they’re free to flounce and stomp about the stage according to whim. Madonna has synchronized choreo and dancers in peak physical form to keep up with. Her leg was in a soft brace early in the show and I wonder if the need to focus harder on her dancing didn’t throw off her overall concentration. 

Bodies are bodies, after all, and Madonna has set herself the impossible task of performing like she’s 26 forever. This show wasn’t just a celebration of her previous lives, it was a competition with them. And the thing is, I think Madonna could still hold her own against the star she once was, but not on that kid’s turf. She could at least make some brilliantly embarrassing effort to do that. Instead, she gave us a fun night out and jogged some good memories of our younger days. Should that be enough? Probably. Am I asking too much? Well, she was the one who taught me to expect more. Bitch, she’s Madonna. 

Setlist

Nothing Really Matters
Everybody
Into the Groove
Burning Up
Open Your Heart
Holiday
Live to Tell
Like a Prayer
Erotica
Justify My Love
Hung Up
Bad Girl
Vogue
Human Nature
Crazy for You
The Beast Within
Die Another Day
Don't Tell Me
Mother and Father
Express Yourself
Kiss (Prince cover)
La Isla Bonita
Don't Cry for Me Argentina
Bedtime Story
Ray of Light
Take a Bow
Bitch I'm Madonna

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