Take it from Nicki Minaj: “There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna.”
The hip-hop impresario declared this in a video that played behind her liege, as the great and powerful Madge presided over one of Los Angeles’ largest venues for a two-night reign. The circus, the royal procession, Fashion Week – it all invaded the arena at the same time. Jackals crept around the catwalk. Drumming lines were tethered from the ceiling. Imagery that mashed up the pop provocateur’s face with that of Hitler’s and Obama’s flashed on giant LED pillars. Since Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” tour never came to fruition, the other 1980s juggernaut picked up the torch of the most dazzling concert in recent memory.
This wasn’t merely a concert; this was an Olympian spectacle. At first glance, the hundreds of dollars brandished on each ticket price seemed like highway robbery. How dare this millionaire steal her minions’ hard-earned, scarce cash for something that increasingly felt (on paper) like a Lady Gaga rehash! Why were there umpteen tour buses in the Staples Center parking lot when equally deserving but low-on-the-rung indie bands struggled to even rent vans for their outings?! Had the Material Girl come to embody that name, catering only to the 1 percent?
But then the 50-something diva blew the audience away. It was evident where all that opulence had gone: into showmanship unparalleled. It is a miracle of science (or Kabbalah) that an “over the hill” woman can work up such a frenzy for two straight hours. Indeed, there were times when her backing dance troupe took over interludes – including some Jabbawockeez-biting theatrics and tightrope walking – but she held court through and through.
Complain, if you will, about how Madonna is desperate to clench onto the new and shiny. Hell, her latest album, MDNA (Interscope), is a clever nod to Ecstasy, the drug fueling the burgeoning EDM movement. Her elaborate closer, “Celebration”, found her mimicking today’s DJs, awash in trippy cubic lights. Eat your heart out, Deadmau5. And the newer material was inundated by prerecorded cameos by today’s illuminati of the pop world: Lil Wayne, the aforementioned Minaj and M.I.A.
Yet, when has Madonna ever been satisfied with just one style? A video collage of her most unique looks skittered across the giant screens, drawing cheers as fan favorites were shown. (It was also a montage of songs that wouldn’t be performed that night, as she relied heavily on her more sexually charged numbers.) She changed or altered costumes at least five times during the show, all the while exhibiting a command that women half her age would cower at. The audience was graced by her nearly bare arse after a smoky version of “Like a Virgin”, displaying a beautiful irony that someone past midlife could still boast a very virginal, impressive derriere.
The sexuality ran rampant, with drag queens and kings flanking the superstar for an energetic “Vogue”. But it was the gig’s more worldly moments which really set Madonna heads above her younger acolytes. She returned to a recent favorite cause celebre, singing the praises of Russian protest band Pussy Riot, as she encouraged her American audience to embrace their freedoms and vote. She also brought attention to 14-year-old Pakistani blogger Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for writing a manifesto on educating young women.
Madonna hopped simulated trains with India as a backdrop during the robust “I’m a Sinner”. As a reprieve from all the onstage lust, she turned a spiritual leaf and chanted in Hindi as her dancers took bendy yoga poses. People might gripe about her fluctuating accent (nu-yawk British? Madonnese?), but her universality and embracing of all types of music is what’s made her a legend.
There were whiffs of her trying to be the “cool mom,” especially when her son, Rocco, was brought out to dance along to “Open Your Heart”. Mother Madge cussed up a storm throughout the concert. She also took a veiled sleight at Lady Gaga when she infused “Born This Way” lyrics into a medley of the similar-sounding “Express Yourself” and “She’s Not Me”. Creative copyright, Material One.
All qualms aside, Madonna’s Staples Center performance stands among the best concerts of 2012. Whether she was charging through classics like “Human Nature” or bombarding ears with the techno rush of the new material, the queen has reclaimed her throne.