Madonna, in the midst of her Madame X theater tour, continues to follow fellow trailblazer James Baldwin’s philosophy that “artists are here to disturb the peace.”
In fact, the pop icon opens her 11-city extravaganza — which this writer experienced Oct. 6 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House in New York City— with a passage from the activist/ novelist/playwright containing said quotation.
No stranger to disturbing the peace, Madonna has fueled cultural conversations on age, gender, race, religion and sexuality, among other social mores, over the last 35-plus years. She’s still pushing buttons with her latest live outing, which kicked off Sept. 17 in Brooklyn. Per Billboard Boxscore, the run of 16 sold-out shows at BAM grossed a robust $9.6 million.
Madonna’s previous 10 tours — filling mainly arenas and stadiums — grossed in excess of $1.3 billion, a record among female acts. The superstar will have played 50-odd Madame X shows in eight U.S. cities by year’s end, including four dates at The Met Philadelphia in December. In early 2020, the singer-songwriter heads to Portugal, England and France.
Over the course of her impressive two-hours-plus production, the Queen of Pop invites fans into the world of Madame X, the everywoman persona she adopted for her like-titled 15th album of all-new material. The “master of reinvention,” eager to stand out as a renegade early on, earned the Madame X nickname from Martha Graham while a student at the legend’s dance school.
In Madame X’s world, Madonna, in the guise of a secret agent, travels around the globe, changes identities, fights for freedom and brings light to dark places. Stufish Entertainment Architects created the show’s sets, which include mapped video projection, large-scale video images, staircases and other reconfigurable scenic pieces able to move around like a Rubik’s Cube.
Prior to Madonna taking the stage — which occurs between 10:30 and 11 p.m. — members of her band perform delightful instrumental selections, including several of the icon’s hits missing from the Madame X Tour.
Insistent that audiences watch her latest spectacle through their own eyes — cellphones and smartwatches, for instance, get locked in Yondr cases upon venue entry — Madonna ensures an intimate theatrical experience, minus a sea of devices feverishly capturing moments.
In the opening segment, a silhouette figure sits at a typewriter, repeatedly pounding Baldwin’s sentiments — such as the aforementioned quote and “Art is here to prove that all safety is an illusion” — into viewers’ heads. Sounds of gunshots fill the theater, with Madonna appearing in front of a distressed-American-flag backdrop.
The star, wearing a Revolutionary War ensemble complete with feathered tricorn hat, starts to sing “God Control,” which tackles the ever-controversial topic of gun control. With her jaw sounding like it’s wired shut, Madonna, despite such constrictions, vents her anger over America’s easy access to firearms and gun brandishers’ God complex.
Glorious cascading disco strings counter the dark subject matter of “God Control,” with Madonna insisting “we need to wake up.” The singer-dancer brings the joy of disco and freedom, which she enjoyed upon moving from Michigan to New York City at age 19, into a world where trigger-happy individuals silence such joy. During the on-stage chaos, Madonna and her fellow freedom fighters tangle with riot-shield-wielding police officers.
Concert goers have little time to digest “God Control” — whose music video depicts a shooting similar to the 2016 Pulse-nightclub massacre in Florida — before Madonna moves on to the bizarrely fascinating “Dark Ballet.” For this track, Madonna drew inspiration from another of history’s fearless females, burned-at the-stake Joan of Arc. Fittingly, with the warrior canonized as a Roman Catholic saint, religious imagery informs the performance.
Now sporting her ubiquitous “X” eye patch, Madonna tangles with ominous-looking characters in gas masks and floral headgear, dancing the “Dark Ballet,” which she says “we’re all dancing right now, in this world.” Also influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s nihilistic “A Clockwork Orange,” the number features a frantic piano break, plus a vocal distortion set to Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” from “The Nutcracker.”
Casual fans hoping Madonna lightens the mood with carefree classics such as “Holiday,” “Open Your Heart,” “Music” and “Hung Up,” take note: those hits and more take a time out for Madame X. Though with a staggering 64 different songs reaching the U.S. and/or U.K. top 10 singles charts, even a tour promising “all the big hits” could never live up to such a pledge.
As with her recent tours, Madonna — in fine voice — leans heavily on new material, performing a dozen “Madame X” tracks. Nonetheless, she revisits her back catalog early on with 1994′s “Human Nature.” A response to the “Erotica”-album/“Sex”-book backlash of 1992, the track reaffirms the singer’s express-yourself-don’t-repress-yourself, no-regrets stance. During the performance, she exhibits her athleticism by doing a handstand in a circular hole.
Madonna, a first-year-eligible 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, follows “Human Nature” with an a cappella chorus of her 1989 female-empowerment classic “Express Yourself.” A slew of females join the sing-along, including youngest daughters Mercy James, Stella and Estere.
Following a “Madame X Manifesto” video interlude, look-alike secret-agent blondes in sunglasses and trench coats parade around as Madonna performs 1990′s game-changing “Vogue.” During “I Don’t Search I Find” — which nods to “Vogue” bass line and Madonna’s “Erotica”-era spoken-word vocals — the singer endures an interrogation by film-noir-/“Dick Tracy”-like detectives.
Politics return via a brief rendition of 1986′s “Papa Don’t Preach,” with Madonna altering a key lyric to “I’m not keeping my baby.” Despite the change, the message of bodily autonomy remains firmly intact.
Madonna then straps on a guitar to revisit “American Life,” in which she realizes “nothing is what it seems” when it comes to living the American dream. To her far right, ripped uniforms descend onto a dancer, with clips from the song’s war-themed fashion-show video — pulled from release around the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq — as a backdrop. The act closes with soldiers carrying a flag-draped coffin across the stage.
For the show’s next section, Madonna — in a brunette wig — spotlights the global influences behind her latest album. Upon its release in June, “Madame X” — the singer’s most adventurous and experimental album in more than a decade — became her ninth No. 1 album and 15th top two title on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
Madonna likely was not pondering her next chart feat — or the 300 million-plus albums and singles she’s sold, making her one of history’s most successful recording artists — when she moved to Lisbon, Portugal, in 2017. There to support son David’s soccer career, the Queen of Pop found musical inspiration in the Portuguese capital.
After seeing passionate, not-in-it-for-money musicians perform in living rooms and small clubs, Madonna was intent on turning what she heard upside down, whether fado, morna, funaná or other genres. Aside from Portugal, territories such as Africa, Brazil, India and Spain influenced the musical direction of “Madame X.”
Call-and-response song “Batuka” starts the show’s musical globe-trot, with the dancing, hand-drumming and singing talents of the all-female Orquestra Batukadeiras. Madonna’s “Batuka” music video points out how “Batuque is a style of music created by women that originated in Cape Verde, some say the birth place of slave trade.”
Seeing drumming as an act of rebellion, the church condemned drums and took them away from the slaves. Nonetheless, the women continued singing and dancing, with “Batuka” spotlighting the Batukadeiras’ journey from darkness to light, their souls unbroken. The women also lend their talents to other numbers throughout the evening.
Madonna then opens her fado café, performing a cover of Carlos Zel’s “Fado Pechincha” with Portuguese guitarist Gaspar Varela, great-grandson of late fado singer Celeste Rodrigues. The mood gets more somber with “Killers Who Are Partying.” Here, Madonna pledges to take on the burdens of marginalized individuals, calling out powerful men celebrating and abusing their power, amid minorities’ degradation and suffering.
“Killers,” which tests the devotion of fans wanting the tempo to pick up some, features Portuguese singing in spots, as does “Crazy,” an accordion-infused midtempo love song that brings some classic Madonna pop into the café. A mash-up of non-album track “Welcome to My Fado Club” and the 1986 classic “La Isla Bonita” precedes another fado cover, the 1950s tune “Sodade,” which Cesária Évora popularized in the early 1990s.
Colombian heartthrob Maluma appears via video for festive cha-cha-cha duet “Medellín,” with Madonna then recounting her global identity search in the morna-inspired “Extreme Occident.” The music of India’s Rajasthan, along with tabla music, influenced part of the song.
While rehearsing for the Madame X Tour, Madonna teased a possible performance of “Rescue Me,” an oft-forgotten gem from her mega-selling 1990 “Immaculate Collection” compilation. A verse from the song does pop up, albeit as an interlude set to the flailing movements of dancers, before the classic strings of 1998′s “Frozen” fill the BAM venue.
Madonna, wearing a head scarf, remains stationary as she sings the “Ray of Light”-era single, while a mesmerizing giant projection of eldest daughter Lourdes takes over the stage. The pop goddess’ 23-year-old offspring clearly has inherited mom’s spellbinding charisma, presence and gift for performance art.
“Come Alive,” another highlight, contains Madonna-mantra lyrics such as “Stand out, no I don’t wanna blend in, why you want me to?” The music of North Africa’s Gnawa tribe inspired the peace-seeking, see-the-world track, which features an instrument with origins in slavery. Turning darkness into light upon their freedom, slaves transformed the shackles that enslaved them into music — percussion instruments called krakebs.
Though Madonna’s previously performed atop a piano, she takes a seat at the instrument to play “Future,” a Jamaican dancehall track with hip-hop act Quavo about the current state of the world and the future of civilization. Madonna and her troupe then return to the disco for a dance mix of “Crave,” a collaboration with rapper/singer Swae Lee.
For the night’s penultimate number, Madonna, dressed in a black robe, leads a rousing rendition of “Like a Prayer.” Clips from the controversial video, released 30 years ago, surround the singer and her crew, which includes the Batukadeiras choir.
Closing the show, Madonna again champions marginalized individuals. “I Rise,” which she wrote in part to mark the Stonewall uprising’s 50th anniversary, inspires listeners to hope, speak their minds, and stay true to — and love — themselves. Back in June, “I Rise” closed Madonna’s Pride Island set, held during LGBTQ WorldPride NYC festivities.
Madonna and company, fists raised, conclude the night by walking down the center aisle. For a fleeting moment, the icon and fans — in close-enough-to-touch proximity — share a moment of we’ll-rise-above-it-all solidarity.
Such interaction exemplifies the Madame X Tour’s intimacy. Early in the show, Madonna snaps a Polaroid selfie and invites bidders to the front of the stage. She sells the photo to a fan willing to fork over the most cash, a move that may seem very “Material Girl.” However, the philanthropist insists the money — topping $5,000 on occasion — goes to her Raising Malawi charity.
Speaking to the audience more frequently than in past tours, the ever-humorous, chatty Madonna even asks the crowd, “Am I talking too much?” Among other atypical moments, she engages in audience banter and ventures out to dance on one side of the audience.
Madonna’s more personable demeanor, notably, takes nothing away from the levels of showmanship and risk-taking that have defined her storied career. Refusing to play it safe — she easily could mount hits tour after hits tour — Madonna challenges audiences to open their eyes to the world around them, respect her vision and trust that she will deliver her usual powerhouse production.
As Madame X requests in “Medellín,” take a trip with her — she’ll be so good for you.
More at Poconorecord.com