At 9:35 p.m., the follow spot operators get into position, strapped into their pods high above the stage, seemingly an indication that things are about to begin. 9:50 p.m., a gentleman emerges to test a wireless microphone, walking the perimeter of the triangular catwalk that jutted out into the capacity crowd of 20,000. 9:52 p.m., another mic test. And another. And then another. And another. No, seriously. Another. He took his microphone testing stroll, and quite the relaxed stroll it was, as many as 10 times. Still no Madonna.
With the time at 10:15 p.m. on a weeknight, the first “bull-shit” chants ring out. Bull. Shit. Bull. Shit. Bull. Shit. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” says the guy behind me. “She has until 10:30, and then we’re out of here.” The subject of refunds emerges on Twitter. At 10:23 p.m., the full-on “boos” begin while the neighbor to my right shows me her ticket and points out, “$355 per ticket,” with her companion adding that this was after paying to join the fan club just to gain access to the pre-sale. “She forgot she’s in Philly. They boo Santa Claus here.” The boos roar.
At 10:24 p.m., just like that, the house lights drop. The boos become raging cheers. And the Wells Fargo Center is transformed into a cathedral, with stained glass images and religious iconography on the high-def backdrop screens, a giant, smoking incense ball swinging out over the audience, and a cast of cloaked, chanting monk-like characters who seem to be preparing for some incantation or virgin sacrifice. Who knows which? It was at this point when some of Madonna’s more fair-weather fans from the ’80s, hoping to hear a string of hits from that era, must have wondered, “What they hell have I gotten myself into?”
And from there, a breathlessly choreographed and hyper-produced show played out. Much like Roger Waters’s The Wall performance at Citizens Bank Park in July, the Madonna show transcended the standard “concert experience” and was as much over-the-top, scripted theatrical spectacle as it was pop concert.
Pillars and platforms rise out of the stage. Madonna is up. Then she’s down. Then she’s up again. Then she’s doing a back dive into the arms of her dancers. Shirtless men in black tights and sparkly glitter heels writhe. Before you realize that she’s left the stage, she’s back, only in an entirely new costume.
Then come the guns. Madonna with a gun. Six sexpot Bond gals with guns. Big guns. Small guns. Machine guns. Madonna sings, Auto-Tuned out the wazoo, as she clobbers would-be assassins. Then she grinds her crotch against the barrel of a shotgun and takes a swig from a shiny flask.
Suddenly, there’s a cheap motel room in the middle of the stage, and Madonna is in bed—with a gun, of course. The songs aren’t as good these days, but who cares? Madonna’s in bed, and she’s blowing away some guy as huge blood splatters fill the screens. “Bang, bang, shot you dead, shot my lover in the head,” she sings. In Europe, Madonna was criticized for all this guns, gore and violence. But this is Philadelphia in the United States of America. We are armed and dangerous. And so is she. And we love it.
What’s that? An assassin being lowered on a rope from a helicopter? Ha! She takes him out. Boom! A ninja with nun chucks pops out of a hole in the stage. Sorry, dude. You are no match for Madonna. Again and again she’s attacked. “Die, bitch, die!” she sings. “If you gonna act like a bitch, you gonna die like a bitch.”
Then she’s crawling around on the grounding singing “Papa Don’t Preach” as men in Army fatigues tie her up. But moments later, she’s tightrope walking. No. Really. Madonna is tightrope walking.
And hey, Madonna, why don’t you change into some six-inch stilettos and play the electric guitar? Done.
Seamless duet with a pre-recorded Nicki Minaj? Got it. “There’s only one queen,” advises Minaj. “And that’s Madonna.” Damn skippy.
But wait, Madonna. What if you and your dancers all put on some sexy marching band outfits and you sing “Express Yourself” while a drum corps plays from 50 feet in the air? Easy.
And we are only 30 minutes into the show.
Around the 45-minute mark, she took an opportunity to say she was sorry:“It’s so good to be back home, and I want to apologize for being late. We had many changes to make from Europe to America, and I wanted the show to be perfect for you because my fans deserve it and quite frankly I deserve it. This is the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed. We are in the land of democracy. We started the word, motherfuckers. Well, actually, some Greeks did, but … In my country, we have freedom of speech, freedom of expression, even though it’s far from perfect. But in Moscow, there are three girls in jail. Yes, free Pussy Riot. In St. Petersburg, there are gay men in jail for exhibiting that they are gay. How fucked up is that? Never forget how lucky you are to live where you live. Don’t get fat and lazy and take that freedom for granted, or your fat, lazy gay ass will land in jail.”
Madonna is probably not singing half the time. And she’s probably not really playing the electric guitar. And the show is probably exactly the same from city to city. But I just don’t care. She is Madonna, and she is awesome, and she can still kick her foot above her head while (maybe) playing the guitar and wearing towering heels.
But $355? Really, people?