Early in the set during Madonna’s nearly two-hour Moda Center show, a man wrapped in Jewish religious gear—a tallit, or prayer shawl, and a yamulkah—danced in a gleaming group to the sounds of “Devil Pray.”
Well, I thought, I didn’t see that at my Bar Mitzvah. That was after the sexy nuns pole-dancing on crosses but before the “Get into the Groove” conga line. It was that kind of show.
No one operates on the level of Madonna, one of the rare American pop acts interested in pushing her arena shows to the level of actual art. Or at least couture. In the last few years, I’ve seen any number of arena superstars: Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Katy Perry, Drake, Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake, and the magnificent Cher among them. All had their highs and lows, their own version of a big-tent spectacle. And with Madonna drawing largely on this year’s “Rebel Heart” album, plenty of her peers have played more hits at the Moda Center.
But she was untouchable on stage creativity. The details of her and her dancers’ costuming, crafted by Gucci, Prada and other top labels, was immaculate whether her imagination steered toward bulls and matadors or provocative Catholicism. The set-ups weren’t one-and-done, or pointless costume changes: in one run, Madonna shifted the “Body Shop” scene—a Sexy ’50s Auto Shop—toward a diner’s exterior for vintage-style love song “True Blue,” and then into the restaurant toward the jukebox, an image that played on the video screen behind the stage as Madonna stood on a pile of tires. In other words: transitions and storytelling!
The narrative Madonna was trying to tell across the night—her first in Portland since two nights at the Arlene Schnitzer in 1985—was far from unified, or comprehensible: it started with medieval, cross-bearing warriors and wound up in top-hat-clad Prohibition, with a jumbled message about love and revolution and unexpected Mike Tyson video footage all in there somewhere. But at least it came with top-tier choreography, from the swarm of bodies that came together and fell apart in “Living for Love” to the stairway ballet that played out between Madonna and a doomed lover in “HeartBreakCity”: it ended with a gasp, as she pushed him from the second story off into a sudden hole in the stage.
Between songs, she spoke about the need to destroy bigotry. “We have so much more to fight for,” she said, a serious moment amid commentary on the male sex organ—she is, quote, “all about” it—and a profane request for the audience to count in Spanish with her. Like Cher, Madonna pulls on other cultures recklessly for her imagery: a critic who is younger and angrier about this sort of thing should probably take her to task for it, but then they’d be haranguing an incredible conga line.
And the music? It was fine. “Rebel Heart” is no Madonna classic, but it’s far from dull, and her more intimate showcases, including a ukulele treatment of French standard “La Vie En Rose,” revealed a vocalist capable of pleasant warmth but not multi-octave heat. Yes, Madonna’s a singer. But she is also so much more, and so much better, no matter how many kids keep coming up behind her.