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Madonna's concert at United Center full of flash and flattery

Madonnperforms concert United Center Wednesday September 19 2012. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Madonna performs in concert at the United Center Wednesday September 19, 2012. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 22, 2012 6:17AM

Earlier this week, Madonna caused a minimal stir by sniping once again at Lady Gaga, referencing her during a concert and adding, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Wednesday night at Chicago’s United Center, the first of two concerts there this week, Madonna again slipped the chorus of Gaga’s “Born This Way” into the bridge of her own “Express Yourself” — it’s a seamless match, for sure — but let it go without comment. Well, almost. She shouted a bit from “She’s Not Me” at the end.

It seems like pretty catty paranoia from the indisputable queen of pop, as if the Material Girl — a 1 percenter if ever there were — has adopted the Republicans’ new slogan (“We built it!”) and its false sense of rugged individualism. Madonna broke ground for women in pop during the ’80s and easily can justify her worldwide love, but her success is a pastiche quilt, a smart synthesis of the best of the best. Full of the usual impressive showmanship, heavy hoofing, mishmash religious symbolism and garish exhibitionism, the United Center show only lengthened the long list of film and music artists she herself flatters by imitation.

In fact, the opening of her two-hour concert - finds the megastar, now 54, retooling gruesome scenes as if acting in a Quentin Tarantino film. (Or is it one by ex-husband Guy Ritchie?) Kicking through a church window and brandishing a machine gun, Madonna and her legion of dancers careen through several violent set pieces, including pointing weapons into the crowd several times, then blowing away various assailants — their blood splattering across the three-story video screens — while singing, “I wanna see him die/over and over and over and over ...” (from “Gang Bang”).

Her typical cheap shock tactics aside, it’s not exactly a comfortable thing to watch at the end of this particular summer in Chicago.

In a previous statement, Madge has described this “MDNA” tour, supporting her new album, as “the journey of a soul from darkness to light,” as well as “part spectacle and sometimes intimate performance art.” The Broadway-level production does eventually lighten up, though it’s mostly artless and nearly all spectacle. Robed monks quickly turn into shirtless hotties (“Girl Gone Wild”), cheerleaders and little drummer boys prance about (“Give Me All Your Luvin’”), there’s the requisite cross-dressing and hand jive (“Vogue”), and the whole thing ends in a “Tron”-meets-Tetris, feel-good dance party (“Celebration”).

The finest moments, though, are in the middle — without all the hoopla. While strumming a guitar, she sings “Turn Up the Radio” alone at a mike on the catwalk. “Open Your Heart” becomes a rhythmic Basque arrangement, with the full ensemble of dancers casually hanging like real people instead of choreographed cogs. (Here she’s also joined by her 11-year-old son, Rocco Ritchie, busting moves and grinning from ear to ear.) Next, “Holiday” actually feels like one, relaxed and spontaneous.

It amounts to a refreshing, natural few moments; gives Madonna a chance to squeeze in some yammering about Oprah (she was last in United Center last year for the TV host’s big farewell) and delivering a homily about self-empowerment and treating “one another with dignity and respect.”

Performer, heal thyself. Your legacy is secure, and it would be cemented for a whole new generation — Wednesday’s crowd was, well, my age — if you took Gaga under your wing instead of clawing at her all the time. Go teach her a thing or two. Girl needs it.

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