Pop

Madonna’s Concert Changed My Opinion About Her Rebel Heart Era

I get it now. And I love it.

If you’re a true blue (pun intended) Madonna fan, then there is at least one era from her illustrious 30-year career you’d rather forget. For many, it’s 2003’s American Life, but I actually loved Madge’s sociopolitical commentary set to frantic techno slosh. Or maybe it’s 2008’s late-to-the-party Hard Candy, with its stale Timbaland beats and aggressive lollipop album cover. (Again, I didn’t hate it. In fact, “Miles Away” is one of M’s best tracks to date.)

No. For me, it was Rebel Heart. From the borderline offensive Instagram promo to the preliminary leaks, and then the album itself—inconsistent, light on effervescent dance-pop, and heavy on cringe-worthy lyrics—I loathed this era like Madonna detests hydrangeas. Coming off 2012’s MDNA, an immaculate collection of dark, bubbly EDM, Rebel Heart felt like a rush job—well, at least to me. Where was the cool, calculated Madonna with dry wit I fell in love with? Rebel Heart M definitely wasn’t her.

Notice how I’m speaking in past tense, because all of this changed Wednesday night when I attended Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour at Madison Square Garden. Madonna is a consistently athletic showgirl, with each tour more cardio-intensive, provocative, and splashy than the last. RHT was no exception. The nearly two-hour show was a larger-than-life display of cutting-edge pop showmanship, filled to the brim with zesty costumes, intricate choreography, and a militant, rigid precision that felt other-worldly. The 17,000+ fans packed in MSG were mesmerized—hypnotized—from start to finish.

However, something about this go-around felt different from her past tours. A tangible warmth permeated Wednesday’s show—a foreign concept in live Madonna fare. Gone was her standard, “Don’t you love me?” grimace, and a heartfelt—wait for it—smile remained. For the first time in ages, it looked like Madonna was having an uninhibited blast. Wild, carefree, and a rare brand of sexy-desperate, she was both enticing and delightful to watch.

This sunshine persona was only augmented by Madonna performing several from-the-vault songs with authentic excitement. Of course, she re-imagined them to keep things fresh and current. Nonetheless, she celebrated her oldies; before, it seemed she only acknowledged them out of commitment. “Like a Virgin” was set to a bouncy synth beat; “Material Girl” received a seismic glam-rock makeover; and she even offered “Dress You Up,” “Into the Groove,” and “Lucky Star” in a Latin-tinged medley. “Deeper and Deeper” and “La Isla Bonita” felt refreshingly similar to their original counterparts. Finally, Madge is happy to indulge the nostalgia.

Nostalgia. That’s an important word for RHT. Madonna’s endearing disposition was complimented by something she told the audience before singing “Who’s That Girl”—yes, really! “I’m feeling very nostalgic,” she said. “Do you people understand that I played Madison Square Garden 30 years ago? I survived!”

Wait, what? Madonna admitted she is a legacy artist? For a woman hellbent on always looking forward and never repeating herself, this came out of left field. And then she hit us again with more sentimentality. “The support, the love that you have all given me for over two decades. What a lucky girl am I?” she said.

Shortly after, Madonna dove into a new song, “Rebel Heart,” while fan art played in the background. That’s when it hit me: The Rebel Heart era is, hands down, Madonna’s most personal to date. The smiling, fan drawings, warm musings, and recognition of old hits—she’s never been this transparent before.

And that’s exactly what the Rebel Heart era has been since the beginning: transparent. The Instagram posts, haphazard as they may be, are Madonna’s direct connection to fans, this writer included. The leaks and irreverent promo (Drake smooch included) have made our typically cold and distant diva more human than ever. And this tour—her most self-referential—proves Madonna is comfortable existing in two distinct spaces: the 2015 boundary-pushing pop star and the nostalgic icon unafraid to embrace ’80s cheese.

This juxtaposition reached a palpable height when Madonna performed her current song “Unapologetic B–ch” with familiar tongue-in-cheek oomph, then directly went into “Holiday” with jovial, childlike spirit. It was the perfect encore.

I left Madonna’s concert bewildered, because she is now something I never expected: accessible. Heck! She may even kiss you, as one lucky fan found out Wednesday night. And I can’t lie: The Rebel Heart era—messy, nonsensical, and head-scratching—made this happen.

How crazy am I to think this time is anything but magical?