Madonna is touring the biggest flop of her career. Released in March, MDNA fell stone dead from the charts like a victim of the grouse-shooting expeditions she went on in her former life as Mrs Guy Ritchie. Co-producer William Orbit later complained she hadn’t spent enough time on the album. With whippersnappers Rihanna and Lady Gaga eyeing her crown as queen of pop, it was a setback she could ill-afford.
One response would be to expunge the wretched MDNA from memory and tour the old hits. But Madonna doesn’t go in for admissions of weakness. She’s an imperious old-school star who recently defended her high ticket prices by commanding the little people – sorry, her fans – to “work all year, scrape the money together, and come to my show. I’m worth it.” Marie Antoinette couldn’t have put it better.
Her MDNA world tour draws much of its set from the flop album. But unlike the source material, no amount of effort has been spared on the stage show, directed by Cirque du Soleil’s Michel Laprise. The songs have been beefed up and the routines were spectacular.
It was a graphic illustration of priorities. Live music is where the money is these days, not records: the first 11 MDNA dates grossed $49.5m. Ticket sales have been slower in the UK: Hyde Park wasn’t sold out. The show also suffered from the venue’s notoriously bad sound quality. But the staging was bold. It began with the sound of a church bell tolling. Enter Madonna hidden in a confessional box, from which she emerged wearing a crown and wielding an assault rifle. The song was “Girl Gone Wild”, thumping dance-pop about clubbing. Moralists who think a 53-year-old woman shouldn’t sing about such matters were defied by flawless moves, tight trousers and a décolletage to cause the Daily Mail Online’s servers to melt down.
Electro-pop and violent imagery continued with “Gang Bang”, set in a motel bedroom where Madonna swigged whisky and shot masked men. “I loved you the most,” she sang between bangs. It was enjoyably lurid escapism – her marital breakdown reimagined as schlocky revenge fantasy, possibly the only language Guy Ritchie understands.
The tone lightened with cheerleader outfits and a vibrant “Express Yourself”. “Vogue” turned the clock back with the reappearance of Jean Paul Gaultier’s famous conical bra; meanwhile other old songs were radically reworked. A Basque trio indulgently turned “Open Your Heart” into an ethno-pop drum-fest (son Rocco joined the dancers on stage) and “Like a Virgin” was magnificently revamped as a torch song.
Live vocals (much of the “singing” was pre-recorded) and the sight of Madonna emoting alone on stage created the artful illusion of intimacy, an aspect of modern celebrity culture that she has struggled to get to grips with.
MDNA’s sole stand-out, “I’m Addicted”, was hamstrung by low volume but “Like a Prayer” brought the set to a rousing gospel climax. The church bell tolled again, before she reappeared to encore with a superbly choreographed “Celebration”. The bell doesn’t toll for Madonna just yet. But another flop like MDNA and it will.