From Madonna, a new palatability but still spicy...
Madonna has stopped trying to top herself. Yes, The Girlie Show, her current touring spectacle, does include bumping and grinding, polymorphous caresses and couplings, crotch-grabbing, four-letter words, some Bible recitation and a bare-breasted female dancer. But after the proudly uningratiating Blond Ambition tour in 1990, not to mention the Sex book last year, The Girlie Show tweaks fewer taboos.
Despite the naughty bits, most of the two-hour show is devoted to repositioning Madonna from trend-spotter to part-time nostalgia merchant, and from titillating novelty act to all-around entertainer. With Blond Ambition, she was pop's least flirtatious sex symbol; in The Girlie Show, which started its three-night stand at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, she's likable again. Like innumerable other entertainers, Madonna proselytizes for universal love. She makes simply clear that her idea of love is carnal and pansexual as well as warmhearted.
It's her own achievement, or her fault, that the shock value has abated. Same-sex embraces, women pretending to be men, Madonna sliding a whip between her legs: all they prove by now is that Madonna's sexual imagination hasn't hurdled the conventions of soft-core pornography. When her dance troupe acts out the suggestions in her songs, like the ethereal "Put your hands all over my body" in "Erotica," the choreography suggests exercise rather than unbridled passion.
Its aside, The Girlie Show recognizes the diminishing returns of explicitness. The sensual insinuations of "Justify My Love" are delivered by performers in mock-Victorian costumes; Madonna holds a lorgnette. And the show's finale is downright wholesome, with the troupe in denim and white tops, inviting the audience to dance to "Everybody." It's just a good-time song-and-dance revue, not a provocation.
The Girlie Show does have some pretensions, signified by its prelude and postlude ("Tears of a Clown" and "Be a Clown") and by a white-masked Pierrot figure who pops up regularly. The message: clowns (pop entertainment) can be sad (or profound). But the pleasures of The Girlie Show are superficial: catchy songs, kinetic dance rhythms, toned bodies in motion (10 total dancers, including two backup singers) and playful Dolce & Gabbana costumes.
Songs from Madonna's most recent album, Erotica, account for nearly half of the show. For the album, released in 1992, Madonna and her producers concocted atmospheric, decadent, danceable grooves, the sound of twilight-zone clubs in an after-hours haze. On stage, the music isn't so resolutely contemporary. With a live band, directed by Jai Winding on keyboards, the music looks back to Motown (quoting "Just My Imagination" in "Rain"), girl groups and James Brown.
Madonna sings just enough solo to prove she's not lip-synching, though many of her vocals are shared (and masked) by either backup singers or tapes. But the concert isn't about Madonna's merely adequate vocal skills; as usual, it's about attitude and spectacle.
The core of the show takes place in a disco stage setting with glittering Mylar curtains and mirrored balls. Madonna and the dancers, wearing wildly patterned neo-1970's halters and bell-bottoms, romp through "Express Yourself" and "Deeper and Deeper" - songs about freeing desire - followed by "Why's It So Hard," a Marvin Gaye-style plea for tolerance accompanied by gestures of yearning out of Alvin Ailey. Alone and teary-faced, Madonna sings "In This Life," an elegy for friends who died of AIDS. Then, from off-stage, over reverent sustained chords from the band, she recites from the Book of Revelations (including condemnations of "fornicators" and "idolators") while the troupe mimes couplings and brawls. It's an ambiguous sequence, mourning the sexual freedom of the pre-AIDS 1970's, then hinting at Biblical retribution.
Like other revue-makers, Madonna has delved into the image bank of old movies. That's not new for her, not after her Marilyn Monroe phase, but now there's no twist. "Rain," her current single, arrives with an umbrella-twirling dance and synthesizing playing "Singin' in the Rain." For "Like A Virgin," she puts on top hat and tails and imitates Marlene Dietrich, complete with growly voice and German accent.
"I'm Going Bananas," from the soundtrack to Dick Tracy, is a 1930's novelty number, with Judy Holliday/Betty Boop/Cyndi Lauper-ish vocals. Representing the 1950's, she re-makes "Fever." And in "Holiday," performed by Madonna and dancers in military-style greatcoats, acting like a drill team, there's even a touch of John Philip Sousa. She also appropriates James Brown's time-honored keep-on-dancing finale.
Part of Madonna's gift for self-promotion has been her ability to grab archetypes, harnessing others' star power to her own (and then, in "Vogue," to make posing sound like self-affirmation). But her latest borrowings look as random as a variety show, and they don't resonate. Except for "Fever," which she updates with modern lasciviousness, they're mimicry without an edge. This way lies Las Vegas, where Madonna would never have been entirely out of place. There, she wouldn't be burned with the expectations she has raised.