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Madonna, still taking chances

The songs Madonna chose from her past were mostly exhortations and pushbacks, sometimes coupled with direct political statements

Jon Pareles | NYT 

Madonna
Madonna

I’m not here to be popular. I’m here to be free,” 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 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 theatre stage.

Unlike jukebox musicals or “Springsteen on Broadway”, Madame X is a concert focusing on new songs and the present moment. In other words, 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 October. 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 after the show. 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 traveller.

Yes, she is 61, but her 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-flavoured Latin pop sometimes called urbano (with the Colombian singer Maluma, also shown on video). The concert, with most of its drawn from the “Madame X” album, was packed with pronouncements, symbols and enigmatic vignettes to frame the songs. 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 synthesiser 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.

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”.

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, apologise for starting the show late and sip a fan’s beer. But in songs and stage patter, she sometimes conflated self-realisation 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, Florida. then goes on to some clumsy lyrics. But in a small theatre, 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.


© 2019 The New York Times

First Published: Fri, September 20 2019. 22:52 IST
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