Madonna’s album Rebel Heart was bedevilled by leaks; she fell flat on her backside at the Brit awards; and her Instagram gaffes have made Jeremy Corbyn look like a Rupert Murdoch-style media mastermind. As she arrives in Madison Square Garden on the fourth date of her 10th tour – the last under her 10-year, $120m contract with Live Nation – she should be up against it. Yet Madonna is always at her best with her back to the wall, when the killer instinct that has sustained her through over 30 years in pop rears to the surface, a visceral refusal to be beaten.
Her choice of support act on this homecoming gig – since New York is the place she remade herself – is very Madonna, all wrong on paper but in practice, right on the money. Amy Schumer takes the stage in front of a massive backdrop of Madonna’s face staring at the heavens and clutching a sword to her breast, the massive machinery of pop music concealed behind it. Swigging from a bottle of champagne, and with nothing but a microphone and a stool, the comic of the moment says that she was asked: “‘Who better than you to open up for Madonna?’” “Uh,” she rhetorically answers. “Any band?”
Yet Schumer’s perfect reading of the audience, in which straight men are such a minority as to be non-existent, (“It’s like taking a warm bath in a ton of dick that doesn’t want you”) weapons-grade filth (“We’re here to rethink cum”) and description of the Kardashians as a family who “take the faces they were born with as a light suggestion” reduce the crowd to marshmallow before Madonna has even made an appearance.
Twenty-five years from her apotheosis, 1990’s Blond Ambition tour, Madonna’s vision of the pop concert – in which music is combined with dance, video and costume, in order to reconceptualise familiar hits into an overwhelming sensory bombardment – has now been copied by generations of pop stars. She’s also notorious for stuffing the setlist with new material, thwarting those who would love an oldies show. At first the signs aren’t promising: the show starts with film of Madonna writhing in a sequinned dress in a cage, while her voiceover chunters that creativity is being threatened by corporations (ironic, given that Madonna is a formidable corporation in her own right).
She then descends from the ceiling similarly banged up, while knights in armour march down the stage, which juts almost the length of the arena. It’s Madonna does Game of Thrones. The first song is Iconic, one of the dimmer bulbs from Rebel Heart, followed by Bitch I’m Madonna, a great title in search of a decent song. But when the dancers depart, and Madonna struts down the runway to strap on a flying V, the show has lift-off with Burning Up. One of her earliest records, it amounts to a manifesto (“I’ll do anything, I’m not the same, I have no shame”) and all these years later it still grabs you by the throat. Aged 57, Madonna is still palpably hungry, and her performance has an enduring rawness and truth. Unmediated and undiluted, she’s the ringmaster of her own circus, connecting with her hardcore in a totally instinctive way, regardless of the choreography, pyrotechnics and fancy costumes (created by a battery of top fashion designers – but really, who cares?).
Madonna’s striking ability to imbue songs that might seem throwaway with significance and depth is illustrated four songs in. On record, Holy Water is a mortifying extended metaphor for her, ahem, vaginal secretions. But on stage, it’s a Ken Russell fantasia in which a scene of transgender naughty nuns poledancing (including Madonna climbing some 12 feet into the air to stand on a revolving naked man, one of several moments which involve genuine physical peril) morphs into a genuinely unnerving demonic parody of the Last Supper in which Madonna ends up tied up on the table, legs akimbo.
Two more album tracks follow – the dodgy Devil Pray and the lovely Messiah – before the show hits its second section, set in a 50s garage where Madonna and the dancers prance to Body Shop (another number DOA on record) before gathering on a pile of tyres for a ukulele singalong to True Blue. From then on, it’s clear that the Rebel Heart tour connects today’s Madonna with the energy and boldness of her early days – there’s precious little from the many eras in between. HeartBreakCity, performed atop a spiral staircase, morphs into her mid-80s, yearning cover of Rose Royce’s Love Don’t Live Here Anymore, before she tears into Like a Virgin, given a 21st-century update, but performed solo, with all the allure and aggression with which she infused it when it was first released.
The following section has a Mexican theme, Madonna in full Day of the Dead finery, and of course performing La Isla Bonita, the only song from her past she revisits on almost every tour, along with Dress You Up, Into the Groove and Who’s That Girl? – a song, she says, about “not knowing who the fuck you are”. It’s a moving affirmation of her ongoing, instinctive relationship with her Latino audience.
The title track of Rebel Heart is performed against a morphing backdrop of fan art depicting her many image changes, though the show actually reveals how consistent she has been underneath it all, endowed with an unswerving belief in the transformative power of pop. The final straight is pure pleasure, Madonna in a flapper’s outfit, performing a jazz-era take on Music (in visuals alone – musically it still packs the robotic punch that made it irresistible 15 years ago), then going into a showstopping Material Girl, performed on an upended video screen titled 45 degrees, in which Madonna pushes the top-hatted dancers down the slope, one by one, in a reboot of the famous video.
And then there’s a moment of intimacy, Madonna perching at the end of the circular hydraulic platform with her ukulele, announcing that she is going to perform one of her favourite songs. What ensues is an unaccompanied version of Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose, suddenly revealing that after all these years of being dismissed as a singer, Madonna has the pipes. Her rendition bites through the inherent campness of the concept to locate something unarguably moving. Finally, Madonna brings Schumer out again during Unapologetic Bitch, spanking her and then giving her a banana as a reward. Rising to the challenge, Schumer pretends to stick it up her backside, to the delight of the audience.
Holiday, performed with the stars and stripes rampant, is a victory lap. Madonna had said: “I’m feeling pretty nostalgic tonight … I performed here 30 years ago.” Her Madison Square Garden concert seems simultaneously like the latest stage of a 32-year durational performance art piece about stardom and an affirmation that there is simply no other performer like her. Tonight,
Madonna kills it.