Four songs into Madonna’s long-awaited Celebration Tour and a technical hitch gives her a chance to chat for a little longer than was probably planned.
She tells the crowd of her early days being “hungry, broke and scared” in New York, with a lack of support from her father, who wanted her to come back home.
“But I was not about to go back,” she declares. “Because I am not a quitter!”
You can say that again. Madonna has been many things to many people over her 40-year pop career – something this two-hour-plus, 40-odd song, multiple-costume-change telling of “the story of my life through music and dance” makes very clear. But throughout it all, she has always been an absolute trouper.
Most other performers would have balked at taking on a gruelling world tour less than four months after a stay in the ICU with a serious bacterial infection. Many more might have at least considered tempering the ambitious nature of an all-singing, all-dancing show that would be a physical challenge for any of today’s young pop megastars, let alone a 65-year-old pop veteran with strapping on her knee.
But not Madonna. After postponing the scheduled first leg, the tour finds itself starting – a mere 20 minutes late – at London’s O2 Arena, the very venue where, in 2015, she famously fell down the stairs after a cape malfunction at the BRIT Awards.
Those of us who were close enough to hear the thud as she hit the floor like a pole-axed prize fighter that night were amazed when she simply got back to her feet and got on with the show. And tonight, she metaphorically climbs off the canvas of that hospital stay to reclaim her pop heavyweight crown, a metaphor helpfully supported by the elaborate boxing set-up utilized during the lead-up to the show’s second act.
There are few signs that Madonna was fazed by the fraught run-up, let alone the lengthy “reset” required after her punky rip through Burning Up. She may sigh, “This is exactly what you don’t want to happen on your opening night,” but she simply gets her hype man Bob the Drag Queen up to tell jokes, while reminiscing about the days when she would trade “blowjobs for showers” in ‘80s NYC.
Tonight, the Madonna show goes on and, after that early hitch, it simply doesn’t stop, laying on spectacle after spectacle and show-stopper after show-stopper. With so many stages, set-ups and costume changes, you could probably catch this gig half a dozen times and still not spot everything (and many of this crowd, teetering on the brink of delirium ever since the Madonna pop-up store opened in the adjoining mall this morning, seem set to do just that).
And for once, Madonna – whose relentless commitment to the present and future of her music had always previously prevented her from playing the fantasy setlist her catalog seemed to be crying out for – is here to celebrate her four decades at the top with almost every song a fan – whether casual or obsessive – could dream of.
Furthermore, tonight she lays claim not just to her own history, but also to her influence on music and the wider world over the last 40 years. Not for nothing did the set start with Nothing Really Matters and its refrain of, “It all comes back to me”.
There are nods to her activism – including a passionate plea for peace between Israel and Palestine and tributes to those we have lost to AIDS – and her trailblazing, via a montage of negative news headlines and video footage from across her career. It’s a timely reminder that, in an age where anyone with a million streams that gets a new haircut can be hailed as “iconic,” Madonna really has achieved that status, over and over.
There are snippets of other people’s music throughout – a snatch of Sam Smith’s Unholy here or Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy there, plus a surprisingly poignant acoustic cover of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. Some of her children make on-stage cameos, and even her ex-husbands appear briefly on screen. There are tributes to Sinead O’Connor and, more controversially, Michael Jackson, via a dubious mash-up of Billie Jean with Like a Virgin.
But mostly, it’s about Madonna and her songs. Taylor Swift has undoubtedly crystalized the concept of musical ‘eras’ in the public consciousness, but Madonna is no slouch when it comes to giving each phase of her career a distinct look and sound.
And tonight, she flits seamlessly between different stages of her life, sometimes via a costume change, sometimes by climbing into an illuminated portal that sees her fly over the crowd on her way to another time and place.
From the joyous early ‘80s dance-pop of Get Into the Groove and Holiday; to big ballads such as Live to Tell and Bad Girl; to the raunch of Erotica (in which Madge gets to saucily, um, interact with her younger self via a lookalike in the iconic Blonde Ambition get-up) and Justify My Love; to the sheer, irresistible pizazz of Vogue, Don’t Tell Me, La Isla Bonita, Ray of Light, Hung Up, Like a Prayer and so many others; this show is proof that there is no such thing as too much Madonna.
True, the lack of a live band occasionally makes things lack a little punch (most notably on a glitchy Die Another Day). But overall, tonight shows that while – just like 40 years ago – Madonna still doesn’t know how to quit, boy has she learned how to come back.
“It’s been a crazy year,” she says, during a rare pause for breath. “I didn’t think I was going to make it and neither did my doctors.”
But thankfully, she did and, by the end, all the different iterations of Madonna from across the decades are on stage, the lookalikes hugging each other with delight during Bitch, I’m Madonna, while the real deal stays center stage and supremely focused.
Still dancing, still singing, still the one and only Madonna.