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Madonna’s last tour: How to sum up four decades of successes, scandals and cultural milestones in two hours

‘Celebration’ has raised hopes and questions. How can an artist who has been so many different women accommodate all of them on the stage for one night?

Madonna during Sticky and Sweet tour
Madonna in London during her 2009 Sticky and Sweet tour.Kevin Mazur (WireImage)
Guillermo Alonso

The Celebration tour will pay tribute to Madonna’s four-decade career. Madonna had never toured without a new studio album to promote. She has never given a greatest hits concert. The tour seems to work to reinforce the artist’s musical legacy. Not only is she responsible for the highest-grossing tours in history, but, with the Blonde Ambition Tour in 1990, she invented the pop concert as we know it today: a theatrical event divided into acts, combining both songs and visual spectacle .

After a 40-year career, she allows herself to be nostalgic and recognize her accomplishments. How will she distill a wide catalog that includes so many personal reinventions? It was common for her past tours to follow her character of the moment: new age techno on Drowned World Tour, disco diva on Confessions Tour, ghetto colorism on Hard Candy, the sad after-party muse of MDNA. But how will she combine them all in a concert that lasts about two hours?

How to retell her beginnings

If this review of her live career were chronological, which doesn’t seem likely, Madonna could start with her most successful song on Spotify: “Material Girl,” from her second album Like a Virgin (1984). Its resurgence is thanks to Tiktok and Stranger Things, which featured her in a scene. In its day, the song did not reach number one in the most important markets (it stayed at number 2 in the United States and number 3 in England). But it’s perhaps her first big song, because it gave Madonna a nickname – she was known as the Material Girl for decades – and a legacy to destroy (several songs from Ray of Light, 1998, and American Life, from 2003, dedicated themselves to annulling that reputation).

Madonna on her Virgin Tour, 1985.
Madonna on her Virgin Tour, 1985.Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)

Madonna was presented as a blank canvas on which to project the fantasies of a decade. Her first album, Madonna (1983), achieved moderate success. It presented her to the world as an irreverent disco diva. She could sing about going on vacation (“Holiday”) as well as burning with sexual desire (“Burning Up”). But it was Like a Virgin (1984) that began to build her character: the eponymous single, her first number one, introduced us to her love of double meanings in her titles. “Material Girl” gave her as much satisfaction as headaches when, in the following decade, she wanted to shed the label. She has only sung the song on two tours in almost 30 years, although in 2022 she released a cover of the song as a duet with rapper Saucy Santana, in which she clarified “a materialistic girl is not tasteless.”

The Madonna that we know now

Her first album (Madonna) became a hit. Her second album (Like a Virgin) was a runaway success. By the time True Blue (1986) was released, Madonna was already a superstar. Recorded during her first year of marriage to Sean Penn, True Blue is the mold in which Madonna herself was cast. “Papa Don’t Preach,” the song that launched that album, is one of the strangest in pop history: a danceable number about a young woman who confronts her father because she refuses to have an abortion. Family planning associations criticized the singer, who endeared herself to conservatives, both parties seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the singer was simply claiming the right to choose. In any case, in the video clip for the song, directed by James Foley, Madonna invents her first meme: the T-shirt with the phrase “Italians do it better.” Almost four decades later, an independent Los Angeles music label called Italians Do It Better ended up releasing an album of Madonna covers in which “Papa Don’t Preach” was an icy, whispered ballad, as if that woman so sure of bringing a baby into the world in 1986 was not really sure of doing so in 2021.

Madonna with Sean Penn, 1987
Madonna and Sean Penn, then married, in 1987.Ron Galella, Ltd. (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

La Isla Bonita,” another Madonna classic included on this album, was first offered to Michael Jackson to become part of his album Bad. Here, Madonna’s career begins to intersect with Jackson’s, as she reaches his league.

Madonna climbs into the pulpit

True Blue sold even more than Like a Virgin. Her fourth album, Like a Prayer (1989), was preceded by the single of the same name, one of the songs that Madonna has never tired of singing. The artist has an ambivalent relationship with her own hits: there are some that she has rarely sung again.) The video for “Like a Prayer,” in which Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint who comes to life, angered conservatives – who realized that perhaps Madonna was not anti-abortion, just provocative – and paved the way for another of her greatest successes. But on the album Like a Prayer, which today appears on several lists of the best in history, there is more than controversy. A revenge song against Sean Penn (“‘Til death do us part”) seems today, after the success of Shakira and Bizarrap, like an elegant chamber piece. “Promise” is an emotional piano ballad in memory of her mother, who died when Madonna was five years old. If she sang it today, at 64 years old and as the mother of six children, the song could paralyze a stadium. For the same reason, “Oh Father” would also be a must if Madonna wants to get personal in the middle of the celebration. “Express Yourself” was the subject of controversy in 2011 when many, including Madonna, considered Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” too similar to it. She came to sing the two songs in a row on her MDNA tour as a taunt towards the artist. At this point, they have a good relationship, and they have the recipe for an epic stadium moment: singing it together.

Madonna gets naked

On the soundtrack of Dick Tracy, Madonna demonstrated something unprecedented: that she was a good singer. Stephen Sondheim’s “Sooner or Later” remains her great exercise in vocal virtuosity today – she performed it at the Oscars – but no one goes on a Madonna tour for her voice. In that soundtrack, as an epilogue, there came “Vogue,” the closest thing to a signature song that Madonna has. If it is emblematic, it is because she herself seems comfortable with it: she sings it, claims it, covers it and honors it. Any other Madonna hit could be left out of this greatest hits tour, but the absence of “Vogue” could cause a revolt.

Madonna at the 'Blonde Ambition Tour'.
Madonna on the Blonde Ambition tour, 1990.Jim Smeal (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

This song is from 1990, but with it, she closes the eighties to enter a new era in which she decided to play with themes even more provocative than religion: free sex without guilt.

It’s not that singers weren’t sexualized before. But Madonna decided to sexualize herself according to her own rules. In 1990′s “Justify My Love,” the artist lists her sexual fantasies. And when Erotica arrived, the theme continued. Erotica (1992) is actually about love, loss and AIDS, but the public will always associate it with provocation and the book Sex. This album, it would seem, made Madonna uncomfortable for a few years due to the setback it caused in her career, but lately she has claimed it. At 64 years old, she is pushing the same buttons that she did then: those who think that a woman, no matter how old she is, should not talk about her desires.

Madonna dresses up

The period after Erotica is very divisive. For some, she becomes a serious and respected artist capable of sweeping with a ballad. For others, she becomes a bit of a boring songstress. It is difficult for a festive atmosphere to fit anything from the soundtrack of Evita (1996). If she were to choose something from Ray of Light (1998), considered his resurrection and best album by many critics, it should be “Ray of Light” itself, a trance anthem that she recently turned into a electro-minimal-trap anthem, only two minutes long, for the TikTok era. This is one of the intrigues of the tour: will we see the Madonna who in the last two years has tried to capture a new Tiktok audience by turning her hits (“Frozen,” “Material Girl,” “Hung Up”) into pieces primed for cell phone choreographies? Madonna’s skill has always been in not being guided by common sense.

Madonna at the Drowned World Tour
Madonna on her Drowned World Tour.New York Daily News Archive (NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Madonna’s spiritual era closed with Music, which was already showing much more playful tendencies. Madonna performs and celebrates it whenever she has the chance. Some may think it essential for a greatest hits tour, although her fans would possibly appreciate the inclusion of “Don’t Tell Me,” a sad, evocative, catchy tune whose video caused all the fast fashion stores in Europe to sell cowboy-style women’s accessories in 2000 and 2001.

Madonna keeps dancing

In recent years and tours, Madonna has grown introspective, recalling albums and moments in her career that were less successful but that she values more than some of her hits. Will she remember in this greatest hits concert that in 2003 she released an album called American Life, from which no one except her most ardent followers remembers a single song? On her last two tours (Madame X and Tears of a Clown, the latter a mini-tour with only two dates) she brought back songs from the album. But an audience waiting for the chart-toppers could take advantage of this moment to go to the bathroom. So pulling “Confessions on a Dancefloor,” her return to the charts and a massive success in 2005, will be a better choice. “Hung Up” is a must (let’s just hope it’s not her Tiktok version with Tokischa). And since she has announced that the tour will be a tribute to New York, the presence of “I Love New York” seems obligatory.

Rebel Tour Madonna
Madonna during the Rebel Heart Tour.

In Hard Candy (2008) Madonna continues to dance, albeit to R&B, and it is worth asking whether she will sing “4 Minutes,” which could be considered her last great hit.

A strange blank space

Madonna’s last decade, which goes from MDNA (2012) to today, through the albums Rebel Heart (2015) and Madame X (2019), has left jewels, rarities and discoveries, but hardly any hits. How will she include this last decade in her career retrospective, if at all? If we go by the numbers, Madonna should sing “Gimme All Your Luvin’” (her last single to reach the top 10 on the US Billboard chart), “Bitch I’m Madonna” (the only resemblance to a hit from Rebel Heart, thanks in part to its star-studded video clip) and “Faz Gostoso,” which became a hit on Spotify thanks to Anitta’s presence. But if anything is memorable about this last decade, it is that Madonna becomes human, fragile and afraid of failure, as shown in “Love Spent,” “Joan of Arc” or “Wash All Over Me,” true hidden gems of this era.

Madonna is reclaiming her legacy by her mere presence on stage. She is going on a tour that, against all odds, will bear no resemblance to the complacent self-homage of other artists her age. Madonna has not been known in the last decade for opening new musical paths, but rather for leaving a path open for other pop artists who are not willing to retire. With a social media presence that makes many uncomfortable – sometimes showing her breasts or inhaling poppers – Madonna is doing what she always did. Once, apart from causing controversy, she also sang. If, on this tour, she does both, we will be able to confirm her return.

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