“I’m ME, motherfuckers!” Madonna declared to a sold-out Madison Square Garden last night — although, naturally, no one was arguing with her. We’d already been treated to an ornate, vaguely Asian-inspired rendition of “Bitch I’m Madonna,” and some among us had purchased $60 tank tops emblazoned with those words. Yes, Madonna has officially entered her tautological phase, and Rebel Heart, the album she’s currently touring, contains countless bald-faced references to her own legacy. There’s the weary-but-triumphant “Veni Vidi Vici,” the lyrics of which are basically just a string of Madonna-song-title puns (“I expressed myself / Came like a virgin down the aisle”), and the show opener “Iconic,” which flaunts her unimpeachable status while also using it to inspire her devotees to find their own greatness (“Just shine your light like a beautiful star / Show the world who you are”). Like the album, the Rebel Heart Tour finds Madge grappling with her history — and, it seems, having complicated feelings about what she sees in the rearview mirror.
Last night was the second date on which Amy Schumer opened the tour, and she still seemed in a state of shock. “Who better than me to open for Madonna?” she asked, beaming theatrically, before making a signature pivot towards self-deprecation: “Any band. Literally any band.” The pairing might seem odd, but when you think about it, it’s a stroke of genius on Madonna’s part: It saves her from worrying that some young pop upstart will upstage her every night, while at the same time reinforcing her singularity in the current musical landscape. (“Who could possibly open for Madonna?”) Schumer’s set was similar to the one I saw (and loved) on the Trainwreck comedy tour. She’s as barbed as ever, still making Jessica Biel (and Alba) jokes, even if they’re now intercut with stories about meeting (and embarrassing herself in front of) Hillary Clinton and Bradley Cooper.
Before we get to the queen herself, I would like to shout out the supporting players of the Rebel Heart Tour; as ever, being one of Madonna’s dancers still seems like one of the most demanding but illustrious gigs in the business. Plus, there are so many of them! This show is a veritable clown-car of sexy priests, pole-dancing nuns, and — during a particularly inspired setpiece to go with the sprightly Rebel Heart cut “Body Shop” — sexy mechanics. (Speaking of the supporting cast, one of the best things about this concert was that Kelly Ripa and Andy Cohen were there together, and that the Jumbotron kept cutting away to them.) When Madonna is onstage, there’s no question who’s in charge; but while she’s in costume changes, Madonna has become particularly good about deflecting the spotlight to her dancers. Rather than forcing us to watch the expensively shot perfume-ad-style montages that usually run during diva-pop arena shows, Madonna gave us human spectacle: a double-jointed man doing a mesmerizing dance with a billowing sheet, pairs of dancers writhing on gravity-defying beds to the subtle tune of “Sex,” and, most impressive, some guys in top hats flying through the air on wobbly stilts that had the whole audience gasping and the gentleman in front of me, who’d spent most of the concert checking his email, suddenly staring up in rapt focus and hitting record on his phone. Also, let us pause for a moment in appreciation of Madonna’s minions, both seen and unseen. Fun fact: When Madonna is thirsty in concert, she will command, “Water, please,” and a man in a long black coat will suddenly appear presenting a bottle of Fiji water with a red crazy straw, from which Madge will take a few dainty sips before sending him away. Aspirational.
I still can’t really get behind Rebel Heart, and overall, the show leaned too heavily on new material for my taste. I don’t think I was alone in this. When I looked around the crowd during “Living for Love” — the live staging of which is pretty similar to her lackluster Grammys performance — more than half the audience was seated and looking visibly less than thrilled, likely thinking, I wish this were “Like a Prayer.” That’s not a great reception for the big single from the album she’s currently touring. Rebel Heart is often hindered by clumsy lyrics, and these come to the forefront live: The “Iconic” chorus of “I CAN / ICON / Two letters apart” still grates, as does all of the maudlin “HeartbreakCity” (“Now I’m in the middle of heartbreak city / ’Cause I’m in the middle of a world not pretty”). “Bitch I’m Madonna” was more of a crowd-pleaser, as was the dance-hall-inflected Rihanna knockoff “Unapologetic Bitch,” during which she brought a stunned audience member named David onstage, declared him “the unapologetic bitch of the night,” and awarded him the appropriate prize of a ripe banana and a public spanking. She’s HER, motherfuckers!
One of the most disappointing moments of the night came in the middle of a performance of “Holy Water,” a Rebel Heart cut that feels like a Xerox-of-a-Xerox-ed version of any Madonna song that provocatively blends sex and religion. Madonna, naturally, was flanked by a gang of nuns ascending stripper poles, clad in cutoff habits and exposed briefs. For a moment, she launched into a teasing, halfhearted verse of “Vogue” … and then just as quickly returned to an extended mix of “Holy Water,” which had already overstayed its welcome by several minutes. I’m sure Madonna must be sick to death of singing “Vogue,” “Express Yourself,” and “Like a Prayer,” but the Rebel Heart Tour’s ultimate disappointment is that she’d rather sing new songs that reference the legacy of these timeless classics than the classics themselves. You know what’s better than “Veni Vidi Vici”? Literally every song mentioned in “Veni Vidi Vici.”
That’s the strange predicament of Madonna in 2015: She always wants to show how hard she’s working to impress us when, in reality, we’d be happy with so much less. Some of the best moments of the night were the most simplistically staged: an electro-pop reimagining of “Like a Virgin” played solo, an acoustic sing-along of “True Blue,” a ukulele-led rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” (My friend insisted that this last one was a subtle way of saying, “Anything Gaga can do, I can do better”; I am unconvinced by this conspiracy theory but would like to put it out there for discussion.) Madonna’s current relationship with her fans is resolutely unsentimental; when she does throw you a crowd-pleasing bone, she makes it clear that you’d better work for it. An acoustic rendition of “Who’s That Girl?” began as a very sweet moment, and then soured when she chastised the audience for not knowing enough of the words. (Among the guilty parties: Kelly Ripa.)
And yet “Who’s That Girl?” was the moment I realized what I’d most love to see Madonna do next is the Back to Basics Tour — just her and a guitar and an audience pouring its heart out to every memorized line. (And also maybe a Kelly Cam to the side of the stage, where we can monitor Kelly Ripa’s every reaction.) Madonna seems to be in a complicated emotional place right now, and there’s a palpable melancholy undercutting these new songs that I wish she’d feel more comfortable exploring in her live show. After concluding “Who’s That Girl?” she sighed, “I still don’t know the answer to that question.” As far as slogans go, that’s not as catchy as “Bitch, I’m Madonna” — but it felt a hell of a lot more honest.