Boston's Alternative Source!

Sophisticated ladies
Madonna at the FleetCenter; Destiny’s Child at Tweeter

by Carly Carioli

A few guys dressed like Dropkick Murphys saunter out, smoking, and pick up instruments; sloping metallic post-industrial accents give the stage the look of a Nine Inch Nails concert being thrown on the set of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. And just when you’re beginning to wonder who these people are and what they’ve done with Madonna, she rises gently from the floor on a silent lift. She’s wearing bondage pants and a kilt and her hair is blond and bobbed: I must’ve come to the wrong arena, because surely that’s Deborah Harry. But no, the voice is unmistakable: she’s singing Ray of Light’s " Drowned World/Substitute for Love " with ice and melancholy, like a goth queen preserved in carbonite and just beginning to thaw, the lift ushering her slowly forward now, but she herself not moving. Say what thou wilt, Madonna still knows how to make an entrance.

Just then, a gang of anguished post-nuclear mole men break in and tear up the joint. Madonna segues coolly into Music’s breakneck " Impressive Instant, " catches the rhythm, and starts kicking ass: the black-clad, gas-masked mole men get shoved into submission and decide to become Madonna’s slaves. She celebrates by picking up a Gibson Les Paul for " Candy Perfume Girl, " and the sound she makes with the instrument is so mortifying that a mohawked contortionist lady jumps on stage and tries to rip herself limb from limb. Then, just when the beat flips, a renegade mole man slithers out of the floor and tries to rape the contortionist. That’s about when Madonna takes her guitar solo.

A week ago Monday night at the FleetCenter, Madonna threw the book at her audience: atomic mole men, circus freaks, ninjas, cowboys, pimps, X-rated cartoons, avant-garde fashion. For the haters who said she couldn’t sing, she sang, and sang well. For the skeptics who maintain that people who don’t play instruments aren’t real musicians, she played guitar. For the occasional concertgoer who must be goaded into buying a ticket with promises of Broadway bells and whistles, there was a live-action, high-wire re-enactment of a fight scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. All of this was good. I’m a great fan of Asian b-movie clichés and girls who have just learned how to play guitar and cheap eye-candy spectacle for spectacle’s sake. I’m also a huge fan of Madonna, and there just didn’t seem to be enough of her to go around.

But I’m old-fashioned. I remember a time before the invention of the cone bra when Madonna was not yet some arty abstraction of sex and fame and pop — when she was still the genuine article, when she looked so good it hurt to look and her songs on the radio made your teeth and stomach ache. The last time I saw her perform live, her hit was " Who’s That Girl? " And that’s the question I kept asking myself last week, costume change after costume change, production number after production number: ¿Quién es esa niña? And does anyone care anymore?

Still, when the queen of pop comes to town after an eight-year hiatus, you don’t ask questions: you beg, borrow, or sell the family jewels to get in and hope for the best. And Madonna’s lustily received Drowned World Tour, which includes her first zero-G flying dropkicks and her first song about patricidal cannibalism, isn’t half bad. She wore all her favorite masks of late: runway-model punk rocker, samurai concubine, rhinestone cowgirl, gringa bad-ass. And though none of these disguises could quite conceal lingering traces of self-doubt, she wore the daylights out of all of them.

For the Drowned World Tour, Madonna has essentially signed on to play herself in a musical based loosely on her last two albums. The highlights, for me, came in between production numbers, in the scant moments when Madonna took the microphone, faced the crowd, and sang. Acting, it has been noted, is not her strongest suit; but she still does a better Madonna than just about anyone. It’s not an easy part, though, and for vast portions of her performance, the incessant drama being staged around her served only to frame a small and curious girl whose once-legendary charisma lay caged and dormant.

When she tried to rock-and-roll — backed by a couple of drummers, a guitarist, and a guy doubling on keyboards and bass — you could sense a flicker of connection. But even then she appeared too caught up in the work of hitting her cues to venture any significant emotional capital. Even when you counted the obligatory " Fuck you, motherfuckers! " at the end of " Candy Perfume Girl, " she was subdued and mechanical. Rock and roll requires a singer to make herself up from moment to moment; Madonna, though she may be an expert on self-reinvention and the innovator of the makeover-as-artform, is far too scripted a creature to allow for such uncertainties.

Don’t get me wrong, it was pleasant to see what she’s been up to in all her spare time. She’s been brushing up on foreign languages (reprising her B-side-only en español version of " What It Feels like for a Girl " and offering up a stripped-down calypso version of " La Isla Bonita " ), picking up the odd lethal martial art or three, getting cozy with firearms, goin’ to the rodeo (on the world’s happiest, if least menacing, mechanical bull), and writing goofy country songs. After displaying her talent with the latter — on a tune referred to in her set list as " The Funny Song " about killing her father and eating him — Madonna announced, in a rare moment of speaking directly to the audience, " See? You can do anything you want, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise! " It was a fantastic Martha Stewart moment, and it made me want to run right out and write a nine-hour Chinese opera about Hank Williams.

So she ditched her greatest hits. Fine and well — she’s always been a champion of the ephemeral, a pirouette skater on the thin ice of dance-floor trend and tribulation. The set list she played was nearly as vital in its time as any she has taken on the road. Perhaps I’m spoiled by rock and roll, and by the illusory notion that from a musical performance one should be able to intuit some inner working of the figure on stage. Madonna plays a different game, having long ago learned a magic trick called celebrity that goes like this: the more you show, the less you reveal.

The inaugural version of MTV’s TRL tour drew orchards of bared navels to the Tweeter Center last Friday. This is the audience I remembered from having seen Madonna half a lifetime ago: young and restless, prone to pandemonium, eager in its emulation. I arrived just in time to catch Nelly and his St. Lunatics crew steal the show, on a set boasting nothing more sophisticated than a few four-wheeled ATVs and a sweat-towel distribution program worthy of Elvis himself.

The main event was a headlining slot by Destiny’s Child, a front for the starpower of the luminous Beyoncé Knowles. For part one of their performance — we’ll call it the swimsuit competition — the trio emerged from a ring of fire clad in bits of gold lamé and ripped right into their hits: " Independent Women, Part I, " spiced with a touch of dancehall reggae; " No No No, " with Beyoncé stretching out her thighs and her vocal cords while the other two gamely tried to follow her lead; " Bills Bills Bills, " enlivened with the help of some new-model version of the Solid Gold dancers; and " Say My Name, " which found the three voguing on a moonlit couch, as in the song’s video, which played behind them.

Knowles’s voice is church-schooled and pop-savvy, and her tendency to over-sing is far less annoying than listening to Mariah’s broadband birdcage tweet or Christina’s talent-show swoops. If Destiny did not quite evoke Tina Turner on their vamp of " Proud Mary, " it was only the fault of their live band. In the digital era of black pop, it’s unusual to find a group so dedicated to analog treats — only their backing vocals, as far as I could tell, were on tape — and to be fair, Destiny’s five-piece backing outfit was cloying only when it bit into the more coarse clichés of the ’80s-vintage R&B wedding band.

In part two the trio emerged in flowing white dresses and sang ballads; Kelly Rowland did their new " The Story of Beauty, " Michelle Williams got stuck with " Ooh Child, " and then Beyoncé absolutely trounced ’em with an overbearingly beautiful " Dangerously in Love. " One began to feel sorry for the other two. But good feeling was restored with a couple of bravura a cappella verses of the gospel standard " Jesus Loves Me. " In truth, Destiny’s showcase had a bit more sanctimony than secular children could be expected to stand for, and some of them had already begun to drift home. Then on to the third and final section, in which the trio trotted out in red, white, and blue for a Rocky III–like " Survivor " that felt suddenly anticlimactic. The hippy-dippy Radio Disney pop of " Happy Face " sealed it — the anticlimax, that is — and at least a few yellow happy-face balloons fell on empty seats. Destiny’s children had left the building.

Issue Date: August 16 - 23, 2001