Look, it's 2:50 a.m., so don't expect genius from me. SPOILERS below, including the complete set list!
After so many rumors of an imaginary short show that could be dubbed Disarray of Light, Madame X turned out to be a thematically cohesive, at turns effusively warm and chillingly foreboding, triumph of her spirit, a near-total departure from her over-the-top arena and stadium tours, a show that clearly challenged her and invited her audience to reimagine the woman we so often see as an untouchable icon.
All my friends and I arrived between 7:30-8:00 p.m., having been urged to show up by 8:30 p.m. by our Ticketmasters. Figuring the venue's no-cameras policy (your phones are entombed in Yondr cases) and ridiculous ticketing warnings (“You can only use your phone as your ticket ... unless you have a hard ticket ... and you have to just remember where you're sitting!”) would mean a clusterfuck of an entry process, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it all was. You just get in line, staffers give you a hard ticket of sorts once they see your seat on your phone, your phone is Yondr-swallowed, you go through a metal detector (be sure they do not put your Yondr in a bin with anyone else's as they're indistinguishable), then you're in.
It was crowded, but not a mob scene. It was a little scary that her dancer Marvin arrived through the lobby around 9:45 p.m., and it was funny to see Anderson Cooper slither in because while he was safe from selfies with no cellphones around, he was still a moving target that did not desire to be hit up for small talk.
Inside: It's alarming how close the front row is to the stage, and to Madonna. I had asked one of the frail-looking BAM employees if they truly felt confident they could hold the crowds at bay, and she told me Madonna would have security between the front row and the stage, which is only a few steps up. Instead, she had her main security guy we have all seen 100 times — and that's it, though I've been told there are hidden precautions. It just appears that the only thing keeping people from jumping onstage is the honor system, and fucking Roger Friedman was in the house! Honestly, I think I'd have let people use cellphones and spent more energy on hiring a wall of brutes to keep me safe, but I'm not Madame X, I'm Monsieur XY, and I guess I'm more fearful than Madonna is ... of people like me.
I didn't see a single camera or phone in the orchestra — not even Kevin Mazur or any house photographer, not even press. Zip. I later found out that people on upper levels were able to use the Yondr areas to unlock their phones and then go back to their seats without re-Yondring them. So whoever's in charge upstairs was asleep at the wheel, and there will likely be plenty of videos of the show from a distance. In truth, I don't buy the argument that not taking pictures means you're more present; it's simply a matter of preference.
That said, the one thing I noticed about my enjoyment of the show, sans phone or camera, was that I danced my ass off nonstop.
Still, depriving us of phones — Madonna wickedly teased us about it at one point, which made me laugh and proved that the decision was at least as much a power move as it was a desire for connection — didn't do away with the most annoying part of any concert: Being seated near a roaring drunk straight guy thrilled to be so close to Madonna as a show of status, but who also heckled her any time she talked politics. This is the guy who told my Asian friend he thought he was in The Hangover in spite of him looking nothing like Ken Jeong. I still can't believe he didn't rush the stage, but his sexy straight friend seemed to be a good influence. Then there was the straight Republican couple behind me trying to tell the gay couple next to them that Trump isn't bothered by gay people — even as the Trump Administration just this week denied a kid citizenship because he was born outside the U.S. to two gay parents who are U.S. citizens, arguing he was born out of wedlock! Fuck off. Trump may not care, but it's not in the sense that this doofus meant.
Anyway, in spite of well-documented sweating of the details all over her Instagram, the show kicked off at a relatively timely 10:45 p.m. (The most recent advertised time was 9:30 p.m., but the wait in this festive, small venue isn't bad at all and she — GASP! — apologized. The woman who is always on Grace Jones time joked, “I don't mean to do it ... I'll never do it again ...” before winking.)
One of my only criticisms of the show is it has an extremely weak opening. The words of James Baldwin are projected overhead as an old-fashioned typewriter bangs them out, a lone dancer moving to each stroke before being metaphorically gunned down. Then he does it again, all the same words and a few more. Then, he's gunned down ... and he does it again. Finally getting all the way through, the static kickoff gave way to a killer “God Control” that is close to what she gave us at Gay Pride, with lots of stomping Hustle choreography, though Madonna's pirate lewk is new — making her, one would imagine, an ahoy!-toy. (The eyepatch made appearances off and on — literally.)
Next is “Dark Ballet” (or, as that Good Morning America hussy would say, “Dark Bullay”) which finds her showing off her Atelier Elizabeth threads while writhing on a piano before she is brutally arrested by riot police. This reminded me of #secretprojectrevolution.
Imprisoned in a recessed circle — “Get outta my cell!” she snaps at the pigs — she launches into a sizzling rendition of a song I thought I never needed to hear again but did: “Human Nature.” Madonna is not sprinting across the stage anymore, but is as gesturally articulate and witty as ever, and when she walks herself upside down in the cell, it at once calls to mind the music video, a human peace sign and her Re-Invention tour headstand.
It bears mentioning that her twins popped up here, sauntering, bewigged and spitting out dialogue on command. I wonder if some will find their presence during a song littered with expletives worth condemning. But ... it's Madonna, so, yeah, they will. Daily Mail, take it away.
"I think my manager is here tonight," she cooed. (He was.) Then she hissed, "He just wants me to sing hits." Perhaps as a concession to the reality that we all want to hear not only new but old songs, she surprised even those of us who've been searching for and finding spoilers with a chunk of "Express Yourself" sung (perfectly!) a cappella. I think it's wise of her to cave and throw us pieces of classic songs like that. It totally satisfied my sweet tooth for the past.
Her hair guru Andy Lecompte, dressed as a doctor, escorted her behind a dressing mirror so that we (even we in the front) could only see Madonna's killer, fish-netted legs sticking out as she was given a not-so-quick-change onstage in real time. Ironically, she was talking about how she wanted to do a theater tour so as to connect with us — while shielded from us. Classical music played, so she joked that her legs were spread so we could hear Mozart from her pussy. “I'm a classic bitch,” she confessed.
She did not indulge in any actual stand-up, but she did offer us the joke: “What do you call a man with a small penis? I don't know, because I've never called a man with a small penis.”
Unveiled in her straight blonde wig, eyepatch and black trench, it was time for a snappy version of “Vogue” staged on stairs (a regular up-down suite) to remind people she made music prior to Madame X. It brought down the house, and nearly did bring down the upper levels, which swayed like background shots from 1974's Earthquake. (One of the dancers even had a Victoria Principal 'fro!)
This segued perfectly into “I Don't Search I Find,” a song that's probably more fun to hear than it is a song that demands to be performed live. I did like the film noir, '40s-NYC projections, and the Burberry spy coats were chic.
Madonna then took a Polaroid of herself (earlier, a dancer pretended to take an upskirt shot of Madonna using a Polaroid — it was such a throwback I was waiting for her to whip out a Commodore 64 or to challenge us to a game of Pong) and teased that she would give it to one of us. Sadly, Rosie O'Donnell (other celebs spotted: Spike Lee and Debi Mazar) offered her $1,000 for it, so she got it. I guess the idea is we're all supposed to bid on the Polaroid each show, and Madonna will probably donate that cash to a charity, like she did with her dollar bills from the MDNA tour. I'm not sure I'd want it because modern Polaroids are incapable of taking sharp, clear, Warholian-wonderful snaps like the '80s Maripol versions, but bring your rent money if you want it.
Because we deserved it, she gave us a bit of "Papa Don't Preach," but pointedly sang, "I'm not keepin' my baby." (I shouted, "I'll take it!” — she gave me wonderful eye contact several times throughout, seeming to appreciate my energy.) She talked about how nine states are attempting to get Roe v Wade overturned and stressed the importance of a woman's autonomy.
“American Life” is probably her most hated Top 40 hit, but as she did at Gay Pride, she sang the hell out of it and it fits so well in this show. The staging included bloodied combat fatigues dropping from the ceiling, and it ended with her dancers solemnly carrying a coffin, presumably of a metaphorical dead soldier, across the stage as some sort of Portuguese dirge played.
Two female dancers peeled off from the pallbearers, engaging in a violent dance that ended with love.
One of the show's clear highlights came next: “Batuka.” Coming to the stage from the aisles, the Batukadeiras brought us into a place of pure spiritual joy before Madonna appeared high above in a truly stunning navy costume (legs up to here, still) and a gorgeous brunette wig that moved with her. It's one of her best-ever tour looks, and she had a ball singing this song with the women.
Madonna recycled a bit of her sentiments about moving to Lisbon for a short speech at this point, which seemed to invite some riff-raff to shout out to her to get her attention, but she was on a roll and never became Bedtime Stories Pajama Party pissed off.
After asking me and the guy next to me to define “fado” — we choked, so I told her, “Teach us!” — she then sang a lovely fado song apparently called “Fado pechincha” as a tribute to the late, great Celeste Rodrigues (1923-2018), who she met while preparing her album. She did this with instrumental assistance from — who's that boy? — Rodrigues's great-grandson Gaspar Varela, a beautiful and talented kid who is this tour's Chris Finch.
Honestly, Madonna was at her very best with this and the other fado material. Her voice is rich and her adoration for the form bleeds through every note.
“Killers Who Are Partying” may be lyrically tone-deaf to those who refuse to believe people of privilege can imagine what it's like to be oppressed, but its execution on this tour is sterling. Madonna sings it astonishingly well, and her intention is much clearer in person than on the record — her caveat about knowing what she is and what she's not comes through loud and clear. It was a stunning rendition.
With “Crazy” (I think this may have been the point when she was standing on a piano being manually turned and I cringed, fearing she'd tumble), an improvised snippet of a song welcoming us to her fado club (great set, like a '50s Minnelli-directed musical), a bit of “La Isla Bonita” and a gorgeous morna (from Cape Verde) song entitled “Sodade” — one of her best vocals ever — the show felt like a true window into how Madonna sees Lisbon, and also how she views musical collaboration in a city she raves is filled with it.
“I see you, girl,” she said around this point to someone in the audience, and I was thinking, “We hear you, girl.”
For “Medellín,” Madonna came directly in front of me, nearly hitting me with her riding crop, and did the little booty pop from the Grammys choreography with me! She then cha-chaed into the audience past me, turned around and came back ... and I, of course, discreetly touched her arm. I hope she doesn't bring me up on cha-cha-charges. It was a thrill, not gonna lie.
Okay, here is a hot tip: The next banter moment consisted of Madonna leaving the stage and plopping down next to a guy — James — in the front row (right side, stage left) for an extensive interview. James was brilliant! He said all the right things with just enough sass to be funny without upstaging or making her uncomfortable or turning her off. Madonna accidentally told a joke when she asked James if he were one of those mean fans on IG who says things like, “'I'm not gonna see your show unless you sing,' I don't know, 'Hard Candy.'” Nobody has ever made that threat, but it was still another example of her being cute and cuddly.
“Extreme Occident” found Madonna being wheeled around on pieces of her stairs, pushing the limits of repurposing, but it was around then that I was really focusing on how simplistic the set pieces are. Seeing human beings pushing the stairs around, no hydraulics, brought home the intimacy of the show. And it is brave, in the end, to be Madonna and not rely on the splashy stuff nearly as much as all of her other recent tours have. It underscored her musicality, and her gameness to dial it all in.
That said, I never want to hear about life being a circle again.
Probably the only true disappointment for me was not her dropping of “Easy Ride” nor her dropping of “You Must Love Me” — both of which had been rehearsed and discarded — but her relegation of “Rescue Me” to a Robert Longo-inspired modern dance number; the song only exists in her spoken-word voice-over, a major missed opportunity to provide longtime fans with a hands-free orgasm.
Spoke too soon! “Frozen” — delivered in her “I Rise” (Audio) music video look behind a transparent scrim — was better than sex, her best vocal on this song ever, and was enhanced by eye-popping black-and-white footage of her daughter Lola dancing. The interplay between solemn, stock-still Madonna and her fluidly sensual daughter's image was so striking; this will stick with me, and — I promise — you, for a long time.
A cellist introduces “Come Alive,” one of her new album's catchiest numbers, and it was brought to life with seriously colorful robes galore. Never has Madonna been more geeked performing live than on this tour.
Stating she's not here to be popular, but to be free, Madonna sat at and played, albeit in a limited way, a grand piano as she de-reggaed (and vastly improved) “Future.” Loved this new take, but not as much as her clubtastic airing of the Tracy Young remix of “Crave” — what a banger! Wham!-BAM, thank you, ma'am.
No Madonna concert is complete minus one of her best-ever songs, and this show's “Like a Prayer” — delivered in a monk robe — was a stripped-down satisfier, proof that Eurovision was a fluke and that she can still sing the heaven out of this religious experience of a tune.
The curtain closes only once at the end, so do not expect multiple encores. Instead, she ends on the relentlessly hopeful “I Rise.” Spectacularly, after leading us through what feels like a lyrical revival meeting, Madonna simply marches right down the center of the orchestra, completely accessible to all with aisle seats for good-touch.
Sometimes, when Madonna does a lot of new material in a show, I can see how it may be offputting to casual fans. I defy anyone with an open mind and open ears to begrudge her the desire to air these new gems. With just enough nods to her past, Madonna is too busy reveling in the present and making plans to go into the future to get mired down by deep cuts and too many of yesteryear's hits.
There is always next time for a hits tour.
Madame X is one of the biggest gambles Madonna has ever taken as a live performer (oh, I take it all back, what if she sang “Gambler”?), and it's one that pays off in the form of a show that perfectly showcases her musicality, her curiosity, her understanding of how to hold an audience and her resolve to be an artist who instigates, who “disturbs the peace,” who leads and whose legacy is always whatever comes next.
Full Set List (I Welcome Corrections)
James Baldwin Intro
“Express Yourself” (a cappella; partial)
TALK (+ Madame X expositional material)
“I Don't Search I Find”
TALK (sells Polaroid to fan)
“Papa Don't Preach” (first verse and chorus)
Interlude with coffin (Portuguese song?)
“Fado pechincha” (I am told)
“Killers Who Are Partying”
“Welcome to My Fado Club” (improvised song)
“La Isla Bonita”
“Sodade” (morna song)
TALK (interacts with one audience member)
“Rescue Me” (dance interlude; spoken word)
“Crave” (Tracy Young Remix)
“Like a Prayer”