Pasay City, the Philippines
February 24 – 25, 2016
“Time goes by so slowly for those who wait,” but wait I did. For 32 years! All previous Madonna world tours bookended Asia with Japan and Israel (and recently UAE); the entire continent in the middle simply did not exist. I had all but given up on seeing Madonna ever, so thanks much to concert promoter MMI for making my dream come true. The first Asian stop announced in her Rebel Heart Tour was Manila! Epic faint. The day online tickets were released. – “No time to hesitate” – I snapped it up.
Which begs the question: This late in the game, is Madonna worth the wait…and the astronomical ticket prices? I should know; I went both nights. Do the math!
Here’s the lowdown:
Madonna came late as she did the world over. But so did much of her Filipino audience still trickling in by 10 (show time was 8). It was nearly 11 when she showed. It turned out Madonna time was in synch with Filipino time. I had waited three decades; what was three hours more?
The moment she appeared, nothing really mattered. We came, we saw, SHE conquered. With that grand entrance suspended in a medieval cage and wrapped in voluminous red kimono, she occupied her throne as the Queen of Pop from the get-go. She was ALL Madonna: Spectacular, theatrical, larger-than-life, Iconic.
And provocative. What’s a Madonna show without ruffling religious feathers? Predictably, the country’s catolico cerrado and closet conservatives spewed fire and brimstone on the pole dancing on crosses. The lapsed-but-hung-up Catholic girl was just warming up hell! Holy Water would climax with Madonna as buffet spread on the Last Supper table for her tableau of dancers-turned-disciples. The act was an erect middle finger to male authority figures, specifically in the Catholic Church. But was she barking at the wrong (Calvary’s) tree? The clergy does not always represent Jesus, the ultimate Rebel Heart who defied religious authorities of His time and championed women of ill repute (like someone named after His mother?). Sorry, not sorry Madonna. This is what I learned from you: to question ideas, not lap ’em up in blind fandom.
No worries, I wouldn’t be one of the self-righteous bashers who cherry-picked the “evil” elements in her show. They were ignorant of the structure of a Madonna concert. Collectively, the songs form a segmented narrative arc; each one should not be taken out of context. The redemption later depicted in Devil Pray, just the next number that got the singing sinner to break into hallelujahs, was completely ignored. No one heard a peep out of ’em haters about this.
They gleefully skipped to the next segment that carried on Madonna’s envelope-pushing agenda. Segueing into a romantic ukulele-accompanied True Blue, she inexplicably developed Tourette’s. The barrage of F-bombs in this spiel alone put her infamous Letterman meltdown to shame. Later I learned she was given a list of no-nos (not clear from whom) which included the use of profanity. What was a Rebel Heart to do? All systems go for all things forbidden. And we enabled her with roaring F-yeahs!
A Madonna concert is not just
profanity music, dance, and fashion. Add a dose of drama and death-defying stunts. Power ballad Heartbreak City saw Madonna playing half of a couple who acted out their relationship issues up and down a staircase. Because you “don’t f*ck with the queen,” she put the guy in his place by pushing him off the top step.
The marriage of visuals and song achieved dramatic heights with the stirring string arrangement of Love Don’t Live Here Anymore taking on physical form in the spiral staircase. It was pop concert as musical theater, a form pioneered by Madonna in 1990’s Blond Ambition Tour.
I happened to be standing right under the staircase – a front-row view of the Vertigo-inspired chase and eventual free-fall that unfolded above me in 3D. The same could be said of the interlude Illuminati. Dancers atop swaying poles dipped lower and lower over our heads at the mosh pit. From a farther distance on Day 2, the stunt looked no less stunning. It was a testament to the thought and creativity that went into this visual-aural show.
The MOA Arena, though dwarfed by most, was the perfect venue, audience-wise. The cruciform ramp almost filled the entire length of the arena, so much so that Madonna exclaimed, “It’s strange to be singing to a blank wall.” But every side and level offered different, yet equally eye-popping, perspectives. Cheaper-priced seats had a full view of the synchronized video backdrop and choreography, yet were not too far; pricier VIP sections took in the immediacy of seeing Madonna up close and personal as she worked every corner.
My only complaint: local security personnel shooing people away from the edges of the ramp. Isn’t that how pop concerts go – to have the audience pressed close to the stage? Isn’t that how performers like Madonna feed off the energy of the audience? The well-heeled people at the back should’ve known this wasn’t CCP where the audience sat to watch. “Dance and sing, get up and do your thing,” people! Truly, the only WTF moment on both nights.
On Day 1, I had the best seat in the house – at the far end of the heart-shaped tip on which she performed songs that put the heart in Rebel Heart. She spent a good portion of the slower numbers here. Armed only with her acoustic guitar and assisted by her main guitarist Monte Pittman at the shadows, she seemed more vulnerable than formidable.
In my 32 years of fandom, Madonna had become a myth. The stuff of legends, not of flesh and blood. To finally see her for real felt unreal. To breathe the same air was surreal. I could trace each vein that bulged out of her guitar-strumming fingers. Her skin, caked in stage make-up, was luminous like porcelain. Her eyes, piercing and on fire. She looked Photoshopped in person! Madonna, truly THE creamy smooth pop goddess.
Props to my sister for snapping a photo of Madonna and me. Who would’ve thunk I’d share the same frame with the Queen? The photo has since gotten hundreds of likes and comments on Facebook.
At this vantage position, I was – almost – touched for the very first time. By Madonna herself. All by herself. No bells and whistles, no backup dancers and distractions. She single-handedly commanded the stage with a flirty and intimate Like a Virgin. It was the purest of Madonna moments: just Madonna, her song, and her fans. She stooped to reach out to a sea of hands. Alas, I was a finger too far. “You’re so close but still a world away,” indeed. The guy beside me should never wash his fingers ever again.
It was on this heart of the stage that Madonna performed all my favorite songs. The acoustic Who’s That Girl, dropped from the setlist when she hit Asia, was resurrected in Manila. For Day 1’s wild card song, she gave us a prayer. I about died screaming at the first line, “Life is a mystery.” Like a Prayer is my top Madonna song, even pop song in general. What are the odds, right? Her voice was sweet and tender, befitting my personal anthem. Considering the song was not originally part of the tour, it was like an answered prayer.
The show seemed “reductive” to hardcore fans. Segment themes were recycled from other tours: Asian and Latin cultural appropriation, the roaring 20s and Midwest Americana, the juxtaposition of religion and sex, the flags-of-the-world encore. Had longtime director Jamie King run out of ideas? Perhaps, but the tour was a career retrospective, the closest Madonna could get to a greatest-hits show. It was a chance for Southeast Asian fans to experience a bit of all the previous tours we had missed.
Day 2 proved it was worth watching both shows. Madonna was never known to give in to song requests, yet she dedicated an emo Crazy For You, not previously performed in this tour, to her Filipino fans. Never had the pop goddess seemed more human. She did her homework; it was a treat for the 30th anniversary of the People Power Revolution. With a raised fist, she hollered,
Up for democracy and freedoooooom! That is the revolution of love, and that’s what a rebel heart fights for.Madonna
The arena erupted into a screaming mass and later a huge sing-along. “Just for you. First time in the Philippines,” she lovingly declared after the song. It was touching to see and hear her reciprocate the feeling. I shed tears like a fangirl. The feels!
The setlist may be short of career-spanning – it left out entire albums, Ray Of Light and Confessions On A Dance Floor to name a few, but it was the most 80s since, well, the 80s. The decade’s classics dominated the repertoire, including (apart from previously mentioned songs) tour staples – La Isla Bonita and Holiday, the song she hated most I thought she’d never sing again – Material Girl, the fiery Burning Up, and another revived number in the Asian leg – the Dress You Up-Into The Groove-Lucky Star medley. It was a setlist made for the 80s-loving Manila audience.
I saved a Madonna t-shirt I got from Top 40 back in 1985 to wear to my first Madonna concert. Good thing it still fit me like a glove, as it did the setlist.
My favorites off her new album were forgotten though. No Joan Of Arc, Ghosttown, Wash All Over Me, Borrowed Time. Save for my top song – the title track. Rebel Heart took its place at the middle of the show, at the heart of it, literally and figuratively. Day 2 marked a year from her nasty fall at the Brit Awards. Standing on the heart-shaped platform, she confessed her heartfelt gratitude:
I have survived many crazy experiences, and you, my rebel heart fans, have been with me all the way. And I thank you, my bitches, for always being in my gang, for always being by my side, for always rooting for me, fighting for me, and giving me a piece of your heart…In the end that’s all we have, right?Madonna
Cue in the guitar intro of Rebel Heart as a video montage of fan art rolled in the background. In all her career and my fandom, our life journeys had not truly crossed until Rebel Heart. The song, the album, and the tour were retrospective and introspective. For once, she wasn’t looking too far ahead to her next career move. Finally, a Madonna reinvention after my own nostalgic, sentimental heart. Longtime backing vocalists Donna De Lory and Niki Harris, both conspicuously absent in recent tours, would’ve perfected the nostalgia. (Memo to Madonna: Bring back Niki and Donna!)
On DVD she seemed mostly performing for herself, not compromising synchronized perfection with unpredictable audience interaction and participation. She was awkward with fans at best. It was a change of pace to see her chatty, spontaneous, and generally in high spirits. Lengthy ad libs, audience rapport, jokes, and anecdotes imbued her rehearsed performances with a good measure of spontaneity.
Decades ago she admitted she had no idea who her fans were; this time she even called some lucky ones by name and/or on stage. She bantered with fans, not preached to them. The Queen had become more accessible to her loyal subjects.
Many have credited her constant reinvention for career longevity, but even she has acknowledged the loyalty of, arguably, the longest running fanbase in pop today. That’s a love affair longer than her two marriages combined! “Through thick and thin,” she had said, like a marriage vow. “True blue, baby I love you…”
Despite her personal struggles (an ongoing custody battle), Madonna looked happy on stage. She was basking in her love of performing and the love of her fans. The lovefest would appear patronizing had she not carried it with humor and irreverence. At times, she was self-referential. She called herself a BITCH because she took it to mean:
We knew it was going there. Even the un-funny Manila traffic got airtime in a hilarious sketch involving her unmentionables. The humor was very vaudeville and, well, very Madonna. It all went well with her flapper costume dripping in Swarovski crystals.
Comedy aside, her body was seriously lean and toned, now tempered with a more feminine softness. And no one can do dance squats – in heels, mind you – like Madonna. She returned to form for Deeper and Deeper, Music, and the sugar rush-infused Candy Shop, though she was almost upstaged by her topless flapper, not for obvious reasons, but for sheer bravura.
Still, Madonna was not entirely the snappy, tireless “Buzzbomb” that Warren Beatty called her back in the day. She delegated that job to her troupe of fabulous dancers. On Day 2’s encore, there were times she merely walked the stage, far from the kinetic energy we had associated with Holiday.
But the less-than-vigorous dancing had preserved her vocal range. When she serenaded us with her favorite song, La Vie en Rose, and a verse of You Light Up My Life, she was Evita all over again, maybe even better – her voice soared, yet sweetly so. As her peers started losing their vocal power with age, she has enhanced hers.
After bidding her bitches goodbye, she was whisked up to the ceiling by harness. And just like that, she was gone, disappearing back to where she had come from.
“Music makes the people come together,” and “one is such a lonely number.” Post-show, the lobby looked like a Madonna Wannabe convention. Shout-out to fellow members of Club Madonna Philippines and other friends who outed themselves from their closeted Madonna fandom.
So F-yeah, there was no “late in the game” in Madonna’s timeline. The timing was perfect for Madonna to touch Manila for the very first time. She had embraced her legacy as she remained at the top of her game. And in Manila, she was confidently rebellious with a heart.
On the personal front, Madonna came at my darkest hour. Fate would have it that we’d share one significant thing when I finally see her – we are both motherless now. I lost mine two months earlier; she lost hers as a child. That first heartache never left her, and has since defined her life and art. That devastating loss compelled her to take “the road less traveled by” and make her dreams come true.
A friend noted that it took Madonna to get my smile back. The joy of seeing my dream come to life welled up from the memory of my mother’s smile when I got my tickets. Another friend put it best: Madonna, the Patroness of the Grieving. That she can add to Queen of Pop and Material Girl.
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