She still rules on some fronts
Mercedes Benz Arena, Berlin
The trouble with being a queen is that eventually your reign comes to an end. Madonna, the undisputed queen of pop for decades, has seen a few pretenders come and go – Kylie, Mariah, Britney, Gaga – but at some point in the past five years the throne was prised away from her for good.
If we take pop in the narrow sense, the queen is now Taylor Swift. If we mean popular music in general, it’s Adele, whose new album arrives on Friday. And if we’re talking more about charisma, it’s Beyonce. In pop culture as a whole, you could even make a case for Kim Kardashian.
But Madonna isn’t one to go down without a fight. ‘Don’t f*** with the queen,’ she shouts at the male dancer playing her ex, as she pushes him off a spiral staircase during HeartBreak City. Later, singing Material Girl, she sends a succession of men in top hats flying down a ramp.
This tour is named after her latest album, Rebel Heart, which is an act of defiance in itself. With reported sales of 80,000 in Britain, as against 1.3m for Confessions On A Dance Floor ten years ago, Rebel Heart is as close as Madonna has ever come to a flop. The hits have finally dried up.
As if refusing to believe it, she sings nine songs from Rebel Heart and has three more played as interludes when she disappears for costume changes. This only leaves room for 12 oldies, so we wait in vain for Crazy For You, Live To Tell, Papa Don’t Preach, Like A Prayer, Express Yourself, Ray Of Light or Hung Up.
That’s a lot of capital to leave in the bank, but Madonna has other reserves to draw on: drive, stamina, an engine like no other. She moves more in this show than any 57-year-old has probably ever moved in an arena. A dancer before she was a singer, she never looks happier than when she takes her place in the line.
There is a long runway, cross-shaped with a heart at the end, and Madonna and her troupe of 15 dancers make full use of it. The scenes they sketch out are her signature mix of titillation, blasphemy, wow factor and cultural tourism. One minute the stage is full of knights in shining armour; the next, women are pole-dancing wearing little more than knickers and wimples; at some point, you just know there will be matadors.
Tiny even when she teeters in stilettos, Madonna nonetheless rules the roost. She looks extraordinary. Her greatest creation used to be her persona, but these days it’s her physique. She manages to stay youthful without the botox weirdness that tends to befall her contemporaries.
Her wardrobe, by Gucci and others, is mostly black and red and always sharp. Her hair is long, lush and wavy, like on the cover of Ray Of Light; as with much of her singing, you can’t quite tell if it’s real or not.
The first law of Madonna gigs states that when she picks up a guitar or addresses the fans as ‘motherf***ers’, you can safely head for the bar. Here she manages both at once, showing her sweet side in a sudden penchant for the ukelele, while also launching into a fusillade of dreary profanity.
Her tone, when she talks to the crowd, is perplexingly poor. She even thinks it’s a good idea to give the people of Berlin a lecture about the importance of freedom. She should have stuck to her definitive statement on the subject, uttered 30 years ago: ‘Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free.’
In any list of great singers or songwriters, Madonna ranks fairly low. But she is a formidable entertainer, and even some of the duds from the new album spring to life on stage. If there are too many tracks with ‘bitch’ in the title, they’re a price worth paying for a frisky Like A Virgin, a jubilant Holiday, a delirious mash-up of Dress You Up and Into The Groove, and a wobbly but touching cover of La Vie en Rose.
Madonna remains nothing if not fearless. The women who rule pop now are in her debt.
Madonna’s UK tour: December 1-20