The night before the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas in May, Madonna was sitting in the arena attached to the MGM Grand hotel, staring at a double of herself. The double, who was standing on the stage many yards away, was younger and looked Asian but wore a similar lace minidress and a wig in Madonna’s current hairstyle, a ’30s movie star’s crimped blond waves. “It’s always the second person with the wig — she wants to see it,” a stage designer said, adding that when she makes a decision, she is definitive. “Madonna wants 10 options, but when she says it’s the one, it’s the one.”
Madonna was observing Madonna to make sure Madonna was doing everything perfectly. Up on the stage set of a funky urban street with lampposts and a tiled bar, the double hit her marks and held a fist up to her mouth like a faux microphone for a rendition of “Medellín,” the on-trend, Latin-inflected song that Madonna would be singing. Madonna looked at a TV and assessed the augmented-reality part of the show, in which four additional virtual Madonnas, one playing an accordion and another dressed like a bride, would materialize in the televised awards performance out of thin air. Nearby, guys bowed heads and said cryptic things like “Where’s the digital key?” and “I need the alpha channel” to one another, tensely.
All the fake Madonnas ran through the song a few times before Madonna skipped enthusiastically to the stage. The sex bomb at 60 was slightly less than bionic and wore a Swarovski-crystal-encrusted patch over her left eye (“It’s fashion, darling,” an onlooker explained when I asked why she chose to wear it). Afterward, Madonna mused about something being off, and the next time she messed up the part where she stood on a table and gyrated her legs in and out in a move called “the butterfly” while popping her head in each direction. But by the third run-through she seemed ecstatic. “It’s so nice to see her smile,” Megan Lawson, a choreographer, said from under a black bolero hat, “and have it be a genuine smile.”
The AR part of Madonna’s performance was a feat, devised by some of the people who worked on this year’s Super Bowl, and the next night at the awards show she danced boldly despite the eye patch, which had to be difficult, peripheral-vision-speaking. But she wasn’t incorporating fireworks, a marching band and flying backup dancers, as Taylor Swift did; she didn’t hand out special bracelets to every person in the audience, then activate them to beam a thousand points of light, as the Jonas Brothers did; she wasn’t in a leotard and rolling around on the floor simulating a lesbian make-out session, as Halsey did, though the reason Halsey did that has a lot to do with Madonna doing it first. When the people in the audience lost their minds that night, they lost them almost exclusively for the K-pop band BTS, whose smooth hip-hop moves have birthed a million memes. For Madonna, they rose to their feet and took their phones out to commemorate “the time they saw Madonna” but seemed to scream loudest for the gyrating butterfly part, which was a little skanky, and that pleased them.
The pop-music world around Madonna has expanded in such shockingly strange new ways in the past couple of years that her precisely executed performance almost seemed too delicate (“Medellín” is down-tempo for a Madonna song; at the all-inclusive Mexican resort I visited over spring break, the poolside aerobics teacher played the song as a warm-up). Teenagers have always dominated pop, but now that most new music in the United States is streamed, how many times a song is listened to by one person counts much more than how many people listen to a song — and kids simply have more time to stream music than adults. When I checked the charts after the show, rappers born after President Bill Clinton’s election were in the top slots (Lil Nas X, Lil Skies, Lil Baby, Lil Uzi Vert). Older musicians had to pander to the teenage demographic or even younger; Swift’s new single, “ME!” sounded like a Kidz Bop version of a Taylor Swift single and actually featured her shouting, during the bridge, “Spelling is fun!”
Backstage, Madonna posed for a candid photo with BTS; later, people left comments like “LEGENDS MEET LEGENDS” under the photo on Twitter. Finding out that there were indeed people who believed that a K-pop band of 20-somethings was equal in legendary status to Madonna, not only the highest-charting female musician and highest-grossing female touring musician in history but also an artist who changed the pop-culture game forever, made me gag, to use a phrase from her heyday. Among my middle-aged peers — my female and gay male peers, mostly — she was still an object of fascination. My friends in the fashion business who used to take cues from her liked her new hats but not her jewelry and the eye patch. My old crusty punk friends, including an ex-dominatrix who now owned a restaurant, said: “Madonna’s hard-core! I want to know what she thinks about menopause. We need her back in New York.” And everyone wanted to argue about her claiming a seat at the contemporary-pop banquet past her 60th year — was it really all that significant, if Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones played stadiums past her age, David Byrne was regularly performing across America and Bruce Springsteen was still at the controls of Bruce Inc.? Or was it a superhuman feat, particularly when set against her two closest contemporaries, Michael Jackson and Prince, each of whom exploded with her at the rise of video culture in the early 1980s and each of whom died early, and ignominiously?