"Are you all starting to get it?" Madonna asked from the stage, at least several times, to a fawning, screaming audience whom she treated at times more like a kindergarten classroom than who they were — a crowd of well-heeled, mostly middle-aged fans who could afford orchestra seats for her pricey Madame X tour.
"Madame X is a teacher. She's a rebel. She's a head of state. She's a mother. She's a child. She's a whore. And she is a saint." (I'm paraphrasing only slightly — no cellphones were allowed.)
Madonna, at 61, sees herself as all of the above, except (maybe) head of state. And in her new tour, which just finished the last of a three-night engagement at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco, she is not so much playing a character as just another in a long series of chameleon-like variations on her public self. She sounds every bit the confident, caustic "bad girl" she wanted us to see on the Truth or Dare tour nearly 30 years ago, only she's no girl anymore and likely more invested in her legacy as a performer than in selling albums or concert seats. (Or in making things pleasant for an aging fanbase, many of whom were weary and overheated in a stuffy theater by the time she went on, some 40 minutes later than announced and hours after the theater opened, around 11:10 p.m.)
She admits a little bit of weakness — twice she mentioned tendonitis in a hip flexor, an injury she apparently had when the tour began in September according to this Rolling Stone review, though perhaps this is a second injury. But that's only so that you're more impressed with all the dancing she does.
If I walked away with anything from Tuesday night's show — apart from memories of a truly stunning visual spectacle, enhanced by recent advances in projection mapping — it's that Madonna, more than ever, still craves respect and adoration as an artist and activist more than as a pop icon, but she'll accept a role as quasi-religious icon if she must. She isn't afraid to patronize the kids with auto-tuned, one-off singles like "Crave" (feat. Swae Lee) and "Future" (feat. Quavo) — or "Bitch I'm Madonna" from 2015's Rebel Heart. But her heart is mostly in awing everyone with bold visuals of gun violence, gun protests, and the borrowed soulfulness of her video for "Batuka," which is sung (along with the projected video) with the help of the Orquestra Batukadeiras — a group of African Portuguese Creole women from Cape Verde, whom she has brought on the tour with her.
Much of the new album grew out of Madonna's recent experience living in Portugal while her now 14-year-old son David Banda was at a soccer school. As the story goes, she got bored being alone there while he played soccer, so she started going out to clubs and cafes and fell in love with fado, the guitar-based music genre native to Lisbon. According to this June profile in New York Times, "One night, she visited a Frenchman’s crumbling home on the sea for an improv session, mostly of fado musicians. 'There was a vibration there that was magical and palpable, and suddenly musicians started playing,' she said."
And if you haven't gathered by now, the show Madonna is now performing in small-ish theaters in major cities is a mashup of many things with only the vaguest threads to link them. A quieter central portion of the show, all set in a projected space meant to look like a fado cafe, includes several of her new songs featuring Portuguese guitar — along with the strumming talents of 16-year-old Gaspar Varela, great-grandson of late, famed singer Celeste Rodrigues, whom Madonna also recruited in Lisbon. ("There's not enough dressing rooms for everyone. My manager's not talking to me right now," Madonna said at one point, emphasizing that she still had to have her way and we should all be grateful.)
The show begins and ends with a James Baldwin quote that gets typed on a projection screen multiple times just to make sure we read and absorb it: "Art is here to prove that all safety is an illusion… Artists are here to disturb the peace."
But while Madame X, the show is compellingly odd at times, and no doubt unique as a theatrical concert among her generation of icons, I still can't say that Madonna has transcended beyond "great performer" to disturber of the peace. The only moment of real theater I witnessed was when she sat on the edge of the stage and invited a stranger to give her a sip of their drink and chat. (The handsome military man who complied was clearly a prepped plant who handed her a glass beer bottle full of water, much like one a dancer had handed her earlier — and the Golden Gate Theater doesn't sell beer in bottles to take to your seat. She then semi-convincingly played a beer drinker for 90 seconds while catching her breath.) Apart from nods to the Parkland and Pulse nightclub shootings, Madonna's co-opting of yet another culture not her own and lazy off-the-cuff banter felt out of touch — even with evolving ideas about mental health when she griped about people getting up to use the bathroom or go to the bar as having "ADDDD or ADHD," or when she asked an increasingly listless crowd if their Adderall was kicking in.
I thought about Taylor Mac's 24-Decade History of Popular Music. I sat through that in six-hour stretches and rarely felt very bored or restless. And no matter what I was feeling I knew that Taylor was going to come out with an articulate and thoughtful thing to tie together whatever I just saw. Madonna tended more toward the persona and mode she's most comfortable in — like that too-knowing friend of your older sister who likes to ask you sarcastic questions and never lets her guard down. "You get it yet!?"
For all the ways I love her "Bitch I'm Madonna" swagger and the unique position she is in as an artist and icon, there's a point at which her bravado and aggressive diva-ness are lost on all but her super-fans, and the rest of us are left sighing to ourselves and saying "Bitch, just do 'Ray of Light' already." I don't want her retiring into a Las Vegas residency and turning into a caricature of herself, trotting out her hits and ceasing to look for inspiration. But I can't say that the new material is inspiring enough to carry as much of this intimate show as she wants it to. And I felt like I was expected to worship each costume change and come-to-church moment, spanning the cultures that have influenced her various albums, from Hindu-Buddhist to British trance to gospel to, now, batuque and fado.
There were a lot of slow moments, and the only times she truly energized the crowd were with excellent revisions of 90s hits like "Vogue" and "Human Nature," very early in the two-hour-and-20-minute set. By the time she's taken off her embroidered sari and put on her priest's vestments for "Like a Prayer," which transitions into her finale with the new song, "I Rise," it felt like she'd lost the crowd (except for the super-fans who'd already paid to see this once and were back again). I was ready to rise mostly because I was tired, it was 1:30 a.m., and I've outgrown the person who saw her as a flawless gay icon and god. I see we're all flawed, and Madonna's spent the better part of two decades trying to stay relevant if not quite edgy, and if nothing else I'm happy she found a new music genre to play with in Portugal.
I wasn't the only one grumbling about the decided lack of crowd-pleasers in the set as we all filed to the doors to get our cellphone satchels unlocked so we could return to our realities.
And she still never did "Ray of Light."