Well, well, well! After all these years, Madonna still has the ability to surprise.
She demonstrated this several times during her sold-out Thursday night “Rebel Heart” tour concert at Valley View Casino Center, if not in ways you might expect from this legendary provocateur-turned-pop-culture institution.
Indeed, who would have predicted — even just a few years ago — that a highlight of a Madonna concert would be a gently strummed ukulele version of “True Blue,” her doo-wop-flavored 1986 hit?
Or that she would croon, in passable French, “La Vie en Rose,” Edith Piaf’s mid-1940s signature song about the perpetual allure of love?
Or that she would start her 2000 dance-floor favorite “Music” as a svelte, cocktail-jazz ballad, before the beat and song kicked into gear?
It was doubly unexpected that Madonna would surprise more in small ways, especially given her continuing penchant for presenting eye-popping, Vegas-meets-Broadway concerts that revel in over-the-top spectacle. And there was spectacle galore at Madonna’s first show here since her 2008 election-day show at Petco Park
Celebrating President Obama’s ascension to the White House, Madonna exulted to the Petco audience: “It’s is the best day of my life!”
Her 2008 show turned into a celebration of a new era of national hope. At the conclusion of that Petco Park show, she said: “Thank you, thank you, thank you, for making it possible. Barack Obama – we are one!” It was a rare instance of a Madonna concert taking on a significance beyond her music or cult of mega-celebrity .
On Thursday at Valley View (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena), Madonna celebrated what she celebrates best: herself – and her fans.
This came as no surprise.
Now 30 years past her 1985 San Diego debut performance at the SDSU Open Air Theatre – a then-little-known New York rap trio called the Beastie Boys opened that show – Madonna has long been her own greatest champion. A self-marketing wizard, she expertly strikes a pose, holds it as long as needed, then moves on to another, with each designed to captivate her devoted following.
This describes the template for both her career and for her sensory-overload-fueled Valley View performance, which drew an enthusiastic crowd of 10,461.
While she left most of the heavy physical lifting to her dancers, Madonna looked vibrant and every bit the enduring superstar. This remains all-important for an artist whose ever-changing image has always spoken at least as loud as her best songs.
Her “Rebel Heart” tour program credits her nutritionist and two personal trainers, by name. If there is another still-active pop legend, male or female, with more impressively toned arms than Madonna, well, it’s hard to imagine who that could be. Her tour program also credits a lady named Michelle Pick for providing “estheticism” (read: aestheticism), a credit I don’t recall ever seeing for any pop concert trek by any artist.
Following an interminable DJ opening set by Michael Diamond, Thursday’s show began around 9:40 p.m. Madonna was lowered onto the stage in a large metal cage as the vocals to “Iconic” boomed out. Then came the first of many epic dance numbers, followed by a mock orgy or two, gravity-defying acrobatics, partial nudity and a devils-bullfighters-and-Minotaurs bit seemingly choreographed from beyond the grave by Anton Levay.
This was nearly matched by a bit of junior-high school level sexual innuendo (even MTV’s Beavis and Butt-head would be unlikely to chortle over a pair of maracas as many times as Madonna did before tossing a pair into the audience).
There were also some simulated sex acts, one of which took place center-stage in a biblical, Last Supper-inspired tableau. During “Holy Water,” Madonna hopped up on a large cross, then stood on one of her dancers as both spun around the cross. This segment also featured five other female pole dancers, who were wearing nuns’ wimples, frilly white panties, black bras, high-heeled boots, and nothing in between.
Unsurprisingly, the Catholic League last month denounced this portion of Madonna’s ongoing tour.
“Examples of Madonna’s anti-Catholic performances over the years abound, as a perusal of our annual reports amply documents,” said Catholic League spokesman Bill Donohue.
“Now, at age 57, these seem to have become her last refuge as she struggles to avoid becoming an entertainment has-been. For her and her fans, apparently, Catholic-bashing is the one thing that never gets old.”
For a controversy-thriving veteran (and onetime Catholic schoolgirl) like Madonna, this seems like very familiar territory. It also felt less like religion-bashing, and more like a familiar case of button-pushing by a media-savvy woman who has long been a master at pushing buttons.
Later in Thursday’s show, Madonna administered not one, but two, spankings. She also handed a banana to a male fan (“Diego” from Tijuana), after he was brought on stage to dance, then asked him to suggest what he might do with the fruit. This sequence also seemed old hat for Madonna, whose then-provocative 1992 coffee table book of nude and semi-nude photos, “Sex,” seems almost quaint 23 years later.
The spankings and banana segments of her Valley View show lacked even a hint of subtlety. They also stalled the show’s momentum.
So did Madonna’s decision to feature at least 8 songs from her latest album, last year’s commercially moribund and artistically middling “Rebel Heart.” She did so at the expense of numerous hits that many of her fans would likely have preferred to hear, such as “Express Yourself,” “Ray of Light,” “Take a Bow” or, well, take your pick.
No one is suggesting Madonna should spurn all her new songs to churn out a greatest hits package. But a more judicious balance between classic and recent selections would have better served her fans. They cheered with notably more enthusiasm for revamped versions of “Like a Virgin,” “Material Girl” and the show-closing “Holiday”(which saw her rise up into the arena’s rafters) than for such “Rebel Heart” numbers as “HeartBreakCity,” “Illuminati” and “Unapologetic Bitch.”
In one of her longest bits of between-song patter at any Madonna concert I’ve attended over the past three decades, she told the audience: “That’s right, a girl has to work for a living… In fact, I love my job. It’s hard work, but I love it. Can you blame me? Come on, San Diego! This is my last show in America (on this tour)…
“God bless, America. That’s right. I spent the first part of the show blessing America; there was a lot of profanity going on in the first part of the show.”
After another minute or two of chatting, she introduced “True Blue” by saying: “Hopefully, by the end of the show, you’ll understand my sense of humor, and you’ll also sing along…”
Later, after tossing a wedding bouquet into the audience and promising to marry its recipient, she voiced disappointment when it landed at the feet of a security guard. She was more than nonplussed when handed it back to her. but she quickly regained her composure, joking that the guard didn’t look like he wanted to get married. After calling him a “playa,” she slyly added: “It takes one to know one!”
When the unusually talkative Madonna turned her attention to three of her hits, it was a misfire. Cramming truncated versions of “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star” into “Dress You Up” did none of those songs any favors. Neither did adding ersatz flamenco and salsa elements.
Conversely, while her instrumental skills remain fairly basic, her approximation of power chords on a Flying V electric guitar during “Burning Up,” a rocked-up song from her 1983 debut album, was a kick to watch and hear.
The show’s wildly uneven pacing was a less welcome surprise, one that repeatedly impeded the dramatic flow and musical dynamics. For three numbers, Madonna, her six-piece band and her nearly two-dozen strong dance troupe were all absent from the stage, whether to change costumes or catch their breath, as videos of the three songs played.
Tellingly, the music and singing sounded much the same during the videos as during other parts of the concert when the performers were on stage. The lines between live and prerecorded (or electronically enhanced) vocals were repeatedly blurred, except during the most blatantly lip-synced moments.
When Madonna’s unfiltered vocals could be clearly heard, and didn’t have to battle the din of her over-amped band — as was the case on “True Blue” and “La Vie en Rose” — the intimacy and warmth of her singing proved welcome and endearing.
Ultimately, and as has often been the case on previous Madonna tours, it almost doesn’t matter how much of her singing is live. Her charisma, larger-than-life personality and living legend status, not feats of vocal daring, are the main attraction. And Thursday’s concert handily reaffirmed Madonna’s personality is bigger, if not better, than ever.