You must love Madonna

Smiles don't come easily for Madonna.

Instead, there are usually smirks, sneers, pouts, leers and thin-lipped,
tough-as-nails displays of contempt for anyone who would dare mess with
her. Madonna, she's one tough dominatrix, and she's got better
developed biceps than just about any of the fans who filled the United Center on Sunday for the first of two concerts.

smile she did Sunday, and often. Madonna having fun onstage? Exuding
warmth rather than wielding a riding crop? Yes, it happened, a
refreshing break from recent tours that presented a woman on a
take-no-prisoners mission.

Consider the 50-year-old singer's
three-decade history as a performer: Her dancing, endurance and
high-concept sets are never less than ambitious. But usually they have
all the spontaneity of a big-budget Broadway musical.

Her tours
are always technically impressive, and this one was no exception, a
four-part blitz of video, dances with 16 accomplices and costume
changes involving (no lie) "3,500 individual wardrobe elements,"
according to a tour guide. And there were the usual canned vocals;
about half the time, the massive "voice" coming out of the
public-address system had little to do with the performer onstage.

again the line between live performance and hyper-stylized MTV video
was blurred—a concept Madonna practically invented in the '80s.

many ways, the "Sticky & Sweet" tour is more of the same. But it
was less muddled by high-concept statements, and threw itself into a
low-concept sweat. Here was a show that sustained an "Into the
Groove"-like party vibe for nearly two straight hours. Big Ideas were
conspicuously absent, save for a dunderheaded video interlude equating
a certain presidential candidate with fascists and mass murderers and
another candidate with saints and liberators.

Madonna switched off her brain and flipped on the mirror-ball switch.
She muscled up to push a car full of dancers, then impersonated Joan Jett with an electric guitar-driven version of "Borderline." Much headbanging ensued.

fun quotient was never higher than on "She's Not Me," with the singer
interacting with four dancers dolled up like Madonnas of the past,
including the "Like a Virgin" tease in a wedding dress and her
platinum-haired Marilyn Monroe incarnation.

slowed a bit during the third segment, with a shrouded performer atop a
piano in a cagelike cylinder, but peaked with a celebratory "La Isla
Bonita," complete with flamenco string band. A beaming Madonna strutted
arm in arm with a retinue of female dancers, and it was almost possible
to see her not as a pop icon, a hard-edged diva, but as the ringleader
of a gang. Of course, she ruined that illusion by slipping into her big
"Evita" ballad, "You Must Love Me," which sounded more like a demand
than a plea.

No matter. "Like a Prayer" soon rolled in, and
then Madonna took requests. She stumbled through a few lines of
"Beautiful Stranger," then got back on script by strapping on her
guitar for a heavy metal "Hung Up." This was Madonna doing disco with
feedback firing and devil horns flashing. Once again, she was grinning,
this time like a 15-year-old listening to an AC/DC eight-track in the
high school parking lot.

It's a good look.