The joy of being a Madonna fan is that she’s a true artist, an incisive creative eye who embeds meaning and shades of emotional grey into her work; the other great thing about being a Madonna fan is that she’s an artist who also happens to be a pop star. So when she has something to say, it’s in the details, yes - but wait long enough and it’ll also be bludgeoned over your head.
“Freedom is the theme of this show,” Madonna told an enthralled, intimate crowd at the Thursday (Sept. 19) night show of her Madame X Tour at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “And the theme of my life, for that matter.”
She might have explicitly spelled out her mission statement during the show, but when it kicked off just before 11pm ET, she eased into the theme with a characteristically unabashed mixture of high art and high camp. As a silhouetted typist hammered out a James Baldwin quote at a desk, a lithe dancer mimed dodging bullets, eventually succumbing to the barrage. After that, Madonna hit the stage, staring out from beneath a Revolutionary War-style tricorn hat as a battered American flag fluttered via video projection. There probably isn’t a more deliciously kitschy way to introduce a show speaking to what personal freedom - and danger - means to the America-born pop artist.
The first song, Madame X’s lush disco standout “God Control,” turned the focus from national mythology to personal history, demonstrating exactly where Madonna found her freedom - on the sweaty floors of New York City discotheques in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s - and how she sees it, quite literally, under fire (the gunshot-punctuated musical odyssey explicitly nods to the 2016 Pulse massacre).
From there, the Madame X Tour moves on to other freedoms she sees under duress: The freedom to act and the freedom to speak. With regards to the former, “Dark Ballet” found her playing out the persecution of Joan of Arc surrounded by a visually compelling mixture of Christian iconography and pagan pageantry, while a cool jazz take on “Human Nature” fulfilled the latter, allowing her the opportunity to tell off critics projecting their hang-ups on a woman who dares speak of sex without a coquettish blush (while treating the crowd to a spread eagle that would put Veronica and Charlie to shame).
In the midst of an a cappella “Express Yourself,” Madonna brought out three of her children - Stella, Estere and Mercy James - to shimmy with the dancers and read a few quotes of empowerment she’d provided for them. Later in the show, eldest daughter Lourdes arrived for the highlight of the evening, dwarfing even her mother. Well, only literally speaking. While stark, three-story-high footage of Lourdes dancing played on a translucent screen in front of her, Madonna delivered a soul-scraping rendition of her 1998 classic “Frozen.” Seeing the Queen of Pop, illuminated by a pinprick of light, engulfed in her daughter’s dancing was a visually stunning moment in an evening full of them.
Another unexpected setlist choice (well, at least for those who didn’t catch her incendiary Pride Island performance) arrived via “American Life,” the unjustly maligned title track from her 2003 album (which was more a victim of the politically paranoid era than any creative deficiency on her part). Her arms snaking above her head as she ran down the list of capitalist concessions that fail to satisfy, Madonna looked exceptionally invested during this glitchpop gem - probably because this is one throwback song she hasn’t delivered ad infinitum.
That fresh, loose (okay, loose for a notorious control freak like Madge) attitude permeated most of her Madame X songs -- which were the lion’s share of the setlist. Naturally, that was bad for anyone expecting a greatest-hits parade, but excellent for those open-minded enough to turn off their phones, their expectations and allow an artist they trust and adore the freedom to indulge in what’s getting her off at the moment.
After moving to Lisbon for her son’s soccer aspirations, she’s currently inspired by the music she heard there: Fado, morna, salsa and more. Aside from playing the Madame X tracks that dabble in those genres, her non-album original song “Welcome to My Fado Club” (mashed-up with “La Isla Bonita”) gave her a chance to moonlight as the beguiling hostess of a hole-in-the-wall Latin club, which - considering her affection for Golden Era Hollywood - is certainly within her wheelhouse. But unlike most ‘40s productions on a Beverly Hills lot, Madonna bothered to include the authentic talents she was paying homage to, bringing out Gaspar Varela, the grandson of fado singer Celeste Rodrigues (whom she sang with prior to the legend's 2018 passing), for several numbers, in addition to an all-female orchestra from Cape Verde for her rousing, thunderous Madame X highlight “Batuka.”
“I’m not worried about being popular,” Madonna told the crowd (which, to be fair, was hanging on her every word) near the end of the show. For the Madame X Tour, she means it. At BAM Thursday night, the would-be soccer mom was free of setlist demands, time constraints (she took the stage late and skillfully bantered with the audience as long as she felt like it) and the impersonal glow of an arena-full of cell phones desperate to capture a 30-second snippet for a social account.
The Madame X persona might be a spy, a teacher, a saint, a whore, a cha cha instructor and a mother, but she’s also something not listed in the album lines notes - she’s a more authentic version of Madonna Veronica Louise Ciccone than we’ve seen on stage in some time.