Madonna Celebrates Four Decades of Hits With Career-Spanning Spectacle

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.”

Fans of the pop star Madonna taking pictures in front of her posters outside the O2 Arena in London.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

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.

Though the show had been in the works for months, it was not without technical difficulties. Early on, Madonna paused the show so the sound could be reset. She entertained the audience during the delay by speaking at length about her rise to stardom while technicians worked behind the scenes. Later in the show, between songs, Madonna spoke about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. “It breaks my heart to see children suffering, teenagers suffering, elderly people suffering, all of it is heartbreaking,” she said. “Even though our hearts are broken, our spirits cannot be broken.”

When the tour was announced in January, it immediately became one of the year’s big-ticket events. But it appears to be far from sold out.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

Madonna also reflected on her health struggles this year. “I forgot five days of my life, or my death,” she said. “I don’t really know where I was, but the angels were protecting me.

“If you want to know my secret, and you want to know how I pull through and how I survive, I thought, ‘I’ve got to be there for my children. I have to survive for them,’” she said. She then led the crowd in a singalong of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

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 recreated for the tour, and some of the merchandise for sale includes replicas from past treks.)

With her Virgin Tour in 1985, Madonna introduced herself as a punk-glam dance star whose every crucifix pendant or flap of denim was zealously adopted by fans. Who’s That Girl (1987) and Blond Ambition (1990) grew increasingly elaborate as Madonna pushed the fashion envelope with looks like Jean Paul Gaultier’s memorable cone bra and set the bar for bold, imaginative pop megatours. The Girlie Show (1993), in which Madonna appeared as a dominatrix, was the accompaniment to a period of daringly explicit material like her “Sex” book and “Justify My Love” video, which was banned from MTV.

After an eight-year absence from the road, Drowned World (2001) reintroduced Madonna as a new mother, an electro-pop heroine and an acolyte of kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism. In more recent years, her Confessions Tour (2006) cast her in late-70s disco style, and Rebel Heart (2015-16) found her playing guitar, in addition to executing the complex choreography for which she is known. Her most recent tour, Madame X, which was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic, saw Madonna looking to reinvent her stage performance once again in a more intimate, almost cabaret form, mostly eschewing arenas for spaces like the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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 on Saturday, playing a bit of the same remix during an interstitial moment.

(From left to right) Iien McNeil, Susie Petersen, Maria Belova and Suzy Burroughs posing in front of the venue before the show.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

When Madonna’s latest tour was announced in January, it immediately became one of the year’s big-ticket events — and yielded a micro-flood of hot takes about the singer’s age. But the tour appears to be far from sold out; Ticketmaster still shows many seats available at some major venues like Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where Madonna will start the North American leg of the tour with three shows in December.

Back in 2009, Madonna’s Sticky & Sweet Tour set box-office records when it sold more than $400 million in tickets. Since then, the economics of live music have exploded; Beyoncé has already well exceeded that amount with her Renaissance shows, and Swift may well sell close to $2 billion in tickets by the time her Eras Tour is completed.

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.

Maia and Aisha Letamendia Moore, 17-year-old twin sisters, wore looks that drew from the Like a Virgin and Vogue eras.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

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,” Ms. Dawson said. “This is just a new celebration, a new era.”

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