CHARLOTTE — Midway through her two-hour show at Time Warner Cable Arena Thursday night, Madonna dropped character to address the crowd as herself. She delivered a brief civics lecture (punctuated with expletives) about the importance of voting; and she declared that peace "starts with us treating one another as human beings."
Quite frankly, that would have been easier to take seriously if not for how the show started. Madonna came onstage with a veil, a crown and a gun. And three songs in, "Gang Bang" had an actual body count in which Madonna dispatched a half-dozen assailants, execution-style. Just to make sure you got it, the video screens lit up with blood spatters.
Girls just wanna have gun, I guess. Or maybe she was bucking for a part in Quinten Tarantino's upcoming "Kill Bill" sequel. But it was an ugly, disturbingly casual bit of violence that seemed over the top, even for her. What can you say about a Madonna show where the sexy bits were the least-controversial parts?
This was Madonna's first-ever show in the Carolinas, and it was less a concert than a Cirque du Soleil-style multi-media performance-art blowout. Tons of what the audience heard was on computer hard drives, but music really did seem like just another detail on her broad canvas.
She brought along a cast of dozens, elaborately choreographed, with enough special effects to stock the next "Star Wars" installment. From top to bottom, the attention to detail was impressive. Even the backup band had costume changes, despite the fact that the musicians were in the shadows at the back of the stage.
Madonna being the cultural flashpoint that she is, hellfire-and-damnation picketers were outside the arena pronouncing fiery curses on all who passed by to enter. Inside, there was a guy dressed like The Pope, and his was actually one of the more restrained outfits (yes, retro '80s fashion lives). Like a good diva, Madonna kept her public waiting until nearly 11 p.m.; and it didn't end until just before 1 a.m. But despite the arena setting, this ran on dance-club time.
The show opened on a hardcore note, with Madonna getting her gangsta on. Then there was an abrupt shift to playful, as Madonna reappeared as a brightly dressed drum major. That eventually yielded to sensual, in a minor-key sort of way, before concluding with quasi-mystical vibes.
Madonna's latest album "MDNA" figured prominently, with eight numbers in the 22-song setlist. And some of her oldest, biggest hits got put through major changes, especially "Like a Virgin." In contrast to the perky 1984 original, this version was a subdued piano ballad. Madonna sang it like Marlene Dietrich, Germanic and mournful - wearing a bustier as the crowd showered her with wadded-up dollar bills (solicited for Hurricane Sandy relief, she said).
Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne and M.I.A. all did their cameos via the video screens on various "MDNA" songs. But the pop star who seemed most on Madonna's mind was Lady Gaga, whose 2010 "Fame Monster" tour recalled some of Madonna's past extravaganzas. This show seemed like Lady M picking up the gauntlet. She threw in a bit of Gaga's "Born This Way" at the end of her own "Express Yourself"; and she even played (or at least posed with) guitar on a few songs, which may be a response to all the positive attention Gaga gets for her piano-playing.
As always, Madonna played fast and loose with religious imagery in ways sure to enrage evangelicals. The opening segment before Madonna entered had her backup dancers dressed as hooded monks performing rituals that may have been sacred or profane or both. Whatever it meant, it pushed buttons. More and more, that seems like its own end for her.
But being Madonna means never having to say you're sorry.