The pop maverick’s new live set offers a guided tour through her musical history without feeling like a museum exhibition.
At Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour, you wear silver, as decreed by the queen. At the Eras tour, you don an outfit that corresponds to your favorite chapter of Taylor Swift’s career. At Madonna’s Celebration tour, which opened in London last weekend, the crowd’s costumes were decidedly more muted, but no less devotional. A quick scan revealed that a good deal of the audience—mostly middle-aged women and gay men—was wearing T-shirts from past Madonna tours: rare Girlie Show relics from 1993, brightly-colored tees sold on 2006’s Confessions tour, hugely coveted Blond Ambition bomber jackets that date back 33 years. Much of this vintage merch was threadbare and faded—but worn with ecstatic pride.
The shirts made for an appropriate uniform given the show’s unspoken central theme: I’m still kicking. Madonna’s first arena tour in seven years lived up to its name, as a celebration of both her remarkable artistry and of the fact that, yes, she’s still singing and dancing, despite almost all her contemporaries being retired, dead, or relegated to the oldies circuit. The 65-year-old nearly died earlier this year, after a bacterial infection landed her in the hospital; while she didn’t address her illness directly at Tuesday night’s show, she did seem earnestly grateful to see 20,000 adoring fans staring back at her. “Thanks for hanging in there for me, I appreciate it,” she said, before snapping back into Madonna mode: “Now enough of this sentimental bullshit.”
When the Celebration tour was announced, it seemed like a capitulation, at long last, to those wishing for a cut-and-dry greatest hits set—something that Madonna seemingly views as a fate worse than death, given her prickly relationship with her own legacy. In reality, the show was far more complicated and curated: While it wasn’t lacking in beloved classics, it often came across like Madonna’s attempt to relitigate the trajectory of her own career, which has experienced more peaks and valleys than nearly any other performer of her ilk. The biggest hits of each of her records were often eschewed for other singles that weren’t as commercially dominant: Ray of Light’s Nothing Really Matters instead of Frozen; Into the Groove and Burning Up but no Borderline or Material Girl; Bedtime Story and Rain but no Take a Bow, her longest-running U.S. chart-topper.
It would be hard to come away from Celebration feeling shortchanged, though. Madonna’s voice arguably sounded the best it has since Ray of Light, when she had undergone rigorous vocal training for Evita. She glided above ballads like Human Nature and Crazy for You, yodeled through Ray of Light, and didn’t miss a beat on any of her ’80s material, recorded when her voice was markedly higher.
The set was filled with guests, all of them in complete reverence of the woman whose name was on the flag flying high above the O2 Arena. Diplo received a lap dance from a male dancer and judged a drag ball with Madonna during Vogue. Three of Madonna’s children appeared: Mercy, playing grand piano on Bad Girl; David, playing guitar on Mother and Father; and 11-year-old Estere, who received rapturous applause as she vogued and held her own alongside the professionals during Don’t Tell Me.
The show opened with the night’s MC, Drag Race winner and comedian Bob the Drag Queen, dressed in full Madonna-as-Marie-Antoinette regalia. Bob proceeded to remind the audience of their hero’s humble origins—arriving in New York on a bus from Detroit with $35 in her pocket—and of just how much culture she’s shifted over the intervening 40 years: “She taught us a lot over the years: She taught us how to dance, she taught us how to express ourselves, she taught us how to party, and she taught us how to fuck.”
The rest of the show felt like an Architectural Digest walkthrough of the Madonna archives, as she shimmied across three catwalks, stepping into sets that echoed past tours and iconic moments. The circular main stage occasionally rose to three tiers, in a nod to her scandalous Like a Virgin performance from 1984; at one point, she sat next to a dancer dressed like ’80s Madonna (“I keep her always in my heart… I’m gonna go over here and give her a hug, because she went through it”) and at another she laid down with a dancer wearing a Blond Ambition-era cone bra. In the show’s spectacular final moments, dozens of Madonnas flooded the stage, from Erotica-era dominatrix Madge to the pink-leotarded Hung Up iteration, all dancing along to the underrated Rebel Heart cut Bitch I’m Madonna, which was co-produced by SOPHIE.
Throughout, Madonna was careful to throw in reminders of just how influential she’s been: The hook of Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ Unholy introduced Like a Prayer (an insane tonal jump); before Hung Up, Madonna “FaceTimed” the Gen Z Dominican star Tokischa, who rapped a few bars of their collaborative remix of the song before Madonna performed the real thing; and a video montage featured old clips of stars like Ariana Grande and Beyoncé speaking about the impact of her career. In the past, Madonna’s moments of legacy-affirmation could be outright mean—see her MDNA tour performance of Express Yourself that worked Lady Gaga’s Born This Way into a track titled, ahem, She’s Not Me—but these nods didn’t feel like they were score-settling or bratty.
Madonna’s shows are known for being meticulous and highly conceptual, but this bricolage of past styles and aesthetics made Celebration feel unusually scrappy. That ramshackle quality was also the show’s greatest strength, allowing for brilliant choreographed moments, like a recreation of the dance from the Don’t Tell Me video, alongside Madonna’s trademark vaudevillian raunch (making out with one of her topless female dancers after Hung Up) and sections that felt off-the-cuff. She shredded and noodled her way through Burning Up on electric guitar, as images of CBGB flashed in the background, turning a 40-year-old song into something punchy and galvanizing. And throughout the show, the often-imperious star looked to be having as much fun as anyone in the crowd, cracking jokes with her dancers, bantering with Bob, and giggling as she, blindfolded and dressed in lingerie, was guided up and down the catwalk during Hung Up.
For all the festivities, the show didn’t shy away from an aspect of Madonna’s career that’s become more and more clear over the past 20 years: The life of a trailblazer is a solitary one. She performed the wounded 2003 track Mother and Father, about the death of her mother and subsequent alienation from her father, with her son David; the song is reviled by fans for its middle-eight rap, but I find it to be one of the most shattering songs in her entire oeuvre, and this performance captured all its icy, grief-stricken anger.
As she sang Live to Tell, from 1986’s True Blue, the arena was filled with large screens bearing the names and faces of those lost to AIDS. Floating above the crowd in a silver frame, Madonna gazed at the faces of cultural icons like Keith Haring, Arthur Ashe, and Cookie Mueller, sometimes looking genuinely distraught. The scene telegraphed an almost-uncomfortable sense of loneliness; Madonna is often championed as one of the only celebrities brave enough to speak about the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s, and this was a moment that showed the flipside of that coin with stark sobriety. At other points, she paid tribute to her late pop peers, Michael Jackson and Prince. These constant reminders of death created a sense of immense gratitude, both from Madonna to the audience and vice-versa. What could have been one of the show’s most wan moments—an acoustic cover of I Will Survive—was met with raucous approval. “Did you think I’d lay down and die?” she sang. “No fucking way.”