Madonna Remains a Prickly Pop Disruptor at Moody Center

First of two nights drives home Madge’s four-decade ubiquity

Madonna at Moody Center on April 14 on her Celebration Tour, which did not allow photographers or provide images (Photos by Carys Anderson)

About two hours into the first of two Austin stops on her Celebration Tour, an exasperated Madonna explained to the Moody Center on Sunday the reasoning for her retrospective show: “I’m trying to tell you the story of my life.”

Not through words. She’d tried that earlier, when she introduced a spooky dancer wearing a mannequin-like mask, who was meant to stand in for the Madonna of years’ past. Deeming the crowd’s interest in the artsy installation unsatisfactory, she sighed, “Do you know what a metaphor is?”

When words failed, the Queen of Pop better traversed her history with spectacle, sexuality, and self-assuredness.

When words failed, the Queen of Pop better traversed her history with spectacle, sexuality, and self-assuredness. After all, those were the tools that sustained a four-decade-long career. And as for lost metaphors, perhaps that muted crowd welcome originated from a challenging lead-up.

Venue information advertised an 8:30pm start time, but that really cued the beginning of a DJ set by opener Honey Dijon. Unmoved by a recent lawsuit claiming her late starts constitute “unconscionable, unfair, and/or deceptive trade practices,” Madonna appeared, after a lively introduction by announcer Bob the Drag Queen, at 10:30pm. And, yes – despite complaints at other shows, the AC was off, giving the spacious, usually frigid basketball arena the sweltering feel of a packed nightclub.

Thankfully, Madonna followed up with confidence. “By the end of the show, you’ll be impressed by me,” she swore, and moved on, kicking into “Into the Groove” and “Holiday.”

Following those initial classics, Madonna often opted to mix several songs, relying heavily on interpolations and abridged versions to check every hit off the setlist. This shortening offered some disappointments: “Material Girl” was relegated to an instrumental opening song, a few notes of “Papa Don’t Preach” came and went without vocals, and “Music” was skipped altogether. Rather than singing “Like a Virgin” herself, Madge paired the studio recording with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” for an Eighties-MTV costume change interlude.

These mashups at least highlighted the singer’s continuing eye for elaborate set design – and her troupe of dancers, who, of course, were all women, queer people, and people of color. Monks and (brown) Jesuses adorned the rotating stage during “Like a Prayer,” while blue lasers created three boxing rings for an “Erotica” medley. During the 1995 trance track “Bedtime Story” (notably co-written by Björk), Madonna – who at turns wore long waves, a bleached Blond Ambition-era bob, and a pink wig – boxed herself in between four green-screen walls, which made it look like she was swimming through cyberspace.

The original gay icon seemed happier to get raunchy with her ragtag live crew than interact with her audience. Combining “Erotica” with “Justify My Love,” the ABBA-sampling “Hung Up,” and “Bad Girl,” the singer surrounded herself with a handful of women in suits, who quickly removed their jackets to dance completely topless. She flashed her biggest smile of the night during highlight “Vogue,” which broke down into a ballroom section where she and the night’s special guest, Drag Race alum Trixie Mattel, acted as judges – and recipients of simulated oral sex.

More than hired guns, Madame X’s team also featured three of her children, including 18-year-old Mercy, on piano; 18-year-old David, on guitar; and 11-year-old Estere, who DJ’d before voguing along with the dancers.

The singer’s LGTBQIA allyship continued when she turned 1986’s “Live to Tell” into a tribute to those lost during the AIDS epidemic. As she sang the ballad, drop-down screens projected the faces of departed figures like Keith Haring, Freddie Mercury, and Eazy-E. Later, wearing a pride flag like a cape, she stood next to a sidekick whose bare back spelled out the singer’s longtime slogan in big black letters: “No Fear.”

Heavy cosmetic surgery and a tour-postponing health scare in 2023 inspired conversations about Madonna’s well-being. Onstage, the 65-year-old, wearing a knee brace, admitted, “I’m tired tonight,” and left the most intricate choreography to her dancers. Though some tracks were pitched down to adapt to live vocals, the singer’s backing tracks were clearly mixed higher than her microphone throughout the show. Still, she sang alone during an acoustic performance of “Express Yourself,” which she strummed while donning a brown corset and cowboy hat.

As if to prove that – yes, everything the pop girlies are doing today, Madonna did first – the singer preceded it with her own country song, “Don’t Tell Me,” which dates back to 2000.

The show ended with EDM number “Bitch I’m Madonna,” where a slew of dancers drove home the artist’s ubiquity by wearing her most iconic outfits – including her “Like a Virgin” wedding dress and A League of Their Own baseball uniform. After the final trap beats rang out, she unceremoniously disappeared below the stage, no encore in sight.

“Ray of Light” – which Madonna sang just two songs prior, moving through the air in a box above the crowd like a go-go dancer – would’ve made for a more triumphant closer. Still, wrapping up just shy of 1am, the Celebration Tour proved a sufficiently ecstatic trip through the decades. Late in the game, a video compiled 40 years of the singer’s controversies, splicing clips of naysayers with shots of all the pop stars who have followed in her footsteps.

Though her impromptu dialogue didn’t always land, one soundbite reverberating in the video summed up all of Madonna’s musings: “I think the most controversial thing I’ve ever done is to stick around.”

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More Madonna
Live to Tell
Live to Tell
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Madonna, Celebration Tour, Honey Dijon, Trixie Mattel, Moody Center, Bob the Drag Queen

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