Madonna celebrates four decades of hits with career-spanning spectacle
By Derrick Bryson Taylor and Ben Sisario
They wore pearls with crucifixes, lace gloves, tulle skirts and body-sculpting corsets. Some even crimped their hair and drew on fake beauty moles, while others wore simple white T-shirts with only the letter M on the back. Spanning generations, the concertgoers arriving at the O2 Arena in London used Saturday night as an opportunity to dress in their favorite Madonna era, even if that was decades before they were born.
Madonna, 65, is on the road for the first time since 2020 with her global Celebration Tour, a stage spectacle touching on more than 40 of her hits across four decades. The show opened at the O2, a 20,000-capacity arena, three months after its planned first date, following a health scare for the pop icon. In June, Madonna was hospitalized shortly before the tour’s scheduled debut in Canada. At the time, her manager said she had a “serious bacterial infection” that resulted in the singer staying in an intensive care unit for several days.
Madonna swore that the tour — her first devoted to her full catalog of hits, rather than to a specific album release — would go on. In recent weeks, she has filled her Instagram account with tantalizing, and very on-brand, images from rehearsals, showing her dressed in a lacy black bustier, practicing onstage steps and resting her fishnet-clad knees.
Fans waited out a 30-minute delay before Madonna arrived onstage in London, opening with a medley of hits before acknowledging the challenges that had led to the moment. “How did I make it this far? Because of you,” she said, adding, “But I will take a bit of credit, too.”
It was clear from the beginning that this concert would be as much a journey through Madonna’s career as it would a bona fide dance party. Set on an elaborate stage that jutted out into the audience, several hanging retractable screens showed images of the singer. At other times, they displayed powerful portraits, as when she launched into “Live To Tell” and the screens displayed images of Freddie Mercury, Arthur Ashe and more people who died from AIDS.
For more than two hours, with the help of her dancers and some of her six children, Madonna blazed through her catalog of songs, singing several hits like “Holiday,” “Like a Prayer,” “Hung Up,” “Ray of Light” and “Bad Girl.” Her costumes were sexy, religious and futuristic.
The 24 performers onstage notably did not include a live band: Stuart Price, the tour’s musical director, told the BBC that “the original recordings are our stars.” The stage, which encompasses 4,400 square feet, was designed to echo Manhattan neighborhoods, as well as the wedding cake from Madonna’s 1984 MTV Video Music Awards performance of “Like a Virgin.” During the show, she is swept across the venue in a square-framed box 30 feet off the ground.
Carla Nobre, 38, of Nottingham said that seeing Madonna in concert had been on her bucket list, but that she had been disappointed with the performance. “There was too much talking,” she said.
Jenni Purple, 54, from the southern coast of England said the concert, which was her first time seeing Madonna live, had been “absolutely incredible.” “I loved all the medleys, I loved the costumes, I loved all the dances,” she said with a broad smile. “Everything was just mind-blowing.”
In the past, Madonna’s tours have been news-making events tied as much to her latest music as to her cycle of stylistic reinventions. But Celebration is essentially the pop superstar’s Eras Tour, as Taylor Swift has styled her latest outing: a staged romp through decades of hit songs and signature looks, giving fans a chance to relive her career as a stages-of-life experience. (Seventeen of Madonna’s previous costumes were re-created for the tour, and some of the merchandise for sale includes replicas from past treks.)
For Madonna, the 78-date Celebration Tour is a chance to assert her star power in a year when live music has been dominated by Swift and Beyoncé — women who, like Madonna before them, have used talent and deep media savvy to remake pop stardom in their own image. In July, Beyoncé acknowledged the debt, when Madonna, making one of her first public appearances after her hospitalization, attended Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour in New Jersey. “Big shout out to the queen,” Beyoncé called out during a performance of the “Queens Remix” of her song “Break My Soul,” which blends in Madonna’s 1990 smash “Vogue” — another hit that mined, and honored, gay dance culture of that period.
Madonna returned the acknowledgment Saturday, playing a bit of the same remix during an interstitial moment.
Legacy has clearly been on Madonna’s mind lately. Last month, the 1989 Pepsi commercial that introduced her song “Like a Prayer” — before it was pulled amid outrage over its music video, which featured an interracial kiss and the singer dancing in front of burning crosses — was finally aired again during the MTV Video Music Awards.
Madonna, who had been paid $5 million for the promotion — and kept the money — said on social media: “So began my illustrious career as an artist refusing to compromise my artistic integrity.” She added, “Thank you @pepsi for finally realizing the genius of our collaboration. Artists are here to disturb the peace.”
It was clearly on fans’ minds as well. Aisha and Maia Letamendia Moore, 17-year-old twins from southern England, near Brighton, wore looks that drew on the Vogue and Like a Virgin eras. “I think she’s such an influence,” Maia said. “She did so many things that were so controversial. She wasn’t scared to do it, she wasn’t scared what people would say.”
Others mentioned rumors that Celebration could be Madonna’s last tour. Helen Dawson, 47, who said she first saw Madonna during the Who’s That Girl Tour in 1987, would abide no such thought. “Never, she won’t give up,” Dawson said. “This is just a new celebration, a new era.”