There’s a moment late on in the first night of Madonna‘s Celebration Tour when the Queen of Pop, acoustic guitar in hand, leads The O2 Arena in a solo rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s seminal disco hit ‘I Will Survive’.
It would be a fitting choice for any 65-year-old pop star who can still play a staggering six nights at an arena that fits 20,000 people, but for Madonna the song seems even more appropriate. This tour, a career-spanning look back at 40 years at the top, was originally set to kick off in North America earlier this year, but a bacterial infection forced her to put the dates on ice. Speaking to the crowd, she pulls no punches when discussing the seriousness of the situation she faced.
“I didn’t think I would make it, and neither did my doctors,” she said. “That’s why I woke up with all of my children sitting around me. “I forgot five days of my life, or my death, I don’t really know where I was. But the angels were protecting me. And my children were there. And my children always save me, every time.”
It means that tonight’s show, a masterclass in arena production, feels an even more significant milestone for her.
She opens with ‘Nothing Really Matters’, performed for the first time since 1999, decked out in a throne and flanked by an army of backing dancers, before going straight into 1982’s ‘Everybody’ and the iconic dance-pop of ‘Get Into The Groove’. So far, so good, it seems. But not for Madonna.
There’s a ten minute interlude as the singer complains of technical issues, which proves the perfect opportunity for the singer to recall her early days as a broke New York star, who would, she explains, head back to the homes of “cute guys” if it meant the chance to have a wash. “Blowjobs for showers,” she concisely puts it, while geed up by support act and close friend Bob The Drag Queen.
With things back on track, there’s a brilliantly theatrical run-through of ‘Holiday’ which sees Madge trying to gain entry to a gay club where Bob is the bouncer. It’s followed by the emotional heft of ‘Live To Tell’, which delivers the first powerful moment of the night as Madonna travels across the arena on a flying platform while photos of all the close friends she lost to AIDS – including Keith Haring and Freddie Mercury – are projected on drop-down screens.
From this point, it’s a run of hits that proves the show’s high point. ‘Like A Prayer’ – complete with a gaggle of topless dancers on a rotating platform – is enough to send Sam Smith’s prudish critics to their immediate graves, while the canvas canopy of The O2 feels fit to blast off with the sheer energy that is devoted to ‘Hung Up’, the entire room transformed into a joyful 70s NYC disco.
But not all of the show hits with the same heft. For all of the genius production masterminded tonight by her creative director, the renowned producer Stuart Price, there are sections of the show that feel overwrought and, at one point entirely misguided.
The overwrought comes in a bizarre video interlude of ‘The Beast Within’, which sees flames engulf the stage and Madonna’s dancers looking like they’ve come straight from the set of Dune 2. It’s an undeniable spectacle, but it feels overlong. When hits like ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ are tonight relegated to a mere intro, you wonder if it’s worth it.
The misguided, meanwhile, comes at the moment she performs ‘Like A Virgin’, which is interspersed with a mix of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ and images of the two fill the screen. The juxtaposition of the two – the track’s lyrics of sexual awakening and the photos of a man with the most divisive of legacies – feels undeniably bizarre.
Still, tonight is about celebration and hope, the singer frequently tell us – whether that’s her hope for a solution to end the Israel and Palestine conflict – or her hopes for the future too. Fitting then, that the upbeat ‘Ray of Light’ comes at the end of the show – with the singer flying across the arena once more while an array of lasers guides her journey.
Much like the singer herself, tonight’s opening show is two hours of overblown, indulgent fun that refuses to dance to the beat of anyone else’s drum. She owns this mantra herself late on, with a montage that looks back at all the detractors – Cher to name but one – who have slung insults at Madonna throughout her career.
After all, she’s the one still standing after 40 years. In a year when Taylor Swift’s own look back at her career is proving the biggest tour in a generation, here’s a true icon, who for the most part at least, is determined to show that her throne as the Queen of Pop remains roundly intact. A celebration, well and truly delivered.