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Review and photos: Madonna, in St. Paul, refuses to be your ’80s nostalgia trip

by Jay Gabler

October 09, 2015

Of the two other members of the great triumvirate of '80s pop, Madonna explicitly mentioned only one on Thursday night at the Xcel Energy Center. "Yeah, we shook it up," she said, dedicating her performance of "La Vie En Rose" to the megastar who's "actually from this area." The two "wrote a few songs together—the queen and the Prince." (Only after I wrote this review did I discover that the two still hang out together—as in, at Paisley Park, after Madonna's show.)

The other member of the triumvirate was invoked in the songs that boomed from the PA immediately before and after Madonna's set: Michael Jackson. It's interesting to compare the career arcs of the three. Jackson rose to early brilliance, then got extremely weird, and died at age 50. Prince rose to early brilliance, then got what might be called "weird" in most contexts, but we're now on a Michael Jackson scale, so let's just say "somewhat eccentric," and continued to make music strictly on his own terms.

Madonna...well, just kept being Madonna. More or less continuously since her 1982 debut, she's regularly released major-label albums that bid for Top 40 airplay, supporting them with giant arena tours and mass-media blitzes. Her persistent focus on the new makes for a unique vibe on her current Rebel Heart tour: with set lists strongly tilted towards recent material (for a live audience that does not strongly tilt towards recent fans), she's recast her earlier songs to fit her current aesthetic, playing numbers like 1983's "Burning Up" as though she put them out just a couple of years ago.

She still looks and sounds great, performing in a loose and enthusiastic mood that showed the arena stage to be as comfortable a home as you'd imagine it would be for someone who's been warming it up since the Reagan Administration. Most performers at the Xcel either spout misguided props to Minneapolis or cling to "St. Paul" for dear life, but Madonna was well aware not just that there are two major cities in the metro area, but that it's okay to be a little confused. "Come on, St. Paul! Come on, Minneapolis! Come on, Twin Cities! What am I supposed to say?"

Despite the fact that the star arrived in a cage that descended from the rafters, the show, with stage extended by a T-shaped catwalk that was similar to the lower half of Prince's bisexy glyph (except that it ended in a heart instead of an arrow), was staged in relatively modest fashion by arena standards. The main props were a giant tilting screen/stage floor and several flexible poles that were deployed for swinging or swooping, sometimes by performers wearing skimpy nun costumes (did I mention this was a Madonna show?).

That kept the focus right where it should be: on the star herself, cavorting with her hard-working, occasionally cross-dressing troupe of backup dancers. ("Bitch," she declared twice, in what read as a flirtatious riposte to stars like Taylor Swift who want to be everyone's best friend, "you're not in my gang.") In the show's best number, Madonna sang "Like a Virgin" completely alone on the catwalk, skipping and scooting along in a joyful little dance that turned her sheer superstar magnetism on full blast in a way that seemed completely effortless.

The decision to emphasize songs from this year's Rebel Heart was challenging both for Madonna's audience and for the artist herself - virtually any recent Madonna song is going to sound a little wan next to "Material Girl" or "La Isla Bonita" - but it gave the new material more than a fighting chance to succeed, and some of the new songs (notably a stirring "Living for Love" and an unexpectedly moving "Rebel Heart," set to a career-spanning montage of fan art) shone.

"Holy Water" was staged with a typically provocative cavalcade of repurposed Catholic imagery (here's where the pole-dancing nuns came in, and a Last Supper recreation to boot); "Body Shop" got a stage treatment that was all too literal, though it all paid off when Madonna mounted the body shop's stack of tires to play a sweet sing-song "True Blue" on ukulele. The biggest disappointment among the new songs was "Bitch I'm Madonna," which downshifted from its star-studded over-the-top music video to an underwhelming Japanese fan dance.

Madonna frequently picked up stringed instruments—the ukulele as well as both acoustic and electric guitars—which was less effective during the butt-rocking "Burning Up" (with Madonna smashing chords on an angular black axe) than during moments when it served to create a warm sense of intimacy, as in an unplugged take on "Who's That Girl."

After a set-concluding "Unapologetic Bitch" (assisted by a Russian fan named Oksana, "tonight's unapologetic bitch"), Madonna came back for a single encore ("Holiday") and then disappeared behind her video screen, lifted away on wires. "Like a Prayer" was left on the table, and so was—probably—your favorite Madonna song, whatever it might be, unless it's from Rebel Heart.

Like Prince and other stars of similar longevity and creativity, Madonna's earned the right to insist that we meet her on her own terms—as though there have ever been any others. She's never been out to make anyone comfortable, from her aggressively sexual MTV heyday to her cross-burning heresies to her current challenge to what she decries as ageism in pop music.

The ageism fight seems like precisely the right battle for Madonna, who's 57, to be fighting right now: challenging yet another set of conventions that tries to tell people what they can or can't do. Is it really fair to ask for ask for 33 years of relevance on the pop charts? Um, yes. Bitch, she's Madonna.

"It's lonely at the top," Madonna drolly confessed to her adoring St. Paul audience, "but it ain't crowded."

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.