One Michael Jackson misstep aside, this show is worthy of celebration.
“I didn’t think I’d make it,” Madonna tells fans at the sold-out O2 Arena on the first night of her Celebration World Tour. “I forgot five days of my life… or my death.” Four months after being struck down with a life-threatening bacterial infection, the Queen of Pop returns to the stage in vigorous form, strumming a version of I Will Survive on her acoustic guitar and punching her way through four decades of hits, from the shimmering synths of her 1983 UK breakthrough, Holiday, to the cocky grind of 2015’s B**** I’m Madonna.
She credits her children with bringing her through the illness and both her daughters appear on stage alongside her. Lourdes, 27, who recently admitted she struggles with her mother’s controlling parenting, laughs as the pair pretend to judge a voguing competition. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Mercy James perches confidently at the grand piano, splashing her classically disciplined keyboard skills over her mum’s 1992 ballad Bad Girl.
This show – loosely compéred by Bob the Drag Queen, dressed in full Marie Antoinette crinoline regalia – was conceived while Madonna was working on her biopic. It makes sense, then, that an autobiographical theme emerges across the evening. The jumbo screen behind Madonna throws up photographs of her father and mother, the latter of whom died of breast cancer when the singer was just five. In an old interview clip, Madonna reminds us that she’d have given up all her hard-won success to have her mum back.
In light of her recent health scare, these moments can feel like watching her life flash before our eyes. I’ve sat through a couple of Madonna’s more robotic stadium shows in the past, feeling as though I was bearing witness to a seven-figure PowerPoint presentation from Brand Madonna. But at 65, the woman who once sang of wanting to “conquer and deliver and despise” the world has a renewed appetite for human connection.
Between songs, she relays anecdotes of her hard-scrabble pre-fame life in the Big Apple; at one point she’d been so poor she didn’t have access to a decent bathroom and had exchanged “blow jobs for showers”. Then she plugged us back into her punk roots, recalling how she once stood on the stage of New York’s iconic music club CBGBs while thrashing out a rackety version of her 1983 single Burning Up. The O2’s sound system failed during the song, but the hitch – which the singer shrugged off – only added to the vintage vibe.
The show’s high point arrives courtesy of an achingly beautiful rendition of 1986’s Live to Tell, during which Madonna floats above our heads as the screens fill with images of the many talented gay men lost to the Aids epidemic, including Keith Haring and Martin Burgoyne. These were her dear friends – and as Mary Gabriel’s huge new biography of Madonna attests, their deaths devastated her. It is a deeply moving acknowledgement of the community in which she learned her signature moves, the same community that continues to hold her aloft today. She gets into a boxing ring to deliver Erotica (1992) – reminding us that the freedom to choose who we love was a real fight. It’s a shame so few young people appear to be in the audience tonight because this is a show that proves Madonna still matters.
Speaking to the women and gay men in the crowd, I hear stories of how the “unapologetic b****” had given them the confidence to defy restricting cultural taboos. Madonna had made them feel powerful, sexy, and autonomous. One 52-year-old woman from Holland spent months sewing beaded tributes to the singer onto a black blazer because “Madonna means EVERYTHING to me”. A 55-year-old gay man from Paris behind me had forked out £800 for two tickets. His slightly younger friend admitted that “Lady Gaga took it further for me, but I do understand Madonna did it all first…” We should, of course, be grateful that young gay men no longer need to look to women to represent them. “We’ve got amazing people like Lil Nas X – who’s Black and gay – centre stage for us now,” he continues. “And non-binary stars like Sam Smith.”
Speaking of Smith, the musician’s 2023 single Unholy is cleverly incorporated into the show, mixed into Like a Prayer: the sinuous curves of Smith’s melody winding their sultry way through the choral blast of Madonna’s anthem. As the tour was created in collaboration with Stuart Price (who wove 2005 single Hung Up out of an ABBA sample), I was expecting more mash-ups such as this.
Admittedly, however, it is a mash-up – this one using samples from Michael Jackson – that is responsible for one of the evening’s odder moments. Madonna famously – and awkwardly – dated the late “King of Pop”. I know she’s got form mixing the groove of Jackson’s Billie Jean (1983) with her own Like a Virgin (1984) but watching Madonna’s silhouette dance with Jackson’s on the big screen feels uncomfortable. Lines about being “touched for the very first time” seem poorly chosen, given the allegations of paedophilia made against Jackson.
Madonna is on safer ground when she speaks of the suffering in the Middle East, as she offers sympathy to both the Israeli and Palestinian people. “Even though our hearts are broken, our spirits cannot be broken,” she says. “You feel hopeless, you feel helpless, right?” But, she adds, we can “unite from a place of light and love… we can change the world and we can bring peace”. While popstar speeches don’t end wars, they can remind us of the possibility of hope in the darkness.
Tonight, Madonna offers wave after wave of hope and joy to her fans. They throw their hands in the air to the trancey Ray of Light (1998) and they cheer as dancers parade a sequence of the star’s iconic costumes across the stage. One embraces Madonna on a double bed wearing the Gaultier-designed conical-breasted corset during a brief sample of Papa Don’t Preach (1986).
She makes us feel young as she bops to Into the Groove before playing a snatch of the 2016 Billboard Awards speech in which she spoke out against ageism in the industry, telling us that “the most controversial thing I’ve done is to stick around”. In doing so, she continues to inspire fans to hang onto their own fire; to refuse to give up or shut up. We should never forget how much Madonna changed the world – hers is a life and a legacy worth celebrating.