There were signs – even at the very start. The New York clubs had given Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone a decent grounding in basic stage technique, but 1985’s Virgin Tour, drawing more frenzied attention week after week during its limited stateside trek, had originally been designed for theatres – not the arenas the star was now packing out with ease. Luckily, she proved a fast learner on those big stages, and those first live dates delivered flashes of the legendary showmanship that would continue to captivate audiences in the decades ahead.
Madonna proved an early master of the high-impact entrance; those snappy dance moves – emulated by an army of fans – were bathed in a knowing charisma; and her delivery of those glorious pop songs was different somehow: there was a humor and accessibility at the heart of the performance. This really was a different kind of pop idol – still commanding and enigmatic, but cheeky, warm, and seductive too.
A thrilling combination of song and dance
Across 82 shows in 55 cities during late 2015 and early 2016, Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour demonstrated just how much had developed in her performance, but also just how much of that maverick energy and natural charisma had remained the same. More than one million people attended those concerts, and the CD, DVD and Blu-ray release captures her effervescent showmanship to dazzling effect. No living artist comes close to delivering this thrilling combination of song and dance.
As Madonna’s early hits, movies, and groundbreaking promotional clips shattered records, international demand for live dates reached fever pitch, and 1987’s Who’s That Girl World Tour was the first look audiences around the planet got at this now-global phenomenon. Critics were blown away by the confidence of Madonna’s performance, drawing on her larger-than-life platinum video persona and a smash-hit catalog already lengthier than many artists manage in an entire career. But if that 57-date marathon shone bright enough, then 1990’s Blond Ambition World Tour was when Madonna’s star truly went supernova. If you’re looking for a shortcut to the genesis of one of the world’s best live performers, this is where you should start.
Crucial to understanding her art
Crafted with her brother Christopher and largely drawn from her first universally acknowledged masterpiece – 1989’s Like A Prayer album – Blond Ambition World Tour was actually art theatre cleverly framing a collection of the era’s most successful pop songs. It was certainly cheeky and self-referencing at times, but its important messages of empowerment and personal responsibility, which Madonna widely championed, had an enormous impact. The horror of the AIDS epidemic, sexual liberation, the often-unyielding grip of religion, and the empowerment of self-belief were all themes the 17-song set touched upon. The Christian establishment reacted in horror at the perceived sacrilege, but Madonna’s intention was to question and challenge, not ridicule or denigrate. The distinction was subtle, but is crucial to understanding her art – both then and now.
And, of course, the shows created an image Madonna has never truly been able to leave behind. The iconic Jean-Paul Gaultier-designed conical bras embodied the stratospheric power of the star at her critical and commercial peak more than half a decade after her breakthrough. With the single exception of the legendary Elvis comeback show, no other artist would ever inhabit an image so immortal from a live show.
Rolling Stone would bill Blond Ambition World Tour the best of the year, and the production would set the bar for every stadium show to follow. Time has failed to diminish its impact, with almost everything you see in a big pop production today drawing from its template: key arcs of creative themes parceling together songs into cohesive chapters; multiple costume changes, shape-shifting staging, battalions of backing dancers; narrative-enhancing filmed inserts and out-of-this-world graphics-and-light-shows. It was a masterclass in how to create 21st-century entertainment a decade ahead of the millennium, and drew on Madonna’s phenomenal video performances to shape a generation of artists coming up behind her, with almost all of her peers at once being left far behind.
If 1993’s The Girlie Show World Tour developed those themes with a more confrontational tone, then Madonna’s triumphant return to more regular live work, 2001’s Drowned World Tour, was faster-paced and more diverse than many had expected, drawing on the many different strands of her already lengthy career.
A ferocious spirit
As thematic tours started to regularly support the release of successive albums, Madonna’s great skill of reinterpretation became ever more apparent, with hits from across her career re-crafted to reflect the tone of each individual album and tour. Routinely branded a creative chameleon, her restless appetite for change continues to reshape old favorites to dramatic effect. Take the performance of “Material Girl” from Rebel Heart Tour, where this early hit – once dismissed by the Queen Of Pop as something she now struggles to relate to – was reimagined as a humorous electro ballad and staged as a wry homage to classic-era Hollywood.
But it’s on the dancefloor, which Madonna famously claimed was where she felt most free, where she lets her ferocious spirit really soar. “Living For Love” was a triumphant hook-heavy highlight of the 24 songs she took to the world on her multi-city Rebel Heart Tour extravaganza. Combining high-concept style, cutting-edge choreography, and a euphoric production, the performance represents a tiny fragment of a stellar career, but speaks so powerfully of Madonna’s ability to remain contemporary while drawing on the classic elements that first defined her pop phenomenon.
As she sang so many years ago, you can dance for inspiration. Well, Madonna is still dancing – and we remain inspired.