In Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour, Expect The Unexpected

(Photo: Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott)

Where were you when you first heard Madonna?

It’s a question that pop fans who devoured the offerings put forth by MTV and top-40 radio during the ’80s and ’90s can probably answer without thinking. Mine: “Borderline,” off her self-titled debut and an MTV staple thanks to its video, which mixed high art and graffiti and hopscotch. The song’s wounded, yet bubbly production made me dance; Madonna’s effortless cool gave me a glimpse at what bohemian adulthood might be like.

The songs of hers that I probably remember best, though, are the ones on her 1986 album True Blue, which served as the official warm-up album for a dance class I took during sixth grade; any mention of the pugilistic actor Jimmy Cagney, to whom Madonna dedicated that album’s feisty “White Heat,” flashes me back to the afternoons of leotards and stretching at the barre.

30 years on, the Material Girl still packs stadiums around the world.

No matter what era of Madonna one remembers most fondly — the crumpled white dress of the “Like A Virgin” era, the negligee-and-brown-hair “Like A Prayer” period, the glossier, wiser Madge that emerged after she discovered EDM — quite a few Madonna memories will be conjured by the “Rebel Heart” tour, which kicks off in Montreal on September 9.

But don’t expect memories of past chart-toppers like “Dress You Up,” “Holiday,” and “Who’s That Girl” to match themselves exactly to what’ll happen on stage.

“I realize that people want to hear my older stuff, so for me it’s always a tricky balance trying to keep some continuity, not only with sound, sonically, but also thematically,” Madonna told Bravo head honcho Andy Cohen in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview. “That’s why a lot of times I have to take the songs and turn them inside out and make them more ironic than straightforward so that they work for me.”

Madonna’ s 10th worldwide tour is being promoted with a poster of the chameleonic singer with a sword plunged into her chest, a direct reference to the title of her most recent album, Rebel Heart, the cover of which depicts her face bound in black wires. Her playing with provocative imagery will continue on tour — a teaser for the tour released last month offers a glimpse of someone sporting a nun’s habit while dancing on a stripper pole. The image isn’t surprising given Madonna’s past, from “Like A Virgin” on.

Rebel Heart, the album to which Madonna is pegging this tour, is a fairly solid effort. Always one to be hyperaware of what’s trending around the pop world, Madonna collaborated with the EDM titan Avicii and the globe-trotting producer Diplo, as well as next-generation pop auteurs like Ariel Rechtshaid and Natalia Kills. It’s a move into the 21st century’s second decade that, while not perfect, often has moments of bliss — on the sumptuous “Joan Of Arc,” a worthy successor to other downtempo tracks like “La Isla Bonita,” Madonna sings over a delicately plucked acoustic guitar, while she sighs over a gently bouncing beat on “Body Shop,” a playful dude-as-car metaphor. Then there’s the brash “Bitch I’m Madonna,” in which the Material Girl reminds everyone of her formidable legacy.

The tour’s set list will likely feature some of those songs, but the prospect of her reinventing her back catalog yet again — not just for younger audiences who might not have been around for their first trips up the charts, but for diehards who have followed her around the world — is exciting, especially given the way she’s turned her songs inside-out in the past.

The 1991 documentary Madonna: Truth Or Dare offered a raunchy, sometimes tense glimpse at Madonna’s tour life. (Her openness was unsurprising to her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty: “She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk… What point is there of existing off-camera?” he asked at one point.) But it also allowed viewers a chance to see how she reinvented her songs top-to-bottom on tour, and didn’t simply remake her MTV-saturating videos onstage: Her reworking of “Like A Virgin” into an extended vamp that ended with a simulated masturbation scene was so scandalous to early-’90s audiences, police officers in Toronto threatened to arrest her after the show if it went on — but it also became an MTV staple thanks to the way it wholly updated a song that was so crucial to the channel’s earliest days.

The reigning doyenne of the “pop stars who can fill stadia” set, Madonna last went on the road in 2012 to promote her push into EDM MDNA. That 88-date run, which was kicked off by her appearance at Super Bowl XLVI, wound up being the year’s highest-grossing tour. It made $305 million and featured a full-on fashion show (and an update of her storied cone bra) during “Vogue”:

Madonna also turned the empowerment anthem “Express Yourself” into an explosion of majorettes (and nodded at the many similarities between that 1989 jam and Lady Gaga’s 2011 ode to self-love, “Born This Way”):

These treatments have a .0000001% chance of being repeated this time around, but they do offer a glimpse at how Madonna treats her back catalog as germs for bigger ideas — sometimes serious, sometimes silly, always with her trademark blend of bravado and sock-it-to-you hooks. While she might not be the most technically gifted singer, live shows allow Madonna to create a fully realized pop world into which she invites her fans — a place where she not only trades in the kind of titillating shock that defined her earliest days, but where she unearths surprises in the already known.

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