Despite naming her current tour, and most recent album, Rebel Heart,pop superstar Madonna proved at her maiden Singapore show that she could play by the rules after all.
While the concert organisers have repeatedly emphasised that the National Stadium show on Sunday(Feb28) evening will adhere to Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) guidelines and leave out religiously sensitive material, there was still buzz among fans prior to the show that Madonna would defy the ban and stick to her guns.
But it seemed like the 25,000 fans in the half-filled stadium who turned up got the censored setlist which left out Holy Water and Devil Pray, two songs that were staple in other stops of the 57-year-old American’s current world tour.
In previous gigs, the segment in which she performs Holy Water in particular featured dancers dressed as nuns doing their moves on cross-shaped stripper poles while she sings lyrics that mix sex and religion.
Leaving out the two songs was not the only unusual move, given her reputation for fearlessly courting controversy, but she also started her show way earlier than in her other stops.
She came on 55 minutes after the stated 8pm start time, a relatively early start for a singer known for coming on up to three hours late in the other shows in her tour.
And while she is also known to wear the host country’s flag as a cape for the finale – an action that earned a rebuke from the Philippines authorities at her shows there last week – her two-hour gig ended with her dancers waving about a blue flag emblazoned with the peace sign instead, while she wore an Uncle Sam-inspired red top hat and blue jacket with white stars.
If the concert was like the soccer games played on the same National Stadium pitch, the score would have read: Singapore 1, Madonna 0.
Of course, a relatively tame Madonna show is still risque by most mainstream pop concert standards.
The show – one of the rare concerts here given an R18 rating by MDA with an advisory on sexual references – featured a topless female dancer on the song Candy Shop, plenty of sexual innuendoes as well as enough cuss words to make an old-school sailor blush.
She referred to her fans as “bitches” (“When I call somebody a bitch it means I like them,” she explains), and at one point, poked repeatedly on her privates parts before exclaiming that she was a “whore for applause”.
On dancehall-tinged number Unapologetic Bitch, which closed her main set, she pulled up a twerking male fan on the massive stage that featured a long runway, and later poured an unidentified liquid on him from a diamond-encrusted banana.
It was all in good fun of course, even when the singer, dressed in several costumes ranging from a matador outfit to a samurai-inspired ensemble, adopted a mock-condescending tone and pretended to teach the audience English swear words.
Still, the biggest cheers and singalongs from the audience, many in their thirties and older, were the early hits from the start of her career in the 1980s, evergreen pop staples such as Like A Virgin and Material Girl, both from 1984. Many songs were re-worked for the live show – Dress You Up (1984) and Into The Groove (1985) were given Latin Music treatments while the title track from 2000 album Music had a jazzy, ragtime intro.
And while her vocals were pitchy at times, the show’s tight choreography was unparalleled. When it came to the dance moves, Madonna and her posse of both male and female dancers were a well-oiled machine and many of the upbeat segments were as thrilling as her slickly-edited music videos.
The dancers would be balancing on the top of tall, swinging, poles, falling off from a spiral staircase and dancing on tilting platforms, all to the beat of the music
There were touching moments speckled throughout – at one point she recalled seeing a wedding taking place at the local hotel she was staying at and candidly referred to her two failed marriages.
Later, playing a ukulele, she sang an acoustic version of Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose, dedicating the tune to two of her four children whom she said were in the audience. Showing off a soft side rarely seen, she proudly called them her “soulmates” and her “true love”.
Motherhood, and age, it seems, mellows out even the tough ones among us, and Madonna is no different.