The pop icon showcased her four-decade legacy in maximal fashion at a packed Wells Fargo Center this week.
As her setlist approached 20 songs deep, Madonna stopped down Thursday night’s performance at Wells Fargo Center to check in with the audience. “Are you still with me, Philly?” she hollered, to fervent cheers from the packed house. “I’m trying to tell you my life story here. It’s a lot to fit into two hours.”
As things shook out, the performance clocked two hours and fifteen minutes, and hit on the breadth of the chameleonic pop icon’s four-decade career, from Burning Up to Bitch I’m Madonna. As the night opened, the autobiographical intentions of the Celebration Tour were clearly outlined, with master of ceremonies Bob The Drag Queen (in a flowing and ornate Marie Antionette gown) narrating a rapid-fire visual montage of news clips and vintage photos on many screens draped around the arena. Atop a grid of catwalks crisscrossing the floor, Madonna and a squad of dancers strutted their stuff to a run of her early 80s material.
The music mostly moved chronologically forward as the night went on, with a central riser at the end of the arena re-creating various environments, from Manhattan nightclubs Danceteria and CBGBs to lavish modernist dance warehouses and Fashion Week style runways to, well, church. But to look at this production as her Eras Tour is a mischaracterization; it is focused as much as it’s freewheeling, intimate as much as it’s opulent, with blockbuster hits sitting alongside less-expected deep cuts, broken up several times along the way with stunning theatrical set-pieces.
It was loud, bombastic, and confrontational, from the heap of bodies writhing mid-catwalk as the sexy grind of Justify My Love soundtracked the scene, to the ominous cult-y shrouds and totems filling the stage on Like A Prayer, drawing a vague but nonetheless poignant through-line from institutional religion to societal oppression.
It was heavy and emotional, too: on the gripping power ballad Live To Tell from True Blue, those aforementioned projection drapes were filled with cycling images of folks, mostly artists, who passed away from HIV/AIDS: dancer Alvin Ailey, rapper Eazy-E, painter Keith Harring, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, actress Cookie Mueller. (If this seemed a touch exploitative, it’s worth remembering that many of these were the faces of people Madonna knew, and that she used her celebrity for advocacy and allyship going back to the late 80s.)
It was, as Madonna acknowledged, a lot, and not without its imperfections. Her voice could come across raw and rugged, especially at the beginning of the set; more often, though, it soared in glorious melodies, like we heard on Crazy For You. Her dancing wasn’t quite the same as we might remember from the Truth or Dare documentary; still, she leapt into the fray of the night’s choreography fearlessly, sometimes acting as a compliment to the dance team around her as it took on the heavier lifting, but often stepping out on her own with breathless moves and pantomimes this writer certainly could not manage.
Even acknowledging these moments of humanity in the context of a review feels mildly problematic, since so much of the conversation around Madonna (historically, as well as this promo cycle) is frontloaded with vilification and criticism. How much have you heard about the exaggerated “three-hour wait” on this tour? Was the show’s start time the first thing you wanted this review to tell you? 10:01 p.m., if you must know, a half hour after an opening set from DJ Honey Dijon concluded (shouts to them for spinning the badass house remix of McFadden and Whitehead’s Ain’t No Stopping Us Now btw). The whole “wait” narrative was not Philly’s experience, nor is it the experience of somebody who goes to more than one concert per year, and that’s just one of the non-story talking points that’s driven this tour rollout. (We don’t need to get into others, truly.)
Point being: the intense level of scrutiny celebrities receive is staggering, that level is even more intense when you’re a celebrity who happens to not be a man, and one who’s been in the spotlight for generations no less. This is something that’s hammered home — without much subtlety, but with grace all the same — though interview clips of Madonna’s voice interspersed into the night: how women are made to feel that aging is a sin, how after a career of controversy around uninhibited sexuality, “the most controversial thing I can do is stick around.”
Which is why packaging this run as a legacy tour succeeds so much. And it’s not just her creative legacy — she showcased her family in the production, from a stunning photo of her mother hanging from the rafters on American Life‘s Mother and Father to several of her children taking the stage. Her son David, 18, played guitar at various moments — including a Prince homage in the aftermath of Like a Prayer. Her daughter Estere, 11, struck poses and worked the crowd as both DJ and walkoff dancer amid the Ballroom scene setpiece during an extended Vogue. On a sublime version of Bad Girl, her daughter Mercy, 18, played a grand piano while Madonna perched atop.
That last song too showed how “legacy” doesn’t just need mean the best-known stuff; indeed, it was a baller move to craft a two-plus hour Madonna setlist that didn’t include Borderline, Dress You Up, Take A Bow, or Material Girl (the latter is kind of soaked in 80s cheese anyway) but did include subtler moments like Erotica, Bedtime Story, and Die Another Day. But the highest highs of the Celebration tour were the ones that wholeheartedly invited the audience in. The high-octane dance of Express Yourself imagined as a vulnerable singalong that the Wells Fargo Center gladly lent its voices to as Madonna played acoustic guitar. The pop star soaring across the venue in an enclosed platform to the trancey pulse of Ray Of Light. And, most powerfully, a show-stopping rendition of Rain that brought the night to a euphoric peak of both drama and earnest emotion.
It’s a lot to fit in. But it totally works.