Evidence of Madonna's iconic status was as easy to spot as roots among the bottle blondes outside the First Union Center in Philadelphia the night of the U.S. debut of her "Drowned World" tour. Gay men strutted around in material boY T-shirts, mall rats in "Like a Virgin"-era lace guzzled beer from brown paper bags, and everyone from grandparents to toddlers shimmied in the parking lot's "Fan Zone" as a P.A. system blared early hits like "Lucky Star."
Inside, however, Madonna aggressively thwarted any attempts at hero worship -- and even at times her audience's expectations -- with a show that offered few hits and even a few literal "fuck yous" directed at her fans: She greeted the audience not with "Hello, Philadelphia!" but "Fuck off, motherfuckers!," and she shouted to a video clip of Austin Powers that "you can fuck off, too!" before launching into "Beautiful Stranger." On the surface, it seemed a brave move, especially considering that her eighties contemporaries like U2 are crisscrossing the country on victory-lap tours that all but cater to audience whims.
Yet if that was Madonna's nod to punk rock's antipathy toward the audience -- complete with a bondage outfit and a T-shirt that read mother on the front and fucker on the back -- limp ballads like "I Deserve It" and "Nobody's Perfect" didn't live up to her attitude. And that was only the first of four sections, dubbed "Rock 'n' Roll Punk Girl," "Geisha Girl," "Cyber Cowgirl," and "Spanish Girl/ Ghetto Girl." All aimed for highbrow abstraction with obtuse choreography but conveyed their sources (in order, Vivienne Westwood, Ang Lee, J. G. Ballard by way of Dolly Parton, and a flamenco-crazy Jennifer Lopez) without much reinterpretation. And the cowgirl skit soured into contempt with "The Funny Song," a Hee Haw-crude country-and-western send-up about domestic violence.
There were a few stunning visual moments -- particularly a pair of dancers unfurling the 26-foot-long sleeves of Madonna's kimono during "Frozen." But none captured the sense of purpose of past tours like "Blonde Ambition," the early nineties polysexual free-for-all that gleefully mocked eighties prudishness. And none captured the garish humor that makes her so iconic in the first place, from her roll on the floor in a wedding dress at the MTV Video Music Awards to her ludicrously camp bed-humping during "Blonde Ambition." Madonna is a frustratingly small stage presence, too, mostly standing motionless or strumming rudimentary chords on an acoustic guitar; she was overshadowed by acrobatic dancers and clips from her own videos.
The music was equally airless, a shock given that the show's musical director is Stuart Price, a British electronica wunderkind known for upending dance-music conventions. His own sense of daring escaped only near the end of the show -- with a version of "Holiday" that mixed in the silky retro-disco sound of the club hit "Music Sounds Better With You" and a performance of "Music" that spliced in beats from Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express." The show's all-too-abrupt end was, inadvertently, its truest punk moment. As Johnny Rotten himself once said, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
In Brief: Advertisements for R&B ingenue Aaliyah's second album, Aaliyah, depict the singer as an anime goddess, lithe and ready to take on any cartoon villain. At least it's truth in advertising: The album has all the human warmth of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider or Final Fantasy. With such thin singing and unimaginative songwriting (getting off and breaking up are about it in terms of subject matter), Timbaland's outré production -- even the thrilling mix of laconic beats, handclaps, and eerie strings of "We Need A Resolution" -- can't mask his muse's shallowness.
A far better application of production prowess is Phatt Life, from Phatt Pussycatt (a moniker for New Jersey house-music producer Romanthony). Acknowledging the anonymity of front women Kit and Kat, Romanthony is freed up to explore everything from sublimely weird break beats ("Without U") to raucous Prince-styled rock ("Get Yo' Love").
The "Drowned World" Tour.
July 21 at First Union Center, Philadelphia.