“I’m a freedom fighter. My show. My songs. My work. My art, is all about freedom of expression. Freedom to choose, to speak, to act.” Madonna, 2012
I remember first seeing Madonna perform live vividly, it was in November of 2000 and I’d somehow gotten onto the Top of the Pops guest list. This performance was less about being a freedom fighter and more about promoting her latest single Don’t Tell Me and the number 1 album, Music.
When I first saw Madonna up close and personal that evening, I just couldn’t believe how petite she was. How real and ‘3D’ she appeared. I’d watched her on a flat screen for so many years that it was uncanny and surreal to see her standing right there before me in her cowboy hat and D&G jeans. She looked like a porcelain doll. Perfectly immaculate. She was 42.
She came onto the Top of the Pops set ahead of her dancers and joked with us all from the off. The worlds most famous female singer having a little natter with the audience on a personal level. It had been merely a few months since since she had given birth to her son Rocco and she cut a sensational shape. A fan commented how beautiful she was and she replied almost embarrassingly with a thank you.
Whilst Madonna waited for her dancers to come out, she teased the fans that she’d start auditioning them to dance for her instead. Within seconds she had the audience in the palm of her hands. And that, perhaps, is one of her strongest abilities as a live performer, to command total control over the audience with her captivating stage presence. She’s almost unprecedented in her ability to do so, save for maybe her 80s and 90s peer, Michael Jackson.
It was the following summer, in the July of 2001, that I would finally see Madonna live after years and years of watching her previous tours over and over. I had those concerts recorded on VHS from when they were shown on VH1 during the celebrations for her 40th birthday in the summer of 1998. 20 years ago exactly. I would never imagined that over the next two decades she’d undergo a further 6 world tours. As a devoted fan, for me, the pinnacle of fandom is seeing your idol live and the showmanship that comes with it.
Now, Madonna is many things, a fiercely devoted mother, an inspiring humanitarian, a pusher of gender boundaries, a provocateur, a fashion icon, a shrewd business woman, a determined feminist, a supporter of gay rights (since way before it was deemed ‘cool’), a children’s book author and, more recently, a movie director. The list goes on. But above all things, Madonna is, at her core, a performance artist. To put it more specifically she’s THE performance artist.
Let’s break down the basic facts, Madonna is the highest grossing solo touring act in history. To put it another way, she’s the most successful live performer of all time. Male or female. She did that. She took it there.
Madonna has been touring almost consistently for the past 33 years (there was a gap of 7 years between 1993 and 2001). It was in-fact during her return to stage in 2001 that I was old enough to witness my first Madonna concert. Her previous tours were too racy for a pre-teen.
With her first World Tour,1987’s Who’s That Girl Tour, Madonna became the first female artist to play stadiums. Her second World Tour, changed the game, to call Blonde Ambition iconic would be an understatement. It practically re-invented the modern day pop concert and and paved the way for future generations of female artists.
In 1993 Madonna returned to the worldwide stage with The Girlie Show, which she describe as “a mixture of a rock concert, a fashion show, a presentation of circus, a cabaret act and burlesque”. Considered by many fans as her finest live show, I’ve personally never forgiven her for cutting Bad Girl off the setlist, however it’s hard to deny how incredible a tour this was.
And so, it was during The Drowned World Tour, which ran between May and September 2001, that I first got to witness my idol perform live. I saw the show 3 times. Yes, 3 times. It was the hot ticket in town back in the Summer of 2001. Celebs and fans of yesteryear packed Earls Court out for 6 nights across a 10 day period.
Tickets were £85 for floor seats. It was an extortionate amount for tickets at the time. It’s since become the norm. BBC Radio 1 asked Madonna why the tickets were so expensive and she simply shrugged and replied “Because I’m worth it”. It was true. She was.
We happily forked out the money on tickets as the media had us believe it would be her ‘farewell’ tour, The press were claiming that, at 42, it was time for Madonna to hang-up her shoes and retire from the business. They had us thinking that her upcoming greatest hits compilation (GHV2) would be her swan song. Funny, how wrong they were. So much so that, some years later, in 2007, Madonna signed a $120 million deal with Live Nation for which she was contracted for 10 more years of touring.
Such a deal was unprecedented at the time, what an era to be a Madonna fan! We’d just witnessed the Confessions Tour (2006), the previous year, and we knew there’d be more World Tours and new music to come. She may have been nearing 50, but she was in better shape than ever.
And so, back after the last London gig of the Drowned World Tour, my friends and I sat in a pub succumbing to the inevitable post-tour depression. Madonna had just finished her run of 6 sell-out nights at Earls Court and we wholeheartedly believed that this would be the last and only time we’d see her live. Alas, it was not, Madonna would go on to tour consistently over the next 14 years, right through to the Rebel Heart Tour in 2015.
Looking back at Drowned World Tour now, it was an incredibly dark and downbeat affair, she opened with the sombre ballad Drowned World, the hauntingly hypnotic William Orbit sonic sounds were a far cry from the sultry beats of Erotica (which opened The Girlie Show) or the bombastic bass of Express Yourself (which opened Blonde Ambition).
For the Drowned World Tour, Madonna hardly played any ‘hits’, only Holiday and La Isla Bonita made an appearance from her extensive back-catalogue. Her first address to the audience every night was “F**k off motherf**kers”, followed by “Do I make you horny” before she launched into Beautiful Stranger. At one of the shows I saw, she even sang ‘Get Your T*ts out for the lads’. Her marriage to Guy Ritchie was in full swing by this point.
However, the tour did have some plus points, most notably It marked the first appearance of Madonna and her guitar (she’s continued to play guitar on the subsequent 5 tours that followed). And rather impressively, for a live dance show, almost 90% of the vocals during the Drowned World shows were live. I’d even go as far as to say, from a vocal standpoint, it was her finest hour. Don’t come at me.
A few years after Drowned World, there were some rumours in the online community that Madonna had felt that the tour was too self-indulgent and she’d include more hits at future concerts. I don’t remember exactly when I first heard about the 2004’s Re-Invention Tour but she sure did live up to that rumour. The Re-Invention set let was a greatest hits tour if ever there was one. We welcomed back the return of Into the Groove, Crazy for You, Material Girl and of course Like a Prayer. The costumes were more revealing than on her previous tour, the choreography was tighter and the show was a more optimistic affair than it’s predecessor.
The tour’s opening number was Vogue. Which other artist would open a tour with such a staple hit from their discography? Very few. It was meticulous. The choreography was flawless and clearly grueling to learn, her dancers at the time commented that she rehearsed it rigorously for hours on end.
Once again I was fortunate enough to see the show live several times. Air-conditioning was turned off during the tour at Madonna’s request as she claimed it dried up her throat during singing. I remember her shouting at ‘fans’ in the front row who were smoking. And later made them dance more claiming her show ‘wasn’t a f**king barmitzvah’. The chutzpah!
It would only be two years between that tour and the follow up show, The Confessions Tour. Today, fans often hail this as her greatest tour post Blonde Ambition and I have incredibly fond memories of the three shows I saw, culminating in her birthday show on August 16th when she knelt down and touched my hand during a performance of La Isla Bonita. It was sweaty. My fandom had peaked. The finest achievement of my life? Quite possibly up there.
After a short two year gap, we were all back for her biggest and highest grossing tour to date, the Sticky and Sweet Tour, 2008. A visual and visceral feast of the finest quality which again saw the pop-titan delve into her back catalogue and remix several of her finest anthems into modern day bangers. Music mixed with Fedde Le Grande was a stroke of genius. It was also notable for being the first time Madonna sang Vogue completely live.
There were two legs, 2008 and 2009. I saw the opening show in the August of 2008 in Cardiff. Madonna had just turned 50 and once again she was embarking on a stadium tour of the world. Remarkable. It would go on to become the all-time highest grossing tour by a solo artist, amassing a box office total of $408 million. The previous record holder was also Madonna for her Confessions Tour, some two years earlier.
In 2009, Madonna took the show on the road again and opened the second leg in London at the O2 Arena. I remember a few things about the re-vamped second leg of the tour. Firstly, on the opening night, standing a mere few seats away from me was none other than pop megastar of the moment, Lady Gaga. We were both front row and, like me, Gaga absolutely loved it, especially the stripped down version of You Must Love Me (one of Madonna’s most powerful and standout vocal performances – it’s on Spotify, give it a listen).
Secondly, the 2009 tour was unveiled a few weeks after Michael Jackson’s untimely death, Madonna was notably saddened by this loss. So much so, that she added a tribute into the show last minute and incorporated Billie Jean into the set list. She proclaimed ‘Long live the King’ every night for the remainder of the tour when Michael’s image appeared on-screen. It was emotional and a rare insight into just how vulnerable even Madonna was made to feel. According to her manager, Madonna had started putting out the feelers for a potential performance with Michael for the first time that year. Sadly it was never to be.
3 years later I saw Madonna again, performing in Hyde Park, as part of her MDNA Tour, 2012. Hot off the heels of her much-lauded Superbowl Halftime show, MDNA was yet again a stadium tour on a huge-scale and has since become another fan favourite. She opened the show with an incredible dance routine for Girl Gone Wild, proving that, at 53, she was a match for artists half her age. As she told the audience herself every night “Don’t f**k with the Queen”. Quite right too.
MDNA was Madonna at her most outspoken and politically motivated. It would take another detailed article to delve into those stories, but one thing about this tour stands out more than the others was her remarkable solidarity she showed with gay community in Russia.
It was at these Russian dates on the European leg of the tour that Madonna once again stood arm in arm with the gay community, something she’d been doing since the 1980s, at a time when it was a very real threat to her career. But this was 2012 and times had changed in most parts of the world. But not Russia. “I will speak up for the gay community, to support the gay community and to give strength and inspiration to anyone who is or feels oppressed. I don’t run away from adversity. I will speak during my show about this ridiculous atrocity”.
Before the show, pink wristbands were handed out to audience members in support of the LGBT community and countless fans brought rainbow flags along, waving them throughout. Later in the show Madonna gave an empowering speech “I feel that people are becoming more and more afraid of people who are different. People are becoming more and more intolerant, but we can make a difference…we don’t have to do it with violence, but love.”
It was announced shortly after the show that anti-gay Russian campaigners would sue Madonna for $10.4 million, arguing that she was promoting “homosexual propaganda” which was against the law, and allegedly “insulted their feelings when she spoke out for gay rights” at the concert. The claims were fully rejected. A freedom fighter indeed.
And so to the Rebel Heart Tour, 2015 which holds a special place for me. Though not my favourite live Madonna show that I’ve experienced (that special honour goes to Sticky and Sweet), this did mark my first Madonna concert as an openly gay man. I went to see the show twice, both times with new found friends and in new cities. It was a difficult time for me as I was going through a breakup but seeing Madonna live is the greatest antidote for a broken and wounded heart let me tell you.
When Madonna sang “You said it was over. Wanted it to end. Then you had the nerve to say that we could still be friends”, I felt empowered. My idol for the past 17 years was still there for me. She had my back.
My friends saw the Rebel Heart Tour a further 3 times. I hear the Glasgow show was exceptionally memorable. When Madonna overran the curfew, the venue switched the power off. Madonna, always the rebel, continued to finish the show sans lighting and music. “Don’t stop me now, don’t need to catch my breath”, indeed.
Despite the ongoing struggle against blatant ageism that Madonna continues to face, it’s interesting to note that it was in her 40s and 50s that she embarked on her most successful 5 World Tours. Even more astounding is that Madonna has only cancelled 1 show (back in 2012 after succumbing to laryngitis). Just one show out of hundreds. One cancellation in an entire run of countless grueling world tours. It’s an unbelievable accomplishment from an absolutely unparalleled performer and a true testament to her remarkable professionalism.
All hail the Queen.