“Nobody f**ks with the queen.”
First there were the questionable #RebelHeart Instagram posts. Then came another slathering of ultra-raunchy songs on her latest album. Oh – and then there was the disastrous leak of the whole collection months before it was even announced. But the single moment Madonna shocked the world most earlier this year was when she was yanked backwards off a raised platform by an Armani cape live on British television.
There was a thud on the Brit Awards stage. The vocals went quiet. An barely audible gasp spread around the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena like a Mexican wave. Nevertheless, a clearly shaken but defiant Madonna got back up to continue with ‘Living for Love’. The lyric “I’m gonna carry on” never felt more powerful and apt.
So for her opening date in London as part of the ‘Rebel Heart’ world tour – to support her 13th studio album of the same name – Madonna returns to the scene for the first time since it happened. She swore she’d never wear a cape on stage again. But then here she was mid-show – back on the platform ready to have the red material ripped off her before the thudding, house-tinged banger burst into action. Anticipation is high. The dancers tense their arms ready to tug. And success! The crowd roars and the 57-year-old finally has her moment to do the performance she was meant to 10 months earlier.
After filling column inches for over 30 years now, Madonna knows a thing or two about taking a hit and brushing it off. As the show opens with Rebel Heart album track ‘Iconic’, the blonde performer is lowered in a cage dressed as a Japanese warrior. Naturally, it’s stuffed with more religious iconography than a Dan Brown novel, every nook and cranny of the stage tempting outrage.
Of course, the newer material doesn’t resonate as much with her more longtime fans, but the glitchiness of ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’, the guitar twangs of ‘Devil Pray’ and emotive sway of ‘Heartbreak City’ sit nicely alongside her older hits. It allows Madge to continue pushing that envelope, raising those eyebrows, but doing so with tongue firmly in cheek. Pole-dancing nuns? Check. Writhing around on a golden table for the Last Supper? Sorted. Gyrating on buff mechanics? Grab a spanner. Madonna is a showgirl and by now she knows what her audience expects. “Nobody f**ks with the Queen,” she declares. Well, quite.
So the more unexpected moments actually come when all the madness and pomp fades away. Madonna grabs her electric guitar for golden oldie ‘Burning Up’, delivering a charming rendition of the often-overlooked hit. Three decades on, 1986’s ‘True Blue’ proves its worth as an enchanting sing-along, complete with ukulele plucks. And The O2 was transformed into the capital’s biggest disco for a surprise resurfacing of early ’90s floorfiller ‘Deeper and Deeper’. Madonna may have caught some criticism on previous tours for ignoring some of her hidden gems, but here she parades them with the right amount of care.
And the blockbuster smashes came quicker than Madonna’s on-stage wit (which was very fast, by the way). ‘Like a Virgin’ required no staging, just Madge grabbing her fans’ hands and bouncing around the set, giving it a simple but effective buoyancy. The Latin flair was fully charged for a swaying ‘La Isla Bonita’, which flamenco’d its way excitedly into a mash-up of ‘Dress You Up’, ‘Lucky Star’ and ‘Into the Groove’. She may have performed them a million times before, but Madonna kept it looking fresh and, more importantly, incredibly fun.
As for that on-stage patter, the Michigan star’s self-awareness is acutely sharp. “It’s so nice to sit down for a moment,” she says, pulling up a stool after a gruelling routine. The punch line? “Even I have to admit I outdo myself.” Then there’s the more playful humour, mixed with some deadpan egotism. “I wish someone would give me a spanking, but I never do anything wrong.” Madonna can sometimes come across as cold, but her Rebel Heart is obviously a warm one this time out.
But then, when Madonna does serious, she does it well. To mark World Aids Day she gave a rousing speech about the fight against the disease, reminding the crowd that it took the lives of her adoptive son David’s family. It was a powerful moment, which turned emotional when she dedicated an unexpected performance of ‘Like a Prayer’ to the cause. Easily a show highlight, Madonna started the 1989 chart-topper backed by light guitar, building it up into a massive soft-rock number by the finale. It’s been any Madonna fan’s staple for 26 years, but here its impact felt incredibly raw and moving.
With 82 singles to her name (and many of them massive hits), even a concert lasting over two hours can’t squeeze all the favourites in. The only disappointment was the inclusion of cuts like ‘Candy Shop’ and a cover Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie En Rose’. While both were good, it’s hard to stomach they took a place over superior numbers like ‘Sorry’, ‘Hung Up’ and ‘Frozen’. It’s a high-class problem to have, but with Madonna’s unbreakable fighting spirit and relentless passion to move forward with her music, that setlist is only going to get more and more crammed. Which is precisely why she remains the ultimate ringmaster of pop pageantry.