The Spool / Movies
Madonna concert doc Madame X flirts with political provocation
The queen of pop serves up a filmed version of her controversial 2020 tour, one as lush in style as it is thin in substance.
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The queen of pop serves up a filmed version of her controversial 2020 tour, one as lush in style as it is thin in substance.

Madonna stands at the center of a black box stage dressed as George Washington. Complete with a tricorn hat and swimming waistcoat, she has fashioned herself as a revolutionary leader. Her latest concert film, Madame X, is supposed to be a manifesto, a call for artists to wave high the banner of agitation.

“Artists are here to disturb the peace,” she repeatedly quotes from James Baldwin. Naturally, the best example Madonna can provide is herself. She is Madame X, mistress of disguise and subversion. See the eye patch? And she will provide evidence, new and old, of her fighting the good fight. “The most controversial thing I’ve ever done” her voice whispers, “is stick around.” Madonna’s here to show off her individualist brand of liberation, wrapped in a kinky bow of inclusion.

The spectacle opens with a full passage from Baldwin as a young Black dancer is shot. The ding of a Typewriter return. He gets back up. Typewriter. Gunshot. Ding. Repeat. Get it?

It’s Madonna’s brazenly bold and paradigm-shifting message that injustice is happening in the world. “This is your wake-up call,” she says. For being a spy, Madame X sure puts the ‘b’ in subtle.

Madonna Madame X (Paramount+)
Madonna in Madame X (Paramount+)

It’s a distinctly American perspective that feels out of place with the European audience and vibe that is to come in the latter half of the concert. For her, the struggle for injustice is expressed in images of police brutality and pussy hats, a particular branded kind of “fuck the Patriarchy” feminism that demands peace and an equal share in doling out the (sexual and judicial) punishment. She believes that, because she’s the one auctioning off the polaroid of her groin for children in Malawi, it’s somehow a revolutionary act. 

Here again, as we’ve stated before, Madonna performs a “feminist” “activism” that’s more of a sound-and-light show which relies on distorted, decontextualized, and projected images. More sensational than critical, they end up being overly preachy to the choir. Madame X isn’t yet another example, it’s a textbook example.

Madonna has always been a supremely visual artist, and this concert is perhaps her most visually exciting, at least once the literally overblown messaging fades away. The black box as both set and screen is used to near perfection.

It also allows Madonna to apparate anywhere in the world and soon we’re off to the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, a volcanic island country near West Africa in the Atlantic Ocean that achieved independence from Portugal in 1975. Ever the cool-hunter, Madonna has poached the Orquestra Batukadeiras, a group of Black women who play traditional Batuque to provide extra “flavors” to her “freedom fight.” She tells us that women have played Batuque for liberation, that the rhythms are a means of survival, and that they really inspire her.

She believes that, because she’s the one auctioning off the polaroid of her groin for children in Malawi, it’s somehow a revolutionary act. 

Having recently moved to Lisbon, Portugal to support her son David’s athletic aspirations, “Madame X is a soccer mom, okay,” Madonna has been richly influenced by the styles and sounds of the Spanish Peninsula. This tour, which chose smaller intimate venues rather than her usual arenas (though still at arena prices), is inspired by the “living room sessions” she’s attended in Portugal where people play music, read poetry, and perform for each other. Her Lisbon audience clearly loves her for this.

And it suits her. The middle act is an almost-Almodovarian musical cabaret in its passion and color blocking. It’s a lustful melodrama that sees some of the best reorchestrations of her songs that she’s ever done inspired by the different musical styles of the area. The look, the mood, the concept all suddenly click and the show feels emotionally mature and (mostly) in the proper lane. But it’s as if this was an idea for a show, but not a whole show.

It’s just enough for Madonna to pose herself in the lineage of James Baldwin, a Rebel Heart, gone to Europe to escape oppression and to creatively flourish with politically agitating art. But she’s not the only oppressed Hollywood ex-pat here this evening. As Madge makes her way to sit amongst her fans/people/subjects, she spots fellow “provocateur,” Dave Chappelle. After a brief moment exchanging self-congratulations for being such “outspoken” “artists,” Madonna turns to Chappelle (this Dave Chappelle) and anoints him “the next James Baldwin.”

It all suddenly racks into focus just how unmoored Madonna is.

Madonna Madame X (Paramount+)
Madonna in Madame X (Paramount+)

The George Washington drag that opens the show becomes the perfect metaphor. Like her waistcoat, Madonna is swallowed up by material, her head barely emerging above it all. Just like George, she speaks in revolutionary terms, but the end goal is mere preservation of white bourgeois self-representation. And both define liberty as being able to exploit Black people for capital accumulation. 

Madame X is dangerous, demanding, and works really hard to convince us she’s “down.” “They don’t like my grill, so I wear it,” she proclaims in front of a cheering mostly-white crowd. She will speak to police brutality and systemic racism as abstract terms, as things that exist and are bad, not much more. Further critique would be a self-indictment. She too has continually used Black people as profitable props to say more about herself than society.

Though bringing out the Orquestra Batukadeiras gives them greater exposure, this particular performance, filmed in Lisbon, is rife with political complications of which Madonna seems blithely unaware. If the women are singing songs of survival, it’s survival against the Portuguese who are now being invited to an exclusive ogling of them as exotic and rhythmic props. Yet here she is a, white outsider selling a spectacle of the colonized back to the colonizer for her personal profit. 

As the concert draws to a thankful close, we return to the heavy-handed messaging. “We’re not here to be popular, we’re here to be free,” she says before leading into a gospel rendition of “Like A Prayer.” We’re reminded that artists are here to be agitators. 

Sadly, the concert is proof that not all agitation is right, or just, or good.

Well, agitated I am. Sadly, the concert is proof that not all agitation is right, or just, or good. Especially when it’s agitation for agitation’s sake, which is about as far from Baldwin’s original idea as you can get. Madame X calls out injustice, names a few culprits, and suggests a contradictory concoction of communal love and radical self-hedonism. Don’t try to resolve it; Madonna will show you more than once that she still hasn’t been able to resolve the contraction in her decades-long career.

Her encore song “I Rise” gives a thesis as to why and how someone could miss the point so entirely and wind up being as unhelpful to any revolutionary cause as this film is. “I wrote this song to give a voice to oppressed people,” she says. And what follows is a pedestrian ballad of self-empowerment about rising up in the face of life’s adversities. Yet coupled with her early song “Killers Who Are Partying” in which she sings, “I will be gay, if the gay are burned / I’ll be Africa, if Africa is shut down” and so on, listing the poor, children, Muslims, Isrealis, Native Indians, and rape survivors as people she’ll become to help them.

For all this talk of supporting oppressed people, we spend more time in this concert focused on how Madonna is the one doing the talking. She will rise. She will be all these people. She will walk 500 miles. Her sense of common identity overreaches and she suddenly starts promoting all identities and their political circumstances as interchangeable, which is a political erasure of the grandest sort. 

This wouldn’t have been so bad had she not come out swinging, telling us she had a message. Because I listened to the message and everything was garbled. Throughout her concert, Madonna uses vocal distortion to color her voice and she’s right to do so. The voice of oppressed people she is selling is patently distorted. Instead of wearing an eye patch to mark a debonair deviousness, it would be best if Madame X took it off and saw things a bit more clearly.

Madame X is currently streaming on Paramount+.

Madame X Trailer: