Madonna is a vibrant and generous performer, able to put on a hell of a show. But as a live performer, Madonna’s a bit of a dichotomy. Though she’s a vocalist, her singing isn’t the biggest draw of her shows. Madonna is. She’s a thoroughly modern showgirl, a revamp to the razzle-dazzle song-and-dance ladies like Shirley MacLaine, Ann-Margret, Liza Minnelli, or Lola Falana, women who dazzled audiences in Atlantic City or Vegas. They weren’t just singers. They were entertainers.
A Madonna show isn’t merely a concert. It’s a spectacle. A pop-disco DJ’ed Broadway show with elaborate sets, stunning costumes, and a cast of seeming thousands. All that’s missing is a plot. So, though Madonna is a brilliant live performer, that brilliance relies on visuals, too. In terms of her setlists, unlike many artists who have been in the biz as long as she, Madonna doesn’t format her shows to be a greatest hits live show. Instead, any given tour will be dominated by material from the associated album, plus an eccentric smattering of past hits.
So, given all of these caveats, is a live Madonna album worth listening to?
Yes, a resounding yes. Madonna’s latest release, Madame X – Music from the Theatre Xperience, is a fabulous, campy souvenir from her last tour and her latest concert film. Collecting performances from 12 January to 23 January 2020 at Coliseu dos Recreios in her current home of Lisbon, the live album captures Madonna at her most Madonna-est. That means that there are flashes of brilliance, lots of affected pretentiousness, and huge dollops of cultural appropriation. It’s ridiculous, wonderful, and fantastic. It’s Madonna.
Listeners who didn’t respond to her latest studio album, 2019’s Madame X, will want to skip this album because the bulk of the tracks on the live release are performances from that album. The material from Madame X saw Madonna return to her disco, house-pop roots, but she was also indulging her latest cultural swipe du jour, this time Portuguese fado music. There are some classic Madonna songs – “Vogue”, “Like a Prayer”, “Human Nature” – which show up the newer tracks.
Always a subversive artist who never shied away from sharing her views on politics, the Madonna of 2021 is a very different performer from the Madonna of the 1980s or 1990s when her cultural dominance was at its peak. By 2021, Madonna ruled as a pop star under seven presidents. Under the George W. Bush and Donald Trump presidencies, the singer had run-ins with the political right in a far more pointed way than when she terrified moralists in the 1980s for wearing lingerie on stage. During the Iraq War, she released a video for her single “American Life”, which criticized and savagely satirized Bush’s foreign policy (uncharacteristically, she pulled the video in the face of criticism). She was a constant vocal critic of the Trump administration. At this point of her long and storied career, Madonna has also publicly decried the reductive ageism that responds to her work, performances, and public persona (including her social media presence).
This means that the Madonna of this concert album is arguably the most somber Madonna we’ve seen. Even at the height of the AIDS crisis, when she performed on the Girlie Show, she brought moments of disco euphoria to her shows whilst also acknowledging the terrifying health crisis that attacked her core audience.
Now, in a very different pandemic, Madonna has dug into her role as a revolutionary. Years of backlash and critical drubbing have done a number on the pop diva, who once trilled gaily, “Music makes the people come together!” Always calculated, the Madonna on this album is the most self-consciously arty and self-serious Madonna we have seen.
The album opens with an instrumental overture like a great Broadway show. A mishmash of sounds, music, and soundbites, set to a thumping disco beat, the album introduces the listeners to the theme, and the singer’s latest guise, the eye-patched Madame X. The alter-ego is defined as a woman with multiple identities, complex and complicated, difficult to pin down. At the end of the messy track, we hear a line from Madonna’s Billboard Woman of the Year speech: “The most controversial thing I’ve ever done. Is to stick around.”
The first song on the album is the Madame X track “God Control”, notable for the odd studio trick that makes Madonna sound as if she’s singing with marbles in her mouth. The churchy backup singers are haunting. The tune starts as a morose ballad, but with the sounds of gunshots, a swirling house beat struts in, and the song recalls Madonna’s club roots.
“God Control” is a cracking way to start the show, so it’s a shame that we pivot to “Dark Ballet”, an overwrought, dramatic, excoriating dirge that has an odd bridge sampled from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Then the song ends on an unfortunate, melodramatically performed bit in which she screeches, “Death to the patriarchy!”
The sentiment of that line is a perfect segue to the first older hit, “Human Nature”, from her 1994 album Bedtime Stories. The song was pretty revolutionary for its time, lambasting the double standards that doom women who embrace and celebrate their sexuality. The original context of that song is crucial. By 1994, Madonna had just come off an extended period of severe backlash, as she became an important figure in the early 1990s culture wars. By the time Bedtime Stories came out, it had looked like the diva was genuinely hurt by the onslaught of hate and responded with a sweeter, slower album of lite-soul love ballads. The noted exception of that set was the prickly and self-righteous “Human Nature”, a grinding jeep/funk tune adorned with a pretty sax in this performance (a great thing about Madonna’s live albums is to hear how she redresses her hits)
Upon its release, “Human Nature” was a minor hit on the charts (one of her first to miss the US top 40), but she cannily paired that song with another classic song, “Vogue”, her classic tribute to ballroom culture. The song – released in 1990 – was such a giant, ubiquitous hit that its impact has been diluted somewhat. It’s a shame because for all her pseudo-Patti Smith politicking, “Vogue” is probably her most socially relevant song in her discography. Despite its facile-sounding sloganeering chorus, the lyrics represent a deep and humane affection and love for the queer people who nurtured her career. In the past, she has refitted the song in various window dressing for her live shows. Still, it’s relatively straightforward on this set, without too many surprises (the visuals of an army of Madonna lookalikes probably add to the drama).
Whoever came up with the sequencing of the songs did an excellent job choosing to follow the titanic “Vogue” with a similarly housey “I Don’t Search, I Don’t Find”. So much of Madame X felt removed from Madonna’s strengths, indulging in her musical eccentricities, so highlighting her dance work serves the record’s energy.
After the glittery disco of “Vogue” and “I Don’t Search, I Find”, Madonna resurrects one of the few rare flops of her career, the title track of her 2002 album American Life. The song wasn’t well-received upon its initial release. Its arrangement is jerky, its lyrics self-indulgent and silly, and the rapping a touch woeful. I understand why Madonna would choose this song for this tour in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, banking on the lyrics feeling more relevant and prescient, given the ascendance of alt-right wing governments across the globe, including Western Europe. Unfortunately, the song is a low point on the album, particularly given Madonna’s harsh performance that ends in her screaming the lyrics aping what sounds like an angry rock chick.
It’s interesting how wildly inconsistent Madonna can be. Given the drudge that “American Life” proves to be, it’s positively thrilling to hear the transcendent “Batuka”, an anthemic call-and-response hymn in which members of the Batukadeiras Orchestra join the singer. Madonna’s world music affectations can feel silly at best (at worst, they can be crass and vaguely white savior), and nothing she does is free from cynicism and calculation. Still, the elated chorus of the women of the Batukadeiras Orchestra is utterly charming and refreshing, their joy infectious.
The following track, a cover of Isabel De Oliveira’s “Fado Pechincha” offers listeners some pretty raw, unstripped, untouched vocals by Madonna. When she won the award for the best live act at the 2004 Q Awards, Elton John groused, “Madonna, best live act? Fuck off. Since when has lip-syncing been live?” causing a minor flap, in which the two divas traded some silly quips in the press. No big deal, really. But it did raise the question of Madonna’s work as a live performer.
Does she actually sing live? Does she lip sync? Few entertainers perform on stage as she does, with intricate dance moves, multiple costume changes, moving stage parts, all of it possibly changing the way she sings. On “Fado Pechincha”, she sings without backing tracks or without vocoder or Auto-Tune, which shows a lean wear/tear on her singing. She presents this performance as a silly little nothing, “A small piece,” she demurs. Despite the audible weariness in her voice, it does show that all those singing lessons she took for Evita kept.
From “Fado Pechincha” Madonna embarks on a suite of songs from Madame X that stretches for six songs. Because Madame X didn’t have the impact of her earlier albums, even later day releases like Hard Candy or MDNA, this sequence is really for diehard Madonna fans, who will appreciate what was really, a pretty underrated record that deserved far more attention than it got. Because the album is a stitched patchwork of her appearances throughout a week, only the best vocal performances are chosen, and she sounds strong and solid, no doubt aided by some vocal sweetening.
She breaks up the list of Madame X songs with her Ray of Light classic “Frozen”, probably her best ballad hit. It opens with the haunting strings and snare drum, but then classical guitars strum over the track. The original William Orbit techno-pop production seems to be crowded out by the affectations of the guitars, which doesn’t do the song too many favors. Because the song’s beauty comes from the chilliness of Orbit’s work, the acoustic-sounding guitars disrupt that frosty, austere tone. In this form, the song loses much of its elegant, grandeur. Still, despite the disappointment, it’s admirable how Madonna works to make her music grow and develop and change.
From “Frozen”, the album goes on its final leg, this time having songs tied by a loose theme of optimism and uplift. For an album that can sound somewhat heavy and thick, the lightness of some of the tunes that close the set is greatly appreciated. “Come Alive” starts with a mournful violin before the drums join and Madonna’s seemingly refreshed vocals. It’s a great, upbeat song with some fantastic background vocals. “Future” is a (relatively) subdued urban-pop number that acts as a great bridge to the ecstatic “Like a Prayer”, a staple for Madonna’s live shows. For this tour, she does relatively little to it, leaving it simple: programmed percussion, heavenly choir. The somewhat stripped approach to this song allows listeners to hear just how well-crafted and sturdy the song structure is (a review of Madonna’s best work shows just how great a songwriter she is)
To close out the show, she performed her anthem “I Rise” from Madame X a song she said she wrote to
give a voice to all marginalized people. People who don’t have the opportunity to speak their mind. People who are in jail, incarcerated, bullied, beaten, abused. All people who feel that they are being oppressed. I hope that this song gives people hope and courage to be who they are and to not be afraid to be who they are and to speak their mind and to love themselves because you can’t love other people unless you love yourself
Though the speech could sound like pabulum, Madonna has bravely challenged oppression in her career during her stop in Russia on her MDNA tour when she professed her support for the queer community in St Petersburg and punk band Pussy Riot in Moscow. So though “I Rise” is standard power-to-the-people, it’s still stirring because Madonna is exuding spirit and sincerity (leading her audience in a chant on the song’s chorus is stirring)
Is Madame X – Music from the Theatre Xperience Madonna at her best? No, of course not. Her studio work is still the best way to appreciate her art. And her inclusion of James Baldwin feels tone-deaf and trivializing as if she was trying to create an artistic link between her and the acclaimed writer and activist (it was reminiscent of her unfortunate appearance at the 2018 MTV VMAs when she inserted herself into a tribute to Aretha Franklin). However, despite the flaws, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable album because Madonna is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s heartening that she’s still capable of putting on a good show four decades into her career.