Madonna Doesn't Care About Aging Gracefully — Which Is Why She's Still Our Hottest Pop Star

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Madonna
Photo by Mathew Tucciarone

Madonna
The Forum
Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015

There comes a time in our lives, if we’re lucky, when we find peace with who we are and what we have to give to the world. It’s an unapologetic life stage wherein we stop trying to prove ourselves and follow our own hearts, giving fewer and fewer fucks about others' approval or opinion.

One might think Madonna, who has always challenged norms and pushed boundaries both as an artist and a woman, has been this way since day one. But as anyone who saw last night’s Rebel Heart tour stop at the Forum could surely tell, she’s living her new album title and making it her truth more than ever before. In the past, she always came out fighting (and usually won). But these days she’s having fun in a whole new way that shows she’s only just begun to inhabit this older, wiser phase of her career. She’s basking in it like never before and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

OK, so it would have been nice if she had considered, before starting the show an hour late, that it was a weeknight and many of us (who are older ourselves, and lack Madge's renowned stamina) had to work the next day. But all was forgiven when Madonna kicked off her set in typically brash fashion, descending from an elevated cage as dancers dressed as Mongolian warriors and brandishing Crusaders' crosses marched about the stage, which extended out into the floor seats with a runway that ended in a heart shape.

The de rigueur religious iconography we expect from Madonna was limited mostly to the first part of the show, but that doesn’t mean it was insignificant, and she definitely didn’t go for anything old hat. Madonna may not be as shocking as she once was, but she still knows how to make blasphemy eye-popping and artful. At this point in her career, truly nothing is sacred. We’re talking nuns on cross-shaped stripper poles and an orgylike spectacle atop the Last Supper dinner table.

And that was really just a warmup for the grand-scale visuals that were to come during the two-hour-plus show, which included lots of video, set changes, acrobats suspended in the air and a weird slanted wall across which her dancers glided against projected visuals. More than any of her more recent tours, Rebel Heart was packed with Las Vegas glitz and production. At times it was actually like watching a Cirque du Soleil show, which was both good and bad. When you think of Celine Dion, Cher or, more recently, Britney Spears in Vegas, it’s sort of more about the spectacle than the artist. There were moments when this was the case last night.

In fact, there were several segments when Madonna wasn’t onstage at all. Video and dancer performances are always utilized to fill in time for costume changes, but it felt excessive last night, making one wonder if she needed the breaks. Yes, mentioning Madonna’s age is relevant — she’s 57 — if only because of her superhuman ability to sing, dance and captivate in such a vigorous way for two hours. On her last two tours, Sticky Sweet and MDNA, she danced pretty much nonstop; she also jumped rope, pole-danced, line-danced, had major fight sequences, tightrope walked, baton twirled, flipped while tied up and thrashed out on guitar.

She did her share of moving last night, but it was nowhere near the physicality of the past. She even alluded to being tired a couple of times, sharing that it felt good to sit before a ballad moment.

But Madonna still blows away most live performers of any age or sex. Taylor or Miley? Please. Gaga or J-Lo? Don’t think so. Justin or Katy? Nope. (I did enjoy the playful exchange between Perry and Madge after the "Firework" singer was called up onstage for a toast to the tour and “unapologetic bitches" … out of a banana flask. Perry gave Miss M major bows before leaving the stage, as she should.) Only Beyonce comes to mind as a stage star who comes close to matching Madonna's energy level.

Madonna has absolutely nothing to prove at this point, which means she can simply have a good time with her music now. And she did, especially with inventive mash-up arrangements: “Holy Water” into “Vogue” during the nun/Last Supper thing;  a mesh of “HeartBreakCity” and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” set atop a spiral staircase; and my favorite, a trio of '80s faves: “Dress You Up” with "Into the Groove" and "Lucky Star.” She sounded great, by the way, and though she had backing vocal help, she did actually sing, which is not the case with a lot of her younger contemporaries. 

Back when the above tracks were hits, part of their appeal lay in the visual images that went with them. Madonna's videos were aspirational, especially when it came to her alluring fashion and style. Underwear as outerwear was both provocative and punk rock, a combination that scared the hell out of parents and made young girls (and guys) love it all the more. Sexy getups are her thing and she still wears them well. Despite pop music's — and the culture in general's — obsession with youth, it would go against Madonna's very essence not to be alluring, or to age "gracefully" (whatever that means).

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Still, her bodacious swirl of costumes was a bit more modest last night, something she mentioned during the set's Spanish-flavored numbers. "I've never been so covered up," she said of the long floral frock she wore. That seemed more a thematic choice than a conservative one, though. There were lots of backdrop aesthetics and themes to dress for, including honky-tonk, Asiana, 1920s swing and jazz, and flamenco. Madonna pulled off blending and bending them all throughout the entire night. Some of the more theatrical stuff came off a bit cheesy, but the light and giddy vibe was contagious regardless. Unlike MDNA and even Sticky Sweet, which had political undercurrents or at the very least social statements to make, Rebel Heart was about love of life and love of self, which has its own significance.

“Nobody fucks with the queen,” she said before going into my favorite part of the show, a joyful, no-frills version of “Like a Virgin.” It almost felt like a rebirth, for the song and for the star.

She’s the queen of pop, yes, but more than that, Madonna is an inspirational figure: a profound badass, sex-positive feminist and gay-rights trailblazer, who did it all long before we had the Internet to call out slut-shaming, homophobia and ageism in the way we can today. She’s still hot, too, but it’s not about that. She continues to do what she wants, wear what she wants, work with whomever she wants (hot young beat-makers if she fancies, just ’cause it’s cool), and kiss whomever she wants (whether that be Britney or Drake), regardless of the judgment she gets for it. Her age continues to be irrelevant to her, as it hopefully will be one day for all of us. Sometimes she’ll fall, as she did at the Brit Awards, but she’ll get right back up. The message of Rebel Heart is, we all can.

Set list:

Iconic
Bitch I'm Madonna
Burning Up
Holy Water (with "Vogue" )
Devil Pray
Messiah (video)
Body Shop
True Blue
Deeper and Deeper
HeartBreakCity (with "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" )
Like a Virgin (with "Justify My Love" and "Heartbeat" )
S.E.X. (video)
Living for Love
La Isla Bonita
Dress You Up (with "Into the Groove" and "Lucky Star")
Secret
Like a Prayer
Rebel Heart
Illuminati (video)
Music (with "Give It 2 Me" sample)
Candy Shop
Material Girl
La vie en rose (Édith Piaf cover)
Unapologetic Bitch
Holiday


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