Madonna still loves to shock.
She's doing it on her current MDNA Tour in ways both familiar (bulldozing through religious and sexual themes) and new (introducing gunplay and violent content). And the result is the same as ever: Madonna is generating plenty of controversy and headlines while selling tons of tickets.
It's all very well calculated, thought-out and effective.
Yet, the most shocking thing about this tour -- Madonna's ninth to date -- is clearly unintentional:
It's pretty bad.
The star's packed show on Sunday in San Jose, which was the second half of a two-night stand at HP Pavilion, was a resounding disappointment. The set list was weak. The new songs were forgettable. The old favorites were dressed up in different arrangements, most of which were awful. And the theatrics -- such a big part of a Madonna concert -- ranged from dreadful to dull.
To top it all off, the 54-year-old star didn't take the stage for the 8 p.m. show until 10:30 p.m., which gave the 13,000-or-so fans plenty of extra time to buy $90 Madonna watches at the merchandise booths, but also surely zapped the crowd of much of its energy. There was more sitting than dancing, more polite applause than crazed screaming, than what we've come to expect from a Madonna concert.
It just goes to show that fans, even passionate ones, can tell an inferior product when they see and hear it. And this one was definitely inferior when it comes to Madonna. I've seen each of the Material Girl's last five tours, stretching back to 2001's Drowned World Tour, and MDNA was by far the least entertaining.
There were three or four real highlights out of the 25-song set. You do the math.
Overall, the show was filled with decent choreography, convoluted imagery, underdeveloped themes and mediocre music -- kind of like your standard Broadway musical. There was lots of eye candy, but very little substance.
The first part is the most controversial -- and also the worst. It's the highly publicized part where Madonna enters a church setting, through the center of a cross, to join a group of guys wearing robes and chanting like Gregorian Monks. The star pops out of a confession booth, gun in hand, and starts grooving with the disrobed dancers, who hoof about the stage in tremendously high heels. There's gunfire and blood splattered, while characters both boogie and battle.
It's a mess. Yet it's not the violence or the way Madonna deals with the religious motifs that bothers me -- musicians, after all, shouldn't be judged any more stringently than authors or directors who handle the same type of material. It's really just that the song selections -- such new songs as "Girl Gone Wild" and "Gang Bang" -- were so decidedly commonplace.
Amazingly, it would get worse as Madonna headed to more familiar territory.
This isn't a greatest-hits tour by any means. Madonna is full-on hawking her latest album, "MDNA," and also dead set on underscoring her electronic dance music (EDM) credentials. I get that. What's highly perplexing, however, is how she handled the few longtime fan favorites in the set list.
Instead of rewarding the crowd for waiting through all the faceless electro-pop of her recent efforts with some faithful renditions of the hits, Madonna went the complete opposite direction and dramatically rearranged most of the well-known tunes played. The worst of all was the new version of "Like a Virgin," which was done up as a slinky nightclub number that moved at a numbingly glacial pace.
The whole deal, combined with the late start time, wore the crowd down over time, as Madonna kept offering up forgettable new songs and weak versions of old cuts over one goofy stage set after another. The audience was amazingly sedate as the show neared the finish line — some two hours after it began.
It wasn't until the last two songs -- "Like a Prayer" and "Celebration" -- that the whole deal finally clicked. Yet, even that was disappointing in a way, since it clearly underscored how great Madonna could've been all night long.
Follow Jim Harrington at http://twitter.com/jimthecritic, www.facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.