REVIEW / CONCERT
MADONNA REBEL HEART TOUR 2016
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.
Before the show, the concert organisers repeatedly emphasised that the National Stadium show on Sunday evening will adhere to Singapore's Media Development Authority (MDA) guidelines and leave out religiously sensitive material such as the song Holy Water, which mixed sex and religion.
But there was still buzz among fans that Madonna would defy the ban like a rebel and stick to her guns.
In the end, the 25,000 fans in the half-filled stadium got a censored set list that left out Holy Water and Devil Pray, two songs that were highlights in other stops of the 57-year-old American's current world tour.
Leaving out the two songs was not the only unusual move, given her reputation for fearlessly courting controversy. She also started her show way earlier than in cities on her other tour 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 elsewhere.
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 here ended with her dancers waving a blue flag emblazoned with the peace sign instead. She herself wore an Uncle Sam-inspired red top hat and blue jacket with white stars.
If the concert had been a soccer game 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 - and she had to show somehow that she is rebel.
"Can I use the F-word around here?" she asked midway through the concert, before going on to unleash a stream of F-worded obscenities to the crowd's roar of approval.
Moreover, 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 and plenty of sexual innuendoes.
Madonna referred to her fans as "bitches" ("When I call somebody a bitch it means I like them," she explains), and asked the fans to call her one in return. At one point, she 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.
The setlist was heavy on Rebel Heart material - from EDM-heavy bangers such as Bitch I'm Madonna and Illuminati to lovelorn ballad HeartBreakCity.
Still, the biggest cheers and sing-alongs from the audience, many in their 30s 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 introduction.
But it would be kind of beside the point at a Madonna concert to focus on the music more than the showmanship.
Never mind that 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 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.
Apart from the bawdy and the exciting, there were a handful of touching moments, including her recollection of seeing a wedding take place at the hotel she was staying at and a candid reference 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 even the tough ones among us. Madonna is no exception.