Whenever anyone asks who my favorite singer is, I say Madonna. Those older than me would nod understandingly, while those in my generation would look bewildered, asking if Madonna is still relevant. It’s an expected response. After all, people my age listen to Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift. But even with the popularity of these younger singers, don’t you think it’s strange that Madonna still has the title of Queen of Pop? It’s a title that still follows her even if she’s 57 years old. And after her concert in Manila, she proves that she still deserves to be called that.
Her Rebel Heart concert is her first in Manila. Strange, considering she has been in the business for 37 years. And in that span of time, she still shows every female singer how to do it, as she is the best-selling female recording artist of all time, and is top touring female artist of all time. 2008’s Sticky and Sweet Tour is the highest grossing tour by a female artist. The second? Her 2012 MDNA Tour. It’s too early to say where the Rebel Heart Tour stands, but Billboard ranked it as number one on a weekly recap of concert touring artists.
Still think Madonna is no longer relevant? Allow me to school you.
Age has not caught up to Madonna as she still gave a strong performance as if she were 20 years old. For an eager Madonna fan, this isn’t news. She is known for her elaborate staging, high-energy choreography, and glittering costumes. But something was different. Madonna was having fun. In previous concerts, she looked serious, almost fierce. Her voice, especially in 2005’s Confessions Tour, was so polished that it almost sounded cold. Yes, she gave unbelievable performances for a woman of any age, but she brought warmth, happiness, and joy in Rebel Heart. She interacted more with the audience (including sharing how one Filipino trainer slept with her boyfriend), cracked jokes, and gave off-set performances like Kasey Cisyk’s “You Light Up My Life” (to which she said, “Why do I keep singing songs that aren’t mine?”). Everyone was all smiles at the Mall of Asia Arena, including Madge herself.
She opened the show with a song from her Rebel Heart album, “Iconic.” She descended from the ceiling in a steel cage, while dancers dressed as medieval executioners with pikes gyrated with her. It was a strong entrance followed by another RH song, “Bitch, I’m Madonna.” If we’re going to forget about cultural appropriation, it was another strong performance as she was joined by geisha and samurai. It was reminiscent of her “Nothing Really Matters” performance at the 1999 Grammy Awards. She then sang a rock version of the classic “Burning Up,” which drove the audience crazy. But the highlight of the section was when she mashed up “Holy Water” and “Vogue,” as half-naked nuns pole-danced with Madonna on top of one of them. This closed with a tasteful (yet raunchy) re-enactment of the Last Supper as she sang “Devil Pray.”
While she changed costumes, a video interlude played to keep the audience entertained. Another key Madonna trait is how her interludes are always artistic. For her first one, a lone dancer whirled in the middle of the runway with a piece of cloth that looked like fire, while another danced with an interactive fire on screen. As the dancers left, the stage was quickly transformed into a car repair shop.
Madonna opened the next segment with “Body Shop,” with her dancers dressed as mechanics. She then transitioned to “True Blue,” where she instructed everyone to answer “F*ck, yeah!” to all her questions. Here, dancers left the stage in pairs, until they returned for a rousing disco version of “Deeper and Deeper.” Without any real breaks, she performed this number and danced along. You forget she’s already 57 years old. And yes, she sings live.
While she delivers the last line to this Erotica number (which, by the way, is rumored to be about accepting one’s homosexuality), a curving staircase emerges from the ceiling. She sings the ballad “HeartBreakCity,” mashed up with “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.” It’s an emotional number that reminds fans of her divorce to director Guy Ritchie. But the sadness is only short-lived as Madonna closes the section with the classic “Like a Virgin.” At this point, I was already catching my breath after singing along to all the songs, while the Queen of Pop seems to only be warming up. She didn’t even need backup dancers for this performance. You don’t believe she’s 57.
The next interlude is a mashup of the songs “S.E.X.” and “Justify My Love,” with the screen projecting the music video of “Erotica.” The mashup shows eight dancers simulating sex in four beds, a reference to her “Like a Virgin” performance in 1990’s Blond Ambition Tour. It was tastefully sexy, and some partners were of the same sex. Not surprising, as the Queen of Pop has a large gay fanbase (basically me).
Madonna emerges from the tip of the heart, wearing a hooded cape with Aya Sato and Bambi, two famous Japanese dancers. It’s the same performance as her controversial 2015 BRIT Awards, where she couldn’t untangle the cape and she fell backwards when Aya and Bambi pulled it. But Madonna is all about challenges as she didn’t let that stop her. Fortunately, she won over the cape and gave a rousing performance of “Living For Love,” the lead single from Rebel Heart. She dressed as a matador as she conquered her dancers dressed like bulls. This was followed by “La Isla Bonita,” where the audience sang the lyrics along.
Here is where it gets tricky. In the official setlist, Madonna sings a gypsy medley of “Dress You Up”, “Into the Groove”, “Everybody”, and “Lucky Star.” But for some reason she skips this and goes straight to “Who’s That Girl?”, which she played with a guitar. After the song, she usually asks for requests. In Manila, where everyone is still obsessed with “Crazy For You,” everyone screamed for her to sing it. I appreciate “Crazy For You” as much as the next fan, but my favorite Madonna song is “Like a Prayer.” I was so disappointed when it wasn’t part of the setlist. So when Madonna asked whether she should sing an old or new song, I waited for a quiet moment to scream “Like a Prayer!”
And she sang it.
She sang “Like a Prayer.”
At this point, I would like to point out that the audience was politely sitting the whole time. I wanted to stand up and dance but I was afraid they would ask me to sit down, so I danced in my seat (sorry to the people next to me). But when she sang the first notes of “Like a Prayer,” I hugged the guy sitting to my left, who was a stranger, and stood up to dance. I didn’t care what they would say. I am reminded of the Madonna quotes, “A lot of people are afraid to say what they want. That’s why they don’t get what they want” and “Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another.” I didn’t attend Madonna’s Manila concert there to make friends. I was there to dance.
Madonna then moved to “Rebel Heart,” a song from RH‘s deluxe edition. This song perfectly encapsulates who Madonna is as a singer. The lyrics go, “So I took the road less traveled by / And I barely made it out alive / Through the darkness somehow I survived / Tough love – I knew it from the start / Deep down in my rebel heart.” Appropriately, the screen showed beautiful moving illustrations of the singer through the years submitted by fans, proving that besides the title Queen of Pop, she is also the Queen of Reinvention. She’s still singing live. You wonder why more people don’t listen to this amazing singer.
For the final (and craziest) interlude, dancers climbed 20 foot poles and started swinging from it towards the audience. It was a death-defying experience that got a lot of wild cheers. But even with something as fantastic as that, Madonna is still the star of the show and re-appeared wearing a 1920’s inspired flapper dress to sing “Music” and “Candy Shop.” Right in the middle of “Music,” Madonna talked to the audience, literally jumped around and complained about Manila’s traffic, then quickly jumped back to “Music” as if nothing happened. At this point, the show was almost through but Madonna still had the energy of someone half her age. It was one of the best parts of the show.
This was then followed by “Material Girl,” which made the audience react with thunderous applause. People in my section stood up to dance and sing along to this 1984 classic. Madonna once said that she regrets singing this but she looked like she was enjoying pushing her male dancers down the stage. For those who complain about the expensive tickets (the closest being P57,000), Madonna would have replied, “We’re living in a material world!”
After this performance, she mentioned the possibility of meeting a husband in Manila. She had a bouquet for “Material Girl” and she threw it to the audience, which a girl named Czarina caught (I’m jealous). Madonna then sang a heartfelt cover of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” dedicated to Czarina. She’s still singing live.
For the final number, Madonna sang “Unapologetic Bitch,” where she usually brings one member of the audience to the stage to dance with her. Manila’s unapologetic bitch was my friend Shahani Gania, a stylist and partyphile who organized a Madonna exhibit at Today x Future. I didn’t recognize him right away, and only found out it was her when I recognized his voice. After dancing and hugging Madonna, she gave him a banana and a phallus-shaped straw. I’m both jealous and happy for Shahani.
They then exited the stage and the screen said, “Bye, [redacted]!” Of course, I have already seen the setlist and know that Madonna will come back for an encore of “Holiday.” For a little bit of history, I was disappointed when I first heard that she’s performing “Holiday” for her encore. I love the song, but I was used to the high-octane energy of previous encores like “Hung Up,” “Give It 2 Me,” and “Celebration.” I thought “Holiday” was too slow, but maybe it’s because of age. Maybe she couldn’t do the laborious choreography of the last encores. But it’s a totally different experience when you watch it live. The crowd went absolutely insane when she returned to the stage with the Philippine flag and sang the familiar chorus of the 1983 hit song. She was then hoisted and lifted up over the stage and said good night, ending the show at 1am (She was three hours late and started at 11pm, but it was worth the wait).
I have been a fan of Madonna for 11 years. To watch her perform live is a dream come true. And I’m happy to have seen her at her best, with her guard down and having fun. Madonna as the polished performer is good, but Madonna with her hair down, cracking jokes, and interacting with fans is the consummate entertainer. Finally, people know what I’ve been talking about all these years. At the end of the show, I was left wondering, why is Madonna still the Queen of Pop? Shouldn’t she be the Goddess of Pop?
By Koji Arsua