Madonna's MDNA Tour at the Key Defies Expectation
As far as arena concerts go, Madonna's MDNA show at the Key on Tuesday night brought an unparalleled level of spectacle and theatrics. Huge set pieces, hydraulics, all sorts of video, tight ropes, majorette batons—Madge had a little bit of everything going on in this production. One act after another, the sheer scale of the show overwhelmed anything I've ever seen from other living legends like Prince or U2. (The opening DJ noted, too, that compared to most arenas where Madonna plays, the Key is relatively “boutique.”)
The concert, which didn't start until after 10:30—late by Key Arena standards—opened with a ringing church bell and an oversized smoking censor swinging above the crowd. The Catholic drama quickly gave way to an extremely violent and provocative opening sequence involving lots of guns and blood splashed across the screen above the stage. Madonna and her dancers—who were impeccable throughout the performance—moved through a tightly choreographed fight sequence set to material from her latest album, including "Gang Bang," set inside a seedy motel room. It was the sort of thing that's designed to get a rise out of people and make them uncomfortable. It's not easy for a 50-something woman to titillate with sex the way Madonna did for decades. But she certainly pushed some buttons with firearms.
Too much of the set list was populated with songs off the singer’s most recent album, which most the Key crowd appeared not to know. The new material was more derivative and less groundbreaking than Madonna’s earlier records—but 30 years into her pop career, she remains committed to newness and unwilling to relegate herself into a greatest hits act. After so many years, her skill and endurance still trumped those of current pop stars, and I didn’t detect so much as a note of lip-synching.
Which is not to say she didn’t play some of the major hits, among them "Vogue" (complete with cone-bra corset) and "Like a Prayer," which brought the whole arena to a nostalgic, ecstatic fit as we sang along to every word. Between songs, Madonna bantered more than I expected—her voice easy and unfettered by the strange semi-British accent she usually adopts for television. She recounted her memorable first trip to Seattle on her first tour in 1982 and commenced a joyful performance of "Holiday."
But amid all the grandeur—one can only imagine the size of the full cast and crew for this tour—the most intimate moments stood out the most in a show that ran almost two hours. In one of them, a platform brought out a group of Afro-Brazilian drummers who accompanied an otherwise a cappella rendition of "Open Your Heart," slowed down and set to a surprising, invigorated rhythm. Madonna’s son Rocco also had a cameo as a dancer in this song; the singer has somehow fused her wild past with her maternal present.
Later, she did finally strip down to her bra, teasing the audience as she pulled her pants down and revealed an OBAMA tattoo on her lower back. She promised she wouldn’t take her pants off until the President wins his second term, voicing her support for him “even if he is a Christian.”
In the wake of that somewhat odd moment, an upright piano appeared with Madonna at the peak of the catwalk, played by a man in a top hat and tails. A simple series of chords formed a familiar melody as Madonna began to sing “Like a Virgin” slowed down to maybe 30 percent of its usual tempo, like an intimate saloon-meets-Vaudeville blues ballad. The effect was breathtaking, presenting the very essence of Madonna: a raw, compelling and aging woman determined to fly in the face of expectation. She writhed on the floor and climbed on top of the piano, her breath on the mic, laid bare in a moment of reinvention.