When you’re held to a certain standard the way Madonna is, grandiosity is expected as the norm on any production she puts on. Her tours have always been the most clear-cut example of this. Even before 1990’s Blond Ambition Tour, which established her as the foremost live performer of the twentieth century (and now, twenty-first), there were traces of Madonna’s propensity for loftiness and provocation via her two favorite themes: sex and religion.
Evidenced time and time again, Madonna can’t help but always revert back to her Catholic roots when exploring the nature of humanity. It was her staunch religious upbringing that ultimately led to her hypersexualty–after all, repression often breeds the sort of rebellion Madonna has founded a career on. With Rebel Heart, the pop powerhouse finds herself in a contemplative mood, which is often when she’s at her best (see: Ray of Light). This, unfortunately, wasn’t enough for the mainstream to grab onto, especially after the album was leaked before its release. But with the Rebel Heart Tour, Madonna is able to show everyone that, thirty years in, she’s still the most consummate performer around.
2012’s MDNA Tour opened with religious overtones punctuated by the intro, “Virgin Mary,” played as a number of monk-like priests swung a giant thurible back and forth, followed, appropriately, by “Girl Gone Wild,” with its motif of a fallen woman. Conversely, Rebel Heart Tour opens with a warrior/gladiator vibe to the tune of “Iconic” featuring Mike Tyson and Chance the Rapper. Before making her grand entrance from above in a medieval-looking cage, screen images of Madonna in her armored battle uniform rallying an army are seen. It is a strong indication of how the singer views herself in relation to her fans, still devout in the face of everything, and willing to be called into action by her at a moment’s notice. She then segues into “Bitch I’m Madonna,” the most commercially successful single from Rebel Heart. Asian-tinged in aesthetic (the style harkens back to Madonna’s Geisha segment of 2001’s Drowned World Tour), Madonna dances as much as her backup with a prettily painted fan as her prop of choice.
She then throws a bone to her less intense fans by singing a more rockified version of “Burning Up,” again channeling her Drowned World Tour-era self from the Cyber-Punk opening of that show. It is with “Holy Water” that Madonna falls right back into the religiosity that caused so much controversy during the Blond Ambition Tour. The song, which drips with sexual double entendres against the tableau of holy vernacular, is made classic use of by Madonna as she sheds her neo-geisha costume in favor of a nun ensemble and gyrates on a stripper pole in the shape of a cross. The conclusion to the song finds the stage altered into a re-creation of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” with Madonna lying down at the head of the table, spreading her legs and whispering, “Yeezus loves my pussy best” as a Jesus-like figure appears to go down on her.
“Holy Water” transitions nicely into “Devil Pray,” a lyrical exploration of finding redemption in a world filled with temptation. As she warns, “Devil’s here to fool ya,” she kneels beside one of her dancers dressed as a priest and holds a bible as though it will bring her salvation. It concludes with her dancers lining up behind her in various forms of religious dress (just as in the Military segment of her Reinvention Tour) to make a statement she’s long held: everyone is the same regardless of their beliefs. The Catholic in Madonna manifests in the conclusion to this portion of the show, an interlude of “Messiah,” during which a lone dancer performs an ethereal series of movements.
Going back to her sexually charged incarnation for “Body Shop,” a track filled with innuendos, the stage switches to a set design with a Midwestern, 50s Americana feel (Madonna, being one of the last representations of the old school American dream, always pays homage to the concept). As she writhes on the hood of a car, wields a gas pump like a penis and gets wheeled around on a stack of tires, it strikes one that the song bears strong similarities to “True Blue,” which is why she follows it up with a twangier version of this. “If it’s got tits or tires, it’ll give you trouble,” she notes before performing a ukulele-heavy form of “True Blue,” urging everyone to sing along and applaud, because, as she admits, “I’m a Leo. I love applause.” She then jumps through time to the Erotica album to sing the much loved club anthem “Deeper and Deeper” (not performed since 2004).
Madonna amplifies the drama of her character for this segment of the show with “HeartBreakCity,” a tale of woe about being jilted by a lover (most likely Brahim Zaibat), ascending and descending a staircase as she grapples physically and emotionally with one of her dancers. She caps the song with a few verses from the equally as dramatic “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.” The Like A Virgin album continues to make itself known with the eponymous single, re-worked into an almost bhangra-esque style (think an update to the one that was performed during the Blond Ambition Tour). Giving her raunchiest dance moves, “Like A Virgin” turns into something akin to a striptease. And, for someone who once said, “I’m not sure I can sing ‘Holiday’ or ‘Like a Virgin’ ever again. I just can’t, unless somebody paid me, like, $30 million or something,” she’s performed both on almost every tour.
The exploration of sex and sexuality persists with the “S.E.X./Justify My Love” interlude, featuring a row of beds that her dancers pantomime their best boudoir antics on as images from the Erotica video and Sex book play behind them. Her fascination with the topic has often been a source of contention between her and her critics, but it is something so innate in her personality that it can’t be separated from her work. Even with the song that follows, “Living for Love,” the first single from Rebel Heart, there are sexual undertones to the man-bull hybrids Madonna staves off as she engages in a tussle with them. But, more importantly, she was willing to wear a cape again even after her BRIT Awards snafu, a testament to her ability to rise again and again no matter what happens to her or how harshly she’s judged.
The Spanish-inspired flavor of her bullfighting transitions seamlessly into her usual señorita portion of the tour (like Morrissey, her nemesis, she has a strong Latin following), which was formerly at its most prominent during the Drowned World Tour. Just as with that tour, Madonna plays up the “Olé” flavor for “La Isla Bonita.” Again borrowing from herself, she takes a cue from her 1987 Who’s That Girl Tour by performing a medley of the songs she wouldn’t be able to stand singing in their entirety: “Dress You Up,” “Into the Groove,” “Everybody” and “Lucky Star,” all while wearing an outfit very much akin to the one she wore for the “Dress You Up”/”Material Girl”/”Like A Virgin” medley she did for Who’s That Girl.
She wraps up the Spanish theme with “Who’s That Girl” (her nostalgia for ’87 clearly a thing on this tour), sitting at the center of the heart-shaped tip of the stage to sing an acoustic sing along breed of it, just as she did with “True Blue.” The acousticness persists with the title track from Rebel Heart, dedicated to her son, Rocco, with fan-made images of the icon projected behind her. The final interlude, “Illuminati,” reveals Madonna’s Vegas showmanship, elucidated by dancers suspended on poles that rock back and forth in a Cirque du Soleil fashion. This leads to her final character in the spectacle: French nightclub singer in the 1920s. A briefly Piaf-ified form of “Music” is sung before bursting into a The Great Gatsby (the movie, not the book) party that channels musical tones of “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got).” This melds into “Candy Shop,” a song from 2008’s Hard Candy that Madonna resuscitated beautifully for the MDNA Tour and seems to continue to be fond of.
Madonna then obliges with another classic, “Material Girl,” fitting in nicely with a section that oozes with decadence. She pays homage to “Like A Virgin” yet again by finishing “Material Girl” with a veil and bouquet she walks down the stage/aisle wearing. She tosses it to the crowd and says, “Suckers,” flowing into her banter about the institution of marriage being overrated. “In Greek mythology, a woman’s wedding is like her funeral… she gets to the end and meets up with some guy who thinks he’s god.” Alluding to her opener at Madison Square Garden, Amy Schumer (who was a bit lackluster, to be frank), Madonna shrugs, “I’m still not as funny as Amy Schumer, but I’m workin’ on it.” Her ukulele is brought out again so that she can sing her rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.” Her dancers sidle up to her at the end with a cigarette, prompting Madonna to quip, “I don’t smoke, but I’m known to start fires.” Her penultimate song, “Unapologetic Bitch,” is then cued, leading to one of her rare fan interactions through a “random” one being brought on stage to dance with her and then getting a banana as a prize–sexual innuendo enduring faithfully.
The encore/closer for the night is her go-to, “Holiday,” a sentimental song for the pop star, who has used it as the finisher in the past for the Who’s That Girl Tour and the Reinvention Tour. Decked in an American flag jacket, Madonna leaves behind the sex and religion that gushed from her former performances of the Rebel Heart Tour. She is now, simply, the last beacon of American iconography in an age where so little emphasis is placed on talent and hard work in the realm of fame.