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[whitespace] Control Freak

Madonna's Drowned World Tour is so prepackaged, shows how pompous she has become

By Gina Arnold

I USED TO have contempt for any critic who tried to snag a band's set list before the show began. Among other things, it seemed like a sure-fire way of negating one's position at a newspaper: after all, what constitutes a critic's expertise, other than recognizing the songs and criticizing the actual performance?

I remember being particularly irked by various critics around the country who were sneaking around backstage at Lollapalooza looking for set lists--the idea being that if you knew what songs the band was going to play, you could leave the show early, or at the very least not pay attention.

Once, in a fit of pique, I convinced the manager of the band Front 242 to put fake titles on its set list--but sadly, the beret-wearing rock critic who took the bait didn't mention that band in his review.

In olden times, even the rumor that a critic left a show before the last note of feedback sounds was grounds for dismissal. But things have changed a lot in recent years, and for Madonna's Drowned World Tour, her publicity department sent out set lists with the press tickets. The consequences were dire--and immediate.

While standing in line for a weenie before Wednesday's show in Oakland, a critic I know admitted he'd already filed his story. "I've fallen into an ethical black hole," he said cheerily, citing the fact that his story had an early deadline as a justification for this perfidy.

Well, technically he should be struck from the ranks of critics forever. But considering the state of modern arena concerts, you can hardly blame him. Not only did he have the set list in his possession, but he'd also seen the whole thing on HBO, and the show was totally canned: every note, every move, choreographed to the nth degree.

Indeed, there are parts of Madonna's show that are so choreographically complex that had they deviated for one second, someone would surely have gotten hurt. Plus, as one person put it, the computers that run the music were on "slave drive," meaning that the show would power relentlessly on to its finish no matter what Ms. M and her dancers were doing. I think Madonna said one spontaneous thing all night: "Don't throw your shit at me" when someone beaned her with a teddy bear.

All this prefabricated stuff might not be a problem for Madonna, whose whole career is about being in complete control. But it creates psychological problems for people other than critics tempted to cheat. I had two spare tickets to the concert, and I couldn't get rid of them because everyone I knew had seen the show on TV.

Even worse, however, is the feel of a canned show--particularly this one. It's stiff as a board--beautiful to look at, but emotional cement. Eleven years ago, on her Blonde Ambition tour, Madonna was downright fun. Now, for some reason, she takes herself deadly serious.

The truth is Madonna has gotten bloody pompous in her old age. Every song she sang was as heavy as lead, with her professing some kind of weighty meaning. She's not exactly Nietzsche, a friend of mine snorted, as video images of religious conversations flashed on the screen during the otherwise lightweight number "Secret." But apparently she thinks she is.

She certainly seemed to be trying to make some grand philosophical point--but what that point was was entirely unclear. Why, for example, was she appropriating the safer parts of punk, dressing herself and her band like stylized punk rockers in bondage kilts and gas masks? Why did she say, "Fuck you, motherfuckers!" at the end of the number "Candy Perfume Girl"? Few things are less punk than Madonna's music, and the juxtaposition is just strange.

Why be a cybercowboy? Why dance flamenco? Why dress like a mack daddy and tell the crowd to yell "pimp!" and "ho!" at one another? We know how down with the people Madonna is, but can't the woman let a single trend go by without incorporating it into her act? Is that too much to ask?

FOR SOME REASON, the Asian-inspired portions of her program worked best, but the violent content was rather unfortunate. The scenes included several depictions of rape, including an anime one, also a lengthy sequence wherein Madonna is threatened and molested by a sword-wielding samurai whom she subsequently kills with a rifle.

There were numerous other images of brutality, including four naked men hanging upside down by their ankles, a la Hieronymus Bosch, a female dancer being beaten and possibly killed by a man in a gas mask, and more. The point of these scenes was quite unclear. Mere shock value? Or was it all about freedom of expression? A comment on violence against women? Or just what Madonna considers sexy?

Granted, there were some beautiful images in the show as well, like the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" sequence. The irony was, all the lavish dance expertise notwithstanding, that the best moments of the show were still just the ones with the best songs: "Ray of Light," "Secret," "La Isla Bonita," "Holiday" and "Music."

The last two numbers--essentially the encore--were great, but they made me sad. When the superupbeat opening chords to "Holiday" began, I suddenly recalled what was good about Madonna. Her music used to be so gay and lighthearted, so good-humored, so inspirational.

Now, in the guise of being "serious," it is as dour and depressing as a rainy day in Glasgow, and every song has the same damn tempo and four-note range. People paid 100 bucks a pop for this?

If this show had been someone's introduction to Madonna, they'd probably wonder what the fuss was about, but during the song "Music," there was a montage of images of Madonna's previous incarnations: Desperately Seeking Susan, the Material Girl, the voguer, the New Ager, the ghetto superstar--her career as a whole is certainly impressive.

That didn't stop me from pulling the set list out of my pocket, noting that "Music" was the last number, gathering my stuff together and heading for the door a few minutes before the finale. Not a good comment on the Drowned World Tour.

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From the September 13-19, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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