Madonna: Celebration Tour

Madonna’s Celebration Tour: A Forward-Thinking Retrospective

As much as Madonna’s Celebration Tour is a meditation on her mortality, it is also a love letter to her core LGBTQIA+ audience whose loyalty has never wavered.

The announcement of Madonna’s Celebration tour, her 12th to date, came in the form of a video. 

Five minutes of footage uploaded to YouTube in January 2023 captured the Queen of Pop holding court at a dinner party attended by a disparate cross-section of celebrities. Champagne, bottled water, and a dish of olives sit unconsumed as she orchestrates a game of Truth or Dare. Musician Diplo unzips his trousers, Madonna is instructed to tongue actor Jack Black, and comedian Amy Schumer uses an item at the table to demonstrate an intimate act with her husband. The pop culture matrix glitches infinitesimally as Madonna guest appears in her own Black Mirror episode (“San Junipero”, October 2016), at once new and yet very familiar.

Hers is a key scene in the history of pop’s original provocateur. A sequence from Alek Keshishian’s 1991 film, Madonna: Truth or Dare, the seminal documentary film immortalising her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, reimagined with famous friends standing in for dancers and backup singers, the original players of this “candid” game. The action is closely cribbed to whet the appetite of ardent fans, but this time, it culminates in Madonna being dared to go on a world tour performing her greatest hits. The Queen bows her head in mock contemplation before giving her answer: “F**k yeah.”

The concept of an artist filling a setlist with their biggest songs is hardly unusual. But for Madonna, who has never traded in the currency of nostalgia, she has largely avoided it. Bar one all-encompassing set for 2004’s Re-Invention tour, her shows have sprinkled delicious morsels from her hitlist amongst a slew of tracks from the new studio albums they were designed to promote. 

The Celebration tour, running from 14 October 2023 to 26 April 2024, is part of a wider moment of reflection for the woman who has shaped pop music for a mind-bending 40 years. As Madonna was recovering from hip replacement surgery in 2020, work began on a biopic of her life she intended to write and direct. (The project, optioned by Universal Pictures, remains in stasis). In August 2021, a deal was struck with Warner Music Group to reissue her catalogue, and a year later, the first fruits of this union, a remix compilation commemorating 50 Billboard Dance Club chart-toppers, 2022’s Finally Enough Love, was released. She also gave the royal blessing to a series of younger artists – Saucy Santana, Tokischa, Sickick – by collaborating on reworkings of some of her most recognisable singles. Mother was mothering, much to the ire of internet commentators.

In the months leading up to the tour, Madonna teased rehearsals on Instagram, each short video cut with quickfire pacing for maximum social media engagement. She was at the centre of the operation, an alternately snarky and sacerdotal leader whose physical commitment – always a hallmark of her stagecraft – was doubly impressive in her mid-60s.

But only a few weeks out from the scheduled opening night in July, she was found unresponsive in her New York home. It was an unsettling echo of Michael Jackson’s passing during the rehearsal period for his aborted Michael Jackson: This Is It residency at the O2 Arena in London (meant to be 50shows from 13 July 2009 to 6 March 2010) or the discovery of Prince’s body at Paisley Park shortly after his Piano & A Microphone tour ended in April 2016. Madonna was hospitalised in an intensive care unit for several days with a serious bacterial infection. The invincible Material Girl suddenly became very human.

When rehearsals resumed a mere six weeks afterward, it seemed impossible that the ambitious 70-plus-date tour could forge ahead. But on 14 October 2023 at London’s O2 Arena, MLVC (Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, the L now also standing for Lazarus) confidently executed a nearly two-and-a-half hour spectacle, reinvigorating the very format she pioneered. The North American leg of the tour eventually kicked off at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in December. It was a fitting and triumphant homecoming for a show that, according to the press release, “pays respect to the city of New York”.

Raised in Detroit, a 19-year-old Madonna moved to the Big Apple in the late s’eventies’70s with $35 in her pocket and a dogged determination to make it. This Cinderella-in-the-city tale forms part of the opening hype speech, performed by RuPaul’s Drag Race alumnus Bob the Drag Queen in a replica of Madonna’s Marie Antoinette outfit from her 1990 MTV Video Music Awards performance: a queen dressed as a queen dressed as queen. The meta wormhole that defines the show is established before Madonna is on stage.

Her entrance at 10.45 PM – Madonna’s understanding of time is notoriously different to us mere mortals – is a magic trick as she materialises out of the haze and rotates into view. Swathed in a black kimono with a bejewelled halo, she sings “Nothing Really Matters” from 1998’s Ray of Light album, its enlightened lyric of “looking at my life” taking on narratorial significance. The styling is a nod to the song’s Japanese-styled video and Madonna’s position as pop’s omnipotent deity, the undisputed grand dame of this realm. She turns an outstretched palm to the audience, revealing the sacred Sanskrit symbol Om on the inside of her lace glove, the same way she did in the video for “Frozen“. When the stage rises, the wedding cake structure recalls her “Like a Virgin” performance at the 1984 VMAs. It is a collision of iconography from across her career presented as a spiritual invocation, a prologue to The Life of Madonna.

The first act charts her early days chronologically. We time-travel back to 1982 for a rooftop party at Danceteria, a New York nightclub Madonna frequented. A supporting cast of post-punk misfits use flashlights to illuminate Madonna as she tears through her debut single, “Everybody” against the city’s skyline, one of many autobiographical Easter eggs. The detail seems lifted straight from her biopic screenplay, along with a scene where Bob the Drag Queen plays a bouncer who will not let her into a club. “What’s your name? Madeline, Macy?” he asks, surely the last time anyone would conceivably not know who she was.

An enormous disco ball accompanies the transcendent joy of “Holiday“, performed with every glorious synth stab and piano chord exactly as you remember it (Stuart Price, the producer of Madonna’s 2005 Confessions on a Dance Floor album, used multi-tracks of the original recordings to create the tour arrangements in lieu of a live band). The propulsive rhythm of the jubilant hit becomes an ominous heartbeat as a male dancer collapses. Madonna repeats the song’s title over and over in disbelief while the others flee. She removes her black trench coat and turns it inside out, exposing a colourful print by queer artist Keith Haring, one of her personal losses to AIDS. In a chilling gesture, she lays the coat over her dancer like a body bag. The party is over.

Madonna’s solemn voice rings out as she floats above the stage in a picture frame, surrounded by screens that unfurl to display black and white photographs from The AIDS Memorial. “I have a tale to tell…” Some faces are instantly recognisable such as Keith Haring, Freddie Mercury, Sylvester James Jr., Herb Ritts, and Robert Mapplethorpe – and others are not. The scale of them dwarfs Madonna as her 1986 ballad “Live to Tell” becomes a paean for the departed: “I was not ready for the fall/ Too blind to see the writing on the wall.” When the tour passed through Amsterdam, the date coincided with World AIDS Day. Madonna gave an impassioned speech to the audience:

Can you imagine what it was like in that time when being gay was considered sinful and disgusting? When suddenly the vast majority of the gay community started dropping like flies and people were dying everywhere? When I say they were dying everywhere, I’m not exaggerating. Every day I would wake up and hear a new story, a new friend. I’d be visiting someone new, I’d be sitting by their bedside watching them die… I’m not saying this because I want you to feel sorry for me. I want you to recognise how lucky you are right now to be alive.

Wearing a necklace of Swarovski crystals shaped like teardrops, Madonna is the ghostly presence in this tragic gallery. She drifts without acknowledgment through the smiling faces of a lost generation. She engages with them only once, turning towards a photograph of Gabriel Trupin, a dancer on her Blond Ambition tour. Below her, a clown walks reverently past the photographs, which are now rapidly multiplying and diminishing in size. He holds a red balloon, the colour of the AIDS ribbon.

This performance is the concert’s centrepiece, introducing the two themes that underpin the show: loss and the queer community. As the last sombre note fades, a group of cloaked disciples guide Madonna to the stage where dancers are posed like Jesus on the crucifix, drawing on the same religious imagery that consistently informs her work. A Gregorian chant gives way to the bass-heavy 7″ remix of “Like a Prayer“. The stage revolves unceasingly, and the Christ-like bodies now hang upside down as if they are racks of meat, with Madonna darting in and out of them. Arms reach for her and for one another as the carousel of carnage continues to spin: a damning condemnation of the church’s lack of compassion during the AIDS crisis. 

At the first Brooklyn date, Madonna told the crowd her show was about “survivor’s guilt”. Of the artists who dictated popular culture in the ’80s, only a handful remain. This weighs heavily on her. Purple lights bathe a man in a pastel suit who mimes to recently unearthed stems of Prince’s electrifying guitar solo at the end of “Like a Prayer”. His introductory sermon from 1984’s Purple Rain soundtrack hit “Let’s Go Crazy” is then played over Madonna’s latter-day single “Living for Love” as an interlude. A photo of David Bowie is included in a montage of people who inspired her. She even devotes the penultimate moment of the show to a virtual duet with Michael Jackson, silhouettes of the King and Queen of Pop battling it out to a mashup of “Like a Virgin” and “Billie Jean”.

Indeed, the spectre of death lurks in every corner of this lavish production. Madonna performs an intricately choreographed version of her James Bond theme “Die Another Day” with mystical formations that underscore the defiant lyric “it’s not my time to go”. A shadowy reaper embraces her from behind as she croons “Rain”, pulling her into the darkness. The initial legs of the tour included a stark acoustic take on Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive”, Madonna purposefully lingering on the line “Did you think I’d lay down and die?” Every choice carries a hyperawareness of how close she came to death and with it a renewed appreciation for family.

After a comic detour into Madonna’s noughties cowgirl aesthetic, she offers up the deep cut “Mother and Father” from 2003’s folktronica confessional American Life. The simplistic phrasing communicates the grief of losing her mother at the age of five, and she performs it with a sepia-drenched portrait of the woman who shares both her name and her DNA. On the opposite side of the stage, Madonna’s son David plays guitar in front of a portrait of his mother, who died from AIDS in Malawi. When the two come together, mother leans her head on son’s shoulder in solidarity and shared understanding. 

But this is a tour named Celebration, so there must be levity in amongst the darkness. As much as it is a meditation on Madonna’s mortality, it is also a love letter to her core LGBTQIA+ audience whose loyalty has never wavered. She lifts them up, projecting the words “resist” and “courage” after donning a pride flag to lead a rallying cry of “no fear!” Her dancers are an extension of Madonna’s inclusionary ethos, a melting pot of cultures and queer bodies. She passionately locks lips with one of them in the build-up to the orgasmic disco explosion of “Hung Up”. What once seemed radical is now normalised – cause for celebration indeed.

For the first time, she also explicitly returns the immortal behemoth “Vogue” to the queer ballroom culture that birthed it. Bob the Drag Queen steps in as emcee, introducing Madonna, who stomps down the runway in a refreshed version of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s conical bra, rendered in a metallic finish, giving the impression of plated armour. The battle-ready superstar judges a ballroom contest in a series of categories that could just as well describe her various incarnations: all-American, sex siren, drama. To the booming pre-recorded voice of Philadelphia ballroom legend Kevin JZ Prodigy. Madonna’s 11-year-old daughter Estere performs the same stylised movements that gave her mother her biggest dancefloor hit. Naturally, she wipes the floor with her competition.

The relationship between Madonna and her gay audience is a reciprocal one. They stood by her in the ’90s when conservative gatekeepers lambasted her Sex book, resonating with the experience of persecution for sexual expression. The stage is transformed into a maze of boxing rings for “Erotica”, Madonna’s robe emblazoned with the title of the parent album that accompanied the contentious publication. But the rings are an illusion, their boundaries delineated by lasers that she and the boxers can walk straight through. It is a metaphorical fight played out in the court of public opinion where the real enemy was misogyny, homophobia, and hypocrisy. 

If self-reflexivity is the creative brief for the Celebration tour, it succeeds in being a tour-de-force. Madonna paints with her own image, consciously splitting herself into a multitude of postmodern simulacra. Choreography from music videos is recycled (“Don’t Tell Me”, “Hung Up”) and cameras follow her, projecting real-time footage in portrait mode across the screens like a living TikTok reel. At the start of “Into the Groove”, she delivers its spoken word command not to the audience but to the camera, fully aware of her construction as an artist whose visuals made as much impact as her music.

These cameras continue to frame the action in imaginative ways, giving the show a thoroughly contemporary feel despite being what she calls a “retrospective“. For “Justify My Love”, Madonna and her dancers are filmed from above in a Busby Berkeley-inspired sequence. They undulate like a swarm of fleshy locusts to form the iris of an eye, sensuously lifting Madonna towards the camera. The trick is employed again for the Björk-penned “Bedtime Story”, where Madonna’s contortions are projected onto all sides of the elevated box she straddles. When she spreads her legs, she gives birth to her own digital avatar, evoking her surreal Mother of Creation NFT project from 2022.

This duplication is most pointedly employed through a dancer who appears at various points dressed as Madonna. The effect is uncanny from afar, especially when she is in Blond Ambition garb, complete with her signature ponytail, but up close, the featureless latex mask is phantasmagorical. When the two recreate her masturbatory simulation from that tour, it is hard to discern whether this is a fond homage or something sinister. Upon being arrested by the police later in that act, it is the PVC-clad, cornrowed doppelgänger from the “Human Nature” video – her musical clapback to the criticism of her sexuality – who comes to her rescue. The real Madonna responds by singing “Crazy for You” directly to her younger self in a touching recognition of her bravery.

The bacchanalian performance of “Bitch I’m Madonna” that closes the show sees 20 iconic costumes cavort across the stage – Miss Ciccone is, of course, dressed as the original Madonna in biblical blue with a white veil and a large crucifix hanging from her neck. But it is one of the few over-egged choices in the show, a slightly damp encore after the real finalé two songs earlier. In a Versace catsuit made from a mosaic of silver shards, Madonna is suspended mid-air and whizzes around the arena for an epic laser show, thrashing her long blonde wig to the Sasha Ultra Violet mix of “Ray of Light”. Through the lens of ’90s rave culture, she offers a retconned futurism that suggests much more to come.

“I am so filled with humility and gratitude. No, really, I am,” Madonna told the audience on her final night in Brooklyn. It was a convincing statement; startlingly diminutive in person, Madonna’s otherworldliness had been tempered by vulnerability. Her live vocals were gritty and occasionally hoarse, indicating the same gumption as the knee brace she made no attempt to disguise. She swigged from a beer bottle during her speeches to the audience, spitting its contents over the VIP pit before “Open Your Heart”, baptising the devoted. “I’m just like everybody,” she insisted. “Except I’m not. I’m funnier, I’m richer, and I have terrible insomnia.”

There is no need for a biopic. This densely-packed, sensorial feast encapsulates Madonna better than any film could and, in a year when Taylor Swift and Beyoncé owned the touring circuit, proves why she is the blueprint for all female pop artists who came after her. “You know any other bitches that have been doing this for forty years that look this good?” she barked to rapturous applause. “Who’s the queen? I said, who’s the queen?