As a 30+ year old Madonna fan, others may consider that fairly young for her fan base. Ironically for Madonna, that age may be past her dating requirements, considering her recent dalliances with 20-something year olds ever since she became liberated from the British housewife era from Guy Ritchie. However, time has not been so kind to Madonna recently when her new album, Rebel Heart was ignored by the general public, and with her public mishaps with the #Capegate, #Drakegate, #Instagramgate sagas. Critics alike were ready to shove the Queen of Pop into a museum, and finish off the final chapter of her long-storied career. However, since she started her Rebel Heart Tour this past month, she has been able to steal that pen away from her critics, and add a few fresh pages to her current chapter.
Earlier this week, Madonna rolled into Chicago, determined to keep her pop culture crown for the international world to see through her worldwide tour. I bought my tickets back in early March, but with slight trepidation that she may not be able to live up to her remarkably high standards set from her previous tours at the now age of 57, and that her constant mishaps on social media (appropriating hip-hop culture by donning gold grills in her teeth is one that comes to mind, or talking to a sock puppet in her videos) would become a distraction in her shows. Having been to her tours from Drowned World (2001) through the Sticky and Sweet Tour (2008), I have been a witness to many of the greatest stage performances ever from an artist / band, and it ranks much higher on any of my other concert-going experiences from the Rolling Stones, Radiohead, U2, Beyonce, R.E.M., AC/DC among others. The costumes, the elaborate stage set, her top-flight dancers, her long-time backing band, the visual effects on the big screen, and the unpredictable nature of Madonna herself have formed all the right ingredients into making her live shows one of the hottest ticket in demand.
Since I was growing up, I have admittedly been one of those die-hard fans that have had to weather ridicule from friends, my brothers, and peers alike who couldn’t understand what I could possibly find appealing about Madonna. With her publicity acts, and her tendency to invade people’s consciousness (consent or not), there is no doubt that Madonna is one of the more polarizing figures in pop culture for the past 30 years. Having to deal with my own growing pains through my teenage years, I took comfort in her music along with Janet Jackson, Smashing Pumpkins, artists that I connected with to survive. Her free-spiritedness, directness, and ambition became qualities that I felt were lacking in my own life. She became instrumental in adding a little bit of that personality in my life.
At the United Center in Chicago, the crowd, generally ranged from folks in their mid 30s to late 50s, came into the show, hoping for a nostalgic dose of classic hits that they grew fond of listening to in their high school / college years, while Madonna is still busy chasing after their kids to add to her fan base, though with little success and backlash to her brand. Is it necessary? Certainly not, given her 3 decades of Top 10 hits, and iconic fashion trends, and the never-ending influence she has on many of her younger contemporaries, she can easily rest on her laurels, and play mentor with the younger stars. Like Joan Rivers, she sees the younger ones as her competitors, no matter how much they have cited her as their inspiration.
The moment came when the background music of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something” disappeared from the loud speakers, then the arena lights turned off. The large “Rebel Heart” drape cover came off the stage, and there stood a video screen depicting Madonna as the Joan of Arc getting ready to fight off the warriors as Mike Tyson made his video appearance declaring victory and defiance. Madonna entered in full view, locked in a cage to wild applause. Decked out in a heavy red warrior outfit as her warrior dancers drew their weapons towards her while she sang the new song titled “iconic”, which would lead into her next single, “Bitch, I’m Madonna” snapping her fan similar the way she did “Vogue” at the MTV VMAs back in the day. She took off the warrior garb, grabbed her electric guitar, and launched into a spirited throwback version of “Burning Up,” an early hit from her debut album. Meanwhile, folks behind me were loudly complaining that they weren’t hearing her old hits as she was playing “Burning Up”. This prompted me to turn around, and tell them, “This is one of her first songs. Too bad you’re not a real fan.” The inner fan in me threw the shade down faster than the solar eclipse. When you spend $100 just to sit in the upper level, and then waiting months in anticipation for the concert, the last thing I need is to have my evening interrupted by a bunch of folks demanding what songs they want to hear. I thought to myself how much I would have enjoyed being in the general admissions floor, and to be around die-hard fans who know her songs in unison, rather than be stuck in the upper level with folks who know a couple of big hit songs, or those that were dragged to the show by their loved ones. Too bad, my income isn’t as big as my enthusiasm to shell out the several hundred dollars to be in that sought-after section.
To close out her first set, Madonna and her dancers became nuns as they gyrated on the Catholic cross poles to the song “Holy Water” mixed in with “Vogue”. This is once again, vintage Madonna where the combination of sex and religion are put on display to provoke, which has been her repetoire throughout her career.
Never one to shy from flirting, the Queen of Pop made the moves on some of her well-sculpted male dancers in “Body Shop.” While she stayed the course with promoting songs from her new album, Madonna left enough room for nostalgia to appease her fans. With a ukulele in hand, she finally engaged the crowd to sing along to her old classic hit “True Blue”, a song she hadn’t performed live since 1987. Most notably, the song was originally dedicated to her then-husband Sean Penn. It was in that moment that she started to relax and joyfully take in the sentiments of her past where in previous tours, she would openly resist singing some of her most well-known hits to prove that she wasn’t glued to her past. This particular set would also bring back more nostalgia as she did “Deeper and Deeper”, an early 90s hit and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”, a largely forgotten 80s ballad for the first time live. She would then take on an updated version of “Like A Virgin”, and much like her first performance at the MTV music awards, she freely solo-danced through the stage, and writhed on the floor to the drum beats.
The Queen of Pop displayed her long-held affection for the Latino culture in nearly each of her tours. She came in with the cape during “Living for Love” and didn’t have to revisit another cape mishap. She pulled off the matador role which played beautifully into one of her favorite songs, “La Isla Bonita”. With a quick costume change, she adorned a colorful, flamenco dress as she did a medley of “Dress You Up”, “Into the Groove”, and “Lucky Star”. She continued to engage with the audience, and made jokes about marriage. She revisited “Who’s That Girl?” as an acoustic version, and much like what she did with “True Blue.” she happily got the audience to sing along with her. Her vocals continued to shine in her acoustic sets, as she became visibly happy and at times, emotionally raw in those intimate moments. One of the criticisms of her previous live performances is that she tends to keep her distance at arms length from the audience, and keeps her dialogue with them brief in order to remain focused on the technicality of her show. This time, she opted for a more refreshing appreciation of her audiences as she didn’t hesitate telling them how thankful she is for their support, and thanking the fans who made drawings of her that were put on video display during her upbeat acoustic guitar-driven song, “Rebel Heart.”
The dancers were on full beast-mode between sets. Particularly memorable was the dancers lifted on a high-end pole and being yo-yo’d back and forth into the crowd. It was a dizzying array of display and brought gasps from the crowd. It brought enough momentum for Madonna to introduce the 1920’s mafia-inspired set which started with her dressed in a classic flappergirl look singing in a seductive, slowed down version of “Music” before it transformed into its original version with her dancers dressed as classic gangsters from the Al Capone era. She briefly stopped, and asked for the crowd’s approval before finishing off the song, and displayed the intense choreography that very few 50+ year old performers would have trouble accomplishing. At times throughout the show, her dancing has finally started to show some wear and tear, as her movements are not as quick and powerful as in years past, but nonetheless, understanding her limitations and working with what she’s got, which is plenty more than what one can say about other performers much younger than her, like Britney Spears who is now resorting to doing Las Vegas shows in her 30s.
As the show started nearing its close, she performed her classic “Material Girl” and was covered in a wedding veil with a bouquet jokingly yelling out, “Who wants to get married?”, and then throwing the bouquet to a fan who couldn’t hold onto it which prompted her to remark, “I guess you don’t want to get married. Don’t worry. It all goes downhill from there.” She took on a daring cover of Edith Piaf’s legendary song “La Vie En Rose” in French which turned out to be well-received from the crowd. Before breaking out into “bitch-mode” for “Unapologetic Bitch”, she exclaimed, “I don’t smoke, but I like to start fires.” During her performance of that song, she brought out a fan cross-dressing as Britney Spears onstage, and proceeded to give a playful spanking. At the end of it, she jokingly mentioned that she wasn’t going to kiss her again, but instead gave her a prize for her participation with a gold necklace that says once again, “Bitch, I’m Madonna.” She came out for her final encore to “Holiday”, and was playfully living it up with her dancers until she was lifted in the air from the stage to finally say her goodbyes and thank you’s to the crowd. The show’s closer lacked the energy that was needed to match the intensity of her opener, but after 30+ years of show business, she did more than enough to secure her place as one of music’s greatest icons. Time may be selfish in robbing people of their abilities as they age, but in the present moment, Time decided to leave her alone. For the fans’ sake and for the younger generations, we can only hope that they can leave her alone for a little while longer.