The last (and first) time I saw Madonna perform live was in 1993. I had just moved to New York and went to see her Girlie Show at Madison Square Garden. Three years earlier, still living in Germany, I had regrettably had to give up my tickets for her wildly anticipated Blond Ambition show because of a spontaneous family reunion in France. But I had seen Truth or Dare, the groundbreaking 1991 documentary about the tour. The film portrayed Madonna as flippant and serious, fun and unnerving, playful and controlling, vulnerable and dominant, charismatic and capricious, compulsive and impulsive, all at the same time. In addition, seeing her jaunty and endearingly maternal relationship with her male dancers, most of them gay, opened a window to a new world that had a magnetic pull. The mix created an irresistible vortex and left me in a state of shock. I am not exaggerating when I say that the film planted the seed for my eventual move to New York.
The Girlie Show, radically different from the more wistful, emotionally charged Blonde Ambition, was, for the most part, a frivolous, insouciant and fun spectacle, following her Erotica album and celebrating androgyny, a word that is sadly all but lost today. It included exhilarating nods to strip joints, Studio 54, Indian temple dances, military parades (with a tongue firmly in cheek), a vaudevillian, and a spot-on tribute to Marlene Dietrich, culminating with a chilly, highly stylized Edwardian fashion show tableau, the effect being that of a post-coital cigarette smoked on a balcony overlooking a misty cityscape of a mystical past. But stadiums are strange venues for concept concerts such as Madonna’s: unless you are among the lucky few in the front rows, you find yourself inadvertently, repeatedly casting your eyes rather at the large video screens than the far-away stage, hungry to catch some of the visual details, and the medium creates an emotional distance between the space and time you share with the performers that can only be bridged by the tribal forces of music and mass exhilaration. It left me wanting for something more intimate than it could possibly deliver.
Then, in 1998, I found myself working as a cater waiter at the annual Met Gala, and Madonna was among the illustrious dinner guests. As soon as she entered the room and took her seat at the table next to the one I had been assigned, the evening became a hysteria-charged whirlwind around her. Virtually everyone who was there that night – every guest, every celebrity (and the room was full of them, although some of them made sour faces because no one paid much attention to them that night), every waiter, every security guard, even the cooks – everybody desperately tried to get close, gravitating towards her like bees around the queen in a frantic beehive, ogling her breathlessly as she insouciantly flirted with Rupert Everett, both of them keenly, gleefully aware that every man in the room wanted to be in his shoes and nearly every woman wanted to beher. The air was so thick with the manic energy of celebrity fandom that it literally made me nauseous. It was just too much. I left the orbit that surrounded her and did not see her perform live again until now.
It was worth the wait.
Madonna’s concert tours, more than those of any other pop star I can think of, have always been highly orchestrated theatrical shows rather than mere concerts, a nearly impossible feat to pull off in a stadium, where spectacle trumps, no, obliterates nuance. Here, at BAM’s Opera House, a comparatively intimate venue, it worked beautifully. I loved the no-cellphone-policy Madonna chose to impose for this show, and wish all theaters and concert halls would adopt this system. When she addressed the audience for the first time the night I went, expressing how happy she felt to be seeing our faces instead of frantically upheld flickering phone screens, I believed her. Back in 2003, when our lives were not yet dominated by cellphones, I witnessed performance artist Karen Finley once stop her show cold when a woman in the audience attempted to take a picture of her, scolding her quite forcefully and declaring that her performance was not a product for later consumption but meant to be witnessed by all here and now, together. She was right, but that battle has been all but lost in subsequent years as cellphones have become ubiquitous in pop and rock concerts (Lady Gaga, desperate to follow in Madonna’s footsteps but lacking her idol’s considerable charisma and sense of irony goes as far as to actively encouraging her audiences to take pictures during her shows, a telling detail). Madonna, once again ahead of the curve, is using technology to fight technology: all cellphones had to be slipped into magnetically sealed pouches, and the unity of time and space was saved for a couple of hours, to the benefit of all.
At times, Madame X, as the show is titled, has the intimacy of a Broadway show. Constructed in tight thematic blocks, it swiftly moves from one setting or musical style to the next, drawing mostly on Madonna’s new album of the same title but also including several of her past hits. There is a good amount of banter with the audience that goes from insouciant ad-libbing to mock imperial orders and includes a Warholian moment of art-as-business during which she, playing up the shameless aspect of it, sells a polaroid selfie to the highest bidder, earning cash that goes straight into her cleavage, saved for her African charity. The dancers repeatedly took over the stage with exquisitely choreographed dance numbers that addressed the tragedy of gun violence, the virulent tug between homophobia and homophilia, and, in one of the recurring visual highlights of the show, the brutal, never-ending assault of life itself (or, as it were, the book of life, as type-written by the show’s enigmatic, eye-patch wearing protagonist) that leaves you no better recourse than to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again – and again, and again.
Madonna has always understood the power of gesture – big or small: once a dancer, always a dancer. Her body is arguably her primal instrument (and her intelligence the motor behind it), and she plays it with the ease of a true master, confident and completely in her element, looking radiant in every one of the many looks she sported and espousing the controlled abandon of all great and accomplished artists. At one point in the show, wearing dangerously high heels, she, without missing a beat of the music, stepped off a ledge high enough to make an athlete tumble. I gasped but I am not sure anyone else was quite aware of what it took to do this as smoothly. Playing a defiant victim in one unsettling scene of arrest and interrogation in one moment that evoked the paranoia-infused world of Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil, exploiting the fetish of the stylish femme fatale/secret agent, or appearing as a nonchalant cabaret chanteuse performing in a saloon setting that had the casual air of a New Orleans jazz club (my favorite segment of the show where she simply sings, in a pleasantly relaxed manner, eschewing the autotune she is using as a stylistic element during much of the rest of the show), or breaking the fourth wall as a self-declared ambassador for human rights, she clearly and successfully exalted in the stylized exploitation of what I would call her multiple personality order.
Madonna has always known how to create a moment – and how to break it off before it thins out. She gets away with an earnest delivery of her political message that calls for tolerance, freedom of the individual, and the bravery it takes to fight for social causes because she instinctively knows how to infuse it with an edge - be it erotic, sarcastic, or even silly. Most importantly, her joy of performing and sharing the stage with her dancers and musicians (and, here, her daughters) is palpable and contagious. In a surprisingly vulnerable moment, she humbly talked of her love and appreciation of fado and morna music, culminating with a heart-felt tribute to the all-female Orquestra Batukadeiras that joined her onstage. Yes, Madonna has grace, and it’s time to acknowledge it.
Of the three top performers of the modern era – Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Madonna – only she has managed to not only survive but to continue to flourish, propelled by her drive, her curiosity, and a strong sense of purpose. Many argue that she has changed the world. I prefer to think that she is showing us how to change yourself. In what for me was the most poignant and powerful moment in the show, she observed that she has never been interested in winning a popularity contest but simply wanted to be “free.” Looking at the audience, she calmly added, “I dare you to try it.”
In The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart, my partner-in crime Filip Noterdaeme’s Gertrude Stein-homage and chronicle of our lives, he defined the magic of a successful performance as a blend of hospitality and hostility. Few artists personify this wise and counterintuitive principle better than Madonna. “Did I stay too long”, she defiantly asks in one of her songs. No, she didn’t. Don’t listen to the petty bickering and criticizing that now and then flares up about her. Be grateful that she stuck around, wandering the globe, searching and finding inspiration and new purpose, and for putting together this very generous show that held the audience in a spell. The world is, quite simply, a better place with her in it, calmly and authoritatively continuing to dig in her high heels without ever missing a beat and, as always, with a twinkle in her eye..