Madonna may not churn out pop radio hits like she once did, but she’s still capable of staging a dazzling arena show. Her stop at the United Center boasted a succession of costume changes and set pieces, casting the singer and her dancers as shoguns, mechanics, matadors and roaring '20s flappers. At 57 years old, Madge hasn’t really slowed down, still managing to belt out her songs while gyrating among throngs of (much younger) dancers. It’s a shame that most of the material from Rebel Heart, her latest album, doesn’t live up to the spectacle accompanying it.
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Entering in a gilded cage that descended from the rafters, Madonna began her performance amid dancers dressed in shogun-inspired armor, setting a visually striking (and cultural appropriation–heavy) tone for the evening. At this point, elements like nuns on cross-shaped stripper poles, on-stage bondage and dancers engaging in simulated sex aren’t controversial—they’re just things we’ve come to expect from Madonna. The show was at its best when it shied away from edgy exhibitionism and embraced the physicality of its performers—from a breakdancer who spun wildly on a slanted surface to a group of acrobats who swayed back and forth on flexible poles.
You have to give Madonna credit for sticking to her guns and powering through material from her latest record, but the issues with the songs that populate Rebel Heart haven’t been ironed out on tour. The plodding balladry of “HeartBreakCity” and the clunky, double entendre–ridden bounce of “Body Shop” still make for patently boring tunes, regardless of costumes and choreography. Tweaked arrangements meant that even some of Madonna’s classic songs suffered, with tracks like “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl” reduced to listless drum and bass dirges.
The set’s most stripped-down songs proved to be its most compelling moments. Early in the set, Madge grabbed a ukelele and sang a touching rendition of “True Blue,” while later in the night she diverged from her setlist with an impromptu acoustic version of standout Rebel Heart track “Ghost Town.” The evening was encapsulated in a similarly sparse performance of her 1987 single “Who’s That Girl,” a song about a woman grappling with her identity. Decades later, Madonna is still putting on costumes and changing her sound in an effort to find herself. It can be messy at times, but it’s captivating to watch a pop star who is still earnestly trying to evolve.