PHILADELPHIA -- Madonna shed one layer of clothing after another in a seductive striptease -- the white shirt, the corset, the dark dress pants -- until she stood in the middle of the sold-out Wells Fargo Center in her black bra and panties to reveal the words "NO FEAR" in bold letters on her back.
Clearly, it's her motto -- for herself and for her "MDNA" tour, which she rehearsed throughout May at Nassau Coliseum. "Sometimes," she says, as an introduction to her classic "Like a Virgin," which was reworked into a piano-driven waltz, "it's easier to show your ass than it is to show your feelings."
She reveals both in the ambitious tour, which she calls "the journey of a soul from darkness to light." She adds, "It is part cinematic musical theater, part spectacle and sometimes intimate performance art." And she does it at all while under fire.
"Her career is over, I can tell you that," Elton John said of her in a recent Australian interview. "Her tour has been a disaster. . . . If Madonna had any common sense, she would have made a record like 'Ray of Light,' stayed away from the dance stuff and just been a great pop singer and made great pop records, which she does brilliantly. But no . . . she looks like a ---- fairground stripper."
John's comments, which he has since claimed were off the record, could be seen as sour grapes -- Madonna's "Masterpiece" beat out John's "Hello Hello" to win the Golden Globe for best original song this year and in the Madonna vs. Lady Gaga "Express Yourself" / "Born This Way" skirmish, he is firmly on the side of his son's godmother, Ga. However, he is far from Madonna's lone critic for this tour, as everyone from Russian political activists to French politicians are having a go at the Material Girl, wondering aloud about her intentions and her future.
Of course, Madonna is no stranger to controversy. That might be part of the problem.
"Madonna has a persona where she has traded on her physicality and sexuality, sometimes with the music taking a backseat to the buttons she's pushing," says Meredith Rutledge-Borger, assistant curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. "It's not like with Aretha Franklin, where her matchless voice, her musicianship has always been the story. Sometimes, with Madonna, the controversy was the story. Now, she's wanting to change course, and the public and the media won't let her."
Madonna is certainly more musical these days. She's more artistic overall, directing the movie "W.E.," as well as working on her "MDNA" album. She compares the tour to a film about struggling to change the world. "When you watch a film, there are usually good guys and bad guys to help illustrate this point," she says. "Sometimes I play both. I enjoy acting out this journey." The tour is set to rank among the top 10 biggest-grossing tours of all time, filling stadiums around the world, including, for the first time, Yankee Stadium Sept. 6 and 8. Her album "MDNA," which finds her embracing electronic dance music beats, while revealing more in her lyrics about her personal life than ever before, debuted at No. 1, and her Super Bowl halftime show became the most-watched ever, drawing 114 million viewers.
Not bad for the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer marking her 30th anniversary in the business. However, naysayers point out how "MDNA's" sales fell a record-setting 87 percent in its second week and how pop radio has essentially ignored her singles. Of course, pop radio has never really had an interest in new music from artists older than 50, not the Rolling Stones, not Franklin, not Paul McCartney and not 54-year-old Madonna. The fact that "MDNA's" first single, "Give Me All Your Luvin'," drew any mainstream pop attention at all signaled her power, not her failing.
Rutledge-Borger says other Rock and Roll Hall of Famers have faced similar scrutiny later in their careers. "There were certainly stories about 50-year-old Mick Jagger like, 'Is he really as sexy as he thinks he is?' " she says. "The questions about Madonna are just amplified by our 24-hour news cycle. What is different about Madonna, though, is her persona that has always been about shape-shifting and reinvention. Because she's had this reputation as a cat with nine lives, maybe people are more hypercritical. It does seem that maybe this is a reinvention that people have not been so quick to affirm yet. If she comes out on this tour and blows everyone away, though, she's gonna get the last laugh."
At this point in her career, Madonna isn't really reinventing much. Her stands on free speech and inclusion, and gay and lesbian rights that have been drawing headlines around the world are essentially the same issues she has been outspoken about for years.
It's not a matter of Madonna seeking out new causes to get people talking about her. It's just an outgrowth of her "life in a fishbowl."
"I don't think it's me being controversial," she told Harry Smith on "Rock Center With Brian Williams." "I think people, other people like to get attention, and they know they can get attention for themselves by mentioning my name. And I think some people are kind of stuck on my name like a needle on a record, and they just have to keep calling attention to something I've done. And it works."
She acknowledges that the show's opening is violent and fake guns are used, even though she does "not condone violence or the use of guns." "They are symbols of wanting to appear strong and wanting to find a way to stop feelings that I find hurtful or damaging," she says. "In my case, it's wanting to stop the lies and hypocrisy of the church, the intolerance of many narrow-minded cultures and societies I have experienced throughout my life and in some cases the pain I have felt from having my heart broken."
She says it's "very important to me as an artist that my show not be taken out of context."
"It must be watched with an open heart from beginning to end," she says in her tour "manifesto." "I am sure if it is viewed this way, the viewer will walk away feeling inspired, invigorated and will want to make the world a better place. And this, of course, was always my intention."
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Sept. 6 and 8, Yankee Stadium
INFO $44.50-$359.50; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com
Madonna's tour keeps causing a commotion
BY GLENN GAMBOA, firstname.lastname@example.org
The first leg of Madonna's "MDNA" tour has basically been one controversy after another. Here's a look at how the Material Girl has spent her summer so far:
MAY 31 -- ISRAEL
Ramat Gan Stadium, Tel Aviv
FLASHPOINT In front of hundreds of Israeli peace activists, Madonna reportedly brandished a fake Kalashnikov rifle during "Revolver," while her dancers performed with Uzi replicas.
CONTEXT "You can't be a fan of mine and not want peace in the world," Madonna said during the show. "If there is peace here in the Middle East, there can be peace in the whole world."
JUNE 7 -- TURKEY
Türk Telekom Arena, Istanbul
FLASHPOINT During "Human Nature," Madonna did a striptease and flashed her right breast. It was not a wardrobe malfunction, as the YouTube documentation that went viral showed.
CONTEXT Um, she's Madonna?
JULY 14 -- FRANCE
Stade de France, Saint-Denis (just north of Paris)
FLASHPOINT The video "Nobody Knows Me," which features the faces of controversial leaders, includes an image of French politician Marine Le Pen with a swastika superimposed on her forehead, a reference to her right-wing politics and the anti-Semitic statements of her politician father. Le Pen's National Front party filed a lawsuit against Madonna for public insult and defamation.
CONTEXT Madonna explained at another French concert that she was trying to promote tolerance with the video, "not to make enemies." At her recent concert in Nice, she replaced the swastika on Le Pen's forehead with a question mark.
AUG. 7 -- RUSSIA
Olimpiysky Stadium, Moscow
FLASHPOINT In support of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, jailed for their musical protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin, Madonna donned a balaclava and wrote the band's name on her back.
CONTEXT "These girls . . . have done something courageous and they have paid the price for this act and I pray for their freedom," she said during the show. "They deserve the right to be free."
AUG. 9 -- RUSSIA
Peterburgsky SKK, St. Petersburg
FLASHPOINT Madonna distributes pink wristbands to the crowd to demonstrate tolerance for the gay community, a move that defied the city's ban on "the promotion of gay lifestyles." She also told the crowd, "We want to fight for the right to be free."
CONTEXT She was sued for $10.5 million by Russian activists because of the concert.
Madonna's a true blue fashion plate
BY BARBARA SCHULER, email@example.com
Madonna's "MDNA" tour is like a one-woman Fashion Week, with costumes designed by everyone from Jean Paul Gaultier, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada to, well, herself.
Madonna wears shoes and lingerie from her own Truth or Dare collection on the tour, which was styled by her longtime collaborator Arianne Phillips.
The Gaultier design, for "Vogue," is a rigid skeleton-like corset, with pinstriped pants, a white shirt and over-the-elbow gloves. Gaultier told trade publication Women's Wear Daily he could hardly refuse doing a costume for the singer. "I love Madonna. She is the only woman I have asked to marry me," he said. "She refused, of course."