Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” At Madison Square Garden, Wednesday, September 16th, 2015, Reviewed
Madonna has never been a great live act because her entire career is about not sincerity, but about feigning not feigning sincerity, so when an audience demands to connect with her, she responds with artistic distance. Distance can work in concert, David Bowie has been known to use it to great effect, and the Yeezus tour was a study in applied displacement, but for a sexual politician it is a difficult maneuver, does she want to be with you? Is she in love? Always a problem, Ray Of Light found the answer in religion and Music in music, but when she took to the dancefloor a little later she couldn’t find a substitute and by 2012 Madonna seemed stuck somewhere she needed to find her way out of. There is a great deal of difference to being put on a pedestal and toppling off your pedestal to meet your lover on the way down. That’s at the heart of her best album of the 21st century, the current Rebel Heart, a Goddess Toppled Off Her Pedestal, the feigned cold heart ,”just hold me while I cry my eyes out”. Now the question is, how real is it?
This feigned vs real is at the heart of “Like A Virgin”. In 1984, at the age of 27, on MTV’s VMA, she took Catholic concepts of purity, invented secondary virginity, and rolled on the floor in ecstatic faking. Nothing about the song made sense except its triumphant visual exaltation of what it means to be a good girl dressed in white… and what it doesn’t. Not as an artist but as a concept, “Like A Virgin” is her greatest mixing of the sacred and the profane, it frees virginity from innocence.
For 1985’s “Virgin” tour, she performed it as the video come to live, it seemed a little backhanded, and ever since then Madonna hasn’t known quite what to do with her most important song. In 2012, on the MDNA tour I wrote (here) “The evening, around midnight, reaches its lowest point with a lethargic rewriting of “Like A Virgin”, like Madeline Kahn in”Blazing Saddles, singing “I’m Tired”. Talk about a mistake. Did nobody play it back for her? A dreary antimelodic disaster area. Does this reflect Madonna’s feelings about sex in general? Or her latest boy toy?” I left the concert immediately following the song and vowed never to return.
Last night, Madonna did something she couldn’t do before ever, the feigned innocence of 1985 became a joyful explosion of dance and song, of a secondary young at heart that never leaves, all the contradictions Madonna has never quite figured out in the 30 years since the first time she performed “Live A Virgin” at Madison Square Garden, were resolved in the greatest moment of her concert career, last night.
After a rare misstep on “Candy Shop”, she came down the staircase off a cherry cutter and stood in the center of the cross shaped stage extension in the middle of the room and sang her heart out as a rhythm track kept her in time, Madonna criss crossed the stage, skipping and swinging her hips as though she was 27 again, or 25 or even an age when the “Like” would have been a false brag. It was as though she had found a way to make the song a pas de deux with her audience, about how over time doing this was making her feel brand new. Then Madonna put her mic in her pants, put her thumb in her mouth and danced around the stage in a moment so transcendent it was like watching her break through decades of layers to present something that must exist, the happiness of a performer performing, with nowhere to hide, nothing in the way, and no one between her and her audience, just a girl and us. I have placed a video of it from opening night in Montreal earlier this month at the end of this review.
She didn’t reach this height again, though her good spirits throughout the night ensured that the lowest moment -a bad “Material Girl”, part of a medley so she had to rearrange it and it didn’t work, and the opening two songs “Iconic” and “Bitch, I’m Madonna”, the former some warriors arch dance stuff and the latter a haiku come to life, were better than anything in 2012 but still ineffective. She was still all smoke and mirrors, still having you play the “Who’s That Girl” game, but to a much more generous effect.
The “who’s that girl” game explained the inclusion of comedienne Amy Schumer as the opener. Amy is the queen of feigned feelings, if any woman seemed born to fake orgasms that woman is Amy, who, from being a fat girls need to be fucked too poster child to shedding fifty pounds, wrote and starred in “Trainwreck” -a fairy tale she should have puked all over before putting her name to, and seemed to prove that everything she claimed to believe about women and physical attraction was bullshit. On stage though, Amy is impeccable. “Who better to open for Madonna? Any band in the entire world.” She smirked, before giving us some form of feigned insight into stardom. Lots of good stuff, especially when she is at an awards ceremony with Katy Perry, and also when she is discussing new sex moves (“The Houdinin” any one?”). It was a fine and funny performance, depreciation sure, and no I don’t believe her self-hatred is where she claims it is, but Amy is a great stand up performer. She is headlining MSG herself on June 23rd, 2016.
Of course, Amy does what she is meant to be. She stands there and tells joke, Why this concept, doing what you’re paid to do, is so rare in Arena Shows, I can’t tell you. I’ve had this problem with Taylor Swift on stage, for years I’ve recommended a theatre tour and Taylor recently admitted that if all the stage tech fell apart she could just sing with an acoustic guitar and it would be just as good. Taylor underestimates how lousy the set pieces are, it would be much, much better. The best time I’ve ever seen Lady Gaga was her headlining performance at Jingle Ball -where she had no choice but play it straight. Only mediocre performers, a Katy Perry or Britney Spears, improve vastly by hiding with dancers.
Madonna would dance better if the choreography wasn’t so wooden. With all due respect, if you can’t compete with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, why are you doing lame two steps and push ups at all? It was disastrous in 2012 because every song was so dark and violent it was both bad and mean spirited. Last night, “Holy Water”‘s crucifix as strippers poles is shocking to… I don’t know who? Maybe Pope Francis or Rudy Giuliani , but everybody else shrugs. But it isn’t mean, it might not be great dance or art, but it isn’t a major downer. It is as though the MDNA tour was her break up tour, angry over being dropped by a younger man, her anger came out in performance. The songs that appear on Rebel Heart were hatched in this dark time of the soul 2012. But Madonna isn’t Bjork, MDNA wasn’t Bjork’s entirely valid Vulnerica performance, and over pumped, looking much older three years ago than she does now, deeply upset about a romantic life in tatters, all the anger came out in the darkest and least appealing way possible. Not least going on stage at 11pm in 2012 at this very venue. She went on at 950pm last night.
Perhaps Rebel Heart is Madonna’s greatest hits tour by other means, with her Live Nation 360 deal up for renewal in 2017, a terrific album (one of my top ten of the year) stiffing -if “Ghosttown” doesn’t break pop come in Madonna your number is up, and ticket sales soft (though MSG was sold out), Madonna better give the people want they want or get ready to mortgage a couple of her castles. As far as agit-pop statements are concerned, this was Madonna gender genuflect but by being as inclusive as possible, taking her family to us. Remember the “Truth Or Dare” movie, it made the point that her extended family were the dancers. You know how Bruce married an E Street Bander? Madonna married one of her dancers. So as always with Madonna, the music is tacked on, she shares through dance. And with exceptions, a rousing “Material” as House music, a penultimate power punch “Unapologetic Bitch”, the bigger the production the less great the performance. Still, “Who’s That Girl”, “Like A Virgin”, “True Blue” “Dress You Up” (“all my songs in one”) and a show stopping “La Vie En Rose” were mostly minimal. and great. “La Vie En Rose”, with Madonna on ukulele, made the same case as Taylor Swift did, Madonna could just sit down and sing and it would be enough.
“I’m feeling very nostalgic”, Madonna claimed about her return to MSG 30 years after her first performance here. But she shouldn’t be. Madonna didn’t have the rebel heart for it then, she hadn’t learnt how hard she could cry, how alone she could be. She didn’t appreciate human frailty the way she did last night. She is playing tonight at the same venue, if you love Madonna this is the concert you must see.