Madonna’s new concert film, recorded at the Lisbon, Portugal, date of her mammoth Madame X tour, started streaming on Paramount+ this weekend. For those unable to attend one of the shows it’s a chance to catch a glimpse of the brilliant, high-concept performance that the queen of pop put on night after night. If, like this writer, you were able to catch a gig, the film offers the opportunity to explore a little deeper. The Madame X concept is deliberately vague but there are plenty of clues as to what it’s all about. Quotes, typed statements, film footage. Thanks to modern technology, we can pause, rewind, etc.
Right at the start of the film, we see a quote from novelist, poet, playwright, and activist James Baldwin: “Artists are here to disturb the peace.” It makes perfect sense that amongst her tour merch is a hoodie with “Disturb the peace” emblazoned across the front. As a mission statement for Madonna’s entire career, it works gloriously well.
Madame X, we learn, is “a dancer, professor, a head of state, a housekeeper, an equestrian, a prisoner, a student, a mother, a child, a teacher, a nun, a singer, a saint, a whore…a spy in the house of love.”
The message would appear to be that Madame X is Madonna but also all women. And women can be whatever the fuck they want to be. Human beings are never just one thing and that multifaceted nature is something to celebrate.
Because here’s the thing: It’s rarely been that way for Madonna. She’s been attacked for the entirety of her career, for nonsensical reasons. Madonna was celebrating her sexuality, her own body back in the ’80s and being slammed by the media — called all sorts of demeaning and misogynistic names. The New York Post, for example, had the headline “What a Tramp” covering their frontpage. It was as gross then as it is now.
Madonna never backed down. Not for a minute. The 1990 single “Justify My Love” was basically a recorded orgasm, a slow build framed by expertly executed electronic precision. The outcry was deafening — and that’s before we even get to the video. How dare Madonna be in control of her own body and behavior!
When “Justify My Love” dropped, her intimate exchanges with a Jesus figure in the video for “Like a Prayer” (1989) was still fresh in the psyche of people determined to hammer the confidence out of her. They kept trying and keep trying. It doesn’t work.
Returning to the “multifaceted” Madame X concept, that’s something else Madonna has been criticized for to a deafening degree. Thankfully, it’s also something that her loyal fans love her for — her chameleon-like ability to switch between genres effortlessly. She’s been accused of bandwagon-jumping due to her desire to keep her finger on the pulse. It’s bullshit.
Let’s be clear. David Bowie was a rare talent and he was also a sponge. He soaked up everything that was going on and then did his own thing with it. Now, Madonna isn’t Bowie because nobody is. But she essentially goes down the same path and catches a lot more shit for it.
The LGBTQ+ community has long embraced, even worshipped, Madonna and there are many reasons for this. Larger than life pop icons always receive love there. But perhaps they see someone who is roundly criticized for being true to herself and thus see one of their own.
It also doesn’t hurt that Madonna has long proven herself to be an ally. She’s been outspoken in her support for LGBTQ+ causes and people of color. She may not have always worded everything perfectly — it’s undoubtedly possible to go back and pick statements apart. But she’ll stand up for anyone when she feels there’s injustice.
Broken Baby (photo: Anthony Mehlhaff)
The brilliant L.A. glam-punk-pop band, Broken Baby recently tackled the hypocrisy with the single “Madonna’s a Dick”:
“Yeah Madonna’s a dick, Yeah that woman’s a bitch, Oh she’s just a slut, ’Cause she gets what she wants. But if she were a dude, And she was giving that attitude, They’d probably give her a raise, She’d be the president of the United States, Yeah, Madonna’s a dick!”
It’s a fantastic song, soaked in sarcasm, making clear the point that society says women aren’t supposed to behave the way that Madonna behaves. Men? Sure. Boy band members have been grinding their mic stands for decades and parents barely blinked. But women owning their sexuality? That’s still more taboo. The mere idea that women enjoy sex as much as men do is a grotesque concept to many. Owning it, displaying it publicly? That’s a no-no to the puritanical masses.
The good news is that Madonna will not bow down. She continues to march forward, smashing walls to allow others an easier path in her wake. Her career is one that, when we eventually look back on it, the importance of cannot be overstated.
So back to the Madame X film, we urge you to focus when you watch it (and you should watch it). We see Madonna/Madame X typing at a desk while footage of the George Floyd protests play behind her. But not only that: gun control, women’s rights, gay rights, it’s all there.
When she encores with “Like a Prayer” it’s a reminder that Madonna has always courted controversy to make her point. It’s an effective weapon. And when she ends the show with the defiant “I Will Rise”, marching through the crowd with her fist in the air, it’s a clear sign that Madonna will always stand for what she believes to be right.
She’ll always disturb the peace. Never change, Madonna!