“Oh my god.”
As these lines, the opening exhortation from “Girl Gone Wild,” the opening track from MADONNA'S new long-player, MDNA, reverberated around the cavernous environs of the TD Garden, and a large digital crucifix adorned the Jumbotron onstage, and cloak-covered minions toiled onstage amidst the swinging of an enormous thurible with frankincense bellowing out, most in attendance probably thought they knew what they were in for: some light blasphemy, a circus-smorgasbord of dancing, and a smattering of hits from the Material Girl’s three-decades-deep catalogue.
And they would be kind of right, but mostly wrong. And I could even pinpoint the moment we all realized how wrong we were, easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy: it was when Madonna herself emerged to begin the opening lines of “GGW,” decked out in all-black everything, holding aloft a massive machine gun pointed at the air. As the song bled into her little-heard 2009 jam “Revolver,” and then into MDNA curiosity “Gang Bang” -- well, let’s just say Madonna took the capacity crowd into a dark place that few were expecting minutes earlier from this queen of '80s pop music.
Before I delve into the nasty details, though, let’s back up and get some perspective on what we’re talking about here: this is Madonna, who is, yes, a pop music artist with more Number 1 hits than Elvis. But she is also an artist who, for most of her career, or at least since she has had complete control of her aesthetic and output, has strived to confront and provocate not only a society that has misunderstood her, but an audience that has attempted to reign in her most outre impulses, wanting nothing but poppoppop. Madonna’s career, especially in the past 10 years, has been a matter of giving the world the pop they crave, but with an aftertaste of shock and awe, of upping the ante of shock as she grows angrier and angrier.
Because, let’s face it, Madonna is one of the angriest pop stars ever. With good reason, too, since she is probably the most hated beloved pop star, with her every move eviscerated by a public that still pays attention to her while doing so. Every album may hit the upper reaches of the charts, but not without a chorus of shouts regarding her irrelevancy; and then there’s her continued attempts at a film career, now as a director with the 2012 release of the much-revilved W.E.; and perhaps just the general apathy of the public to a hardened bitch continuing to reign supreme decade after decade, when so many probably wish she would just stop with the effort and do the rounds like other stars her age, trotting out the hits in a retrospective nostalgia-fest that acquiesces to the acknowledgement that she is embodied by her '80s heyday.
To which Madonna’s metaphorical retort last Tuesday was KAPOW as she BLAMMO’d her ski-mask-covered henchmen in a sick Theater of Cruelty display that was both shocking and captivating. She played out a series of scenarios that all revolved around her as a gun-wielding moll obliterating assailants, with the Jumbotron displaying blood spatterings in a grotesque jolt that couldn’t help but turn ugly the rave party that the faithful had turned out to see. It reminded me of a production I once saw of Titus Andronicus, with a stark white backdrop rendered bloody with the pulp of murder by the end. It really was kind of a waking nightmare, as she kept us captive through her darkest violent fantasies, which when you get down to it has been her thing since she put out her Sex book in 1992 and forced the public’s face into the dark netherworld of her most twisted imaginings.And it got darker: a brief respite in the form of “Papa Don’t Preach” was cruelly interrupted when Madge was accosted by a crew of facially-obscured miscreants who were decked out in what could either be described as the tattered uniform of a band of serial killers or terror cell members; she had a black bag put over her head and she was hog-tied to a pair of long poles and carried to centerstage, where she serenaded us in this captive state to the dulcet tones of 2006 megahit “Hung Up.” It was ironic I suppose, but also an awful juxtaposition, with “awful” in the truest sense of the word. It reminded me of the terrifying tune from Public Image Ltd.’s 1979 Metal Box album, “Poptones,” a shattered account by a soon-to-be-murdered woman as she focuses regrettably on the pop song blaring on the radio of the car her attackers threw her in as they drove her to a secluded woods that would be the place of her demise.
Like “Poptones,” Madge knows that taking a pop song, whether it’s “Hung Up” or “Papa Don’t Preach” or “Girl Gone Wild” and transferring it from the usual setting into one of terror and shock imbues the song with dark pangs that didn’t seem there before. The way that she pleads “Don’t stop loving me, daddy,” sounds so much sadder; “time goes by, so slowly” is so much truer with a bag on your head and a gun to your head. In the wrong hands, music can be torture, if even through association. As a filmmaker in a post-Tarantino world, Madonna knows this, and this whole escapade seemed far more cinematic in terms of the re-framing of her pop aesthetic than any of her previous tours.
Ms. Ciccone eventually loosened her grip on us by the one-third mark, after a rambunctious runthrough of “I Don’t Give A” assured us that she indeed D.G.A.F., except that she definitely G.A.F. about her meticulous control of her own spectacle. After the jolt of the opening portion, everything seemed more alive, if only in its display of her own effort. When “Open Your Heart” had the airwaves awash with its soothing melody in 1986, it seemed like a lightweight pettifour in Madonna’s oeuvre; but tonight, lines like “I’ve had to work much harder than this for something I want, don’t try and resist me” felt so sincere, and so ominous.
The centerpiece of this show, after the Grand Guignol of the opening’s shock, was the towering softstep of “Vogue,” followed by an intimate runthrough of her 1984 breakthrough hit “Like A Virgin.” For the former, Ciccone emerged with pulled-back hair, black straight pants and a white work shirt; for this number she didn’t so much dance as oversee her dancers with exacting precision, nimbly strutting and jigging around her coterie with assured command. It was a certain kind of full circle for this former dancer who walked away from the craft to try her luck in NYC’s post-punk world, famously telling her final instructor, the legendary Pearl Lang “I think I’m going to be a rock star.” Lang may have finally approved of Ciccone’s poise this evening, or maybe not -- again, Madonna’s whole career has revolved around avoiding situations where she needs that kind of approval or acceptance. Which explains why she has always had a lyrical preoccupation with dancing solo, and also why her confrontational moments seem less aimed at anyone present and more at herself and her own expectations of herself.
“Like A Virgin,” then, was the moment of frailty after the juggernaut of assurance that was “Vogue”; alone and half-naked on the catwalk with only a lone piano as accompaniment, Madonna took the bounce-y sass of the original arrangement and stripped it bare until it quietly screamed its message of a longing for things to be what they once were. “Your love thawed out what was getting cold,” she intoned, pawing at the floor in a combination of agony and ecstasy that was a strangely internal performance to be taking place in an enormous hockey arena. The hushed low-key nature of the song in some ways showed that this show wasn’t for the masses, but for Madonna and her alone, her need to exorcise her inner debates even if it meant laying prostrate for all to see. Even as we all left the building a half-hour later, ebullient with the endorphin rush of the one-two punch of “Like A Prayer,” resplendent with a full choir backing its heartfelt power, and the electro-whump of “Celebration,” it was the moments of fragile honesty that remained in memory.