Does Madonna Still Rock?

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Madonna performs in her latest concert tour

R.Z. So I saw Madonna last night. I don't go to many rock concerts any more, so the first thing I want to ask is: Is this what rock concerts cost these days? I wasn't reviewing the show, so I paid for tickets just like everyone else — $369 for a seat that doesn't put you in the Madison Square Garden rafters. Plus a surcharge, which put the cost of a pair within shouting distance of $800. Who pays these prices?

J.T. Who pays these prices? Old people with money — also known as baby boomers. A few weeks ago I went to Madonna and Bruce Springsteen at Madison Square Garden (they were barnstorming through within days of each other). Springsteen's ticket price is considerably less than Madonna's, and the album he's touring on is a Country Bear Jamboree for progressives. Still: I'm 33 and I was the youngest person in sight by a good 15 years. It looked like a Ft. Lauderdale Sizzler at 5 p.m.l in there. Madonna isn't the teen draw she used to be, but at her show there was no one in danger of violating the liquor laws. Mostly it was very stylish folks engaging in a little nostalgia. I've got no fight with aging artists and aging concert-goers, but what interested, and saddened, me, was that when you get older people with money in a concert hall, you get a very laid-back concert. Madonna's set list included almost her entire new album. It's a good album, but it's dance heavy, and the crowd just wasn't going to dance to stuff they didn't know intimately. The only time everyone got on their feet was for "Lucky Star," a song that predates the birth of Britney Spears, who's already long in the tooth by pop standards.

R.Z. I was actually surprised that the Madonna audience was as young as it was — mostly people in their 20s and 30s. And I wouldn't call the concert laid-back. Programmed within an inch of its life, is more like it. The choreography, the elaborate video presentations, even Madonna's patter — there's almost no sense any more of an artist interacting spontaneously with the audience. Even the way the concert ends — her big hit "Hung Up," blackout, lights go up, goodbye! Not even an encore. Sure, encores have gotten to be as programmed as anything else, but at least there was the illusion of the artist repaying the audience for its spontaneous enthusiasm.

That said, I actually liked the concert musically. I like her peppy, dance-beat new stuff.

J.T. The encore thing bothered me, especially at those prices. You kind of hope that she'd finish like James Brown, with a few guys taking her out under the cape, only for her to throw it off and sing until she expires — all in the service of her audience.

I guess, to return to the price thing, a three-figure ticket is a declaration that you're not interested in new listeners. Madonna, Springsteen, the Stones, they all know that they have lifelong fans in every American city who will pay any price to see them. But no one besides the zealots is going to risk that kind of cash. The result is a concert hall full of people willing themselves to love the show, which is hardly a recipe for spontaneity.

R.Z. And, of course, Madonna has to pace herself. She's holding up pretty well, but those beefy backup dancers are doing most of the work. Also — and maybe this is only a surprise to someone who doesn't go to rock concerts that often — the show is about theater as much as music. And attitude. I was happy to see, at least, that the attitude was less off-putting than the last time I saw Madonna (in her concert tour before last, I think), when she basically walked out and said, 'F--- you, New York!" Now she's doing video montages on starving kids in Africa, projecting stats on the number of children dying of AIDS and flashing the websites of organizations that are helping. "The world is full of people who talk the talk," she said. "But how many people here walk the walk?" The girl cares. Sort of.

J.T. Let me digress about the fitness thing. Our seats happened to be positioned by one of the side stage annexes, and Madonna performed two songs about 20 feet away. The woman is in the kind of shape that makes you wonder when she DOESN'T work out. She had muscles in her legs that anatomists have not previously diagrammed. True, after singing and dancing for 20 minutes she needed to towel off backstage, and in her absence we were left with abstract modern dance pieces that made Shanghai Surprise look like a cogent piece of storytelling. But for 47? Good lord.

R.Z. And still a style icon too! My wife, an editor at Shop Etc. magazine who has followed Madonna for years, was taking notes furiously. She thinks this concert tour will single-handedly bring back the patent-leather "wet look." (I'm not so sure about the S&M equestrian duds.) But I have to say — Madonna on the cross? A laughable non-event. It was so innocuous I don't even think Mel Gibson could have objected. I kind of admire her for managing to stir up the headlines. Ann Coulter had to do it by trashing 9/11 widows.

But never mind all that — you're the rock guy, how's she doing musically?

J.T. Musically she's as strong as ever, if not stronger. But let me define what I mean by musically.

Plenty of people point out that she's no singer — and she's not — but quality of voice has never really mattered in popular music. Really, her great gift is that she has a terrific set of ears. She listens to what's going on at the avant-garde edge and has an uncanny ability to recognize bits that, in a different context, could have mainstream appeal. Think about "Hung Up"; it's a 5:37 marathon of a song, the kind of thing that shouldn't work outside of a dance club. But keeping in mind that pop listeners are used to time-released thrills every 30 seconds or so — you know, hooks — she's thrown in about 20 of them. Some are immediately recongnizable, like "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)", the Abba meringue in the middle of it all, but others are so weird and pulsing that they earn the word exotic. So for a pop listener, the thing you know draws you into the thing you don't know, and at the end you feel a little cooler just for having listened to the song. Making people feel cool — allowing your style to rub off on them for a few minutes — is what great pop is all about. And yeah, she's still making great pop.

R.Z. Hey, thanks for helping me not feel guilty about liking her.