“Let’s face it, I’ve been doing that my entire career,” the Michigan-born pop icon says by phone from her home in New York City. “I’ve been waving that flag all along.”
Indeed she has. The Rochester Adams High School graduate — born Madonna Louise Ciccone in Bay City, then raised in Pontiac and Rochester — has critics who love her and others who consider her blasphemous. Some protested outside her concerts, and Toronto authorities even threatened arrest because of imagery in her 1990 Blond Ambition show.
This year’s Rebel Heart Tour — another opulent, multimedia extravaganza, which kicked off Sept. 9 in Montreal and includes 64 shows through March — has the Catholic League up in arms about a pole dance Madonna performs in a skimpy nun’s costume during the song “Holy Water.”
And the twice-married mother of four — oldest daughter Lourdes is in her second year at the University of Michigan — clearly relishes her well-established role of pop provocateur.
“It comes naturally,” explains Madonna, 57. “I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s just my nature. I tackle pretty complex themes in my work. It’s in my DNA to take ideas and conventions and to challenge the norms, to question things, to turn them inside out and say, ‘But what if …?’
“It’s not because I don’t respect people’s ideas and beliefs. I have ultimate respect for people’s ideas and beliefs. But people need to have their ideas and beliefs challenged, if only to make them stronger about what they believe in, to make people ask questions: ‘Why am I doing this? Why do I believe this? Why does this define me?’
“I think it’s important that people ask these questions, and ask themselves as well as each other. I think that’s the purpose of art, and that’s what I think about when I’m putting (a show) together.”
All of this certainly provokes interest — in a big way. Madonna has sold more than 300 million records since she began recording in 1982, making her the best-selling female recording artist of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. She’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who has sold 7.8 million concert tickets and earned more than $1 billion in ticket sales for her last 10 tours. The 2012 MDNA Tour’s take of $305.2 million was the 10th highest-grossing tour ever.
That, she says, reflects the considerable effort that goes into each of her shows — all scripted, conceptual affairs playing with delicate sexual and religious conventions and political and environmental issues — along with flashy, state-of-the-art staging and intricate choreography. The Rebel Heart Tour is about “romance, love, living for love, being a rebel heart,” Madonna says of the 23-song show, which spans her career from 1983’s “Holiday” through material from “Rebel Heart.”
“I mean, they’re kind of all intertwined — rising above, living in your dreams, overcoming heartbreak, things like that.
“You know — the simple things in life,” she adds with a chuckle.
The Rebel Heart Tour preparation was anything but simple, of course. Madonna assembled an army of creative collaborators to bring her ideas to life, teaming with the Montreal-based Moment Factory — which also worked on her Super Bowl XLVI halftime performance and the MDNA Tour — for multimedia staging that includes a specially shot video of former boxing champion Mike Tyson re-creating his cameo on the “Rebel Heart” song “Iconic.”
Jamie King — who’s worked with Madonna on previous tours as well as with Michael Jackson, Cirque du Soleil and more — is directing the show, with Megan Lawson and Jason Young choreographing the 20 dancers through intricate, often acrobatic, routines.
“I started out life as a dancer, so dancing is important to me,” says Madonna, who studied dance for a semester at U-M before moving to New York City. “I try to find the most unique and original dancers to work with and put it all together to tell a story that’s going to inspire people and change their lives. It’s a big goal, but that’s what we have to have — big goals.”
She tries to do the same with tour fashions, with multiple costume changes from both classic and cutting-edge designers such as Jeremy Scott, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, Alexander Wang, Prada and Miu Miu. All told, each show uses 1,000 articles of clothing; 500 pairs of shoes were custom-made for the company.
The hardest thing of all, though, is creating the setlist. Though “Rebel Heart” offers a theme she can build a structure around, crafting a show from 13 albums and nearly 40 Top-10 hits never gets easier.
“It’s hard to choose,” she acknowledges. “Sometimes I have to let go of things I love because they just don’t fit, they don’t sound right, they don’t go with the theme. Or I go, ‘Oh, I did that the last three shows. Even though I love that song, let’s do something new.’
“Y’know, I tend to like my more abstract, less commercial songs, but I realize I have to have songs that people know, that people want to sing along to and are familiar with. So I have to balance that out and not just do a creative show that’s going to please me.”
The Rebel Heart show, then, strikes a balance, giving fans three “Rebel Heart” tracks amid established favorites such as “La Isla Bonita,” “Dress You Up,” “Who’s That Girl” and “Material Girl” along with snippets of others (“Into The Groove,” “Everybody” and “Lucky Star.”) She also takes on Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.” There’s a trial-and-error aspect to that process as well, especially once rehearsals get to the point where the songs are integrated with the choreography and visual production.
“I’ll have one song that I’m really sure I want to do, and then suddenly I listen to an older song and go, ‘Nope, that’s the one. That’s it,’ and I get rid of the new one, even though I love it and even though I’ve never performed it and am dying to,” Madonna explains. “So I have to be quite brutal sometimes and cut s— out — sorry to swear. It’s hard.
“But it’s kind of like editing a movie, in a way, because there are scenes that you love but they just don’t help tell the story, so you have to let them go.”
There are those, of course, who have expected Madonna to let go of this kind of performing, to at some point downsize her productions and pull back from the strenuous choreography that’s marked her career. But she’s adamant she’s still capable of doing it and seems offended by any implication that she’s not.
“I have a very disciplined life,” she said. “I don’t do a lot of socializing. My life revolves around my show and my children and trying to live a very healthy lifestyle.
“The only thing I’m lacking right now is sleep — as always.”
And, she added, that drive will keep her Rebel Heart beating for the foreseeable future.
“I’m still inspired, just by life and being alive,” she says. “I don’t really think there’s an expiration date for being creative, you know? I think you keep going go until you don’t have anything more to say. I’ve still got things to say, so I keep going.”
By Gary Graff
Rebel heart tour by the numbers
• 1 specially designed crucifix-shaped stage that flows through the audience with a heart-shaped “Rebel Heart” at the end of the runway.
• 2.5 million Swarovski crystals adorn Madonna’s costumes.
• 2.150 million LED pixels light up rear screens on the Rebel Heart stage.
• 140,000 pounds of lights, sound and video equipment in each night’s performance.
• 55,000 pounds of moveable stage ramp used throughout the concert.
• 25,391 miles of road will be traveled by tour bus on the North American leg of tour.
• 10,000 hours of workmanship went into creating costumes from Alessandro Michele for Gucci, Alexander Wang, Fausto Puglisi, Jeremy Scott for Moschino, Nicolas Jebran, Miu Miu, Prada and Swarovski.
• 1,000-plus wardrobe pieces worn by performers.
• 500 pair of shoes were custom made.
• 200-plus pairs of fishnet stockings will be worn by Madonna before the tour wraps.
• 180 people work and travel on the Rebel Heart Tour.
• 121 days of rehearsal before opening night in Montreal.
• 60 people on the costume staff dress performers, sew and adjust costumes night after night.
• 22 videos play on the rear screens during the show.
• 20 dancers perform nightly with the Material Girl.
• 17 makeup brushes and five powder puffs used on Madonna each night.