With last album Rebel Heart shifting just a million copies worldwide on its release in 2015, the pop charts may no longer be Madonna’s domain.
That figure amounts to half the musically-inferior MDNA‘s international sales three years earlier, a quarter of Hard Candy‘s, a tenth of Confessions On A Dancefloor‘s and a poor shadow of career-high True Blue‘s almighty 25 million haul. Given the fact ‘Living For Love’ only reached number 26 in the UK and the brilliant ‘Ghosttown’ (arguably her finest single since ‘4 Minutes’ with her best video since the original uncensored ‘American Life’) stalled at an embarrassing number 117 and you might wonder if Madge is pulling her bleached-blonde hair out in frustration.
I doubt she is. The queen may have lost her chart crown to the likes of Beyonce, Katy, Taylor, and, at least until the artistically questionable Joanne curveball, Lady Gaga but she remains a touring force to be reckoned with. Her Rebel Heart Tour saw her crowned the top-grossing female live performer in Billboard magazine’s history, bringing in nearly $170 million across 82 shows in 55 cities to put her total ticket sales at a staggering $1.31 billion. It’s no wonder she boasts when seemingly hoisting a spiral staircase into the air with just one finger at the end of Heartbreak City: “No one fucks with the queen.”
Her brother Christopher Ciccone doesn’t agree. He’s been vocal recently about Madonna’s live shows, saying: “Her performance lost its theatricality to me and lost its connection to the audience. That was disappointing.” Having art-directed the legendary Blond Ambition tour in 1990 and fully directed the masterful Girlie Show in 1993, Madge’s younger sibling added of her subsequent shows: “It’s difficult to watch them because I know what she’s capable of. It’s all screens and projections and Kabbalah and all this other stuff that the audience doesn’t really connect to.”
Really? So why do they keep coming back for more, Chris? She’s done five tours since the curtain went down on the Girlie Show and as ticket prices have gone up so has the sheer quality of each performance. Madonna has perfected the format she pioneered with her Who’s That Girl tour in 1987: Four segments, four themes, at least four costume changes, showcasing new albums and re-interpreting old songs often in radical ways. And she’s embraced state-of-the-art stagecraft, using increasingly sophisticated video technology to bridge the gap between each section while she pauses for breath.
Chris hasn’t been involved in any of the post-Girlie Show tours and he sparked a feud with his big sister with his tell-all book nine years ago. He reckons the rift has healed, but his criticism of her live shows smacks of attention-seeking – something Madonna herself has been the mistress of since she stated in the intro to her Virgin Tour video that she first went to New York with a big dream. “I wanted to make people happy,” she declared. “I wanted to be famous. I wanted everybody to love me. I wanted to be a star. I worked really hard and my dream came true.”
She’s been working bloody hard ever since. She’s a trailblazer who, as the Blu-ray and DVD release of the Rebel Heart Tour proves, may have many imitators (Kylie, with her blatant rip-off of the Madge formula, springs to mind although she pays homage to the Queen very well in her live shows) but is still the best in the business.
It’s a work of theatrical genius, beginning with the self-proclaimed “medieval warrior bitch goddess” in armour, armed with attitude, and ending with an exuberant Holiday encore. There’s so much awesome stuff in between: a ‘Holy Water/Vogue’ mash-up as a crucifix pole dance, the slinky ‘Body Shop’, a matador-themed ‘Living For Love’ (and yes, the cape comes off without a hitch), the ‘Rebel Heart’ title track done as a rousing singalong, an ‘Unapologetic Bitch’ montage featuring guest bitches like Amy Schumer, Gwendoline Christie and Graham Norton.
There’s a lot of new material, which could irk those stuck-in-the-past fans who moan about Madge not doing enough from the back catalogue – although everyone knows by now the mother of re-invention always draws heavily on whatever new album she’s promoting. But what’s so joyful about this latest worldwide schlepp is just how much of the old stuff she revisits. Not since 2004’s Re-Invention Tour has a Madonna show celebrated so much of her own legacy. True Blue, Deeper And Deeper, Like A Virgin and Material Girl are all part of the setlist, as is a Flamenco-style Dress You Up/Into The Groove medley that oozes goofy high spirits. Miss Ciccone doesn’t seem to have had this much fun on stage since, well, ever.
There’s a smoke-and-mirrors element to a lot of the staging, with our hostess appearing to do more full-on footwork than she actually does. Her dancers do most of the heavy lifting during the bigger routines, with Madonna executing a few steps here and a few slut drops there. But have you tried doing one slut drop, let alone several in succession? Madonna, who turns 60 next August, is still in fantastic shape and still going strong long after any other athlete would have retired.
The disc also includes a 15-minute excerpt of the Tears Of A Clown fan club show in Melbourne which, even in truncated form, is as much a car crash as the two hours of the Rebel Heart Tour are a triumph. The black-and-white filter can’t mask how bloody awful she looks in a demented clown outfit and while the stripped-down versions of ‘Borderline’ and ‘Don’t Tell Me’ are quite wonderful, the stabs at stand-up comedy are an embarrassment. Madonna’s been saying stand-up is where she sees her professional future, but someone really should have a word.
But as long as the Material Girl has the material, the stamina and the inspiration to stage eye-popping spectacles like the Rebel Heart extravaganza Christopher Ciccone should just butt out. Bitch, she’s Madonna. Don’t ever tell her to stop.
The Rebel Heart Tour is out now on Blu-ray, DVD, CD and digital download.
Words: Simon Button