Madonna. Love her or loathe her, she is the biggest selling female artist in history and arguably one of the most famous people on the planet. Ever controversial, her chameleon-like ability to adapt to the evolutionary pop landscape has ensured she has always led from the front. From the moment her debut single ‘Everybody’ reached number three on the US dance chart in 1982 Madonna has taken control of her career with a steely determination, cementing her status as both cultural icon and iconoclast.
‘Rebel Heart’, Madonna’s thirteenth studio album released in March 2015 was greeted with mixed reviews; for some it was a long awaited return to form whilst others criticised its formulaic blend of sex and religion as offering a sub-standard facsimile of her ‘Like a Prayer’ heyday. Her age was also a factor, 56 when her tenth world tour in support of this album began, could she still sell us that petulance, sex and irreverent cool convincingly?
My first Rebel Heart show was on a Saturday night in Brooklyn back in September. More carnival than gig, this was a celebration, a homecoming for the girl who exploded onto New York’s late seventies clubbing scene and made the city her own. Drag queens dressed as eighties, nineties and noughties Madonna, horned matadors and super-fans with their idol’s image inked across every available inch of skin mingled with the Material Girl dilettantes. The energy and excitement was palpable.
Support act, comedian Amy Schumer, set the tone of the evening perfectly; rude and refreshingly excited to be opening for her idol, her conversational delivery made the audience feel we were chatting to a very funny, very enthusiastic fan at the bar.
This being Madonna, we were left to wait a little while following Amy’s exit before the pre-show music began, but when it did, Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’ caused a huge ripple of excitement around the Barclays Centre.
The curtain drops, the video screens light up, Rebel Heart’s ‘Iconic’ begins and there she is, descending in a cage, dressed in a mediaeval warrior’s kimono and flanked by masked dancers holding huge crucifixes. Resolutely age-defying, her dancing borders on acrobatic and the spectacle is spellbinding. She prowls the length of the crucifix shaped stage with ferocious intent. This is a performer who will not be told she is too old or that her best is behind her, it’s clear to see that Madonna’s reputation as a perfectionist is thoroughly deserved.
This show centres on new material complimented by pole dancing nuns and a mesmerising reworking of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, but that’s not to say Madonna doesn’t dig into her extensive back catalogue to treat the audience to stripped back versions of old favourites. ‘Like a Virgin’ is given the back to basics treatment, and sees her skipping alone along the stage with the energy and joy of a teenager embarking on their first romance. ‘True Blue’ has Madonna adopting a rockerbilly look and playing along on a ukulele.
For me Madonna’s genius lies in her ability to make a such a strong connection with her audience. We’re in a twenty thousand seat arena and she manages to make it feel like an incredibly intimate space. Seated at the bottom of the stage with just an acoustic guitarist to accompany her, she sings ‘Who’s That Girl?’, ‘Ghostown’ and later a cover of Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie en Rose’ allowing her voice to shine. It is through moments like these, without the distraction of a huge production, that are clearly cherished by the audience. She talks about Sean Penn, she talks about life in New York and how Brooklyn is home to her oldest friend, actress Debi Mazar who is in the audience tonight. She is charming, funny and incredibly charismatic. But she’s Madonna, she’s not an infallible icon, and so to Manchester, where that point is proved repeatedly.
Manchester’s arena plays host to Madonna’s only gig in the north of England. It’s a rainy Monday evening and we arrive with high hopes of a Brooklyn style carnival atmosphere to transcend the rotten weather. We’re greeted with an oddly flat atmosphere. Gone are the drag queens and horned matadors. People are standing around juggling pints whilst looking at their watches and grumbling. She’s late. An announcement on the tannoy tells us that “the show will end at 23:30, a situation beyond the control of the artist and the venue”. A barman in the know tells me all isn’t well, Madonna arrived for the soundcheck at 18:30 at which point problems emerged with the technology underpinning the entire show. We wait for an update. The audience are getting restless, a chorus of boos rings out around the arena. Finally at 22:00 Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’ heralds the start of the show and she’s here. The audience are instantly transfixed and all complaints about punctuality are put to one side.
Madonna addresses the issue with characteristic humour telling the audience “I just wanna thank you all for waiting. My lateness tonight is due to – I don’t like to be late, by the way, and all you bitches who keep complaining about it can shut the fuck up. I’m not back there eating chocolates and filing my nails and getting my extensions done.”
The audience roar with laughter and cheer as she continues:
“Tonight, our video crashed, and we had no video…we had to wait until we could reboot it, and it just so happens that the head of the company that created the machine is right here in Manchester. So praise the lord and thank you God, but that is why we are late. Alright? No selfish diva bitch reason. And if you diva bitches want to keep complaining about it, then don’t come to my show. ‘Cuz I got mad love for you, anyway, I just want to thank you all for waiting. And I need to feel it back. So let’s sing a love song.”
Whether it’s the video problem, the fact she banged her head backstage and by her own admittance “couldn’t concentrate” or whether she’s still sore from being booed by her usually adoring audience, there’s something uneasy in the atmosphere tonight. The show is just as breathtaking as it was in Brooklyn and Madonna’s acapella rendition of ‘Open Your Heart’, replacing a medley of ‘Dress You Up’, ‘Into the Groove’ and ‘Lucky Star’ is a highlight, but it’s clear she’s not in a good mood. There are no intimate girly chats about her life and loves, instead she complains about the layout of the arena and promises to write to the mayor of Manchester because she doesn’t need “a fucking parking lot” in front of her stage. The show ends abruptly after ‘Material Girl’ with Madonna assuring us she loves us before disappearing underneath the stage.
The subsequent reaction on social media was mixed, with some people furious to have paid so much money, only to see the show cut short. Madonna issued a statement resolutely defending her position and insisting that the audience only really missed twelve minutes of material. And she has a point, Madonna is capable of delivering one hell of a show and throughout the evening it felt as though she had set out to do just that, she wasn’t about to let a booing audience and technological hiccups defeat her. An example of the same indomitable spirit that took her from obscurity in New York City to worldwide success. We all have bad days at work, this was hers, but she turned it around and she delivered despite the obstacles.
Madonna takes the Rebel Heart tour to Glasgow’s SSE Hydro on Sunday 20th December.