The night before the 2016 election, I raced over to Washington Square park after learning Madonna was giving an impromptu concert in the park’s central fountain.
This was astonishing to me and so many other fans because the Queen of Pop usually performed giant, sold-out arena shows where tickets went for hundreds of dollars. She was, however, once a struggling artist trying to hit it big in NYC, and it was remarkable to witness this return to her roots.
The 30-minute park show was short but sweet. To hear Madonna singing megahits like “Like A Prayer” and “Express Yourself” — along with a beautiful cover of “If I Had a Hammer” — for a crowd who were happily singing along provoked a certain “only in New York” thrill and some hopeful respite for folks who were rightly terrified of the prospect of Trump winning the presidency the next day.
Madonna seemed genuinely happy and pleased to be out of her comfort zone, intimate and unguarded. Twenty-four hours later, we were all shaken to our core by the election results.
Cut to last month, as my friends and I approach the Brooklyn Academy of Music — an opera house and film venue where Madonna was opening her new Madame X tour.
Read on for the full moment-by-moment concert review after the jump!
Outside the venue, we are in a long line of megafans, including a group of ten Brazillan men wearing identical Madonna shirts and more than a few drag queens and cis women in the cha-cha instructor look (complete with eye patch) from the video of Madonna’s Madame X single “Medellin.”
Madame X is a show that wants to shake you out of your comfort zone, get you fired up about the state of the world, while also asserting the importance of artists to speak on political and global issues. Madonna doesn’t always achieve this elegantly, and some have criticized the simplicity of certain messages or statements she makes, like her 2017 speech about wanting to burn down the White House, or certain contradictions in her worldview.
For instance, she’s anti-dictator and the album revolves around Portuguese songs, but she ignored Brazilian fans’ pleas not to collaborate with the Bolsonaro-supporting singer Anitta on one of the Madame X standouts, “Faz Gostoso.”
There’s also the easy critique that Madonna is delivering messages of wokeness to audiences who can afford to pay $400 dollar tickets to her shows, but I think my more affluent audience mates could benefit from hearing those messages.
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The show begins with a silhouette of a woman — the Madame X Typist character, clacking out a quote from James Baldwin: “Art is here to prove that all safety is an illusion.” A male dancer punctuates the sounds of the typewriter keys with gorgeous, violent body movements that recur later in the show. But before Madame X can finish typing the lengthy quote, the action is interrupted by a hail of bullet sounds and the dancer mimes being shot and killed. The process is repeated, the dancer rises, Madame X pulls out a new piece of paper, we see more of the quote, and again: gunshots before it can be finished.
The process occurs a third time, and finally the quote is completed with the line, “Artists are here to disturb the peace.” It is a shocking way to begin a concert in 2019, and that shock persists throughout the politically-charged set that follows.
Madonna appears behind the scrim in a three-point hat stuffed with macaroni of the Yankee Doodle Dandy variety, and immediately begins with her bizarre and wonderful Madame X track “God Control,” a disco-fied exhortation that we “must have gun control” and need to “wake up, wake up, wake up!” Madonna wants to send a message, and she bets it will go down more easily as a disco anthem. Perhaps if her audience can be moved to dance, they can also absorb the message.
The “God Control” video plays behind Madonna while she sings. Oh yes, dear reader, she sings. Live. Not always, but a lot more than I expected.
Switching gears from disco to piano dirge, the follow-up, “Dark Ballet,” offers allusions to Joan of Arc, trans identity, HIV criminalization, and those hiding their heads in the sand as the current political horrorshow plays out. Madonna’s dancers play aggressors, coming for her, trying to capture Madame X the spy and freedom fighter.
They eventually do overtake her, which leads to a gorgeous version of “Human Nature” (sung live) accompanied by her two backup singers and a solo trumpet player.
Next, Madonna surprises us with a group of singers including her daughters Mercy, Stella, and Esthere, who join her for an a capella rendition of the chorus of “Express Yourself.” They deliver a simple message at the end: “Time’s Up!”
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“Vogue” comes next, and to hear Madonna sing this live, as opposed to the semi-canned versions she’s used for years on previous tours, was extraordinary. It’s quickly followed up by my second-favorite track on Madame X, “I Don’t Search I Find,” which sadly sounded all canned to me and lost some of that brilliantly imperfect “first night of previews” energy that had been building up.
Next, Madonna is chased around by trenchcoat-clad investigators reminiscent of Dick Tracy, igniting my friends’ hope that she was about to burst into one of the numbers from her I’m Breathless album. Alas, no “Hanky Panky” for us.
Instead, there is a not-entirely successful spin on selfies, where Madonna takes a Polaroid of herself and offers it up to a lucky audience member. An overeager fan trying to get to the stage to get that picture? Comedienne and former talk show host Rosie O’Donnell, the singer’s close friend of over twenty years, doing what I assume is a bit that will change depending on which celeb is in the audience that night.
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A screen is brought out next so Madame X can make an onstage costume change, which she does while trying out banter and jokes in her famously awkward style. She earns easy roars from the crowd by making jokes about her pussy while her dancers are changing her shoes, then discusses how the eyes are the window to the soul and how she likes that she can see all our eyes clearly — though she’s literally behind an opaque screen.
An impromptu dirty joke about small penises that wouldn’t fly in most woke spaces today reminded me of similar jokes she told during the Blonde Ambition tour. The moment is odd, and one can see Madonna trying to adjust to the proximity of her audience. She has never been the best with improvised crowd work, and seems to eschew having clever jokes or banter written for her.
The opening strings of “Papa Don’t Preach” send screams through the crowd as Madonna performs the first verse and chorus of her classic hit. But, as with “Express Yourself,” the song snippet is used to launch into an earnest speech about attempts to outlaw abortion in the United States and overturn Roe V. Wade.
“Do you guys have a problem if I don’t keep my baby?” she asks the audience, who roar in approval. Personally, I think the message would have been better received if we’d been able to hear Madonna sing the entirety of the song. This leads into the title track of her maligned 2003 album American Life where she sadly stops short of naming and shaming Trump or the GOP as the target of her ire.
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Pretending to shift gears, but remaining in the realm of consciousness raising, Madonna changes into her jet black wig as the Orquestra Batukadeiras, with whom Madonna collaborated for her song “Batuka” — one of the album’s most simple, effective and earwormy tracks — joins her onstage as the video projection explains the group and their style of call-and-response music that was developed as a form of rebellion against the colonial slave traders who began the global slave trade in the women’s native Cape Verde.
Madonna seems most at home and happy to be with these women, singing and playing with them. I flashed briefly on her Washington Square performance from election night.
The next section of the concert continues Madonna’s travelogue, from Cape Verde to Lisbon, where she moved a few years ago to “become a soccer mom,” but found herself seeking out Fado clubs and private residences where musicians gathered to make music collectively, without pretense or fame-seeking. It must have been an amazing change for Madonna, and the songs in this section, including “Crazy,” “La Isla Bonita,” and covers of Cesária Évora’s “Sodade” and Isabel de Oliviera’s “Fado Pechincha,” evoke the feeling of freedom in making music for one’s self rather than chasing trends to stay on the top of the pops.
In her controversial song “Killers Who Are Partying,” she replaces Israel’s name with Palestine, perhaps responding to criticisms of both the song and her decision to perform in Tel Aviv for Eurovision.
Then comes “Medellin,” the Madame X lead single, and it’s deeply fun to watch Madonna dancing onstage with her Fado crew to this track. “Extreme Occident” is next, in which she describes thinking she was lost, looking for answers, and realizing she wasn’t lost at all.
Shifting to a new act, Madonna’s dancers enter in front of the video screen and perform a series of violent, thrusting body movements as she speak-sings the first verse from her Immaculate Collection fan favorite “Rescue Me” a cappella. Suddenly, as it ends, Madame X the freedom fighter emerges, clad in bandana and long flowing dress, floating behind the screen as the opening notes of her Ray of Light hit, “Frozen,” begin.
The video screen projects an image of a young female dancer, stretching and moving in beautiful ways, and suddenly the face of the dancer is revealed to be her eldest daughter Lourdes, eliciting a gasp from the die-hard fans in the audience who know that the Ray of Light album was an ode to her daughter
It’s one of the most gorgeous moments in the show, and it’s followed by an even more gorgeous moment when Madonna and her dancers sing “Come Alive,” her joyous and extremely catchy shoulda-been-a-lead-single Madame X track.
A piano is brought onstage and Madonna sits to perform her eco-conscious Diplo-produced anthem “Future” while images of environmental destruction are projected behind her. Then a mirrorball drops — reminiscent of her Girlie Show concert — and her dancers come out in ’70s disco looks to join her in the Tracy Young remix of “Crave.”
For her final pre-encore number, Madonna returns to her biggest and still most beloved track, “Like a Prayer,” with the Batuka singers clad in black robes with a big red X on them, standing in an X formation with Madame X at the center.
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The encore is “I Rise,” the closing track on the Madame X album, which plays over images of Gay Rights struggles, Black Lives Matter rallies, Rise and Resist marches, and other global activist marches. As the track comes to a close, the video screen is pulled upwards, revealing a giant Rainbow flag.
Madonna leads her dancers out into the crowd, walking down the center aisle singing, closer to her fans than ever before, and ready to take us in another new direction on her astonishing journey as an artist who disturbs the peace. The show that opened in a hail of gunfire, tragedy, and horror concludes with a collective action, a mini-protest march encouraging us all to keep fighting against enemies of freedom, justice and people power.
— Adam Baran (@adambaran)