Less of a greatest hits show, and more artist’s memoir in gig form.
“Age is a sin. I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around,” boomed an archive recording of Madonna towards the end of The Celebration as an onslaught of misogynist headlines, doubting critics, and Nineties footage of Cher branding her “mean” collaged themselves across The O2.
Over the course of her forty years in pop, it’s certainly true that Madonna has ruffled a few feathers. From being condemned by the Vatican, to being threatened with arrest by the Canadian police for simulating masturbation on a velvet bed during the Blond Ambition tour, few other pop stars are as provocative, and one of the best things about Madonna is how much she clearly enjoys prompting a bit of pearl clutching.
Little has changed in this regard when it comes to this run of retrospective shows at The O2; opening night incorporated writhing masses of bodies, rings of fire, oily-torsoed dancers crucified on a spinning carousel, half-nude dancers, and a variation on the famous bed sequence for a snippet of Papa Don’t Preach. This time, she shared it with a companion wearing a flesh-coloured latex mask, who appeared as a foil to the star frequently during the show.
Often, the set was peppered with these kinds of throwbacks; for opener Nothing Really Matters, she appeared in a replica Gaultier kimono in a nod to the original music video. Her famous cone bra corset also made a return, alongside Stetsons, glimmering gowns, mirrored Versace jumpsuits, and a total of 17 archive looks.
Elsewhere, Madonna was joined by a number of her children on-stage; Mercy played piano for Bad Girl, while Lourdes and Estere took part in a ballroom segment during Vogue. Stella was among the line dancers, and her son David played guitar on Mother & Father.
Midway through, Madonna told the audience that wanting to be there for her children saved her life following a bacterial infection that left her in intensive care earlier this year: “I didn’t think I was going to make it”. She also referenced the current war in Israel and Gaza: “Even though our hearts are broken, our spirits cannot be broken,” she said.
Despite being widely billed as a greatest hits set, it felt more like an artist’s memoir in live show form, with some left-field set choices including the trancey Björk collab Bedtime Stories, live rarity and Erotica ballad Rain, and the divisive Bond theme Die Another Day.
Debut album cut Burning Up was staged as a tribute to her first live performance at New York dive bar CBGB, Holiday saw her skipping into a recreation of the influential disco club Paradise Garage, and Don’t Tell Me recreated the music video’s iconic line-dancing routine step-for-step. Against black and white photographs of some of her late friends, including Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe, Live to Tell became a moving tribute to “all the bright lights we lost from AIDs” and a stand-out moment of the night.
There were also a few hiccups. A completely pre-recorded rendition of Like A Virgin, interpolated with Billie Jean, served as an incredibly puzzling tribute to Michael Jackson. Though the narrative of the show, a journey through Madonna’s life, started out strong, it weakened and became more confused as time went on.
Technical difficulties early on also forced Madonna to muddle her way through a prolonged bout of stand-up for almost ten minutes: “this is exactly what you don’t want to happen on your opening night,” she joked. Credit to her for sticking it out, here’s hoping the hold-up isn’t the reason why Cherish, Frozen, and Borderline all missed out on making the setlist.
Still, it frankly wouldn’t be a proper Madonna show without a few surprise jokes about trading sexual favors for hot showers early in her career, nor a couple of musical curveballs. Forty years at the top of pop, and she’s still unpredictable as ever.
Madonna’s Celebration Tour continues at The O2 until October 18.