Madonna, Koko, London

Tell us about 1983, Aunty Madge!
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The Independent Culture

Unless the Luftwaffe have made a surprise comeback, those spinning searchlights in the Camden sky - along with the red carpet, the glitter on the paving stones, the paparazzi and the hundreds of fans who have been queuing up outside since Monday afternoon (the daft sods), and the celebrities inside (if I swung my arms through a 360 degrees I'd knock over Will Young, Neil Tennant, Alex from Blur and Bernard from New Order) - signify that "something important is happening here".

It's a crafty piece of attention-grabbing from the queen of that particular art. After all, "Madonna plays Earls Court (again)" does not equal news. "Madonna plays medium-sized music hall in North London" equals news.

In 1983, when this reconditioned relic - I'm talking about the venue - was still the dear old Camden Palace, the then-unknown Madonna Louise Ciccone performed a brief nightclub PA which has since, given that it was her first UK appearance, been written up as a historic event. (In reality, the floor was doubtless half-filled with bored girls in puffball skirts waiting for her to hurry up and finish so they could carry on dancing to Kajagoogoo, and quite right too.) Twenty-two years later, she's back to do it again. It's a timely return to the scene, in many ways. Her new album, Confessions Of A Dancefloor, is her least appalling for a while, and this is largely because she's returned to her gay disco roots (it's telling that this time around she's talking to Attitude magazine).

After American Life bombed (by her standards), it seems that her musical director Stuart Price of superb synth-funksters Les Rythmes Digitales - whose fans will regret the fact that Price has been too busy with Madonna to make a new LRD record this millennium - has been let loose to fully unleash his electro-disco vision. Tonight, tucked away stage-left in a white tux, he "mixes" the musicians from a console, like a DJ.

Pitched midway between Moroder disco and melancholic Europop, Confessions... feels like a record Donna Summer might have made for Casablanca in 1977, or Desireless for CBS France in 1987. Madonna herself is mercifully low in the mix, and she's been persuaded to sing in a lower, less intrusive register (the nails-down-a-blackboard shrillness of "Ray Of Light" has gone).

So, Madonna's rolling back the years. But can we? Can we really forget the dreadful wannabe-aristo who proudly wears fur, claims that shooting pheasants helps her "meditate", and appealed against the Countryside Rights of Way Act to prevent riff-raff from rambling on her land? Can we really forget the cringe-inducing performer who charged £150 to see her murder John Lennon's (already horrid) "Imagine" in front of cheesy images of little Israeli boys playing football with little Palestinian boys? (Sorry Elton, but whether or not she sang or mimed was the least of her crimes.) Can we really forget the pseud who, circa 1990, began believing her own hype, and now evangelises for the stupid Kabbalah fad? (I own a book called the I Hate Madonna Handbook which disses her for exemplifying trashy Low Culture; if anything, the real reason to hate Madonna is that she isn't trashy enough, languishing in a horrid middlebrow middle ground.) Can we erase all that from our minds and see her, once more, as the likeable, playful Madonna from the days of puppy fat, lacey ribbons and coloured bangles?

When the back wall splits opens to reveal her striking a "Vogue" pose in leather jacket and shades inside a mirrored alcove and 1,500 people wet themselves, the answer would seem to be yes. In the world at large, however, opinion is divided.

When she bends over in the video to "Hung Up" (the "Gimme Gimme Gimme"-sampling hit which only makes you crave the Abba original), there are those who coo that she looks "amazing for her age" (47). Then there are those who scream "Mum, put them away!", who wonder whether her flicky Charlie's Angels hair is grey beneath the dye, and who suffer unwelcome images of Mrs Merton doing aerobics.

Even her old buddy Sacha Baron-Cohen - who once (as Ali G in her "Music" video) said "Me definitely would" - now (as Borat at the MTV Europe Awards) says: "It was very courageous of MTV to start the show with a genuine transvestite - he looked very convincing."

You think that's harsh? Madonna - whose always-ambiguous contribution to feminism was to assert a woman's right to assertively sell her own sexuality (as opposed to having it sold on her behalf by men) - surely knows better than anyone that if you live by the visual image, you die by it. Tonight, sensibly, she's in crushed-velvet jodhpurs, knee-length boots and tank-top. "Don't throw clothes at me," she quips when someone chucks a T-shirt:"I don't put shit on. I take shit off." Thankfully, she's all talk.

"Hung Up" isn't the only derivative track on Confessions.... "Future Lovers" (unplayed tonight) has an outrageous lift from "I Feel Love", while "Let It Will Be" (sic) echoes "I Wanna Be Your Dog". Singing it tonight, she struts out onto a catwalk made of upturned plasma screens - yes, Madonna has more money than God and, yes, thank you for all the free champagne - and writhes and screams on the floor, to acknowledge the debt to Iggy.

"I Love New York" could offend the locals, with the line "Paris and London you can keep", but she carefully explains herself beforehand: "I love London. If I didn't, I wouldn't live here..." (Er, doesn't she live in Wiltshire?). "But New York is a state of mind. It taught me how to survive. It teaches you to never take no for an answer."

After one final Confessions... cut, "Get Together", she romps through "Everybody", a very old song which she sang back in '83, and she's gone: all that fuss for five tracks.

"I'm not in good shape," she offers by way of apology, "I don't like falling off horses."

s.price@independent.co.uk

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