On October 19, 2015 the ice lay mainly beneath the stage, as Madonna brought her multi-media extravaganza to the San Jose arena, normally the home of our local ice hockey team. The tour is in support of the recent leak/release of the album Rebel Heart. That record is one of Madonna’s best since 1998’s Ray of Light, with over two-dozen songs that cross genres, from dance tracks to ballads, delivered with some of strongest most resonant vocals on record. Sample “Unapologetic Bitch,” a supremely catchy dis on a former lover, or “Ghosttown,” one of her best love songs of recent years. The title track possibly offers a glimpse into Madonna herself:
So I took the road less travelled by
And I barely made it out alive
Through the darkness somehow I survived
Tough love – I knew it from the start
Deep down in my rebel heart
This followed by “Beautiful Scars” seem to cap a record that represents this artist with work that invites the listener to take her as a whole person, scars or not.
The show’s set list predictably favored the new release with nine selections, along with twelve songs spanning as many prior releases. On one end of the spectrum, new track “Devil’s Pray” reflected on the evils of drug addition, while “Body Shop” was a sexy play on words, set against a backdrop of the titular auto repair set. For those looking to hear some of the 80’s work, “Burning Up,” “True Blue” – a sing-along with our host on ukulele, and encore “Holiday” served up some fulfilling dance-pop. The best was “La Isla Bonita,” accompanied with flamingo guitar, everyone adorned in traditional Spanish attire. Other early tracks were made part of medleys, and changed radically from their original versions, which reduces their impact a bit, while still touching on special memories. Best surprise of the night for us was the inclusion of the ballad “Frozen” from Ray of Light, one of those tracks that displays Madonna’s vocal range and the depth and impact of her lyrics.
The staging on this tour was, as usual, expansive and bold. The stage extended from one end of the arena to the other via cross-shaped catwalk. Set pieces included the grand entrance via descending cage surrounded by exotic warriors, the aforementioned auto shop set, and a huge table set resembling that of the last supper. These shows are akin to Las Vegas productions, much like veteran diva Cher, complete with hi-def video, large band, dancers, and lots of props and production value. One nit, the video screen configuration and content, as well as the dance troupe and choreography was impressive, but not on par with prior tours such as the shows supporting 2008’s Hard Candy.
Should we expect someone of Madonna’s fame, in the middle of this kind of massively produced multi-media event to express deep thoughts or very personal sentiments? If so, that’s something missing in this show between the lights, videos, dancers, and stagecraft. Other artists like Pink have walked this tightrope, allowing for what seem like personal moments, time to express something honest from the heart. For others it seems like years of massive press coverage, paparazzi, and prying eyes build a wall of protection, and a veneer of attitude and quips triumphs. It would be reasonable to assume Madonna could be affected in this way and at times during the two-hour spectacle it seemed so. Nonetheless, at one point she gave a shout out to a few fans that had followed the tour from city to city, and there was a simple moment of grace and vulnerability when she danced alone and at length, traversing the long catwalk to the hit “Music.” And, during one interlude, after a fan near the stage expressed his adoration, her retort was one of humility, something akin to “Oh you want me, you don’t know what you’re asking for!” Other than those moments, what’s missing from these shows are more opportunities for Madonna to go off script, chances to hear her reflect on the origins of a song, or more broadly her life and depth of experience surviving a career that’s spanned more than thirty years. Without it, the show is a display of attitude, of titillation with less intimacy, but probably what we should expect to be fair, given the scale of the presentation, and this star’s massive popularity.
Recently during an interview with radio personality Howard Stern, we did get to spend time with the person, more than the persona, and it made for riveting listening. At one point, after Howard asked how long she could keep this up, Madonna said that she intends to forge ahead, that eventually she wants to do some unadorned acoustic gigs, at smaller clubs, to be closer to audiences. It’s clear she wants to connect, and fans will be the better for it, as we certainly admire M’s drive, her strength, flaunting social conventions, and pushing boundaries. We will be back for that show, but in the meantime, as to any quibbles, Madonna says it best:
I think you’re confusing me with somebody else
I won’t apologize for being myself