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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Madonna’s latest experiment: Looking back

Madonna performs at Barclays Center in Brooklyn in NewYork on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Her Celebration Tour is the pop superstar’s first retrospective, one which thematically explores her past and perhaps offers a glimpse of how she will chart her future. (The New York Times)

By Caryn Ganz

For 40 years, evolution, rebellion and resilience have been Madonna’s hallmarks, but forward momentum is her life force. She’s been pop music’s premier shark, operating in near perpetual motion: Why would she pause to bask or look back, and risk losing oxygen?

So there are understandable touches of both defiance and reluctance to the Celebration Tour, her first road show devoted to hits rather than a new album. The retrospective began its North American leg at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Wednesday night with all the classic trappings of a Madonna spectacle. But unlike her 11 prior tours of this scale, this one was haunted by ghosts — some invited, and some who crashed the party.

The set list began with a moment of birth — not the start of Madonna’s career, but the arrival of her first child — via “Nothing Really Matters,” a song from her 1998 album, “Ray of Light,” about how parenthood rearranges priorities. The anachronism was a table-setter: If Celebration recounts her life story, its arc was animated by her experiences of losing her mother and becoming one, herself. “Never forget where you came from,” she instructed a dancer who served as an avatar for her younger self, whom she then gave a maternal hug.

The first part of the concert, which was divided into seven chapters, was its most carefree (“Everybody,” “Holiday,” “Open Your Heart”). But the joy was built on struggle. Before Madonna took the stage, the night’s MC, Bob the Drag Queen, reminded the crowd that the singer came to New York City from Detroit with $35 in her pocket and scattered faux bills.

Decked out in a teal corset, a black miniskirt and a jacket adorned with chains, Madonna, 65, conjured some of the gritty energy of the late-1970s downtown scene where she first found like-minded creative spirits. It was a relief to be back, she said with a barrage of f-bombs, as she strapped on an electric guitar for a power-chord-heavy version of “I Love New York” blended with “Burning Up.” Vintage photos of CBGB, where she played one of her earliest gigs, lit up on the screen behind her.

Glee was soon tempered by devastation: The community of artists who gave Madonna a home was decimated by AIDS, and she presented “Live to Tell” as a powerful tribute. Screens suspended around the stage, which stretched nearly the length of the floor on a series of runways, at first displayed single faces. The images then multiplied, demonstrating the scale of the epidemic. There were simply too many tales to tell.

Over two-plus hours, Madonna resisted the simplest routes to depicting her own story. After the first section, the concert was only loosely chronological, leaning instead toward themes: her bold sexuality (“Erotica,” staged in a boxing ring, and “Justify My Love,” staged as a near orgy); her search for love (a salacious “Hung Up,” and the fan favorite “Bad Girl”); her rugged defiance (the perennial cowboy-themed standout “Don’t Tell Me”). She peppered the show with references to previous tours and videos, but skipped obvious choices (“Papa Don’t Preach,” “Express Yourself”) in favor of the glitchy 007 theme “Die Another Day” and a pointed acoustic cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

The show’s most spectacular number was “Like a Prayer,” which she sang on a dramatic spinning carousel that held shirtless dancers striking poses that mimicked Christ’s crucifixion. The remix’s propulsive bass provided tension, and a quick cut to Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ “Unholy” underscored the original track’s enduring influence.

Madonna has never before indulged in nostalgia, and at this concert, it was clear why. In the ’80s she was rewiring expectations for what a pop career could accomplish. In the ’90s, she was testing how explicitly she could express her desires. In the 2000s, she was finding fresh freedom on the dance floor. In the 2010s, she was bringing new voices into her orbit. But on a tour celebrating the past, it’s impossible to ignore the passage of time. There is less future stretched out before Madonna now, and it’s unclear how she will reckon with it.

Until recently, her groundbreaking career was a demonstration of seemingly impossible physical strength. But near the end of the 2020 theater shows supporting her last studio album, “Madame X,” serious injuries took a toll. Madonna’s once inexhaustible body failed her just days before the Celebration Tour was scheduled to start in July, and she was hospitalized with an infection.

At Barclays, she let her dancers do much of the heavy lifting, though she still handled choreography — mostly in heels — for the majority of the show. At times, skipping down the runway with her blond hair flying behind, she looked like the carefree upstart who flipped the pop world on its head. At others, a hair behind the beat, she looked like a stage veteran who has endured decades of punishing physical labor.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it this summer, but here I am,” she told the crowd early on. She saved space in the show for those who didn’t: In a curious tribute to Michael Jackson, a silhouette of the two superstars dancing together was projected as a mix of “Billie Jean” and “Like a Virgin” played. Someone dressed like Prince mimed soloing on one of his signature guitars at the end of “Like a Prayer.” And, movingly, Madonna honored her son David’s birth mother alongside her own when he joined her for “Mother and Father.”

David strummed a guitar to that melancholy song from “American Life” as well as to “La Isla Bonita”; her daughter Mercy accompanied her on a grand piano for “Bad Girl.” But otherwise, Madonna eschewed a band for this tour, instead using tracks edited by her longtime collaborator Stuart Price. The choice removed some of the theater of the show and put extra pressure on Madonna’s vocals, which started out raspy and occasionally strained. (For what it’s worth, the crowd didn’t hit the high notes of “Crazy for You,” either.)

Madonna, long a noted perfectionist, seemed looser and chattier throughout the night. Several pauses to address the audience were dotted throughout the set, and she was elated during a playful tribute to the ballroom scene she spotlighted in “Vogue,” which featured her 11-year-old daughter Estere owning the catwalk. For “Ray of Light,” Madonna looked like she had a blast dancing in the confines of the rectangular lift that ferried her above the crowd.

Madonna has long known the power of video, and the most effective encapsulation of her impact came in a montage before the show’s penultimate act that stitched together headlines and news reports about her unparalleled ability to shock the world. “The most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around,” she said in a 2016 speech highlighting how she’s continually had to battle the twin scourges of sexism and ageism.

New Yorkers, she noted onstage, don’t like to be told what to do. But perhaps finally pausing to look back has showed her another path forward: her well-earned legacy era. “Something is ending,” she sang in “Nothing Really Matters” as she swooped around the stage alone, “and something begins.”

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