On a night that would ultimately end in the sobering news of David Bowie’s unfortunate death, Madonna delivered a spectacular performance with elaborate set and costume designs.
Approximately 15,100 loyal subjects and devotees steadily filed into the AT&T Center on Sunday night to see Madonna: the generational-transcendent, undisputed Empress, Queen or whatever exalted title of Pop you can summon in your mind.
Sunday evening DJ Mary Mac opened the show with deep, penetrating-but-poignant beats. The DJ hoisted up the excitement to a level where Madonna could literally take a bow, before even revealing her face. This, despite a long lull between the DJ’s and Madonna’s actual performance, was remedied by Michael Jackson’s “Wannabe Startin’ Somethin’” bumping at level 10 immediately before her set began around 11 p.m. The crowd sang in near unison.
When Madonna finally emerged from a cage, the crowd exploded with disbelief and excitement. Flanked by a vanguard of sentries, she sauntered up and down the cross-shaped runway that split the crowd and culminated in the shape of a heart. Waves of rolling, ear piercing screams by girls and boys of all ages stunned nearby audience members.
Mike Tyson’s image consumed the video-wall while the Queen preached revolution, setting a hypnotic tone for the remainder of the evening.
Nicki Minaj then surfaced in the next song, demonstrating Madonna’s versatility with a nod to hip hop, and full understanding of the dynamism of what pop actually means.
Madonna then arrived in the center of the audience playing 80’s hair-rock-flavored, Guitar Hero-esque licks on a Flying V.
When “Vogue” played, the set design was steeped in taboo religious symbolism as scantily clad nuns in high-heels encircled Madonna with each step. A harpsichord evoked an odd semblance of being in Queen Elizabeth’s court.
On the first wardrobe change, a mesmerizing dance sequence ensued, as a floating white ribbon in the wind seemed to take on a ghastly life of its own while a dancer synchronized his movements with mirroring images of a nebulous galactic explosion on a tilted screen. Perfectly harmonized.
We then entered a 1950s automotive shop. Chains, used tires, gas cans, toolboxes and the front end of a late model vehicle were strewn about the stage. Madonna then switched to an acoustic rendition of “True Blue” with crowd sing-along encouraged.
I began to understand her multi-dimensional perspective on pop as house music played in the background, balanced again by acoustic rhythm guitar, then finally conclusively overwhelmed by deep 808 kick beats rumbling the entire building, while images of old jukeboxes and 12″ vinyls scrolled across the video wall.
As the evening evolved, a spiral staircase descended from the ceiling into the middle of the runway’s heart. The Queen again held court from 25 feet in the air, singing while a snare roll of a beat backed her vocals. As the song reached a crescendo she pushed a fellow male dancer off the top of the spiral staircase as she slowly descended without remorse.
“No one f**cks with the Queen,” Madonna said.
“Like a Virgin” played and the crowd erupted yet again as she took to the runway, ascending and descending with the rising circular stage below her.
Ominously, an intro to her MTV-banned “Justify My Love” began to play while lyrics and sensual dance painted pictures of amorous debauchery on four beds slanted upstage at a 45-degree angle.
The profligacy continued as women dressed as matadors escorted the Queen back to her throne, her long purple cloak trailing behind her.
Electronica played an integral role in the entire set, temporarily transforming the AT&T Center into the largest night club in the state of Texas on Sunday night.
Monte Pittman, Madonna’s backing guitarist, then filled the arena with the warm ambience of Spanish guitar while percussionists supplied the beats in calavera-adorned jackets for “La Isla Bonita.”
Male and female performers danced with spanish guitar in the background of “Dress You Up.” Vibrant colors of peacock blue, infinite floral patterns moved the evening to “Into the Groove” with kaleidoscopic, impressionistic watercolor on the video wall. A brief transition to “Lucky Star” then back again to “Dress You Up.”
Never deterred, she exercised her lifelong, precocious, sassy style in her assertion that it’s her “job to put everyone their place.”
No one is immune from the love or scorn of the Queen, as a dancer celebrating her 29th birthday bent over Madonna’s lap, while the troupe gave her 29 spanks.
When the song “Music” came on, the feel immediately turned into cabaret. Center stage wearing a fedora, Madonna sang “Deep in the Heart of Texas” with the crowd. And just in case we forgot, Madonna again mentioned how her “Sh** is raw.”
A personal favorite moment of mine occurred when Madonna walked the runway covered in rhinestones, ironically wearing a wedding veil, eventually throwing her bouquet into the crowd to decide who will marry her. Graciously unimpressed with the selection, she declined in the end.
Madonna then moved into an acoustic rendition of “La Vie en Rose” singing in French and once again allowed the crowd to participate in backing vocals.
The encore concluded perfectly by going back to the beginning of her catalog with “Holiday.”
Kudos to Spurs Sports & Entertainment and Live Nation for booking this show, especially in the wake of San Antonio losing the Adele show to C3 Presents in Austin – at an even smaller venue, the Frank Erwin Center. San Antonio needs high profile shows like these every chance we can get and it’s the opportunity and responsibility that largely rests with SS&E to make it happen consistently.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll acknowledge a possible bias toward Madonna here, noting the lawsuit I filed against the record label the artist originally formed. But the reality is that even after three years, tens of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees, and loss of my own time, I could never overshadow the prolific impact Madonna has had on the music industry – and her fans for the past five decades.
This Bay City, Mich. native has generated continuous cultural pop relevancy and is unrivaled by any other woman in the music business, sans Dolly Parton. Critics may smear her vocal capabilities, range, and controversial actions, but her work ethic, ambition, and perseverance have fortified her place in music history, injecting her catalog into the cross-generational ambit of superpop even when she isn’t actually forging the genre herself. Regardless of your opinion of her, it’s these latter attributes from which every young woman or man can observe and learn.
Five decades without any end in sight, Madonna maintains the throne of continuity in pop culture dominance. She has accomplished this as a woman in an industry that’s even more unforgiving to females historically and still today.
She achieved this status in a male-dominated environment, surrounded by an atmosphere of depraved, elitist chauvinism: in effect, overcoming public criticism unknown to her male counterparts. It’s a challenge that forced her to knock down doors that didn’t and don’t open as easily for women as they do for men in the music business. Female artists of today, as well as those to come, all pay homage. Without her, the concept of a pop princess wouldn’t exist.
As Madonna’s legacy continues, just remember when she isn’t on center stage at her own show, her works buttress every career and stage of current female performers out there across all spectrums. Mylie, Britney, Beyoncé, M. I. A., and Taylor all owe a debt of gratitude to her Highness. Depending on your perspective, we can either love or hate Madonna, because of it.