Among the many memorable statements Madonna made throughout 1991’s Truth or Dare, the one that stuck out most, in terms of characterizing the Blond Ambition Tour, was this: “It’s a journey that you go on… You take a journey. It’s cathartic. You can’t get to one place without going to another place.” Madonna has obviously borne that same statement in mind with regard to the conception of her twelfth—that’s right, twelfth—tour. For we, the audience, are all taken on the journey of her life. So yes, more than a “greatest hits” tour (with that term being used more loosely in Madonna’s interpretation), this is a “pop” odyssey. Except that Madonna doesn’t like the word “pop” to describe her show. As she told the crowd, “I really hate that word, ‘pop,’ ‘cause it sounds disposable, and I am not.” This much she’s been determined to make the masses—however hating and skeptical they are—consistently aware of. Even though some of her more adamant detractors (Morrissey especially) have billed her as precisely that. Designed for disposable, assembly-line consumption with each new era. Ergo, a nickname like McDonna (an insult hurtled at Madonna by, who else, Morrissey) referring to her McDonald’s-like nature, capitalism-wise. And sure, Madonna has never made any attempt to hide her zeal for money, but if that were the only thing motivating her, she would have stopped (to many people’s delight) a long time ago.

In truth, she had a number of opportunities to simply “take the money and shut up” in her early days, as she was forging an artistic path for herself. One that quite a few others tried to help shape along the way—apparently not aware of the iron will they had come up against until it was too late, and they had already sunk a lot of money into molding their “coquette.” This included Belgian producers Jean-Claude Pellerin et Jean Vanloo, who hired Madonna to be a backup dancer for Patrick Hernandez in 1979, but also wanted to make her into their next Big Thing. They flew her to Paris and put her up in a nice place near Parc Monceau so they could work on that “shaping” with vocal coaches, the works. Then there was Camille Barbone, who managed Madonna under Gotham Management from 1981 to 1982, when Madonna broke out of her contract to pursue her own artistic route. One that was not in line with the Pat Benatar-inspired sound and aesthetic Barbone was cultivating. Of course, these are not the people or occasions M references in The Celebration Tour. Though she says, “I think of it as a retrospective. I’m gonna tell you the story of my life—the last forty years of my life,” that story can’t feature any of the people who might not have gotten a “return on their investment” in supporting Madonna Ciccone before she was: MADONNA. Although perhaps it could if Madonna ever did release the biopic she was working on for three years (starting in 2020). And obviously, this tour is meant to be a “substitute” for that biopic (as opposed to a substitute for love). The one that she publicized at length via her various writing sessions with both Diablo Cody and Erin Cressida Wilson. The production also involved intense auditions (described as “Madonna boot camp”) for the lead role, with Julia Garner finally winning out over competitors like Florence Pugh, Sydney Sweeney, Alexa Demie, Odessa Young, Emma Laird, Bebe Rexha and Sky Ferreira. But maybe Madonna, in the end, got “creeped out” by someone trying to fulfill an impossible role, preferring to just do it herself by going on tour. Thus, the announcement at the beginning of 2023 that, while the movie was shelved, there would be a tour to soothe wounded fans instead. Indeed, many fans likely breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the delicacy of telling such a story could go wrong in manifold ways. Even with (or perhaps precisely because of) Madonna directing the project herself.

A world tour, on the other hand, that was something she could guarantee to conquer (or so she thought before that major “health scare” a.k.a. near-death experience over the summer). And she could also tell her life story that way instead, as The Celebration Tour is so clearly “runoff” from the Little Sparrow (the main working title) script she had been working on for years. Mining through so much material to ensure the accuracy of her story’s telling. Maybe even snippets of the dialogue were repurposed in some of the “vignettes” of The Celebration Tour…like Madonna trying to get into a club (presumably Paradise Garage) and being rebuffed. A slight she wouldn’t forget about, she admits, informing the audience, “Nobody let me into any clubs dressed like this. Can you imagine? Assholes! I’ve been getting revenge for the last forty years.” For who would deny Madonna entry into any club now? Having all but assured every DJ has a dance hit of hers that will undoubtedly get the crowd going. This fear of rejection she has stemming from being “bounced” so often in her pre-fame days manifested most overtly in a 2000 MTV promo for the Madonna V.I.P. Contest, wherein M appears at the front of a line outside of a club, only to be met with the jarring question, “Are you on the list?” She looks at the bouncer skeptically and replies, “People don’t usually ask me that question.” Unmoved, the bouncer says, “Well I can’t let you in here if you’re not on the list.” Out of patience, she reminds, “Excuse me but I’m…Madonna.” The bouncer then points to the slew of other people dressed like Madonna (a running theme throughout her career) waiting in line (or “on line” as  New Yorkers annoyingly like to say) to get inside. As Madonna realizes that the bouncer sees her as another “wannabe”/nobody, it seems to take her back to those days when she couldn’t get into a club just for being herself. Awakening from the nightmare in the comfort of her palatial abode, she remarks, “Thank god, it was just a dream.” She then looks into the camera as cliché cheeseball music plays and adds, “But for millions of people not getting into a nightclub, it’s a reality they have to face every day… Won’t you please help put an end to club-going nightmares? Enter today.” So yes, to say that club culture was, is and remains a heavy influence on Madonna’s psyche would be an understatement. And it’s a culture that infected her upon encountering “the scene” in New York City. The “stage,” naturally, where she begins The Celebration Tour’s story. For it was this moment that she attributed to the birth of her “Real” Self: in 1978, when she moved to New York.

Thus, it can be no surprise that the “journey” of the tour commences with mentioning the “transfer” to her beloved adopted city, centered around “early days” tracks like “Everybody,” “Burning Up” and “Holiday.” “Can you imagine moving to New York in 1978?” she asks the crowd at one point. Because, sure, 70s and 80s NYC is plenty glamorized now, but back then, it was truly the last place a girl on her own should move. Even a girl as “tough as nails” as Madonna. But it was perhaps New York itself that transformed her into the level of “tough” we know today, having endured all manner of horrors upon arrival, including being raped at knifepoint. But Madonna’s the type of person who can take all of these traumas “in stride”—that is to say, she believes that every struggle is what makes you into the person you are (ergo, “You can’t get to one place without going to another place”). So who would she be, indeed, without all those emotional scars (or “Beautiful Scars,” as one of her Rebel Heart-era songs is titled)? Especially the one that stemmed from her mother dying of breast cancer when Madonna was five years old. Had that not happened, there’s no denying Madonna’s drive for fame wouldn’t have been as intense. Not to say that it was a “good thing” her mother died so she would be compelled to seek love from the entire world so as to fill the void where maternal love was supposed to be. Indeed, during a video portion of the show, Madonna features a soundbite of herself from a 1995 interview wherein she says that she would have gladly traded her fame and fortune for one thing: a mother. The concept of motherhood is, in fact, very much omnipresent throughout the tour. And yes, of course, lots of sexuality and writhing. After all, how do you think women become mothers? (Answer: by fucking).

But before Madonna became a literal mother to six children and a metaphorical “Mother” to all the gays, as well as every pop star that came after her (Britney included), she was a loudmouthed “street kid” aspiring to be a club kid. And that’s the version of herself we see sitting next to her after her performance of “Into the Groove.” Dressed in what look like “rags” by today’s standards. And Madonna is the first to admit her 1981-era sartorial choices were slightly “tragic.” Nonetheless, she turns to the dancer mimicking her early 80s style while wearing a flesh-colored mask that obfuscates their real face (for an eerie effect) and asks the audience, “Anyways, have you met Me? Have you met Myself?” By some accounts, none of us ever really will (#nobodyknowsme).

With this reflection on the past, it’s ironic that Madonna should begin the tour with “Nothing Really Matters.” Not because, for most non-fans, it wouldn’t be considered a “greatest hit,” per se, but because one of the defining lyrics of the song is: “Nothing takes the past away like the future.” She then proceeds to bring the past back after that song, as though to further prove she can defy time however she wants to. Of that rag-wearing club aspirant, Madonna notes, “I like to keep her by my side. I never forget where I come from—the struggle, the humility, the hard work. And I just want to give you a hug right now, thank you.” Yes, Madonna symbolically hugging and thanking her early twenties self for all the bravado and determination she brought to New York so that the Madonna of forty years later could relish the fruits of those labors is a combination of being ultra-meta, a psychologist’s wet dream and, to the more cynical, yet another sign of Madonna’s enduring narcissism. Something her former University of Michigan roommate, Whitley Setrakian, once commented on by shrugging, “Her passion was…herself. The Project of Madonna.”

That passion for the Project of Madonna is alive and well for The Celebration Tour, with those “past selves” and incarnations being constantly present onstage. And yes, she might owe a debt to the 9.9.99 VMAs for that idea. It was during that year’s awards show that a slew of drag performers dressed in some of her most iconic looks gave her a nonverbal introduction before she took the stage to then introduce Paul McCartney and present the award for Video of the Year. With the endless barrage of options in terms of “Madonna looks,” the pop star has long been a favorite of drag queens, and so it’s only right that the tour should be emceed by one. Specifically, Bob the Drag Queen, who introduces the show in Madonna’s famed Marie Antoinette ensemble from the 1990 VMAs (and yes, one of the drag queens at the 1999 VMAs wore that look, too). He’s also sure to call out that legendary tidbit about how Madonna arrived in NY with a mere thirty-five dollars in her pocket, adding to that reminder a touch of goading about how he’d like to see you try to become the Queen of Pop with just thirty-five dollars and a dream in New York City. Of course, one of the unacknowledged things about Madonna is that she did benefit, like the rest of her baby boomer cohort, from the time and place she found herself in. For, while it was difficult to do what she did in many regards, it was also much easier to become famous in the early 80s without any…polish. Particularly as she got in on the ground floor of the postmodern/MTV pop star period that would dominate until the 00s. There wasn’t much competition in her field—not the way there is now in terms of everyone vying for the same piece of “virality pie.” One wonders if Madonna would have been able to thrive in such a climate, or if she was truly built for the more “blood, sweat and tears” form of fame that did not rely on smartphones and the internet for some kind of “democratizing” advantage. She herself has said she’s glad she came up during a time before social media, for it allowed her to experiment and become the artist she wanted to without risk of it somehow backfiring on her later with the video and photos “receipts.” Many of which we have access to, but a great many that we don’t.

Even some of those very earliest performances of “Holiday.” A song that stands out more particularly than previous performances of it on her tours in that she uses it to show the drastic “comedown” effect that AIDS had on the club and party circuit. Lending new meaning to phrase, “Keep dancing till we die.” Incorporating Chic’s 1978 single, “I Want Your Love,” at one point, the song starts to slow as ominous musical undertones begin to creep in. Soon, Madonna is repeating the word “holiday” with a melancholic tone as the music has stopped altogether and the gay man she was dancing with (“played” here by Daniele Sibilli) proceeds to fall to the ground—his light-hearted dance now transformed into a danse macabre. Resigning herself to this loss, she places her coat (lined with Keith Haring’s signature graffiti) and kneels over him as the stage’s trap door opens to take them both down into the depths. The opening to Madonna’s least appreciated song (and definitely not a greatest hit), “In This Life,” then plays before transitioning into “Live To Tell.” This precursor to how AIDS put a stop to the party and cast a dark pall over the 80s for anyone outside of a conservative yuppie bubble is what helps to lend such a powerful effect to the performance. Serving as a contrast and visual manifestation of how everything changed once AIDS arrived and gay men—gay men that Madonna knew—started dropping like flies.

“Live To Tell” not only makes excellent use of the many hanging retractable screens that appear during the show, but it also marks the first appearance of the “portal frame.” A sort of life-size picture frame Madonna can stand in while suspended in midair, “going back in time,” as it were. And seeing the faces of those she lost to AIDS, including her first gay friend and mentor, Christopher Flynn. Then, of course, her “twin flame,” Martin Burgoyne. Both of these men being who she refers to in “In This Life.”

Being that no greatest hits tour of Madonna’s would be complete without “Like A Prayer,” she uses it once more to draw on her go-to theme of Catholicism’s intertwinement with sexuality. That, by repressing it, the religion ends up rendering sex “taboo,” therefore even hotter because of its “forbiddenness.” Choosing to incorporate Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ “Unholy” before and after, the audience is treated to dancers in gimp masks gyrating before neon crosses. Because without Catholicism and its subversion, there is no Madonna. What’s more, the themes and visuals presented by this back-to-back pairing of “Live To Tell” and “Like A Prayer” ultimately serve as a better representation of what Ryan Murphy was trying to convey in the atrocious AHS: NYC.

Unfortunately, Madonna may have grown too accustomed to death already after her mother’s premature one. And, after her performance of “Don’t Tell Me” (which expectedly features a bevy of glam cowboy costumes), she informs the audience, “When I was a child, of course, I associated being a mother with death because my mother had many children and then she died. And then I thought, ‘Why would I want to be a mother? It just ends up in death.’ So my whole life I just kept saying, ‘I’m gonna live the life my mother never had. And I did. Oh boy, did I.” Eventually, though, she “surrendered to the pleasure” of motherhood. Being among the first of her kind to show others that you can be a mom and still be a badass. You don’t have to give up all of yourself to do it (though, some mothers are wont to point out that Madonna has had an army of paid staff to help her raise her children, therefore remain “herself”). In fact, you can even impart some of yourself onto the children. Which Madonna would like to think she’s done in that all of them have artistic inclinations. She’s taught them, in effect, that art is the best and healthiest way to cope with trauma and loss. To put it another way, “Everything in this show is bits and pieces of my life. People I’ve loved, people I’ve lost, friends I’ve lost, peers I’ve lost, children I’ve gained, family, art, life—all of it. That’s what saves me, and that is how I survive.” Naturally, this leads into “I Will Survive” (a gay anthem, bien sûr), Madonna’s chosen cover track for the tour (whereas the Rebel Heart Tour favored “La Vie En Rose”). It’s a pointed selection, of course, for the crux of this tour seems to be about Madonna dealing with her survivor’s guilt over the years, particularly with regard to so many of her contemporaries dying before her. Most overtly, this pertains to Michael Jackson and Prince (both of whom Madonna “dated,” as much as one can date men like that). When combined with Madonna, they formed the Holy Boomer Trinity of pop culture icons, all born in 1958. Both men are acknowledged during the tour, though Prince to a much less cringeworthy degree. His “cameo” arrives, fittingly, at the end of “Like A Prayer.” For the album of the same name is heavy with Prince contributions, from “Love Song” to the closing track, “Act of Contrition”—wielded at the end of “Like A Prayer” here so that the Prince lookalike can do his guitar-scorching thing.

Regrettably, Madonna remains among the many to act as though 1) pedophilic allegations against Michael Jackson never happened and 2) Leaving Neverland doesn’t exist. Strangely, Madonna’s Jackson obsession has only increased over the years in spite of how vocal he was about his contempt for her. At one point calling her, in his taped recordings with his “spiritual advisor,” Shmuley Boteach, a “nasty witch.” He also listed Madonna as one of the people who was “jealous” of his talent by saying, “They admire you and know you’re wonderful and great, but they’re jealous. ‘Cause they wish they were in your place, wish they were in your shoes. And ‘M’ is one of them. Madonna. She’s not a nice… she hasn’t been kind. She’s a woman, and I think that’s what bothers her. Women don’t scream for other women. And men are too cool to scream for women.” Needless to say, Jackson doesn’t seem to be factoring in the many screaming gay men at Madonna’s shows. The Celebration Tour being no exception to the rule. But it seems the segment that features her and Jackson’s 80s-era silhouettes dancing (to the tune of “Billie Jean” and “Like A Virgin,” in a nod to what Madonna did on The Virgin Tour) against one of the screens is more for the people who really were seeking a greatest hits tour in buying a ticket. Digging deep among the few images of them actually together, Madonna displays the three “photo sessions” of the two of them (the first when she went backstage to see the Jacksons after their 1984 Victory Tour, the second when they went to The Ivy together in 1993 and the third, of course, from their 1991 “date” at the Academy Awards). It’s no longer totally obvious why Madonna is so dead-set on solidifying her association with a child molester (and master manipulator of those children and their parents) except the usual excuse about how there’s no one else on the same level to compare herself to anymore. Least of all in the present climate of TikTok and YouTube nobodies coasting off millions of views rather than actual star quality and charisma.

Oddly, the main criticism about the Michael portion of the program, which, alas, sticks out in one’s mind because it’s toward the end of the show, has little to do with Madonna continuing to elevate and idolize a sexual assaulter and more to do with being “hokey” or “corny.” Um, no, the real problem is Madonna remains hellbent on aligning her affections with someone who was blatantly inappropriate with children, whether one believes the “allegations” or not. Her blind spot about Jackson also negates Madonna’s feminist persona. One that would surely adhere to the adage about believing victims. Women or men. Like the men in Leaving Neverland (James Safechuck and Wade Robson, of Britney-kissing fame). Considering Madonna herself was the victim of sexual assault, it also seems bizarre that she would be so willing to gloss over this “complicated” aspect of Jackson’s legacy. Yet, in some sense, it mirrors the glossing over of her own complicated one. From the cultural appropriation arguments (ostensibly “amended” by featuring the Queens Remix of Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” during the “Vogue” segment) to ignoring the fact that she and Sinead O’Connor weren’t exactly “best mates.” Or even in possession of the kind of acquaintanceship that would warrant Madonna flashing her image on one of the screens during, of all things, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” To add insult to injury, O’Connor’s image is displayed right after Marlon Brando’s—not exactly a known advocate of women’s rights.

In fact, one of the key clashes between Madonna and O’Connor stemmed from their divergent views on feminism. With O’Connor saying of Madonna, in a 1991 Spin interview, “Madonna is probably the hugest role model for women in America. There’s a woman who people look up to as being a woman who campaigns for women’s rights. A woman who, in an abusive way toward me, said that I look like I had a run-in with a lawnmower and that I was about as sexy as a Venetian blind.” To be fair, Madonna was no kinder in her assessment of appearance when it came to her “beloved” Michael Jackson either, publicly declaring she wanted to give him a makeover, starting with his hair and also, “I wanna get him out of those buckly boots.” For someone as prone to and reliant upon image overhauls, there was no chance things could have worked out between them, “romantically” or platonically.

Additionally, Madonna’s affection for Jackson makes little sense when taking into account that he echoed what many detractors have said over the years: “Let’s face it, she can’t sing and she’s just an okay dancer. What does she do best? She knows how to market herself. That’s it.” And yet, one apparently can’t put a price on effective “marketing.” Madonna was even able to market herself as a “better” Catholic than Sinead by commenting of her ripping up an image of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live, “I think there’s a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people.” Evoking a sort of, “Hey, that’s only okay when I do it” philosophy on Madonna’s part when it comes to controversy-starting. Once more highlighting the palpable tinge of hypocrisy in featuring Sinead’s image during the tour.

After her performance of “Don’t Tell Me,” Madonna is due for her second speech of the night. And, after talking about motherhood, she took the opportunity to address the shitty state of the world by inquiring of her audience, “How can we change this? What can we do? Do you ask yourself that question? You know how you can change it?” “Give you more money,” someone in the audience jadedly quips. Because, sure, it’s no lie that Madonna has cadged her fair share of dough from fans as she assures them it’s all for a good cause. But, ultimately, isn’t it? If one woman can still bring so much joy and entertainment to people in a world that is increasingly bleak as fuck in general and utterly flaccid on the showmanship front in particular, there can be no denying she’s earned those millions. And yes, Madonna does make someone like Taylor Swift, with her “precious” Eras Tour, look positively banal. The Celebration Tour, accordingly, is a reminder to those who have been foolish enough to forget that there is only one true master in the art of pop stardom, and it’s the very woman who helmed it.

While some have said that Madonna “conceding” to a greatest hits tour is a sign of desperation, this is not a conventional “greatest hits” tour by any means (and certainly, few would cite “Mother and Father” or “The Beast Within” as being among her hits). Unless one counts the fact that these are the greatest hits to the gay men who have enjoyed dancing to these tracks in the club the most. How else does one explain the presence of “Fever,” “Justify My Love,” (cover or not) “I Will Survive,” “Bedtime Story” and “Rain”? What’s more, her overt preference for the Erotica album on this tour not only reveals that she thinks the record has finally been vindicated enough to be truly appreciated, but that this, like so much of what she’s done, is a tour for the gays. Correction: the older gays. In other words, the proverbial last of the Mohicans in terms of having any fucking taste.

*note: this review references the November 19, 2023 performance

Genna Rivieccio

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