Even before Madonna took the stage Monday at the United Center, the senses hit overload. Warrior dancers hoisted crosses, Mike Tyson issued threats from the video screen, fake blood streamed as if from a tabloid murder photo, and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” provided the soundtrack.
Music isn’t quite incidental to the spectacle that is a Madonna show, it’s more like an ingredient in a multimedia melting pot of outrageous fashion, noir video, theater, dance, performance art and social commentary. There were 20 dancers and three musicians, 22 videos and a whopping 60 people backstage taking care of costumes that ran from Cotton Club fringe to a long, flowing royal cape. There was even a Britney Spears look-alike pulled from the audience.
More difficult to find on many of the singer’s tours was an emotional center. But that wasn’t a problem Monday – the most intimate Madonna tour yet. It’s tough for any pop entertainer, let alone a 57-year-old female artist, to retain her chart appeal for one decade, let alone four. Madonna may still be the most famous woman in the pop world – Beyonce might take issue with that – but she’s had only a few top-10 singles in the new Millennium.
Though she could easily live off greatest hits tours or Vegas residences, Madonna somehow remains engaged. Her latest album, “Rebel Heart,” is a mess, a tangle of proclamations and confessions. She wants it all. There are songs that expose insecurities and fess up to narcissism. And then there are the tunes that basically say, “I’m old enough to be your mom and I can still do anything you can do better – got a problem with that?”
“Who do you think you are?” she barked at the outset. And later she demanded, “Get off my pole!” during a profane ode to oral sex that also quoted one of her biggest hits, “Vogue.” What’s a Madonna concert without a little blasphemy? “Holy Water” staged the Last Supper as an orgy, including a stunt where Madonna mounted a spinning cross while standing atop a dancer dressed as a nun. It’s probably just as well that Pope Francis avoided Chicago on his current American visit.
The defiant attitude, the provocative posturing that defined her early rise to stardom played a part in the show, but these poses felt tired – yesterday’s shock is today’s act of desperation. Fortunately, the attitude became more playful and introspective as the show proceeded through its four major set pieces.
Half the set list was drawn from the commercially under-performing “Rebel Heart,” even though the singer has more than three dozen top-10 hits, mostly from the ‘80s and ‘90s. But even the hits she reprised were often reconfigured, from the jazzy “Material Girl” to the ukulele-led “True Blue.” Whereas her 2012 tour flirted with darkness and death – yes, Madonna can do Goth, too – the current two-hour performance had a lighter, warmer, more personal tone. There were smiles and something approaching vulnerability.
For “Like a Virgin,” Madonna dialed down the bump and grind for a solo performance that came across as quietly celebratory, as though dancing by herself in a darkened bedroom. A solo “La Vie en Rose” may not have approached the towering heart-break of Edith Piaf’s signature version, but Madonna delivered it with a rich tone that would’ve been beyond her during her hit-making prime.
With fans packed closely around her on a heart-shaped stage in the middle of the arena, she prefaced “Who’s That Girl” with a statement: “I’m still trying to figure out who I am.” Who needs shock appeal when you’ve got Madonna psychoanalyzing herself on stage?