Last night at Madison Square Garden, a sold-out arena full of screaming, voguing, and otherwise beside-themselves fans opted to spend the evening with Madonna and Amy Schumer instead of taking in the latest Republican presidential debate. During a brief prerecorded voiceover at the start of the show, Madonna cried out a number of inspiring mantras rejecting various forces said to stifle creativity. Before she launched into “Iconic,” the recording delivered a blow that would resonate over the course of her two-hour set: “I’ve got to start a revolution. Somebody’s got to.” Considering the political cacophony revving up on a different stage thousands of miles away at that very moment, Madonna and the Rebel Heart Tour were the perfect foil. Everyone present knew she belonged on that stage, and they’d gathered there to see pop’s patron saint of revolution in action. And if revolution ain’t American — especially one that banks on tradition and the accomplishments of glory days gone by, as the Rebel Heart Tour does — nothing is.
The name of the game of Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour — or its Madison Square Garden stops, anyway — isn’t necessarily New, but Nostalgia. (She said so herself multiple times throughout the evening, referring to the performance she delivered on the same stage 30 years prior and shouting out members of the audience who were present for both MSG gigs.) Her Madgesty, Our Lady of Divine Reinvention, has changed everything from her gait to the genres she taps for inspiration with every passing album, from the rhinestone urban cowgirl stylings of Music to the cross-and-“Vogue”-bearing Like a Prayer to the lace-clad gyrations of Like a Virgin and more. In the 32 years since the release of her self-titled debut, Madonna’s biennial self-expression change-ups have become as dependable as the changing of the seasons, though recent forays like 2012’s MDNA and her latest offering, Rebel Heart, see her enjoying experiments with current trends instead of pioneering them. For her, revolution is routine, and it’s been that way from the start.
Dubstep breakdowns and intricately produced electronic explorations run rampant in the presentation of the Rebel Heart Tour, keeping the live show as closely married to her current musical aesthetic as possible. Classics receive the 2015 treatment in this fashion, with takes on “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” feeling far more suited for a dance floor in Ibiza than the time capsule of a jukebox. But these updates to some of the most beloved and controversial pop hits ever to light up the airwaves are just as much a testament to Madonna’s ingenuity as anything else. She’s got the catalog to pull from, and dressing up “Vogue” or any of yesteryear’s singles in 2015 trappings proves that pop with teeth — framed by a lipstick-smeared smirk, naturally — doesn’t dull over time.
In that respect, maybe the Rebel Heart Tour isn’t about New vs. Nostalgia, but a holy union of the two that only Madonna can consummate. Nothing about the first of Madonna’s two MSG performances felt dated or stale. She kept up with her sensational dancers and navigated elaborate set changes with the skill of someone who’s rolled up to sold-out stadiums for three decades. She grabbed a guitar for a few numbers and a ukulele for others, and floored the crowd with an especially intimate rendition of Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” which she dedicated to New York City.
By this point in the night, Madonna had run through most of Rebel Heart‘s track list, a flamenco-infused take on “La Isla Bonita,” and an explosive, Carnaval-channeling medley of “Dress You Up,” “Into the Groove,” and “Lucky Star.” She’d battled her dancers with folding fans straight out of Mortal Kombat, slid across a table seemingly set for the Last Supper, mounted the hood of a Cadillac, and brought opener Amy Schumer out for a quick dance party and a literal ass-kicking, changing between leather getups and gilt capes and sequin-flecked matador jackets during the dizzying dance breaks. To whip the arena into a frenzy with an onslaught of multiple spectacles and then hypnotize it with the gorgeous simplicity of “La Vie en Rose” was to cut to the chase of Madonna’s genius. The massive production and flashy antics are entertaining as hell and make up for the rare instance where she falters, either on her feet or with her words. But here, as she sat on the stage strumming the ukulele by herself, Madonna’s voice was clear, calm, and comfortable. In that moment, no one could question the fact that this woman is more at home singing under the most intense spotlight on the planet than anyone else. The sheen of her platinum flapper frock may have blinded the first few rows, but her solitary presence — and her voice — stunned her audience on a level the hyper-controlled chaos couldn’t touch.
Relevance is a topic frequently broached in pop, especially when its major female players are brought up in the conversation. Be it Lady Gaga or Beyoncé or Janet or Britney or Cher, these women — who count thousands of hits and little golden statues and venues toured between them — have returned to the drawing board countless times to chase the next hook and get people moving. Madonna has arrived at a place where she can rest on her laurels as easily as she can flip the script on the genre, free of the clutches of trend and the mercurial nature of the music industry that her peers and protégés have to acknowledge. It’s her prerogative to lose herself in a Diplo- or Avicii-crafted beat if she chooses to do so, or hit fans with a rendition of “Material Girl” they never saw coming, or pull a Piaf standard out of her back pocket to keep them on their toes. The Rebel Heart Tour is a celebration of what she’s accomplished, but it also serves as a reminder that she’s content sitting in her throne as the reigning Queen of Pop. She needs a place to hang out when she’s plotting her next potentially game-changing move. “It’s lonely at the top!” she playfully cooed at one point. Her eyes narrowed, as did her tone. “But it ain’t crowded.”