Yes, there is a portion in the set of Madonna's MDNA tour, where she is singing her 2009 single, "Revolver," and she is blowing away several agile assailants in a bloody mess. But you've seen "Pulp Fiction," so it's really not that shocking. It's just a logical conclusion that the woman who has made a career of inciting controversy would move on from sex to violence. In "Human Nature," her single from 1994, which she expertly wove into the setlist at the Garden last night, she sings, "Oops. Didn't know we couldn't talk about sex," but she might as well have sang, "Oops. Didn't know we couldn't do in a live concert the type of violence we've been seeing in movies for years."
OK, maybe that's too many syllables to fit into the verse, but the show really is about more than just shocking people. It's about bringing cinematic elements to the concert stage with a narrative arc. Maybe her marriage to director Guy Ritchie inspired her.
The dissolution of this union certainly did inspire the songs on "MDNA," with many critics referring to it as her "breakup" album, and she drew heavily from it here, counting for nine of the setlist's 20 songs.
But Madonna is nothing if not challenging, and even when she played the hits, they were drastically different than the familiar versions that put her on the map. Some of these interpretations worked brilliantly, like the piano and violin reading of "Like a Virgin" that led into some breathtakingS&M experimentation. Other re-workings did not fare as well, most disappointingly "Open Your Heart" as a collaboration with Israeli drum trio Kalakan. As Madonna and her dancers pretended to just hang out and sing, this segment of the show felt like Madonna was trying to latch onto the vibe that neo folkies like Mumford and Sons have found success with. But the effort came across like the dancers from "Stomp" choreographing the dance scene from "Titanic" with the stylist from Dexy's Midnight Runners doing the costuming. And the video projection of apples being squashed? Where is she getting her intel from?
Madonna excels when she chooses to express herself using her own formulas. That said, one of the show's more interesting moments came when she wove a chorus of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" into "Express Yourself," which the former song has long been alleged to have ripped off.
The energy on the stage was high the entire night, but the crowd seemed surprisingly subdued until the end of the set. It may have been that there was simply too much to take in on the stage and on the video screen to also dance. Seriously, it's not easy to choose if you'd rather watch a grainy cemetery narrative on the enormous screen or freakishly double-jointed shirtless men in gas masks stretching their arms into all sorts of seemingly impossible positions. Also featured in this multimedia spectacle were a levitating drum choir, enthusiastic cheerleaders, "Eyes Wide Shut"-like robed figures, a melodramatic film about a 1960s couple's troubled romance and choreographed narratives about a hostage situation, a terrorist training camp and a team of slow-motion ninja wrestlers.
It may have also been the pacing that made this show different from the other Madonna visits to the area. The set was so full of new material that the crowd wasn't that familiar with the material. When she said, "Let me hear you motherf-ckers sing!" the crowd cheered like it was 1985 again, but when the song that she wanted the crowd to sing was "Turn Up the Radio," only the faithful knew the words.
But when Madonna brought out a faithful reading of "Like a Prayer," the Garden erupted.