Today in Madonna History: September 18, 2019

On September 18 2019, the New York Times published a review (Jon Pareles) of Madonna’s opening Madame X Tour show held the night before at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn:

Madonna Is Still Taking Chances

Her Madame X show reimagines pop spectacle for a theater stage, merging her newest music and calls for political awareness with striking intimacy.

“I’m not here to be popular. I’m here to be free,” Madonna declared to a packed, adoring audience on Tuesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House. It was the premiere of her Madame X Tour, named after the album she released in June that she has said was influenced by the music in Lisbon, her adopted home. The show follows her decades of arena spectacles by scaling the same kind of razzle-dazzle — dancers! costumes! video! choir! — for a theater stage.

Unlike jukebox musicals or “Springsteen on Broadway,” Madame X is a concert focusing on new songs and the present moment. In other words, Madonna is still taking chances. She will reach arena-size attendance in only a handful of venues on the eight-city tour, but with much longer engagements; the Gilman Opera House holds 2,098, and she booked 17 shows there, through Oct. 12. Onstage, “selling” a selfie Polaroid to an audience member who happened to be Rosie O’Donnell, she claimed, “I’m not making a dime on this show.”

Concertgoers arrived to what was billed as a phone-free experience. Cellphones and smart watches were locked into bags at the door, though quickly unlocked afterward. It helped prevent online spoilers; it certainly removed the distractions of waving screens. (No photography was permitted, including press.)

As both album and show, Madame X is Madonna’s latest declaration of a defiant, self-assured, flexible identity that’s entirely comfortable with dualities: attentive parent and sexual adventurer, lapsed Catholic and spiritual seeker, party girl and political voice, self-described “icon” and self-described “soccer mom,” an American and — more than ever — a world traveler.

Yes, she is 61, but her music remains determinedly contemporary, with the drum-machine sounds of trap, collaborations with hip-hop vocalists (Quavo and Swae Lee, shown on video) and the bilingual, reggaeton-flavored Latin pop sometimes called urbano (with the Colombian singer Maluma, also shown on video). The concert, with most of its music drawn from the Madame X album, was packed with pronouncements, symbols and enigmatic vignettes to frame the songs. Madonna often wore an eye patch with an X on it, no doubt a challenge to her depth perception as a dancer.

By the time Madonna had completed just the first two songs, she had already presented an epigraph from James Baldwin — “Artists are here to disturb the peace” — that was knocked out onstage by one of the concert’s recurring figures, a woman (sometimes Madonna herself) at a typewriter.

Gunshots introduced God Control, which moves from bitter mourning about gun deaths to happy memories of string-laden 1970s disco, while Madonna and dancers appeared in glittery versions of Revolutionary War finery, complete with feathered tricorn hats, only to be confronted by police with riot shields. Dark Ballet had Joan of Arc references, a montage of gothic cathedrals and scary priests, a synthesizer excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” and Madonna grappling with masked dancers, until cops pulled her off the piano she had been perched on. The signifiers were already piling up.

And there were more. Film-noir detectives pursued and interrogated Madonna in another disco-tinged song, I Don’t Search I Find; Crave, which warns, “My cravings get dangerous,” flaunted a full-sized disco ball. A pair of robotic but sinuous dancers, with red lights for eyes, flanked Madonna as she sat at a piano for the ominous Future, while the video screen filled with images of urban and environmental destruction. She surrounded herself with a choir of brightly robed women and geometric Arabic designs in Come Alive, which used the metal castanets and triplet rhythm of Moroccan gnawa music to back her as, once again, Madonna’s lyrics rejected unwanted opinions and restrictions.

The songs Madonna chose from her past were mostly exhortations and pushbacks, sometimes coupled with direct political statements. She sang part of Papa Don’t Preach, reversing its decision to “keep my baby,” then spoke directly about supporting abortion rights. Dancing while surrounded by video imagery of pointing fingers, she revived Human Nature, which already testified — a full 25 years ago — to Madonna’s tenacity and determination to express herself uncensored. When it ended, her daughters Mercy James, Estere and Stella were onstage, and the singers and a full-throated audience shared an a cappella Express Yourself.

The concert’s unquestioned showstopper was Frozen, a somber ballad from the 1998 album Ray Of Light that offers healing: “If I could melt your heart, we’d never be apart.” Madonna appeared as a tiny figure onstage, surrounded by giant video projections of a dancer moving from a self-protective clutch to a tentative, then joyful unfurling and back. It was her oldest daughter, Lourdes, affirming the family connection in movement.

Since 2017 Madonna has lived in Lisbon, where her son David plays soccer, and she spoke about savoring the city’s music: the Portuguese tradition of fado and music from Portugal’s former empire, particularly from the Cape Verde Islands near Senegal. One of the show’s most elaborate backdrops simulated a club in Lisbon.

But appreciation doesn’t equal mastery. Madonna was backed by the Portuguese guitarra player Gaspar Varela, the grandson of the fado singer Celeste Rodrigues, in an earnest, awkward fado-rooted song, Killers Who Are Partying from the Madame X album; she also performed a Cape Verdean classic, Sodade, made famous by Cesária Évora.

Reminding the audience that she had sung in Cape Verdean Creole and other languages, Madonna boasted, “This is a girl who gets around. This is a girl who does her homework.” But in the songs themselves, she only sounded like a well-meaning tourist.

Madonna was more suited to the harder beat of Batuka a song based on the matriarchal, call-and-response Cape Verdean tradition of batuque. Backed by more than a dozen batuque drummers and singers — Orquestra Batukadeiras — and doing some hip-shimmying batuque moves, Madonna conveyed the delight of her discovery, even as the hand-played beat gave way to electronic percussion.

Forty-one musicians, dancers and singers appeared throughout the two-hour-plus show, which came with the same wardrobe changes as any of Madonna’s large-scale extravaganzas (one, before Vogue, was executed before the audience, shielded by a dressing table). The singer wasn’t onstage for one of the most powerful dance moments, a break between acts when a row of performers convulsed gracefully at the lip of the stage to irregular breaths, set to a recording of Madonna intoning lyrics from Rescue Me.

Madonna spoke to and with the audience repeatedly, taking advantage of the intimacy of the room to tell bawdy jokes, apologize for starting the show late and sip a fan’s beer. But in songs and stage patter, she sometimes conflated self-realization and self-absorption with social progress. Contrasting freedom and slavery after Come Alive, she announced that slavery “begins with ourselves,” forgetting that the slave trade was not the same as being “slaves to our phones.”

Yet with Madonna, the spirit is more about sounds and images than literalism. I Rise, which ends both the album and the concert, samples a speech by Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. then goes on to some clumsy lyrics. But in a small theater, with a gospelly beat, raised fists, images of protests worldwide, a rainbow flag, and Madonna and her troupe parading up the aisle — close enough for fans to touch — there was no denying the conviction.

Set List: 

  • God Control
  • Dark Ballet
  • Human Nature
  • Express Yourself
  • Madame X Manifesto (video interlude)
  • Vogue
  • I Don’t Search I Find
  • Papa Don’t Preach / American Life
  • Coffin (video interlude)
  • Batuka
  • Fado Pechincha (with Gasper Varela)
  • Killers Who Are Partying
  • Crazy
  • Welcome to My Fado Club / La Isla Bonita
  • Sodade
  • Medellín
  • Extreme Occident
  • Rescue Me” (video interlude)
  • Frozen
  • Come Alive
  • Future
  • Crave
  • Like a Prayer
  • I Rise

Today in Madonna History: June 7, 2019

On June 7 2019,  Gay Times published a review of Madonna’s Dark Ballet music video:

Madonna has released her powerful music video for new single Dark Ballet.

The song, which the Queen of Pop first teased during her Met Gala performance in 2018, is the final track to be released ahead of her highly-anticipated 14th studio album Madame X, which is due out on Friday 14 June.

“They are so naive, they think we are not aware of their crimes. We know, but we are just not ready to act. The storm isn’t in the air, it’s inside of us,” she declares on the experimental track, which also samples the Nutcracker in its autotune-laden bridge.

Queer rapper Mykki Blanco stars in the Emmanuel Adjei-directed video as Joan of Arc, who was famously burned at the stake following numerous charges including cross-dressing – a scene which is powerfully recreated in the clip.

“They judged her. They said she was a man, they said she was a lesbian, they said she was a witch, and, in the end, they burned her at the stake, and she feared nothing. I admire that,” Madonna says of Joan, the inspiration for the video.

The video also begins with a quote from Joan, and ends with a quote from Mykki, which reads: “I have walked this earth, black, queer and HIV positive, but no transgression against me has been as powerful as the hope I hold within.”

After months of speculation, Madonna has been confirmed as the headliner of WorldPride 2019 in New York City.

On 30 June, the Queen of Pop will perform at the Hudson River Park Pier 97 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, alongside several other legendary acts such as Cyndi Lauper, Ciara and Grace Jones.

Today in Madonna History: March 18, 2015

On March 18 2015, Madonna performed Joan Of Arc for the first time during her week as featured artist on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

The performance, which featured a slower acoustic arrangement of the fan favorite from her album Rebel Heart (including Ellen’s own favorite), earned praise from critics:

Digital Journal reviewer Markos Papadatos wrote that it was “an outstanding vocal performance,” where Madonna “showcased tremendous control over her voice, and allows the lyrics to speak for themselves. Her delivery is emotional, vulnerable yet delicate.” Writing for The Inquisitr, Daryl Deino praised her vocal performance, saying that she “showed the world once again just what her voice is made of” and calling the version “beautiful.” Furthermore, Bradley Stern of MuuMuse also applauded the performance, calling it “really great…super vulnerable, super emotional…and that chilly guitar finish was a wonderful surprise.”

Today in Madonna History: March 10, 2016

On March 10 2016, Madonna performed the first Tears Of A Clown show at the Forum Theatre in Melbourne, Australia. Since Madonna had not performed in Australia since 1993, she decided to put on a unique show for her Australian fans. The show included some of her lesser performed songs, covers, hits and some fan favourites that were not being performed during the Rebel Heart Tour (which was going on a the same time as the Tears Of A Clown show).

Madonna wanted the show to combine music, comedy and storytelling, with a circus or clown theme in mind.

Only members of Madonna’s official fan club, Icon, were able to acquire tickets.  1500 fans attended the show.

Madonna performed the following songs:

  • Send In The Clowns
  • Drowned World/Substitute For Love
  • X-Static Process
  • Between The Bars (Elliot Smith cover)
  • Nobody’s Perfect
  • Easy Ride
  • Intervention
  • I’m So Stupid
  • Paradise (Not For Me)
  • Joan Of Arc
  • Don’t Tell Me
  • Mer Girl
  • Borderline
  • Take A Bow
  • Holiday

Cameron Adams (News.com.au) had this to say about the show:

“Madonna poured much of her sadness into her intimate two-hour Tears Of A Clown show, peppering emotional renditions of her hits with cheeky jokes and banter. It’s the sort of thing you never thought you’d see a superstar do. The show was fascinating — and difficult — to watch. We’re not used to Madonna on stage doing anything less than a fully rehearsed, slick stage show.”

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