It’s a show unlike any other I’ve seen: a spectacle so wild and zany that I can’t quite believe it actually happened.
For 40 years, Madonna has been having to prove herself: from hustling around New York’s nightclubs as a teenager to defending herself against a sexist, ageist society, her career has been one long middle finger to the word “No”.
As her Celebration tour kicked off in London after being delayed by a serious health scare, she roamed the stage with the same brassy attitude that has got her to where she is, proving over and over that she deserves it all.
It is a dazzlingly chaotic show. Feverish and sultry, theatrical and considered, shambolic and pristine all at once.
Condensing four decades of wildly disparate hits into a two-hour performance complete with skits makes the whole thing a bit less “greatest hits” and a bit more “Madonna: This Is Your Life“, referencing iconic Madonna moments and outfits, and contextualising her older songs back into the times they came from.
Take the transition from the frothy pop nothingness of Holiday into Live To Tell: she disappeared behind a huge mirrorball as the dying strains of Holiday echoed away like a flashback in a movie. A dancer collapsed and “died” in front of her and she tenderly covered him with a trenchcoat before performing True Blue’s greatest ballad from a floating box while huge screens show the pictures of hundreds of people lost to the AIDS crisis. It was one of the most moving pop performances I’ve ever seen. Later, she returned to the flying box in a silver catsuit for a raging club rendition of Ray of Light.
This dichotomy between the serious and the silly was pure Madonna and it worked over and over again throughout the performance. It was littered by chatty speeches, stories from her life and comments on, for example, the atrocities occurring in Gaza.
The threat of mortality hung over a show that seemed, in hindsight, to be such a celebration of life, it was basically flipping off death. Madonna almost didn’t make it to these shows at all – she was found unresponsive over the summer and spent weeks in hospital. “I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she told the O2 audience, describing waking up surrounded by her children with five days of her life completely missing.
Her difficulties moving were cleverly disguised: her dancers were incredible, writhing sweatily around her – Erotica into Justify My Love was almost unbearably sexy. Inevitably, some favourites didn’t make the cut and some were engineered into frustrating snippets or annoyingly interpolated with modern hits – or, in the case of Like a Prayer, both.
Was there any need to cut Sam Smith and Kim Petras’s thumping megasmash Unholy into the perfect song? No. But Madonna is going to do what Madonna is going to do: nothing is off limits. She will throw gasoline on a bonfire of her best music in pursuit of the perfect moment: she will wring every possible moment of drama from every song.
As the show wore on, its own chaos threatened to overwhelm it. By the final act, Madonna was surrounded by dancers dressed as Madonna Through The Ages, offering up tribute to Michael Jackson and flashing up photos of fairly random dead icons, crowing Bitch I’m Madonna over and over, and the energy was so intense it felt like a riot could break out at any second.
It’s a show unlike any other I’ve seen: a spectacle so wild and zany that I can’t quite believe it actually happened. We’re so lucky that Madonna realised from day one that she was Madonna. Long may she reign