You might have thought Madonna was not a singer but a professional footballer judging by the talk before she took to the stage at the Palladium last Wednesday night. She’d missed ten out of 93 appearances, and she’d been picking up the kind of niggling injuries — would her knees stand up to the strains of a long, hard season? How’s her hip? — associated with hard-running midfielders. Just as in the Premier League, there were gripes about ticket prices — go on Ticketmaster and they range from £69 to £511.50 (yes, there are tickets available throughout the run; you’ve got until 16 February to see her). The only thing missing was burly blokes in the crowd showering those around them with spittle as they bellowed, ‘Second ball, Madonna! Win the bloody second ball!’
In the event, she missed her London debut on the last Monday of January, and so what was meant to be the second night became the first. And you’ve never seen such a peculiar thing in your life: the Madame X show was dazzling and nonsensical in equal measure, an arena production crammed into a theatre, where half-baked politics and seaside-postcard bawdiness sat side by side (think of it as The End of Wigan Pier), and where every moment of brilliance, of which there were several, was then neutralised by momentum-sapping interludes as the stage was reset or Madonna interacted with the crowd (which didn’t work, because the fans she interacted with were plainly so gobsmacked at being allowed to address Her Majesty that they literally couldn’t think of anything to say).
The high points were so high, though. Her 1998 single Frozen — a dark and strange and mysterious thing even as it was a smash hit — was slightly musically recast to dispense with the drum’n’bass-ish rhythms that now date it a little. On a translucent screen, her daughter Lourdes danced and writhed in giant form, mimicking the original video, while behind Madonna appeared wreathed in darkness, as if suspended in mid-air. It was an astounding staging for a quite brilliant song, and the link between mother and daughter gave it true emotional heft. Tracks from the slightly underwhelming Madame X album made up most of the show, and the best of them gained new life: Crazy, in which Madonna returned to her time-honoured theme of refusing to be anyone’s puppet — slapping away the hands of the male dancers trying to grope her — was dramatic and compelling.
But the very nature of the show exposed the weaknesses of the worst of them. I tend not to have sympathy for those who sneer at Emma Thompson, or whoever, for flying to climate protests — we’re all hypocrites in one way or another, as any law’n’order zealot who goes above 70 should accept. But there was something jarring about Madonna singing Killers Who Are Partying to people who had paid 500 quid a ticket: ‘I will be poor, if the poor are humiliated/ And I’ll be a child, if the children are exploited.’ Maybe the solidarity would count for more if the poor could afford to get in?
You can expect to see more of this kind of show in the coming years, where the big star checks in to a small room for extended runs at bank account-emptying prices. Bruce Springsteen’s 236-show run on Broadway grossed $113 million across 2017 and 2018, and Madonna’s promoter, Arthur Fogel of Live Nation, told me last year, discussing the Madame X tour: ‘I think the Springsteen run has opened up people to that potential.’ Thirty-five years ago Madonna and Springsteen were sparring at the top of the charts. Now they’re inventing new ways for superstars to play live. And still making fortunes.