Madonna's Material World - Chicago United Center
Chicago, IL - The United Center - July 12, 2004
By Anthony Kuzminski
Photos by Rob Grabowski
Madonna, currently known as Esther, is possibly the word's most recognizable celebrity. With this come advantages and disadvantages; both were evident during her "Re-Invention" tour stop in Chicago during mid-July. The current tour is a stunning design and one which the production designers should pat themselves on the back. It outdoes the best shows in Vegas. However, among all the top production like qualities, they overlooked the most important gimmick-the music. I realize it's Madonna; it's over the top, and this is the way it is supposed to be, but she still a musical artist first and foremost in my mind. Unfortunately, the music takes a back seat to the entertainer in her. Over her 105 minute encore-less show on Monday July 12, 2004 in Chicago, she pushed her body to extremes most people would not even imagine. However, I would rather have her skip the physical aspects and give me another thirty minutes of music, especially when 95% of the house is $90 or more. During the few chosen moments in the United Center, Madonna proved she is a very deserving musical talent whom people do not appreciate enough. However, there was also an equal portion of time to see why people know more about her than her music, its more style than substance. Don't get me wrong, I saw the show for less than $100 and it WAS worth it. I enjoyed it immensely, but unlike some other artists I have seen in the last few years, I felt like she was simply going through the motions.
The show opened with a rather odd five-minute video as the screens on stage slowly moved to the side and then from beneath the stage a platform raised with none other than the world's most popular icon, once a Midwest girl, but now a worldly girl appeared ready to do her thing. She opened with "Vogue" and made it clear that this tour would be drastically different from her previous one, where she shunned the first fifteen years of recorded history. This time, the hits were in full force, sort of. Like Elvis, the Beatles, Elton John and a few select others, her celebrity is unheralded and untouched. There are moments in her catalog that are arguably among the greatest pop music created over the last forty years; "Like A Prayer" (1989) and "Ray of Light" (1998) are five-star albums that prove pop music can be a powerful entity. Then there are moments where she has made missteps (notably 1992's "Erotica"), however, in the cannon of her whole career, her weakest album is probably "American Life". I'm being nice when I say it has some enjoyable songs, but they are few and far between. Her insistence to include six of them in the current set list is overwhelming, considering its being billed as a "hits" tour and not an "American Life" tour. Needless to say, she got docked points for this in my book.
Do I have to change my name?
Will it get me far?
Should I lose some weight?
Am I gonna be a star?
-American Life, 2003
The way she rhythmically assaults the audience is nothing short of astonishing. She is able to do things with her body that even the best yoga instructors in the world are in awe of. Towards the end of "Vogue", she positioned herself on the stage backwards and with her hands on the floor, pushed her body to walk across the stage, no simple feat. It looks simple, yet I know it's something very few people can actually do." Nobody Knows Me", "Nothing Fails" and "Mother and Father" were the weakest moments of the show with only the first one eliciting any kind of response worthy of a $300 ticket price. The one song that shined was the album's title track as a gigantic V-shaped catwalk dropped onto the audience where Madonna and her dancers could go out mid way into the arena. Have you ever seen the Bon Jovi video "Lay Your Hands On Me"? That's it, except this catwalk was directly above the main floor. It was an over the top and expensive device, but it's one of the best I have ever seen in concert. It's a shame it was only used for two songs. Here is a device that brings her closer to the audience. It is a prop that actually helps make an arena seem intimate for a few moments. Why not use it more? It's like spending $10,000 on a wedding cake and only tasting the frosting.
OK, now onto what people paid the $300 ticket price for; the hits. Just last year Madonna charted her 50th Top 100 hit on the Billboard chart, truly an amazing feat. Sadly, due to the dance numbers in the show, less than a third of these top-40 hits were played. Here's a brief list of top-5 hits she did not perform; "Borderline", "Lucky Star", "Dress You Up", "Angel", "Open Your Heart", "True Blue", "Causing A Commotion", "Who's That Girl", "Cherish", "Justify My Love", "This Used To Be My Playground", "I'll Remember", "Take A Bow", "Ray Of Light" and many other Top 40 hits she passed over in her rather short show. I enjoyed the new arrangements of classic songs. However, the poor pacing of songs from "American Life" caused the show to lose momentum from time to time. There was a jazzy twosome of "Hanky Panky" from her "Dick Tracy" inspired "I'm Breathless" album and "Deeper and Deeper". The latter showed that a dance hit can be reworked into something completely diverse and win over a crowd of 16,000.
The true naked watershed moments of the night found Madonna on stage without any props except the six-piece band. "Frozen", "Like A Prayer", "Into The Groove", "Papa Don't Preach", "Crazy For You" and the forgotten favorite from her debut, "Burning Up" showcased what Madonna does best, bond her soul to ours through song. Here is where she shined and took the crowd to where we wanted to go musically and internally. "Like A Prayer" was a revival. Even if it was underperformed, the chanting of the chorus from the crowd took it to a level of mass gratification and musical perfection. Her vocal delivery on "Frozen" was the best all night as you did not only hear her words but more importantly, you felt them her voice gave me shivers. It's as good as it has ever been, it's a dishonor she did not challenge herself by performing "Oh Father" or "Live To Tell", showcasing her vocal talent instead of forgettable acoustic numbers off of "American Life". "Into The Groove", "Papa Don't Preach" and "Crazy For You" were streamlined and segued in such a way they gave the fans what their hard earned money paid for. The greatest surprise and biggest treat of the evening was "Burning Up", for which Madonna even played electric guitar. It just goes to show that she does not need to bring useless toys and gimmicks for her shows when she can perform the songs in a straightforward manner. This is supposed to be about MUSIC not money. Imagine if she were to perform a 150-minute show with nothing but a band? To me, that event would be priceless.
I'll give her credit where credit is due-she knows how to put on a show. However, one major quibble I had was beyond disturbing-a cover of John Lennon's "Imagine". It was not the performance, but the images of children from the third world and the manipulating message she tried to convey through it that I found disturbing. My girlfriend turned to me and said, "Don't you think John Lennon is turning in his grave right now, she's manipulating her audience all while charging $300 a ticket! Yeah, Lennon was tossing and turning, as were the insides of my stomach. I have no issue with making as much money as you can, it's an artists right. The fact that Madonna is selling out every show with the majority of seats between $150 and $300 is ridiculous, but people are willing to pay it. However, when you don't practice what you preach, you have no right forcing your beliefs on others. It's no wonder the tagline of "material" has stuck close to her nearly two decades after "Material Girl" topped the charts.
All in all, Madonna is one hell of a performer and I truly believe her musical talents are greatly underappreciated; however, when you see a show like the "Re-Invention" tour, you know why people see her as a performer first and a musician second. The show is a Vegas tour de force that few others of its type will live up to. However, her voice is so powerful on songs like "Frozen" that it outshines the Cirque du Soleil elements, and it's more authentic. While I truly believe Madonna has the power to give her audience faith, push us to express ourselves and give us a ray of light to take with us; it's the over the top theatrics which diminish her musical output. She's called the Material Girl for reasons other than a song title. I just hope she can one day prove she's more music than material. Till then she's still a top-notch performer, a visionary trying to stay a step ahead of everyone, like David Bowie. But as Bowie has come to learn by playing theaters over this past year, delving into his whole cannon for each show, sometimes less is more. Bowie's shows were arguably his best in almost twenty-five years, whereas Madonna's while entertaining came up short. Have no fear, she'll be back in another five years, when she's 50, charging $500 a seat for a no theatrics performance with no frills. Honestly, I'll be fine with that, because at least it will then be about music and the people coming together. Till then she's just another material girl, a very rich material girl.