“You know what they say — it’s lonely at the top,” Madonna told the crowd near the end of her New York show last night. “But it ain’t crowded!” And on the second U.S. show of her hotly awaited new Rebel Heart tour, Our Lady spent three hours proving what a goddess she is, not to mention what an Unapologetic Bitch. Damn right it’s not crowded, because there’s nobody else near her throne. The whole night was a tour of everything only Madonna can do. She’s not the same. She has no shame. She’s on fire.
She sang the Edith Piaf ballad “La Vie En Rose” in French, alone on the stage, strumming her ukelele. (“It’s en français, though, okay? So try and sing along if you can.”) After “Material Girl,” she tossed a wedding bouquet to a gay couple up front, then snickered, “Suckers!” She used crucifixes as stripper poles, doing the “Vogue” rap while writhing against a dancer clad in a nun’s wimple and feathery hot pants. Her cassocked dancers simulated a group-grope orgy at the Last Supper while the guest of honor chanted “Yeezus loves my pussy best!” And all night long, her banter was the toppest of notch, like when she introduced her gorgeous new acoustic country-hoedown version of “True Blue.” “No swear words in this song,” she announced. “This is a song about true love. I didn’t know what I was talking about when I wrote it.” Glad you’re the one who brought that up, Madonna.
She hasn’t reached so far onstage, musically or emotionally, since her 2001 Drowned World extravaganza. Her last couple of tours had spectacular performances, but dodgy set lists. This time Madonna has much stronger new songs to play with, from Rebel Heart — and she brilliantly revamps the hits. She played a Flying V for a punked-out “Burning Up,” dropping to her knees for her guitar solo — the first time she played Madison Square Garden, 30 years ago, she got on her knees in front of the male guitarist while he played a solo, and don’t think she doesn’t remember these things.
Opening act Amy Schumer helped set the tone — when was the last time you saw a stand-up comedian slay in an arena? Schumer was clearly right at home in a room full of Madonna fans: “I know who’s here. It’s like taking a warm bath in a tub full of dick that doesn’t want you.” She talked abut how hot Bradley Cooper’s girlfriend is (“She’s like a panther fucked a gazelle and they fucked Gisele”) and how hot Bradley Cooper is (“you would just grab your ankles and say ‘any hole’s fine'”). For the encore, she came back out to let Madonna kick her in the ass, right before “Holiday.”
But it was Madonna’s night. “Body Shop” was a Fifties-style dance routine where she rolled in on the hood of a vintage Chevy, just like Christie Brinkley in Billy Joel’s “Keeping the Faith” video,” then frolicked in glitter ankle boots with a harem of hot greaser mechanics, all looking like the boy who knocked her up in the “Papa Don’t Preach” video. (So true: Italians do it better!) Then she sat her dancers down on a pile of tires and adopted a Dolly Parton twang to tell them, “Like my grandma always said, if it’s got tits or tires, it’s gonna give you trouble.”
“Like a Virgin” was one of the night’s peak moments — the song got pimped up with the Egyptian-lover electro-beats from “Music,” while she took the stage alone to revamp her cowgirl line-dance moves from the “Don’t Tell Me” video. She wore fingerless black gloves, reading her 1984 Boy Toy self, yet she humps the stage with enough verve and wit to make the girl she used to be look like the shy type. She also said, “It’s so hot in here,” which is Madonna-speak for, “You don’t mind if I strip this shirt off, do you?”
She kept getting surprisingly sentimental about playing the Garden, 30 years after her 1985 Virgin Tour. Back then, she always used to ask the crowd, “Will you marry me?” Tonight the girl was in a slightly shadier mood. “I don’t know about marriage,” she mused, after her bouquet toss. “Do you want to marry me?” When fans screamed, she replied, “No, you probably don’t. But maybe it’ll be third time lucky.” She resurrected long-unheard gems like “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Deeper and Deeper,” along with a snippet of “Justify My Love.” (“You put this in me, so now what?” — such an underrated but on point Madonna line.)
“Music” began as a jazz-flapper café ballet, with Madonna in Twenties Gatsby drag, before it blew up to hit the electro-sleaze heights. (As it happens, it was 15 years ago this week that Madonna released Music, still her hardest-rocking and most seductive album.) After the devils-and-bullfighters-and-Minotaurs pageant of “Living My Life,” she began the gratifyingly long Latin segment with “La Isla Bonita,” stretching into a generous and unhurried medley of “Dress You Up,” “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star.”
“I’m feeling very nostalgic tonight,” she told the crowd. “Do you people understand I played Madison Square Garden 30 years ago?” She kissed a fan in a 1985 Virgin Tour shirt who claimed he was there — for all we know, he might have been the goth club kid doing the cobweb dance in the “Into The Groove” video. It led to the emotional highlight of the night, when she picked up her acoustic guitar for one of her saltiest and best Number One hits, a song she hasn’t performed since the Eighties: “Who’s that Girl,” leading the audience in the question “¿Quien es esa niña?” The question hung in the air. “I still don’t know,” Madonna said after the song. “I still don’t know. I think I’m not supposed to know — maybe that’s what life’s about, figuring out who the fuck you are.”
In her producer Nile Rodgers’ essential memoir Le Freak, he tells the story of taking Madonna to Madison Square Garden in 1984 to see Duran Duran, where she sat unnoticed and unrecognized in the audience. Just a few months later, she returned, except this time she was onstage as the headliner. (Duran Duran were back in NYC this week too — and like Madonna, brazen enough to jumpstart an excellent show with an excellent new song, “Paper Gods.” The Eighties are the flattest of circles.) But that’s why she’s Madonna. She might be still figuring out who the fuck she is — but a stage this size is always the place she goes to look for clues.