Madonna has always done what she wants. Roll around the VMAs stage in a wedding dress? Of course. Forego a traditional record deal and sign up with a promoter instead? Sure thing. Skip merrily from sound to sound, even when people tell her she’s “too old” to make whatever genre she dabbles in next? Absolutely. So when Madonna decides to not put herself out on a typical tour – a different arena every night, the whole thing done and dusted in a matter of weeks – you go right ahead and book her residencies in different venues across the globe, allowing her to perform for weeks on end, in one location, in rooms far smaller than anyone in 2019 has any legal right to witness her in.
Pop’s most rebellious star does just as she pleases during the first round of the ‘Madame X’ world tour at the plush Howard Gilman Opera House too. You might expect the world’s biggest pop stars to have their audience out the door by 11pm but, by the time the clock strikes that hour in Brooklyn, Madonna’s only just come on stage. Not that anyone minds – there are a few outbursts of impatient claps and cheers in the time leading up to her arrival but the overriding atmosphere in the venue is one of pure excitement as people – in their finest gowns, tuxes, and vintage Madonna merch – sip wine from plastic beakers and hover in the select zones were phone use is allowed (all mobiles are locked in pouches for the entirety of the show).
The late start is immediately worth it. The show is a mind-blowing riot of theatrics and powerful political messaging, opening with a quote from James Baldwin being banged out onto a screen laid over the stage by a silhouetted woman at a typewriter. Each key press thuds like a gunshot and is accompanied by a dancer jerking and flinching as if he’s been hit by a bullet. “Artists are here to disturb the peace” the message ends before the queen of pop emerges and launches straight into the autotune-heavy anti-gun anthem ‘God Control’.
Later, a man wearing a gas mask sits down to play a piano, from the top of which Madonna is dragged by two dancers dressed as truncheon-waving policemen while she screams “Death to the patriarchy!” Women’s rights are a constant theme throughout the show, from the moment she’s joined on stage by a host of women – including daughters Stella, Estere and Mercy James – to chant “I’m not your bitch” to her, changing the lyrics of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ to “I’m not keeping my baby”.
The ‘Madame X’ residency is not only intimate in size (tonight’s venue holds just over 2,000 people): it also allows its host to put on a show that feels more personal than your typical arena fare. There are moments when fans crowd down to the front of the stage for prolonged chats with the star, although they sometimes come away with their egos bruised. When she invites anyone with cash to come to the front and bid on a Polaroid selfie, one fan is admonished for trying to hand over $1500 in $50 bills and for stepping up onto her stage uninvited. Towards the end of the show, she takes a seat in the audience and grills another spectator on their life, responding to their suggestion she take their LinkedIn handle with a drawled, “I don’t use the internet to meet people”.
She gets the crowd to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to young musician Gaspar Varela, speaks lovingly and at length about her time in Lisbon, and generally does her best to educate her audience on Fado and other traditional music she’s drawn from. At one point, she’s joined by Orquestra Batukadeiras, a group of female Batuque musicians from Cabo Verde, whom she sits amongst to help tap out a percussive song. She later points out the Prime Minister of Cabo Verde watching from up high and keeps admiringly referring to him for the rest of the show.
As much as Madonna might do what she wants, she also recognises the need to crowd-please at least some of the time. As such, the setlist is littered with some of her biggest songs – an a cappella verse of ‘Express Yourself’ here, an early rousing rendition of ‘Vogue’ there. It’s ‘Like A Prayer’ that provides one of the most joyous moments of the night, though, transforming the opera house into Madonna’s own church. Moments later, she’s in the aisle, marching towards the exit as a defiant version of ‘I Rise’ brings the night full circle.