By the time she finishes a raucous version of ‘Candy Perfume Girl’ three songs in by shouting “fuck off, motherfuckers”, you know that Madonna‘s Drowned World tour sets out to intimidate the audience as much as to entertain them. With a list of dark’n’arty references ranging from manga videos to Derek Jarman’s ancient punk film ‘Jubilee’, this was never going to be a feel-good Greatest Hits show. A culture vulture par excellence, Madonna has always fuelled her mainstream pop with an avant garde sensibility, but Drowned World pushes that sensibility right in your face. It’s a tribute to her incredible graft, magnetic appeal and, above all, her supreme ability at making pop music that this show is not taking place in a little art gallery off the Lower East Side, but at sold-out enormodomes around the world, the latest being the 15,000-capacity London Earl’s Court.
And art is what it is – the choreography alone leaves any other pop show in the dust. After a stunningly exciting version of ‘Drowned World’/’Substitute For Love’, sung (superbly – she’s in fantastic voice throughout) by Madonna on a platform that rises up above the stage, a nine-strong troupe of gasmask-clad dancers take the stage for ‘Impressive Instant’, some encased in rolls of black mesh. If the Royal Ballet performed in a rubber fetish club, this is what it would look like.
Then Madonna straps on her guitar and, practically cross-eyed with concentration, performs ‘Candy Perfume Girl’. Courtney Love once famously accused her of being a ‘vampire’; as the song rises to a wall of white noise, you can only conclude that she had a point. Madonna, of course, would take this as the highest compliment. Whether pole dancing for ‘Beautiful Stranger’, doing ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’-style martial arts in ‘Sky Fits Heaven’ or rebooting ‘Holiday’ to incorporate Stardust’s ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ (just as an enterprising bootlegger did a couple of years ago), Madonna stays creatively young by sucking the best out of the surrounding culture. Purists will carp, but it’s a two-way thing. If most musicians put a tenth of the creative energy into their shows as Madonna has into this one, we would all be a lot better off.
However – as you’ve probably gathered by now – she didn’t exactly do all the hits. By the time ‘La Isla Bonita’ rolls around, the relief in the audience is palpable and Madonna also finally seems relaxed. An ecstatic encore of ‘Holiday’ and ‘Music’ (the latter medleyed with Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans Europe Express’) underlines how easily she could have brought the audience to collective orgasm by simply reeling out her classics. But it really wasn’t that kind of show. Yes, the absence of ‘Like A Prayer’ was criminal. But as an assertion of pop music’s long lost ability to challenge and provoke, Drowned World couldn’t have been better. Anyway, Madonna can keep all those old songs for her farewell tour. On current evidence, that should be in about 2040.