Comparison is the death of joy, and it has little place in the pop marketplace. Yet, in considering the value of Madonna, her 40-year legacy and the shadow it casts over all who have followed, there’s no real equivalence: Madge has them beat. And for one—well, more than one—simple reason: having come from post-punk’s DIY world of dance music (and dance as its own form, as that was her start), there’s something raw and honest about what Madonna does. Still.
You don’t have to pit Madonna’s currently running Celebration Tour against the bells-and-whistles-filled 2023 stadium tours by Taylor Swift, Beyonce and Pink. Or that of Harry Styles and, probably, Justin Timberlake, when he returns to touring form. But for the sake of her influence on all other pop performers, when watching and listening to Madonna at the Wells Fargo Center, for all of its multi-million-dollar staging—its multitude of dancers, fire pits, revolving carousels, flying stages and catwalks extended through the entirety of the arena’s floor—there was still something primitive and decidedly un-slick about the proceedings that made it all the more magical. Sure, her references to the grittiness of ’70s/’80s NYC—Times Square peep shows, graffiti, subways, the lines at Paradise Garage and CBGB—celebrated by her strapping on a guitar and swigging Bud in a bottle may have been heavy handed. But when did Madonna care a whit about subtlety or nuance?
So, joy was achieved
Fuck age, fuck ICUs and fuck the idea that she started the righteous spectacle of this Celebration Tour stop at 10 p.m. For all her recent health issues and the march(es) of time, Madonna was on like scorched popcorn.
“Are you ready to take a ride,” she quizzed before launching into a staged version of her public life story in a 27-song showcase and its many, multi-textured past costumes: Gaultier conical bras, leather boy caps, boxing robes, cowboy outfits and beyond. “Because I’m going to spill my guts out here.” Starting in a black kimono with a halo-ed headpiece revolving on a spinning platter, Madonna—framed by the white light behind her—ran through a somnolent, electronic take on “Nothing Really Matters” with haughty gusto. The white light and the haunting images it cast became a huge part of the production as she and the dancers encircling her on “Everybody” created something of a shadow play in motion. When she and her team moved through “Holiday” and its interpolation of Chic’s “I Want Your Love,” it was a graceful epiphany in motion.
Moving to the front of the forked catwalks, chugging beer and playing a spiky version of “Burning Up” on guitar with images of downtown NYC punk behind her was a bit wack considering that that New York City no longer exists. What wasn’t wack was a flying Madonna and her mournful, haunting “Live To Tell” spinning through mid-air while banners of the earliest victims of HIV/AIDS (Mapplethorpe, Haring, Chow, Mueller) unfurled around her.
In a clear-plastic Lazy Susan, Madonna and her barely clad dancers ran through the pared-down gospel thud of “Like A Prayer” with Sam Smith’s “Unholy” attached to its instrumental front.
You want piano-ballad Madonna? Bang. You got “Bad Girl” and “Crazy For You.”
You want Sex-era Madonna? There she was through the smooth, noodling electro of “Erotica,” where she got to interact with her younger self via a dancing lookalike.
You want vogue-ing Madonna? You got the still-raving “Vogue” and other electronic-music classics (that’s right, Madonna and her producing teams are the ones who made EDM a thing in pop) such as “Ray Of Light” and a Vocoder-heavy “Die Another Day.”
You want “Express Yourself” re-configured as a acoustic-guitar number and a truly rousing “Celebration?” Have at it.
The only thing we didn’t get was “Material Girl,” and there’s a reason, I think: Materialism was never Madonna’s brand. The love of dance music and the celebration of self—hers and yours—are all that ever really mattered.
—A.D. Amorosi; photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation