Madonna's immaterial social statement

Times Staff Writer

Message to Madonna: Bring back the sex.

Or at least something with flesh and blood, please.

In launching her world tour Monday at the Forum, Madonna traded most of the old sexual teasing for social commentary, and she's no John Lennon, friends -- even though she sang Lennon's "Imagine" at one point in the relatively short (105 minutes) set, and showed his photo on a video screen high above her.

It's fair enough to use a Lennon song and image to articulate your feelings about brotherhood and world peace, but on Monday it underscored the gap between the passion, insight and anger of his work and the relative timidity and obviousness of her own social vision.

There was a time, probably around that "Sex" coffee table book in the early '90s, that the last thing we wanted from this pop provocateur was more sexual imagery.

Still, there was something liberating, even revolutionary, about the way Madonna became the first mainstream female pop star since Tina Turner to flaunt her sexuality so freely. She played teasing mind games with her audience about breaking down sexual taboos in ways normally limited to such male pop stars as Prince and David Bowie.

In her aggressive "boy toy" role, Madonna found the perfect vehicle for expressing the self-affirmation that was at the heart of the dance-floor celebration of her early hits. She also touched, memorably at times, on youthful insecurities about sex and relationships.

For better or worse, she opened a door for a generation of Madonna babes, including Britney and Christina.

Madonna may feel her political move is equally trailblazing, but it felt labored much of the evening at the Forum, reflecting little of the daring and clarity of Sinead O'Connor, Ani DiFranco and Patti Smith, to mention just a few female artists.

This tour promised to be Madonna's tour de force, a reappraisal that put her work in new and revealing contexts. But time and again Monday she fell short of the challenge.

If we thought President Bush, her clear foe in much of the production, often has problems with clarity, Madonna proved surprisingly vague in stating her case -- aside from the general notion of "love thy neighbor."

When she declared, in effect, that she doesn't believe in material girls anymore, in the song "American Girl," it was an affecting piece of superstar self-inventory. There was a trace of both humility and vulnerability in the 2003 song's statement about succumbing to false values and goals, as she questioned her own quest for stardom at any price.

I tried to stay ahead

I tried to stay on top

I tried to play the part

But somehow I forgot

Just what I did it for

On stage, however, her vocals lost the personal, human qualities of the song as she expanded the number into an indictment of the country's values, using supporting video imagery to state her case.

As Madonna and a battalion of dancers moved about in military fatigues, video screens showed scenes of menacing helicopters overhead, bombs dropping, children being killed. In one scene, actors portrayed Bush and Saddam Hussein in a provocative embrace.

But the daring was fleeting.

Madonna stayed in the military garb for "Express Yourself," a 1989 hit that defined her "be all you can be" philosophy. But the imagery was so cloudy you didn't know what she was urging the audience to express -- opposition to Bush's politics or support for the troops (she made a big point of that last year when she shelved her video for "American Life," fearing its war imagery might be misinterpreted).

Then she went into "Material Girl," taking us full circle, possibly aiming for irony but playing it so straight that it felt simply like dusting off an old hit.

This opening sequence was all the more disappointing because Madonna, whose instincts on stage have been pretty much unerring to this point, seemed ready to take another important step as an artist.

While her provocation and video images seemed more important than her music in the '80s and much of the '90s, she began catching up as a writer and especially a singer in "Ray of Light," the 1998 album that examined her life and goals with surprising candor and perspective.

This "Re-Invention Tour" seemed the perfect vehicle for extending that move. She could give us new insights into old songs and tell us more about her feelings these days.

There were some moments when she led the cheering crowd through some of the old dance-floor celebration, but most of the attempts to move forward felt like lost opportunities.

There was little of the desired intimacy during a long acoustic set; a lack of connection when she was strapped into an electric chair during "Lament," from "Evita"; and no new emotional shading to "Papa Don't Preach," even though so much has changed in her own life, including marriage and a family, since that song went to No. 1 in 1986. Her numerous dancers seemed to go through their motions with little excitement or dazzle.

Time and again, the emotion and commentary of the evening came from the videos rather than the music, with one touching scene showing Israeli and Palestinian boys walking together in peace. Her band supported her with a steady but sometimes anonymous beat.

Madonna did share spiritual feelings, showing a giant picture of Christ on the screens during the anxious childhood memories of "Mother and Father," and wearing a "Kabbalists Do It Better" T-shirt during another number.

By the end of the night, you certainly had the feeling Madonna has been inspired and liberated by the comfort of faith and relationships in recent years. In trying to share that comfort and inspiration with her fans, however, Madonna fell short.



Where: The Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood

When: Thursday, 8 p.m.

Price: $90-$300

Contact: (310) 419-3100


Where: Arrowhead Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim

When: June 2-3, 8 p.m.

Price: $45-$300

Contact: (714) 704-2500

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday May 27, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction Madonna -- The review of Madonna's concert at the Forum in the Calendar section on Wednesday misidentified the song "American Life" as "American Girl."
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