As the 11th tour in her over three decade-long reign as the Queen of Pop, Madame X is entirely unlike any other Madonna tour to date. For one thing, the show is designed for the theater, as opposed to her usual sold-out baseball stadium fare. (The first venue on the trek, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, seats fewer than 3,000.)
Given the close quarters, there’s no catwalk to consider, nor do fans needs to panic about which side is “better.” It’s all relatively close (“intimate,” as she purred to the crowd), and all front and center. Seeing Madonna in that environment,her first time on a theater stage since her West End debut with Up for Grabs in 2002, is objectively a special experience.
The Madame X Tour is also phone-free.
It’s 2019: we’re all addicted to our phones. Even the woman on stage — who the audience paid hundreds, and in several cases, thousands of dollars to see — teased the crowd multiple times about their phonelessness, only to admit to being addicted to her own device during a misguided monologue about technological entrapment and slavery. (A rework is needed on that speech, ASAP.)
Based on conversations in the crowd before the show, no one was actually bothered by the concept of a no-phone concert experience. Fans respected Madge’s desire for undivided attention to get her message(s) across — it only amplifies the intrigue, after all. Finally, a return to the Way Things Were! But be warned in advance: the confiscation doesn’t happen before the show. It happens as soon as you walk into the venue.
After a security check, representatives for Yondr instructed us to silence our phones and slip them into a locked pouch, which we carried for the night. Let’s say you were to arrive no later than 8:30 PM as instructed on the ticket, and she were to delay the show until 11 PM, as she did opening night. That’s nearly three hours of socializing – who knows? You might find love at the Madame X Tour! — or a terrifyingly long time to sit alone with your thoughts. (To be fair, if you explored the venue, there were various roped-off areas where you could unlock your phone with the assistance of an attendant and get a few last-minute hits of dopamine.)
The phone-free concept is also not entirely new: not only is it used at advance album listening parties for journalists, but comedy shows, too. (That Madonna’s manager, Guy Oseary, also manages Amy Schumer, is perhaps indicative of where they got the idea.) Still, for a concert — especially at this level of superstardom — it’s fairly radical.
The scene inside was anxious and excitable, as people, still adjusting to life outside of their screens, mingled and mocked everyone else’s phone-free behavior. One older couple, bedazzled in custom suits and Madame X eyepatches, bemoaned the fact that they couldn’t show off their outfits in the venue with pictures — normally a staple pre-show spectacle at any Madonna concert.
In short: don’t rush to get there, don’t lose your friends, bring a watch, and maybe even a book, too. Time truly does go by so slowly for those who wait.
So what lies beyond the “X” curtain? What even is this show, exactly? At the highest level, it’s a bit of a hybrid between an actual theatrical production and a concert, but looser in structure than either of the two, giving it the distinct feeling of a production with plans to shape-shift, in setlist and staging, each night on its 90+ show run.
For those who’ve been following along the Madame X ride, it should come as no surprise that the concert kicks off with a silhouette of Madonna at a typewriter, typing out a James Baldwin quote about art and the artist’s role to disturb society, starting over from scratch each time a dancer alongside her onstage gets shot.
Cue “God Control,” her happy-go-lucky disco ode to gun control — and the party begins, with Madge patriotically dressed up in founding father garb, marching with her dancers along two symmetrical stairwells which move and dismantle into various configurations throughout the show. (At times, the concept is almost reminiscent of Grace Jones’ ahead-of-its-time One Man Show from 1982.)
No one who’s ever attended a Madonna concert in the past two decades would accuse the Queen of Pop of being apolitical. The Madame X Tour is no different, and she attempts to cover all her bases, all night long.
“Fuck the patriarchy!” she snarls, kicking back at armored cops before a horn-y rendition of “Human Nature,” one of the show’s standout moments, as nagging fingers point at her from projections around the stage. She launches into an impassioned tirade about abortion after a too-brief performance of the first verse and the chorus of “Papa Don’t Preach.”
“That’s right, I made up my mind! You don’t mind if I choose what I do with my body, do you?!” she declares. She’s not challenging anyone in this crowd, of course. Staunch conservatives probably aren’t queueing up in eyepatches for The Madame X Tour. The crowd roars back in a choir of approval.
“I consider myself a freedom fighter,” she later announces.
She performs “American Life” with a guitar afterward, as torn uniforms shower down on a dancer from above the stage, concluding with a flag-draped coffin being slowly carried across the stage by soldiers.
Madonna interacts frequently with the audience between songs, at one point even sitting down in an empty seat and making small talk with one of the attendees.
“Do you come here often?” she seemingly challenged him. There was a tension in the air, as though the Queen could banish him for one wrong answer.
“For the art,” he said.
“Ah, the art… would you say I’m an artist?” “Oh, yes,” he gushed. “I like how you said that — oh, yes,” she responded back, amused. She approved, thank God, and even boldly took a sip of his beer.
Earlier in the show, Madonna took a Polaroid selfie and effectively auctioned it off to the audience, jokingly boasting about how much it’d be worth.
“Don’t get emotional,” she told one woman, as fans began to bicker for the prized picture. A wad of cash in hand got her attention – and the hand belonged to an old friend: Rosie O’Donnell. Madge pocketed the money, thanking Rosie for her contribution to Her Art, reminding the audience that she’s not making money off of her show, as each dollar goes to yet another light and yet another prop.
She also tries her hand at comedy, which she’s threatened to do ever since her Tonight Show stand-up “debut” in 2015.
“Do you know what they call a guy with a small dick?” she asked the crowd during the show’s first breather as she quick-changed onstage behind a small vanity.
“I wouldn’t know,” she finally answered. “I don’t call guys with small dicks.” Ba-dum-tss!
Parts of the show feel incredibly familiar (“American Life” is like a minimized version of her Re-Invention World Tour performance), and much of the Madame X Tour revolves around recreating her recent promotional performances, including the “Vogue” and “I Don’t Search, I Find” segment — a solid pop star-style performance from her Pride Island show. The sequence finds Madame X in secret agent mode alongside a gaggle of bewigged blonde lookalike dancers in trench coats, strutting around before being captured and interrogated, lightbulb dangling overhead and all.
“Like a Prayer” and “Dark Ballet” are essentially the same stairwell-style set up of both her Met Gala performance and her Eurovision performances, and “Medellín” was more or less a recreation of her 2019 Billboard Awards performance minus her handsome cha-cha partner Maluma – and the $5 million holograms. (He does show up, albeit green-screened into a projection, which is standard Madonna concert cameo fare.)
“Batuka,” too, is essentially the song’s music video come to life, as the women of The Batukadeiras Orchestra gather ’round in a semi-circle and pound away at drums. Madonna respectfully lends them the spotlight for a majority of the performance, sitting to the side on a stairwell before eventually joining the women to gyrate and celebrate.
In case it wasn’t obvious enough from the title, the Madame X Tour is Madame X heavy. Before one of the show’s more cohesive stretches (she welcomes us into her Fado cafe), Madonna delves into the story behind the music of her latest album, explaining her move to Portugal to become a soccer mom, finding herself bored and lonely, and rediscovering her passion and finding inspiration with the regional music wafting through the bars and living rooms of Lisbon — leading to “Crazy,” a bit of “La Isla Bonita” and even a brief cover of a Fado song, “Sodade,” by the late Cesária Évora. In a touching gesture, she is accompanied by the young grandson of a late Fado legend she encountered in her travels, Celeste Rodrigues. He plays alongside Madonna onstage — and fetches her a beer.
Madge curiously does not perform “Faz Gostoso,” a joyous fan-favorite on the new album, but does make time for the album’s most serious-faced moments, including “Extreme Occident” and “Killers Who Are Partying,” a well-intended but embarrassing dirge dedicated to taking on the pain of minority groups. (Mercifully, it goes down better in live form.)
“Future,” which was originally a medieval-meets-post-apocalyptic moment on Eurovision, is now a more muted piano piece, as images of burning forests flare up around the theater.
For a Madonna show, the Madame X Tour is surprisingly free of new visual interludes: her existing music videos for the era serve as the backdrop for the most part — and even old ones (“American Life”). The only new projection is inarguably also the show’s greatest highlight: “Frozen.”
After a line of dancers dramatically flail to the sound of sharp breaths and a spoken word verse of “Rescue Me” (so close to a live performance, yet miles away), the screen reveals a woman hunched over, her legs spread, and her hair falling over her face, The Ring-style. As the unmistakable strings of the Ray Of Light classic start to swell, Madonna appears just behind the screen. And then, the woman on the projection looks up through her hair: it’s fucking Lourdes, first daughter of The Queen, supreme heir to the throne.
A collective gasp and cheer ensues.
Beyond just being the stunning 22-year-old daughter of pop royalty, Lourdes can actually move. Madonna stays entirely still, crooning as Lola supplies an incredible interpretive dance on the screen just in front of her mother. It’s captivating. Towards the end of the song, the camera focuses on the “M-O-M” tattooed across her knuckles. It’s an absolutely iconic moment, arguably worth the price of admission alone to witness. (“This is Madonna,” one man breathlessly declared one row behind.)
That’s not the only cameo from her own brood, either: twins Estere and Stella, as well as Mercy, all get down during an acapella version of “Express Yourself” early on the show. They later return for an endearingly sassy strut during the DJ Tracy Young remix of “Crave” — a strangely injected moment of poppers o’clock beats, sequins and furs — towards the very end.
The night concludes with her Stonewall Pride anthem “I Rise,” as Madonna and her dancers leave the stage and march down the aisles, fists aloft, singing the rallying chorus over and over again. A giant rainbow flag drapes down the digital screen.
Madonna is not one for an easy ride. She’s told us as much. And “easy,” in Madonna’s case, would be putting on her usual stadium spectacle of choreography, costumes, stunts and smashes galore from an immaculate back catalog. No one does it better. But she’s got that incessant itch to scratch as an artist, and an endless craving to satisfy — to move forward, go more eccentric, and challenge herself to do things differently this time around. And yes, she’s probably doing it to annoy her fans on purpose at times.
“You’re not one of those people who comments on my Instagram and tells me I better perform Hard Candy, right?” she joked at one point. Everyone laughed, even if some of them probably are.
Go to the Madame X Tour, as a stan. You will appreciate the intimacy and unpredictable, experimental theater-esque feel of the show in comparison to what’s come for so many years before. But if you want to hear the hits, dance and capture the moments, this isn’t really the tour for you. Yes, there are a handful of classics scattered throughout — “Like a Prayer,” “Vogue,” “Human Nature” — but for the most part, the Madame X Tour is a disjointed artistic expression; an impassioned mixture of politics and Portuguese based around a vaguely all-encompassing, darkness-fighting alter-ego without any one clear narrative. She is nothing if not (blonde) ambitious.
That’s not to say that elements of her major tours aren’t present in the Madame X Tour — it’s still a Madonna show, after all — but in comparison, it’s a relatively sparse and somewhat strange audience experience (do we sit, do we stand, what do we do with our hands?) — which may be even more of a draw for some fans curious to see what she does without all the bells and whistles, and with plenty of dead air during set changes to fill with actual audience interactions.
In the absence of sensory overload and digital distractions, there’s room for Madonna to breathe and evolve as a performer in a new kind of way — and, presumably, to grow.
Madame X is a cha cha instructor. A professor. An equestrian. A saint. A whore. And still a work in progress.
by Bradley Stern / Paper Magazine