She’s resourceful. That’s the origin story she’s telling on this flashy, fastidious, self-described “retrospective” tour — and amid all the intricate choreography and ornate costuming, the fundamental proof is in the music. Madonna’s singing voice has rarely felt more than modest, but the ways in which she has deployed it over her 40-year recording career — indelible lyrics, nonperishable melodies — means that her simple timbre evokes heavy authority, as if she’s been narrating the march of popular culture from one century into the next. Today, at 65, it’s still the kind of voice that makes fortune-cookie lines sound like Holy Writ. “Time goes by so slowly for those who wait.” (It does!) “If we took a holiday … it would be so nice.” (It would!) “Music can be such a revelation.” (It can!)
That last one comes from 1985’s “Into the Groove,” and onstage, said groove had been mutated into a four-on-the-floor thump that felt more like a shove onto the dance floor than an invitation. It was too cool a trick to pull just once, so throughout the set, the songs remained the same, but the rhythms were often new, which allowed lyrical meanings to bend. “I’ll make you love me,” Madonna sang during a more insistent version of 1986’s “Open Your Heart” — all while playing a game of musical chairs with her dancers — making a song about puppy-love adrenaline feel more like a rumination on the pursuit and retention of fame.
The internet has made us harder to shock than we were back in the ’80s and ’90s, when Madonna made herself famous by scandalizing the squares at every turn. Now, her best bet is to make her salaciousness memorable — which required her to perform “Like a Prayer” while riding a chrome-framed carousel that had seemingly spun out of a Francis Bacon painting, her muscled, near-nude dancers doing upside-down butcher-shop-window acrobatics in bondage gear. Yet nothing up on that stage could distract your ears from what deserves to go down as the greatest, most existential fortune-cookie couplet in all of pop history: “Life is a mystery/ Everyone must stand alone.”
Madonna feels especially alone these days. (She said as much in no uncertain terms.) “Can I get some props that I’m still here?” she asked during a meandering burst of banter early in the show. “All my peers are dead. … Pat me on the back.” If that didn’t make you wince, maybe the instances later in the concert, when her dancers dressed up as Prince and Michael Jackson, would have. Weird at best, ghoulish at worst.
The recurring moments in which Madonna’s dancers dressed like Madonna went much better. She was occasionally joined by a doppelgänger in a flesh-colored fetish mask who would escort her offstage for costume changes like some kind of hybridized inner child/guardian angel. Then, closing the show with the sweet-and-sourness of 2015’s “Bitch I’m Madonna,” her entourage materialized in Madonna garb from every era: Madonna as Marilyn Monroe, from the “Material Girl” video; Madonna as the center fielder, from “A League of Their Own”; “Erotica”-era Madonna with the riding crop; “Music”-era Madonna with the white fur coat; and roughly a dozen more. With the real Madonna acting as if she were scornfully singing the song’s titular hook to her clones, the whole bit landed somewhere between Halloween karaoke and a psychotic break.
That sense of disorientation probably had something to do with Madonna keeping everyone up way past bedtime. This concert started more than two hours after the time printed on the tickets, eventually stretching to a few minutes shy of 1 a.m. Maybe that was rude, but it was definitely art. This was a time-bending retrospective from an auteur who’s resourceful with the clock: If you don’t know what hour it is, how can you hope to know what year it is? And then, with all of those time-stamped hits swimming around in your tired brain as you stroll into the cold streets, the real questions: Who were you then? Who are you now?