You don’t get Madonna tickets to see a light-hearted show. You go to watch Olympic-level choreography routines that have been exhaustively road-tested by men who pole-dance on giant crucifixes. You go to see Madge dressed up in elaborately designed samurai, matador, and flapper outfits with so much theatrical flair, they look like they were hand-stitched by the ghosts of Rogers and Hammerstein’s costume designers. You go to see if the 57-year-old can still pull off high notes that are almost as athletic as her high kicks. And if you were at Madison Square Garden last night, as Madonna kicked off a three-night run of shows in her backyard, you saw all of that. But you saw something else, too, something you might not expect. There was Madonna, kicking back on stage, strumming a ukulele–and smiling. Was she actually having a good time up there?
Finally, here was a glimpse of the not-quite-so-serious Madonna. She even set the vibe by opening with a comedian. Amy Schumer staggered onto the stage with a bottle of booze in her hands and quipped, “Who better than me to open up for Madonna? Uh… Any band?” She killed it with dirty jokes involving Katie Couric, the Kardashians, and Abraham Lincoln, warming up the crowd for a set that later found Madonna talking in a Betty Boop voice, cracking jokes with the audience (“You’re too horny for me!” she told a man wearing bull horns), and finally bringing Schumer back on stage to dance to “Unapologetic Bitch” and… er, play with her Sock Bitch puppet.
The playful mood was a surprise, since the show didn’t start that way. She opened with “Iconic,” as a bleak image of Mike Tyson stared the crowd down from a massive video screen and Madonna was lowered from the ceiling in a red and black kimono, writhing around inside a cage made of swords. In voiceover mode, we could hear her sermonizing about how creativity is being crushed by corporate machine—an ironic message for a pop star who has cultivated such a powerful brand, she now sells a Material Girl fashion line at Macy’s. Dancers dressed as gladiators descended upon the stage, in hardware masks that covered their faces, and standing before them as their queen, Madonna, looked like Daenerys Targaryn from Game of Thrones, her long wavy blonde hair flowing behind her, her arms raised up as if to say, Love me! Fear me! As visually spectacular as it was narratively heavy-handed, it felt like a callback to her last tour, MDNA, which featured a dark charade that found Madonna wielding a gun on stage. But when the song ended with video footage of the gladiators knocking over a saintly-looking Madonna statue, the tone changed. Madonna has built a career by playing with what we hold sacred, whether it’s crucifixes or underground dance crazes. Now the only sacred thing she’s tearing down is Madonna herself.
During much of the show, she seemed to revel in her refusal to give the crowd the Madonna they’d always known. The setlist was crammed with material from the new album, disappointing those who came to hear the greatest hits. When she did dip into her back catalogue, she teased the audience with medleys that fused oldies with newer tracks. “Holy Water” segued into “Vogue,” as Madonna cavorted with scantily clad nuns (played by dancers in ruffled white panties) who swung around on crucifixes that towered at three stories high. Then “Vogue” segued back into “Holy Water,” as the dancers created a Last Supper tableau. She chased a male dancer up a long spiral staircase for “Heartbreak City,” then pushed him off the top and watched him free-fall to the ground as she sulked to “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.”
When she did play an old favorite at its full run time, she revamped the songs so that they were unrecognizable until the lyrics came in, which might’ve confounded those who wanted to sing along. But many of those new arrangements felt fresh and exciting. She turned “Burning Up” into a rock song, playing a guitar solo on a Flying V. She infused “Deeper and Deeper” with a pulsing house undercurrent that felt contemporary again in a dance-music era where groups like Disclosure reign. Not long after lying on the hood of a car, with mechanics swirling on wheel boards around her, and performing “Body Shop”—a song so literal about its sexual intentions, it doesn’t even qualify as a double entendre—she took on “Like a Virgin,” stripping the song down to little more than her voice and a galloping bass. Her performance of that classic was refreshingly minimal, too: no elaborate set pieces, just Madonna joyfully bouncing around stage. She stuffed the microphone in her pants, ripped open her shirt to reveal a black bra (“Getting hot in here, right?”), and dutifully humped the stage, but the whole thing was meant to be more campy than sexy, poking fun at the provocateur she was back when that song could’ve gotten her banned from the VMAs.
Madonna was winking at us—and maybe at a few others, too. She sang “La Vie En Rose” in French, possibly to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Edith Piaf’s death, or maybe to rile up her rumored rival Lady Gaga, who has claimed the song as her own signature set piece. When Madonna whipped out the ukulele for “La Vie,” then gushed in a faux-naïve Betty Boop voice, “Gosh! A girl can get awful nervous under these lights!” it sounded like she was playfully taking a shot at Taylor Swift, whose golly-gosh enthusiasm and ukulele strumming defined her Speak Now tour. Madonna recently told EW that she and Swift had planned to work on something together after teaming up for the iHeart Radio Music Awards in March, but the collaboration fell apart. Maybe there’s some bad blood?
Then again, maybe Madonna was just being Madonna, not trying to lash out at anyone in particular so much as trying to tease anyone she can. It was fitting that the final third of her show was devoted to matador themes, since Madonna has never stopped baiting her fans. She took a painstakingly long, slow walk up a few steps in her regal matador robe during “Living for Love,” intentionally antagonizing anyone in the crowd who might still be nervous that she’d repeat the famous spill she took at the Brit Awards.
But she also took pleasure in just being a goofball, whether she was pretending to throw back tequila shots during a Spanish-tinged-guitar rendition of “Get Into the Groove,” joining a conga line for “Dress You Up,” or dressing like a sexy Uncle Sam for the closer, “Holiday,” which arrived complete with a big confetti explosion. She even tried to riff with the crowd about her own unluckiness in love, asking the whole room, “Anyone want to get hitched?” Judging by accounts of her previous show in Montreal, the stage banter was scripted. And yet, that was just more proof that, decades after she broke onto the scene in New York, she’s still the ultimate professional, working 16-hour days just to perfect every move, every note, every line of breezy dialogue.
“I’m feeling very nostalgic,” she said toward the end of the show. “Do you people understand that I played Madison Square Garden thirty years ago?” The whole crowd erupted in cheers. “I survived!” she said, breathing hard, but also beaming. She was having fun. And, clearly, having fun was a whole lot of work.
by Melissa Maerz