Madonna at the United Center, August 2001

Daily Herald Music Critic

With a wink, Madonna – whose career was born at the advent of MTV and is ruled by visuals – titled her latest album “Music.” She upped the irony Tuesday by strapping on, not an outrageous fashion accessory or, more in character, some sort of sexual device.

Instead, there was Madonna with guitar. And playing it. Even though rock music is more the vehicle for rebellion, the 43-year-old mother and newlywed frequently struck punk poses in the unlikely setting of a grandiose pop spectacle.

According to her publicist, she started her guitar lessons just eight months ago. Of course. For Madonna, punk rebel was just one of the many roles she played Tuesday, the start of her two-night, sold-out stand at the United Center.

If you scanned the crowd, you could see dressed up incarnations in tribute to Madonna’s past: the dancehall boy toy, the lusty virgin, the thigh-booted dominatrix, event he Material Girl by way of Marilyn Monroe.

But the real Madonna would have none of that. For this world tour – her first in eight years – Madonna chucked nostalgia in favor of her two recent albums, last year’s “Music” (Maverick/Warner Bros.) and 1998’s “Ray of Light” (Maverick/Warner Bros.).

Both are more grown-up albums and owe a heavy debt to the underground worlds of British and French electronic dance music.

The heavily groove-laden music was mostly background, though, for the ultra choreographed show, leaving little doubt what it was really about. Madonna’s four-member hand was outnumbered by her nine ripped dancers; one song (“Paradise Not For Me”) was completely passed off to a previously recorded music video.

Each song was accompanied by an interpretive bit of performance art that either artfully mimicked Cirque du Soleil or, at its worst, was like the cheeseball scholock you’d expect at Euro Disney. Like her music, the routines stole from, er, were inspired by current trends in pop culture: the flying scenes from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” fight scenes from “The Matrix” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and some major doses of Japanese animation.

At times the music and theatre matched – as in the speed work-out during the disco rave “Ray Of Light.”

But otherwise, it became overindulgent silliness, such as the 30-foot arms on Madonna’s kimono dress, or the time a gruff samurai warrior stalked her on-stage, threatening decapitation with his sword. Too bad he looked more like John Belushi chopping cabbage.

Then there was the rhinestone cowgirl sequences. Her stripped down guitar strum through “I Deserve It” was the night’s most genuine moment, but was followed by some clunky “Oklahoma”-type sequences and a writhing of a mechanical bull.

The set was also cluttered with a hee-haw parody that as not even up to Minnie Pearl’s comic standards.

Madonna ended the night of leading an arena sing-a-long of “Music,” sleazy techno-funk with the awkward line, “music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel come together.” In Madonna’s style-hopping world, that makes perfect sense.

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