Forty-eight hours after America elected its first black president and California voted to ban gay marriage, Madonna brought her Sticky & Sweet Tour to Dodger Stadium on Thursday for a night of triumph and defiance. One of pop's longest-lived provocateurs, Madonna always has had something to say -- even when she hasn't. (Remember her utterly useless version of "American Pie"?)
Yet like a firefighter or the cast of "Saturday Night Live," the singer is at her best at moments of consequence; she needs life to supply her with a canvas as big as her music wants to be.
Barack Obama's message of change is one that might've been custom-made for Madonna, who has maintained her place in the pop-star firmament not by hewing to a single vision but by regularly arriving at the future slightly ahead of her competitors. Although it's thematically tied to her current "Hard Candy" album, the Sticky & Sweet show, a two-hour multimedia juggernaut with no shortage of technology or textiles, is really designed, as is every Madonna production, to showcase the breadth of her titanic legacy.
As giant onstage video screens flashed iconic images from her past -- bottle-blond material girl, New York City street kid, raven-haired spiritual seeker -- Madonna reveled in her reputation as a flip-flopper.
At the same time, she's spent much of her quarter-century in the limelight hammering away at one central idea: the embrace of all kinds. "We have so much to celebrate," Madonna announced near the end of Thursday's show, the president-elect's face on the stadium screens eliciting huge cheers from the celebrity-studded audience, which included such boldfaced names as Jennifer Lopez, Drew Barrymore, Rick Rubin and Fergie. "There is one little disappointment, though. I'm sorry to hear that Proposition 8 passed. But we will not give up the fight -- never."
Madonna enacted that struggle onstage, both figuratively and literally. During "Die Another Day," two members of her rainbow-coalition dance crew sparred inside a boxing ring, while "She's Not Me" climaxed with Madonna attacking four impostors representing different phases of her career.
Anyone who's had anything unkind to say about the singer's rather ropy physique lately should take into consideration the effects this marathon of physical exertion -- there is also rope-jumping, break-dancing and a treadmill -- must have on a 50-year-old body. Frankly, it's amazing she doesn't look like a strip of beef jerky.
Far away from the political front, Madonna is also currently engaged in a personal battle: her much-discussed divorce from filmmaker Guy Ritchie. Several times Thursday she seemed to allude to the situation, as in "Human Nature," when she unloaded a long list of recriminations including, "You punished me for telling you my fantasies."
At the end of the song Madonna was joined by Britney Spears, one of the show's two surprise guests, who sang along with the headliner as she insisted, in slightly more colorful language, that she's nobody's victim.
Justin Timberlake also appeared for a somewhat perfunctory performance of "4 Minutes," "Hard Candy's" somewhat perfunctory lead single.
Later, Madonna revealed a more vulnerable side of the story during "You Must Love Me," a song from her 1996 film "Evita." Accompanied at the end of a long catwalk by an acoustic Gypsy-music combo, the singer gave her strongest vocal performance of the night.
Then she got back to the business of celebration, segueing from a jubilant, Middle Eastern-accented "Like a Prayer" into an appealingly scrappy electro-punk version of "Ray of Light" that found Madonna bashing away at a quite possibly unplugged electric guitar.
Her closer was "Give It 2 Me," which on "Hard Candy" never gathers much steam but at Dodger Stadium pounded with both authority and abandon. "No one's gonna stop me," Madonna sang, minimizing the distance between a threat and a promise.