Was it so long ago Madonna's talents for music and provocation were hand in glove?
Judging from Sunday's grinding, dull and overblown performance at the American Airlines Center (her first North Texas appearance in more than 20 years), that time has long since passed. The 54-year-old pop superstar, bouncing back after a surprise cancellation Saturday, fought valiantly to remind a nearly full arena of her cultural influence and ability to blend scintillating imagery with irresistible melody.
The only hitch in the battle plan was that Madonna is touring in support of a thoroughly mediocre new album, MDNA, a dud-filled effort underscoring how long it has truly been since the Material Girl had a monster smash (2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor). Her new songs, which comprised a good quarter of the two-hour set list, reliably sucked the air out of the room, leaving those around me, at least, fidgeting, making beer runs or chatting loudly until a Papa Don't Preach, Like a Prayer or Open Your Heart rolled out around and re-energized the crowd.
Leave aside Madonna's peculiar choice to not begin the show until 10:45 p.m. (extremely late for an arena performance), or the fact that, out of roughly 23 songs, Madonna sang perhaps four of them live (the rest were all, rather unconvincingly, lip-synched). You can even look past the inchoate jumble of imagery -- ranging from genuinely grotesque (during Revolver and Gang Bang) to tired (Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj made visual cameos) -- flung across the towering video screens behind and placed onstage alongside Madonna and her four-piece band. That said, no one expected a quiet, demure evening of pop standards tastefully sung.
Yet the grand, overworked set design -- the night began with some mystifying Catholic imagery, complete with an over-sized censer and contortionists; slacklining also made repeated appearances -- only compounded the flop-sweatiness of the whole evening. Little of what was on display made any sense, no matter how hard Madonna strained to create the illusion of a coherent through-line. It was, quite literally, sound and fury signifying nothing.
And while the generation that's followed (and filched) much of what she wrought in her glory days is no stranger to concerts heavy on style and light on substance, it's shocking to see Madonna essentially throwing in the towel. (She couldn't resist an easy jab at disciple Lady Gaga, however, mashing up her own Express Yourself with Gaga's Born This Way.) It was, put simply, a disappointing, disjointed evening, nowhere near worth the wait or the price tag (my floor seat was a staggering $355).
Take her troubling set piece, early on, with a black-clad Madonna crouched in a dingy hotel room, armed with a gun. As she brutally slays an attacker (dressed, randomly, in the attire of a priest), lurid visuals of splattered blood and raw, pulverized meat played out on a loop behind her. Never mind the fact that Madonna is fetishizing violence in a country already overstimulated by blood lust -- what, exactly, is she driving at?
What is Madonna, who, in her prime, could easily dovetail, say, the concept of feminine empowerment with an in-your-face project like Erotica, trying to say to a fan-base now encompassing multiple generations? Sometimes, when you love someone, you have to kill them? Who knows?
Madonna took a stab at endorsing President Barack Obama Sunday -- "If [Obama] is re-elected, I'll take all my clothes off," she purred towards show's end -- and profanely encouraged her audience to get out and vote. But apart from that soliloquy, and an apology for the previous night's cancellation ("I'm a soldier ... but I don't want to mess up my vocal cords for the rest of my tour," she said), Madonna kept the focus on the erratically paced show, which was hamstrung by her occasional, genuinely live vocal turns, notable because they were nearly an octave and a half lower than her lip-synched work. (I'm sure she was pumped full of primo remedies, but no one bounces back from "severe laryngitis" that quickly.)
For those who walked away dazzled, sated and singing Madonna's praises, I wish I'd seen the same show. From where I sat, it was way too much and not nearly enough, a spendy monstrosity indicative of the music industry's dying gasps. Most acutely, the concert was undone by the slipping away of years, eradicating Madonna's iron grip on pop music. But she is admirably defiant in the face of time's relentless march.
Early in the set, there was a pointed attempt to bridge the gap between the influence and the influenced: "There's only one queen, and that's Madonna," intoned Nicki Minaj's enormous video visage from the stage.
Only Lady Gaga's digital presence could've made the subtext more clear: The queen is dead -- long live the queen.