Madonna, still gunning for the church

New Jersey Star Ledger writer Tris McCall describes what happens in the star’s latest concert:

The lights went down, and we were in Troyes Cathedral, or perhaps Fordham University. A gigantic glowing crucifix, several stories high, hung over the stage. It was the centerpiece of a handsome Old World church built of light and shadow on the tall video screens at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Monks in heavy robes chanted as a huge smoking censer swung over the sold-out crowd. And suspended at midstage, Madonna knelt in a hovering confession booth, delivering an Act of Contrition of her own devising. Then the walls of the booth collapsed, and the star dropped to the floor — where she promptly pulled a gun on the congregation.

The opening set piece of the two-hour pop concert was simultaneously spectacular and imposing. It also could not have taken anybody by surprise. For more than two decades, Madonna has been using her lapsed Catholicism as an instrument of provocation. She likes to play both sides: She wants to remind her audience of her Catholic, working-class, Italian-American upbringing, and she wants to claim and re-purpose the church’s iconography. But she also wants to be the heretic who puts a pickaxe through the stained-glass window, and she wants applause for that insolence.

On the MDNA Tour, which began its American leg at Wells Fargo on Tuesday night, Madonna gets to smash the cathedral into splinters with her fist. She also gets to stand on a bed under a black crucifix in a makeshift motel room (the sets in this show are elaborate) and blow away a long procession of ninjas. Every time she fires her weapon, blood splatters across the screens behind her.

So graphic and violent is the “Gang Bang” segment of the concert that Madonna saw the need to issue a pre-show statement: The guns and the blood are metaphors. No actual priests or black-masked assassins were harmed in the making of the MDNA Tour. Instead, the concert is meant to play as symbolic autobiography. In order to learn how to express herself, Madonna first had to defy and desecrate. Only after learning how to free herself can she cycle back to the healing spirituality of show closer “Like a Prayer.”

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