Madonna: sticky, sweet, and never better

In honor of Madonna’s imminent tour, Comcast’s Xfinity offered viewers free access for a limited time to watch the 2008-09 Sticky and Sweet Tour, and I took advantage of the opportunity. Filmed in Buenos Aires, the show featured Madonna at her pinnacle of artistry and showmanship. She has never been better, and it’s going to be a challenge for her to top that achievement with the upcoming tour that commences May 31. The Sticky and Sweet Tour was commercially successful, despite being panned by many critics (as was the album Hard Candy that served as the basis for the tour) and negative comments posted by many who saw the tour. Nevertheless, it was the highest grossing tour of 2008 and second highest of 2009.

Madonna is an easy target for critics, but her achievement as a pop icon is extraordinary: the world’s top-selling female recording artist of all time according to Guinness World Records, one of the top 25 most powerful women of the 20th century according to Time, and a successful 30-year career making popular music in an industry that usually discards artists after a handful of records. Although her roots are in a style of music that is perhaps the most disposable of all forms — dance music — she has created some deep, enduring work. The album Erotica is an artistic masterpiece. I consider “Vogue,” with its uncharacteristic shift in the refrain from major to minor and its spoken word breakdown, to be one of the the best dance-oriented tunes ever. And “What It Feels Like For a Girl” is a deeply satisfying union of music and lyrics that addresses something deeper than pop’s usual fare of love and “get out on the dance floor.”

In the Sticky and Sweet Tour, Madonna looked like she was finally enjoying herself onstage for the first time. Her singing was confident and strong in the acoustic set from Evita and the gutsy choice to sing an a cappella version of “Like a Virgin,” having lost the trembling quality evident in past performances. You didn’t have the sense that she was counting during the dance numbers, and at 50 she ably kept up with the cadre of dancers around her. The structure and production of the concert was impressive, focusing on her dance-music roots but successfully blending hip-hop and rock in a way that she has never attempted before. Old hits were reimagined in creative ways: a rock-out version of “Borderline” featuring Madonna on guitar, a medley of “La Isla Bonita” and the gypsy wedding tune “Lela Pala Tute” with the Ukrainian Kolpakov Trio, and remixed versions of “Vogue” and “Like a Prayer.” The energy of the concert followed an emotional arc that was impeccably crafted, with no dull spots.

One of the highlights was “She’s Not Me,” a clever rip on Madonna imitators. She approaches four women dressed in iconic images from her career and snatches off their gloves, veils and wigs. The lyrics are ostensibly about a woman who’s lost her lover to a rival, but the choreography offered a humorous counterpoint. She could have been referring to Gwen Stefani or Lady Gaga, or any of the imitators who have come and gone.

The concert actually made me re-evaluate her recent music from Confessions on a Dance Floor and Hard Candy. Madonna has always had a knack for choosing producers and collaborators who have brought out the best in her and kept her on the cutting edge of pop/dance. Most contemporary music in this genre is terrible, but Madonna stands head and shoulders above the crowd.

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