Madonna’s show made for spectacular eye and ear candy. But what was it all about? That’s where things got a little hazy.
By Brett Milano
In terms of production values and sheer spectacle, Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” show at the Garden on Saturday beats anything I’ve seen on a concert stage. With three stages in constant motion—and with a few nods to Cirque du Soleil for imagery and production — it was quite literally a three-ring circus, complete with acrobatic dancers, levitating stages, layers of video backdrops, lavish costumes, and pole-dancing nuns.
Since this is a Madonna show, you would hope for things to get a little racy. The nuns turned up in “Holy Water” which blurred two of her longtime favorite topics, sexuality and Christianity (Presenting oral sex as a sacrament, it’s not coincidentally her best song in years). Yet much of the show proved almost wholesome: The show’s finale was an old fashioned French can-can number, and there was a Spanish fiesta scenario for “La Isla Bonita.” And she waved (and wore) the flag on the encore of “Holiday,” where confetti shot into the loges, and the main stage rose 45 degrees while dancers tethered on ropes did backflips. Madonna was then hoisted off on trapeze wires for her grand exit.
It made for spectacular eye and ear candy. But what was the show all about? That’s where things got a little hazy. She explained at one point that having a “rebel heart” means “fighting for what you believe in, and dying for what you believe in.” (This is not something I’d recommend to most people with gun permits, and perhaps not the wisest thing to suggest nowadays). Elsewhere it seemed to be about Madonna’s struggles with, well, something: The opening monologue (which led to the new song “Iconic,” flanked by cross-carrying inquisitors) referred to “all the creativity that’s been crushed by corporate branding” (Last I checked Madonna was still managed and booked by the largest entertainment corporation in the world, so draw your own irony). And she turned a romantic interlude (on “Heartbreak City”) into a getting-even scenario, pushing a dancer off a twenty-foot spiral staircase and announcing “That’s what happens when you mess with the queen.” Odd that she’d take this tack—and put a defensive song called “Bitch I’m Madonna” right upfront in the set — when her massive stardom is the very point of the show.
She justified that stardom (but not her love; that song was only in a video segue) by dipping into her catalogue of greatest hits, which were and remain first-class pop music. Most songs were remixed or otherwise rearranged, so it was fitting to hear an irreverent treatment of songs (“Like a Virgin,” “Material Girl”) that were irreverent in the first place. The show featured a few acoustic interludes where she sang with her own guitar or ukulele, and at these points was clearly singing live. (I’m less sure about the production numbers, where the vocals often sounded canned or at least enhanced — there was a band onstage, but most of the music was digital.) But anyone who thinks Madonna can’t really sing needs only to hear her solo version of “La Vie en Rose,” done just before the show’s splashy finale. For that matter she still dances great at age 57, and holding the spotlight with so much else going on was a feat in itself.
The opening act wasn’t announced in advance, so many showed up early hoping it would be Amy Schumer, who did the honors last week in New York. No such luck: The opener was a DJ, Michael Diamond, whose set only proved that DJ’ing never works in a sit-down venue — especially when the music is still digital and there’s even less to watch.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.