As watchful a superstar as pop has ever known, Madonna paused not long into her concert at the Forum to appraise the recent renovation of the venerable arena, which has housed so many of her performances over the decades that “I feel like this is one of my homes,” she said.
“I see the ceiling is getting lower and lower,” she went on. “Or is that my ego getting bigger and bigger?”
Surely, one needn’t eliminate the possibility of the other.
Part of her world tour behind this year’s “Rebel Heart” album, this week’s show spared no opportunity to remind the capacity crowd of the singer’s incalculable influence on modern music. (The evening’s second song was the 2015 single “Bitch I’m Madonna.”)
But if her legacy is secure, Madonna at 57 no longer holds down pop’s center. Taylor Swift sells more records and concert tickets. Beyonce is a more coveted interview. Katy Perry, who turned up onstage at the Forum to pay her respects with a slyly backhanded compliment, has more followers on social media.
So, as much as she was celebrating her own importance, Madonna seemed to be looking for ways to demonstrate that she still mattered. What was remarkable was that she succeeded by taking advantage of her experience, not by running from it.
The show’s most immediate thrills came in an old form: the mingling of religious and sexual iconography that has been Madonna’s specialty since the late 1980s. Here, though, she went further than ever – and almost certainly further than her young successors are willing to – singing her song “Holy Water” as several women dressed in nuns’ wimples pole-danced on a number of metal crosses.
For her next song, “Devil Pray,” the singer simulated oral sex atop a long table decorated to evoke the Last Supper. Was there a clear message in the scene? Nah. But in this age of careful “corporate branding,” as Madonna’s voice-over described it in one video sequence, pop needs committed taboo-busters even more than it did in the “Like a Prayer” days.
There were other provocations, including the sight of a proudly topless backup dancer in “Candy Shop,” Madonna’s own writhing with various muscled men in the new album’s “Body Shop” and her typically blithe appropriation of musical and cultural traditions from Japan, Spain and elsewhere.
For a veteran entertainer with dozens of hits, her decision to spend a good half of her 21/2-hour set on material from “Rebel Heart” felt like a challenge as well. Ditto her radical reworkings of the old songs: “Dress You Up” rode a fluttering flamenco groove; “Music” started out as a sultry supper-club ballad; “Material Girl” had staticky dubstep squelches. She was insisting on evolution, refusing to be boxed in by any earlier version of herself.
Yet this concert also showcased how charmingly relaxed Madonna could be onstage – how all those years of performing had given her a confidence that’s a pleasure to behold.
During “Like a Virgin,” she practically skipped down a long runway that jutted out onto the venue’s floor, her body language as free as it was all night. “True Blue” had a cozy campfire-sing-along vibe, as did “Like a Prayer,” which she claimed she’d thrown into the show without rehearsal.
She even offered a bit of stand-up comedy after “Material Girl,” asking a fan in the front row if he knew about the “three rings of marriage”: “the engagement ring, the wedding ring and the suffering.”
“I haven’t been successful at that marriage thing yet,” she added, and that was the lead-in to her appealingly daffy rendition of the French standard “La Vie en Rose,” for which she accompanied herself on ukulele. (Ask yourself how many other entertainers in Madonna’s class will have that sentence written about them this year.) After “La Vie en Rose,” she brought Perry out for a duet – and a bit of light spanking – in “Unapologetic Bitch.”
“I love you, Mom!” Perry crowed when the song was over, and it wasn’t hard to imagine her holding a sign reading “young and current!” over her head.
But here’s the thing about youth and currency: They always wither. And that no longer seems to frighten Madonna.