PHILADELPHIA — Madonna shed one layer of clothing after another in a seductive striptease — the white shirt, the corset, the dark dress pants — until she stood in the middle of the sold-out Wells Fargo Center in her black bra and panties to reveal the words “NO FEAR” in bold letters on her back.
Clearly, it’s her motto — for herself and for her “MDNA” tour, which she rehearsed throughout May at Nassau Coliseum. “Sometimes,” she says, as an introduction to her classic “Like a Virgin,” which was reworked into a piano-driven waltz, “it’s easier to show your ass than it is to show your feelings.”
She reveals both in the ambitious tour, which she calls “the journey of a soul from darkness to light.” She adds, “It is part cinematic musical theater, part spectacle and sometimes intimate performance art.” And she does it at all while under fire.
“Her career is over, I can tell you that,” Elton John said of her in a recent Australian interview. “Her tour has been a disaster. . . . If Madonna had any common sense, she would have made a record like ‘Ray of Light,’ stayed away from the dance stuff and just been a great pop singer and made great pop records, which she does brilliantly. But no . . . she looks like a —- fairground stripper.”
John’s comments, which he has since claimed were off the record, could be seen as sour grapes — Madonna’s “Masterpiece” beat out John’s “Hello Hello” to win the Golden Globe for best original song this year and in the Madonna vs. Lady Gaga “Express Yourself” / “Born This Way” skirmish, he is firmly on the side of his son’s godmother, Ga. However, he is far from Madonna’s lone critic for this tour, as everyone from Russian political activists to French politicians are having a go at the Material Girl, wondering aloud about her intentions and her future.
Of course, Madonna is no stranger to controversy. That might be part of the problem.
“Madonna has a persona where she has traded on her physicality and sexuality, sometimes with the music taking a backseat to the buttons she’s pushing,” says Meredith Rutledge-Borger, assistant curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. “It’s not like with Aretha Franklin, where her matchless voice, her musicianship has always been the story. Sometimes, with Madonna, the controversy was the story. Now, she’s wanting to change course, and the public and the media won’t let her.”
Madonna is certainly more musical these days. She’s more artistic overall, directing the movie “W.E.,” as well as working on her “MDNA” album. She compares the tour to a film about struggling to change the world. “When you watch a film, there are usually good guys and bad guys to help illustrate this point,” she says. “Sometimes I play both. I enjoy acting out this journey.” The tour is set to rank among the top 10 biggest-grossing tours of all time, filling stadiums around the world, including, for the first time, Yankee Stadium Sept. 6 and 8. Her album “MDNA,” which finds her embracing electronic dance music beats, while revealing more in her lyrics about her personal life than ever before, debuted at No. 1, and her Super Bowl halftime show became the most-watched ever, drawing 114 million viewers.
Not bad for the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer marking her 30th anniversary in the business. However, naysayers point out how “MDNA’s” sales fell a record-setting 87 percent in its second week and how pop radio has essentially ignored her singles. Of course, pop radio has never really had an interest in new music from artists older than 50, not the Rolling Stones, not Franklin, not Paul McCartney and not 54-year-old Madonna. The fact that “MDNA’s” first single, “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” drew any mainstream pop attention at all signaled her power, not her failing.
Rutledge-Borger says other Rock and Roll Hall of Famers have faced similar scrutiny later in their careers. “There were certainly stories about 50-year-old Mick Jagger like, ‘Is he really as sexy as he thinks he is?’ “ she says. “The questions about Madonna are just amplified by our 24-hour news cycle. What is different about Madonna, though, is her persona that has always been about shape-shifting and reinvention. Because she’s had this reputation as a cat with nine lives, maybe people are more hypercritical. It does seem that maybe this is a reinvention that people have not been so quick to affirm yet. If she comes out on this tour and blows everyone away, though, she’s gonna get the last laugh.”
At this point in her career, Madonna isn’t really reinventing much. Her stands on free speech and inclusion, and gay and lesbian rights that have been drawing headlines around the world are essentially the same issues she has been outspoken about for years.
It’s not a matter of Madonna seeking out new causes to get people talking about her. It’s just an outgrowth of her “life in a fishbowl.”
“I don’t think it’s me being controversial,” she told Harry Smith on “Rock Center With Brian Williams.” “I think people, other people like to get attention, and they know they can get attention for themselves by mentioning my name. And I think some people are kind of stuck on my name like a needle on a record, and they just have to keep calling attention to something I’ve done. And it works.”
She acknowledges that the show’s opening is violent and fake guns are used, even though she does “not condone violence or the use of guns.” “They are symbols of wanting to appear strong and wanting to find a way to stop feelings that I find hurtful or damaging,” she says. “In my case, it’s wanting to stop the lies and hypocrisy of the church, the intolerance of many narrow-minded cultures and societies I have experienced throughout my life and in some cases the pain I have felt from having my heart broken.”
She says it’s “very important to me as an artist that my show not be taken out of context.”
“It must be watched with an open heart from beginning to end,” she says in her tour “manifesto.” “I am sure if it is viewed this way, the viewer will walk away feeling inspired, invigorated and will want to make the world a better place. And this, of course, was always my intention.”