New York--These haven't been the best of times for Madonna.
Over the past 18 months, she's seen her reputation slip from the top of the pops to the bottom of the barrel. First there was her "Sex" book, a bawdy embarrassment that offered fans more of Madonna than most cared to see; then there was her "Erotica" album, which was deemed a commercial disappointment despite its double-platinum sales. And when her film, "Body of Evidence" turned up dead-on-arrival at the box office, well . . . you could almost hear the media buzzards chuckling as they circled overhead.
So when Our Lady of Perpetual Scandal brought her latest production -- a two-hour concert extravaganza dubbed the "Girlie Show" -- to New York's Madison Square Garden Thursday, it was definitely a make-or-break effort.
And Madonna was not about to break.
"New York City made me a survivor," she told the capacity crowd. "New York taught me to take a beating and keep coming back."
"Girlie Show" is quite a comeback, too. Not only does she look stronger and sound better than she has in years, but the show made it clear that she's lost none of her edge or intelligence.
Like Madonna's previous tours, the show featured a large cast -- two back-up singers, 10 dancers and a six-piece band -- as well as an elaborate, multilevel stage. What it doesn't have, though, is a long itinerary; Thursday's show was her American premiere, and one of only five shows she's doing in the United States. (Her third New York show is tomorrow, with the Spectrum in Philadelphia slated for Tuesday, and the Palace at Auburn Hills in Detroit Thursday. All shows sold out within minutes of going on sale).
Why Madonna is so severely limiting her American appearances is hard to say. Granted, the show had its share of sexy fare, including topless dancers and assorted erotic grapplings -- stuff that probably wouldn't play in Peoria.
But it avoids the sex-sodden overkill of her last few projects, and seems unlikely to cause the kind of stink "Sex" did. Madonna keeps her clothes on throughout, baring only her arms and midriff, and the bump-and-grind material is pretty much on par with what you'd find at many R&B; shows these days. On the whole, it's really no more risque than some Broadway shows -- and often just as spectacular.
More to the point, with "Girlie Show," Madonna is back doing what she does best, At its best, "Girlie Show" manipulates the iconography of sexual power with the same canny intelligence that made the videos for "Material Girl" or "Like a Virgin" so memorable.
As usual, "Girlie Show" finds Madonna completely reinventing her act, giving old songs new meaning and -- in some cases -- a totally different sound. Her last tour, for example, cast "Like a Virgin" in Arabian garb, so the song came off looking (and sounding) like an orgy in a seraglio.
Her current take, on the other hand, finds Madonna performing the song in waltz tempo a la Dietrich. It wasn't just that she affected Marlene Dietrich's "Blue Angel" attire of top hat, white tie and tails; she dropped her voice down to a smoky, Dietrichian contralto and affected an accent that turned the chorus phrase into "Like a wirgin/Touched fur der wery furst time." She even closed the performance with a few lines of "Falling in Love Again."
"Express Yourself," on the other hand, was remade as a full-blown homage to the disco '70s, from Madonna's descent to the stage astride an oversized mirror ball to the platforms-and-bell-bottoms look she and her back-up singers (Nikki Harris and Donna DeLory) sported.
From there it was an easy segue to the ultra-disco groove of "Deeper and Deeper," which added her vintage-clad (or semi-clad) dancers to the mix. Presented as a mini-tribute to the sensual excesses of the disco era, it had the fans (the majority of whom were old enough to remember the '70s first-hand) cheering nostalgically -- particularly when the song ended in a group-grope that found Madonna sandwiched between two amorous female dancers (one of whom was topless).
But Madonna made sure there was a point to all the sex play, using that erotic tableau to set up "Why's It So Hard," a heartfelt plea for racial and sexual tolerance. So instead of mindless indulgence, what started out seeming steamy ended up making a deeper point about love and brotherhood.
And, in case anyone misunderstood the consequences of intolerance, Madonna followed "Why's It So Hard" with "In This Life," an AIDS elegy that found her so caught up with emotion that she was blinking back tears by the song's end. It was an enormously moving performance, one made all the more powerful by its juxtaposition against the sexy stuff before it.
But that was typical of the way Madonna redefined her songs in "Girlie Show." Where the video for "Justify My Love" was a salacious sashay through sexual perversity, the "Girlie Show" version made its point more subtly, as Victorian- garbed dancers quietly underscored the distance between social propriety and sexual desire -- and the hypocrisy that often comes with maintaining that distance.
Nor did she make all her points through staging. Madonna just sat and sang for "Rain," and that hardly took away from its gorgeous harmonies. "Everybody" was given a straight, blast-from-the-past treatment that added little elaboration to the melody, though the addition of Sly and the Family Stone's "Everybody Is a Star" to the intro was a nice touch. And while "La Isla Bonita" boasted some great dancing, what really carried the song was the musical chemistry between Madonna and her first-rate backing band.
Admittedly, there were still some doubters in the house. Newsday's Ira Robbins dismissed the show as being "hardly a serious pop music concert," describing the staging as "tasteless" and Madonna's performance as being "anything but live." (Then again, he also insisted that there were seven players in Madonna's six-piece band).
But Madonna is hardly the sort of performer who'd be put off by a few bad reviews. Even though other of her critics have suggested that the best thing Madonna could do right now would be to lay low for a few years, she's having none of it. As she told the fans at Madison Square Garden, "I'll take a vacation when I feel like it, awright?"
Awright, Madonna -- provided that everything you do in the meantime is as great as "Girlie Show."