When Madonna first addressed her 20,000-strong audience at the O2 Arena in London, it was with a joke about blowjobs. She’d just choked on her own saliva, she shared, and we all know how that can be… “Can I say naughty and provocative things?” Despite all the lingerie and snogging of backing dancers, there is no longer much that’s shocking about the Queen of Pop – except, perhaps, that she’s here. The North American leg of her Celebration tour was postponed this summer when she was admitted to intensive care with a bacterial infection, and she is tonight, at 65, sporting a knee brace. At one point she stands alone, strumming a guitar, and covers Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. “Did you think I’d crumble?/Did you think I’d lay down and die?” she sang, before pausing to ask, “Did you?”
The show started – late, due to technical difficulties, for the second night in a row – with a spoken-word skit by Bob the Drag Queen, a winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, about how Madonna arrived in New York City in 1978 with $35 in her pocket. “Holiday” is staged in a recreation of the Eighties Manhattan nightclub Paradise Garage; in a sketch beforehand the bouncer refuses Madonna entry because she’s not famous enough. “Live to Tell” becomes a eulogy to nightlife legends – Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe – lost to the Aids epidemic.
There are plenty of Easter eggs for megafans clad in conical bras, but any suggestion of a narrative arc is left in the 1980s. There’s a lot of the religious iconography for which Madonna was once condemned by the pope. In “Like a Prayer”, men in loin cloths are suspended as if crucified. The minutes of a costume change are filled with dancers dressed like Dune extras performing while Madonna’s disembodied voice reads from Revelations. During “Erotica”, she enters a boxing ring of lasers, while dancers wearing sequined gloves faux-fight; for “Don’t Tell Me”, Stetsons come out. Five of her children join her on stage, Lourdes helping her judge a staged drag ball during “Vogue”, Mercy accompanying her mother on the piano for “Bad Girl”. What Celebration lacks in cohesion, it makes up for in numbers.
This is Madonna’s first greatest hits tour, and a reminder of just how many hits there have been. She rattles through at least 25, though the delayed start robs us of “Like a Virgin”. The show instead ends before the scheduled fifth act, with “Rain” – an oddly quiet conclusion to a night of outsized spectacle.
This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts