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When Rebel Heart was released I wrote that “‘some things can’t be replaced’ could fairly be described as the over-arching theme of the album”. This is, it’s safe to say, underlined by the Rebel Heart tour. I had read reviews describing it as a joyful experience but I couldn’t quite fathom how the setlist, which looked somewhat schizophrenic and jarring on paper, could lend itself to that.
Well, it does. It really, really does.
This was a Madonna at ease with herself: with her massive legacy, which she has sometimes shied away from, and with her current status as the grande dame of popular music. It’s no accident that the tour opens with Iconic and Bitch I’m Madonna before roaring back to 1983 with Burning Up, where “I’m not the same, I have no shame, I’m on fire!” was a prescient mission statement. The Rebel Heart songs, packed with allusions to Madonna’s position as an ageing pop star, sit surprisingly comfortably alongside old classics overwhelmingly taken from the first decade of her career. Perhaps most shockingly of all, these older songs are largely performed straight, rather than transformed in one of her trademark reinventions. There was a palpable sense of love pouring towards the stage when she performed True Blue, Like A Virgin, Like A Prayer, La Isla Bonita, Deeper and Deeper, Material Girl, Holiday in versions everyone could dance and sing-a-long to. Even a jazz version of Music quickly reverts to the squelching electro everybody knows. For once she was giving people the nostalgia they crave in their iconic pop stars – and she seemed to enjoy doing it.
As opposed to the brilliantly oppressive darkness of the MDNA tour, there was little here to disrupt audience expectations of ‘Madonna’: religion, sex, love, politics, defiance and feminism all dutifully appeared (sometimes all at once, as when Madonna surfed atop a dancer dressed as a nun on a rotating crucifix(!)) but always with a knowing, humourous wink. The flashes of steel were a lot more subtle this time round: the inclusion of many Rebel Heart songs was sweetened with the sugar of classics for casual fans, flashes of Give It 2 Me’s ‘Nothing’s gonna stop me now’ interspersed Music while the pre-encore show ended with new album track Unapologetic Bitch. Even the latter, however, was made more palatable for casual listeners by being delivered with light-touch humour and by dragging Graham Norton up on stage.
Given the title of the album, tour and the heart-shaped stage, it was only fitting that the song Rebel Heart felt like the throbbing centrepiece of the show. It was delivered alone by Madonna, standing in front of a screen depicting fan art of her throughout her past three decades:
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It was both moving and celebratory, a testament to one of the most spectacular careers in popular music. That’s what this show is. Madonna might be one of the hardest working people in pop but she seems to finally feel that she has little left to prove. All she has to do is remind us of who she is, what she’s done and let us love her because, by and large, her fans have been on much of the journey with her. “We’re alive. We survived. And amen to fucking that!” she exclaimed at one point. Amen, indeed.
And she performed Candy Shop, of course. Bitch, she’s Madonna.
Photos and videos are here.