After a health scare forced Madonna to postpone the start of her The Celebration Tour by three months, the Queen of Pop finally kicked off her hotly anticipated global trek at the O2 Arena in London on Saturday (Oct. 14).
And it was worth the wait. While Madonna, who has never shied away from expressing herself candidly, got serious for a moment to discuss the escalating war between Israel and Hamas-controlled Palestine (“It breaks my heart to see children suffering, teenagers suffering, elderly people suffering — all of it is heartbreaking, okay?”), the overall tone of the Celebration Tour was – believe it or not – celebratory.
This wasn’t just a party – it was an exuberant victory lap for a woman who showed up to New York City with $35 and turned herself into the biggest pop diva the world has ever seen. And she’s not just a star – she’s a musical talent who, over the course of a career that’s spanned four decades, produced some of the greatest pop songs of all time.
At the start of the show (which began early, by her standards – 8:44 p.m. local time), Bob the Drag Queen – serving as an emcee on this trek — waltzed through the crowd dressed to the nines like Madonna-as-Marie Antoinette from Madge’s iconic 1990 VMAs “Vogue” performance. It was a gorgeous look for the RuPaul’s Drag Race winner, and certainly a deserved one considering that later in the show he’s gotta dress up as a rodeo clown — red nose, cowboy hat, bovine print pants, the whole getup.
But as fabulous as Bob the Drag Queen is, the star was, as always, Madonna. From family moments onstage to unexpected setlist choices to BJ jokes, here are the best moments from the opening night of Madonna’s Celebration Tour.
Burnt Up Sound
On opening night, you’re gonna see a seam or two. When Madonna whipped out her guitar to play “Burning Up” – which she told the crowd was the first song she ever sang on stage in New York City, at CBGBs no less – the mic decided to shut right off. Despite the glitch, Madge played the song to its conclusion like a pro. “Sorry about this – these things happen,” she said. Might not seem like a highlight, but in a way, it was – after all, what better way to evoke a punk bar than to rock your way through sound issues?
Personal Anecdotes. Very Personal.
While the tech team fixed the issues, M brought out Bob the Drag Queen to help entertain. She began telling him about her early broke NYC days, recalling that she used to “date men who had showers” when she was living in her band’s rehearsal space. After the story, she summed it up succinctly: “So yes, blow jobs for showers.” A pause. “I can see that headline already. Well, we all have a past.”
Moving Tribute to HIV/AIDS Victims
After a joyous “Holiday” on a stage designed to evoke Paradise Garage, one of Madonna’s dancers dropped to the ground, lifeless. She placed a sheet over him, as if he’d died – a fitting connection, given that “Holiday” served as an anthem of escape and respite for the LGBTQ community in the ‘80s as it was ravaged by HIV/AIDS. And sure enough, her next song was an homage to the lives lost during that crisis.
Performing in an open-air rectangle that floated through the air, Madonna sang “Live to Tell” while the faces of those lost during the AIDS crisis (including Keith Haring, Herb Ritts, Sylvester and Freddie Mercury) appeared on screens surrounding her. One couldn’t help but wonder if in this context, the man telling lies from the song’s lyrics wasn’t Reagan – lying by omission when it came to the AIDS crisis, which he simply refused to acknowledge.
Like a Prince
While shirtless male dancers wearing leather masks writhed around a rotating zoetrope, Madonna sang one of the night’s biggest crowd pleasers in “Like a Prayer.” She spiced it up, too, bookending the performance with snippets of Sam Smith & Kim Petras’ “Unholy” and adding in bits of her own “Act of Contrition.” A riotous guitar solo from the late Prince served as an exclamation point to the magnificent medley.
Re:’Living for Love’
When Madonna played the Brit Awards in 2015, a mishap involving her cape during “Living for Love” resulted in a stage fall. This time at the O2, when a snippet of “Living for Love” played over the speakers, nary a cape was in sight. Consider the song – and O2 stage – reclaimed.
Getting in the Ring
For a triumphant, commanding tour like this one, it’s only right that one of the numbers involve boxing choreography. On “Erotica,” Madonna got into the ring flanked by dancers decked out in glittery gloves, dancing like butterflies and stinging like bees as she delivered the libidinous, dark classic.
‘Bate and Switch
The Celebration Tour is in many ways a love letter to Madonna, and Madonna cheekily took that self-love to its natural conclusion during a brilliant throwback to her Blond Ambition Tour. Hopping on a velvet bed (where she infamously simulated masturbation during “Like a Virgin” on that tour — at one point under the threat of arrest by Canadian police), Madonna cuddled up to a dancer dressed like herself circa Blond Ambition, ponytail and everything.
Guiding the dance’s hand to her crotch, Madge simulated getting pleasured by her past self while the stabbing strings of “Papa Don’t Preach” penetrated the sound system. Hey, if you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?
For the first time since 1993, Madonna performed “Justify My Love” (one of her 12 No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100), complete with Busby Berkeley-esque choreography. After that, she delivered another surprise – a bit of her version of the smoky jazz classic “Fever” from the Erotica album. Not long after, an interstitial video segment was set to yet another rarity – “The Beast Within,” her remix of “Justify My Love” with spoken word lyrics taken from The Bible’s Book of Revelation. Shout-out to the beast of a fan in the front who knew every word to that Biblical banger. Now that’s a revelation.
‘Bad Girl’ Gets a Great Pianist
Of course Madonna’s kids are gonna be musical, but even so, watching her daughter Mercy James sit down at a grand piano and effortlessly tickle the ivories during “Bad Girl” (a song Madonna hasn’t sang live in 30 years) was pretty damn impressive. Brava.
Keeping Family in ‘Vogue’
“Vogue” was a multi-layered tribute to her past, her family and her queer inspirations.
On a three-tiered stage (evocative of the cake from Madonna’s VMAs “Like a Virgin” moment in 1984), Bob the Drag Queen led a parade of dancers while delivering some of Beyoncé’s lines from “Break My Soul (The Queens Remix).” Photos and footage played in the background of the Stonewall riots; LGBTQ trailblazers who helped bring wider acceptance to the community, such as Marsha P. Johnson; and Paris Is Burning, the iconic documentary about Harlem ball culture.
The live performance of “Vogue” even came with a taste of ballroom. Bob played vociferous emcee while the Celebration Tour dancers served on the runway, all while Madonna presided over it as the judge (naturally), flashing 10s or “chop” as needed.
For opening night, Madonna wasn’t alone as a judge – her daughter Lourdes sat next to her, flashing 10s for the dancers and even getting a lap dance from one of them. And the family affair didn’t end there – the final person to walk for the judges was another one of Madonna’s daughters, Esther, who vogued the house down. No shocker — after all, her house mother knows a thing or two.
After Esther’s “Vogue” moment, twin sister Stella joined Mother Madonna on stage, dancing alongside her mom during “Don’t Tell Me” in full cowgirl regalia. The song wrapped with Madonna and Bob (as a rodeo clown) in a fake shootout – but the former made it clear it was all for play. “Don’t waste your time with guns, no siree,” she said in a cartoonish Old West accent.
Madonna hasn’t sang “Mother and Father” since 2004, and given American Life’s mixed reputation, it wasn’t a song folks were expecting to hear on the Celebration Tour. But damn if it didn’t hit hard, with Madonna delivering that weird staccato rap (she rhymes “work” with “jerk,” can you?) and hitting an emotional, expressive money note at the end when she’s singing about giving up her pain. Making it extra impactful was the fact that her son, David Banda, accompanied her on acoustic guitar throughout the number, even sharing some choreography with her.
The family affair continued throughout the night, with Madonna busting out a short version of a Ray of Light rarity – presumably for opening night only. “Today is my daughter Lola’s birthday,” she said. “I promised I wouldn’t sing ‘Happy Birthday.’” That worked to our benefit – instead, Madonna crooned a portion of “Little Star,” a song she wrote for Lourdes when she was just a baby, and she sang it a cappella. Deep cut or not, the opening night audience knew the words – so when she asked the crowd to sing along, it was no problem.
Despite their fractious public, Madonna paid brief tribute to the late Sinead O’Connor by flashing her photo during “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” which ended with a chant of “no fear.”
The two didn’t exactly have beef, but in the early ’90s, Madonna took slight umbrage with O’Connor tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II on SNL, and O’Connor accused Madonna of “abusive” comments. Even so, in a segment about living free of fear, Madonna clearly thought Sinead deserved inclusion – no arguments here.
Billboard Women in Music Moment
A memory lane montage of the media covering Madonna – the good, the bad and the ugly – ended with an audio excerpt from Madonna’s speech at Billboard’s 2016 Women in Music gala, where she was honored as the Woman of the Year: “To age is a sin… I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.” It’s an honor to be included in the tapestry of her tale.
Wearing a mirror ball body suit, Madonna performed yet another fan favorite that she hasn’t done in forever: “Bedtime Story,” her minimalist trance tune co-written by Björk. It sounded fabulous as she sang it on a stage that rose into the air, allowing her to hop onto that floating rectangular and perform a soaring pop all-timer.
A ‘Light’ From Above
Performing from the same airborne rectangle she deployed for “Live to Tell,” Madonna gave us “Ray of Light” in the marvelous “Sasha Ultra Violet Mix” version. It’s a tough one to sing, but she didn’t short shrift the audience with an abbreviated version – we got the full “Light” in all its resplendent glory. Even if she didn’t go for that stratospheric note you hear on the studio version, her live vocals sounded fairly close to the original – which is wildly impressive for someone who had a brush with the reaper earlier this summer.
The verdict is in: Madonna is back.