This is rich: What major name-above-the-title musical artist decides, at this point in the all-consuming, flossy pop, hop or rock game, legacy or otherwise, to create a genuinely weird, LatinX-laced album?
One with fleeting few concessions to the currency of the charts, mount a performance art-heavy small theater tour (rather than their usual arena visits) where they make their minions wait until 11 p.m., at the very earliest, to hit the stage – then play mostly those new songs, rather than the hits tired ass audiences paid thousands of dollars to hear done in rote, annual fashion like some numbing radio station of the soul – and wear an eye patch and talk too much through the lot of it?
You know, other than Kanye West.
Go one step further: Without being ageist, what over-60-year-old artist, legacy or otherwise would change their game completely going into a big tour? Do you think rock-headed audiences would dare see the likes of the Rolling Stones, The Who, The Eagles or any old man act if they decided to play mostly Latin music, or jazz, or real opera instead of the fake opera dross Pete Townshend touts endlessly?
How many crab fries and craft beers will Citizen Bank if Green Day or Motley Crue play Appalachian folk music exclusively on banjos and washboards come summer 2020?
Welcome to the mindset of Madonna, currently on her “Madame X” intimate theater tour with a four-date stop at The Met Philadelphia starting last Saturday night. Late Saturday night. Like I rushed out of the venue and grabbed a cab outside The Met 2 a.m. late. (Then again, how late is late? If this show was to make the most of its noir, after-hours feel in design and subject matter, shouldn’t it occur late into the evening. Clubbing never starts before midnight. Why should Madonna)?
Whether it was her voice (stronger than ever when not using AutoTune or vocal FX), costume changes (Napoleon-meets Adam Ant gear, 40’s detective chic, pencil skirt Lotte Lenye outfits, etc.), or the manner in which she crawled through self-designed set changes, Madonna was pretty marvelous. Not focused, mind you. But magnificent.
I don’t come to this positive review from a place of Madge worship.
Up until the electronic tango-fado psychedelia of “Madame X,” I haven’t loved a Madonna album since her 1998-2000 period of “Ray of Light” and “Music.” Those were the last true times that she found worthy experimental producers, oddball rhythm-makers and plausibly succinct, quirkily contagious melody writers to work sympathetically with her voice and vision. After that fertile period, they all jumped ship to work with Beyonce and Rihanna.
In the here and now of Saturday’s “Madame X” performance piece, she found the best melodies and rhythms to showcase her voice and put forth her occasionally tedious rhetoric about politics, religion, rights, family, freedom, violence, sex, Lisbon (where she currently lives) and the United States.
“At a time when homogeneous pop is in need of someone to upset its apple cart, Madonna is there.”
Starting with the issue of art and a set of James Baldwin quotes (“Art is here to prove that all safety is an illusion…Artists are here to disturb the peace”) interrupted by shotgun blasts, Madonna set off to play martyr, soothsayer, provocateur, and a whole host of things she claimed as Madame X’s mission.
Jamming a sharp stick in to that of her earlier hit-making machine, Madonna – on a sumptuous “Papa Don’t Preach,” one of the fleeting few songs audience members recalled – she changed her lyrics from “keeping my baby” to “I’m not keeping my baby,” before asking the crowd if it was OK that she had control over her own body. The set’s near-finale, “Like a Prayer, was an exhalation of joy, sensuality and reverence all in one stroke, a perfect pre-encore gateway into “I Rise,” and its dedication to everything from LGBTQ empowerment (the colors of a rainbow flag behind her) and freedom of the press.
Beyond clipping off an a cappella piece of “Express Yourself,” a lovely techno-ballad take on “Frozen,” and doing a fairly traditional rendition of “Vogue,” the rest of her nearly three-hour show was dedicated to her merrily sloppy soliloquies and stand-up routines – even teasing that, the Met, “this beautiful opera house with M’s all over the place. It looks like they built it for me. They did, didn’t they?”
And, of course, “Madame X.”
In a live setting, the album is more jarring, but less precise, than in its recorded state, and evenly given over to the influence of her new native Lisbon. The lush and gorgeous electro-fado “Medellin” was a rhythmic teaser with its 60s-like call “cha-cha-cha.” The fado-style “Killers Who Are Partying” and “Batuka” – where she was accompanied by the dozen-plus women percussionists of Cabo Verde’s Orquestra Batukadeira – was sonically delicious, even if Madonna got lyrically heavy-handed taking on the weight of world oppression with a hint of self-heroism a la “I will be gay, if the gay are burned/I’ll be Africa, if Africa is shut down/ “I’ll be Islam, if Islam is hated I’ll be Israel, if Israel is incarcerated.”
The first few set pieces of Saturday night’s stage show handsomely portrayed the abrasive power of “Madame X” in one fell swoop with everything from questioning religious rights and warring factions, dressed in Napoleonic headgear, on the raging electro of “God Control” to the aptly-titled “Dark Ballet.”
Heavy-handed at times – sure. The casket carrying display of the “Coffin” interlude, the Madame X Manifesto, the finger-pointing of “I Don’t Search I Find” and “American Life” – not her finest. But, taken as a whole, and jammed into an intimate setting such as The Met, Madonna’s dizzying performance art form finally has found its true home.
And, at a time when homogeneous pop is in need of someone to upset its apple cart, Madonna is there.