Madonna is a multitude of things to a multitude of people: LGBTQ+ champion and feminist groundbreaker. Movie star and fashion icon. Prim Brit-esque author and tough-talking New Yorker. And of course, the Queen of Pop. Because through all of the tabloid sensationalism and premature reports of her career demise, nobody has been able to permanently dethrone Ciccone.
Critics have long accused her of being a bandwagoner, a trend-sponge who will latch onto what’s popular. There’s some truth in that but it only tells a fraction of the story. Like Bowie (not quite in his league but the comparison holds), Madonna schools herself, keeps current and then brings it all into her world. Sure, she’s a chameleon. But every shift and shimmy is on her terms.
Take her new Madame X album and the theatrical performance that she’s dreamed up to correspond with the concept. A concept, by the way, that appears to be deliberately vague. Madame X is a mother, a child, a teacher, a singer, a secret agent (“traveling the world in disguise”), a nun, a whore and a saint, according to Madonna. The character, then, isn’t as well defined as a Ziggy Stardust, but that allows for a lot of wiggle room and freedom.
At the Wiltern on Wednesday, the first of her 10-night stretch at the venue, an undeniably intimate setting by Madonna’s standards, we get to enjoy Madame X in all of her convoluted glory, fully-realized or not. The new album isn’t necessarily cohesive throughout, but the songs work well in the live setting, right from the opening “God Control.”
Incidentally, plenty has already been written about Madonna coming on stage late during this tour, and locking away everyone’s phones. Regarding the former, she’s always been a bit of an Axl Rose (or vice versa, more accurately) in that regard — longtime fans are used to it. Here, she started at about 10:45 p.m. (impossible to be sure, as our phones were locked away), not a tremendously late time by L.A. standards. As for the phones, she’s right. It is better to stay in the moment and enjoy the show, and it is better for the artist to look out at a sea of faces rather than phones. The “I paid my money, I’ll do what I want” argument holds no water.
Regardless of what career and lifestyle choices the character of Madame X has made, the music on the album varies dramatically and it was all covered in L.A. There’s the pulsating electro-pop of that show-opener and the chill Latin vibe of “Killers Who Are Partying.” Madonna reminds us that she’s been playing soccer mom in Portugal, simultaneously throwing herself into fado music and embracing the West African Batukadeiras drummers (who made a welcome appearance). As is the same on every night of the tour (the set list remains consistent), we got covers of Isabel De Oliveira’s “Fado Pechincha” and Cesária Évora’s “Sodade.”
The new songs sounded great and, with the show split into five acts and an encore, time flew by remarkably fast. There were some old crowd favorites thrown in, of course — we get shortened versions of “Vogue” and “Papa Don’t Preach,” a breathy “Human Nature,” an a cappella “Express Yourself” and a snippet of “La Isla Bonita,” before act VI brought with it a gorgeous rendition of “Frozen” complete with images of daughter Lourdes Leon on the big screen. In the final act, we got a hair-raising “Like a Prayer,” with choir.
The biggest criticism we can aim at the show is that the momentum and flow was occasionally stunted by some bizarre breaks. At one point, she sat down to indulge in some magic that only she and those immediately around her could see, with a child and David Blaine. She admitted that she finds magic boring, and she could see it. At her best, Madonna is a fierce, funny performer who can keep you enthralled for hours but there were a few moments on Wednesday night when the air came out a little.
Never for long though. For the gloriously defiant encore, “I Rise,” Madonna sang in front of a giant Pride flag to huge applause. She might not be one of music’s great political thinkers but Madonna has always made it clear where she stands, and that’s on the side of good. She interrupts “Papa Don’t Preach” after the “I’m keeping my baby” line to say words to the effect of, “but it wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t — a woman has a right to do what she wants with her body.” She tells us that she moved to Portugal in part to escape Trump. And as Madame X, she tells us all to “wake up!”
By the time we got out and had our phones taken out of the lockable wallets, it was 1:30 a.m. Time had flown by thanks to some excellent music old and new, a remarkable stage show, and a full cast of dancers, drummers and singers. A Madonna show is always going to be great — the only question is, how great?