“It’s so great to be home… I mean that in a way that only New Yorkers know,” Madonna, who adopted New York as her hometown in 1978, told the Brooklyn audience present for the North American kickoff of her Celebration Tour on Wednesday. “New Yorkers can identify with just-not-giving-a-fuck motherfuckers. We do shit our way. New York is not for little pussies who sleep.”
Madonna certainly wasn’t tired, and that was the point of the whole show, a tour-de-force of some of her biggest hits paired with surrealistic visuals that didn’t end until 1 a.m.
Forty one years have passed since Madonna recorded her debut single, “Everybody,” and sang it at long-gone New York nightclubs like Danceteria and Paradise Garage. Those venues’ ghosts are located mere miles from the Barclays Center where she performed Wednesday night (and one hour of Thursday), and she has not only survived but thrived. Her set list contained 27 career-spanning hits — a rarity for Madonna since she usually focuses her tours on her most recent album — and even with “Like a Prayer,” “Open Your Heart,” “Vogue,” and “Into the Groove,” it still omitted several Number Ones.
Throughout the night, dancers took the stage dressed as her during various points of her career — club kid Madonna, ice-cream-cone bra Madonna, BDSM “Human Nature” Madonna — making the show something like This Is Your Life for the Material Girl, who, at 65, is still two years shy of collecting full Social Security benefits. Several times during the performance she expressed just how happy she was to be there, and, well, anywhere. It’s why she performed Confessions on a Dance Floor’s “I Love New York” for the first time in 15 years on electric guitar before shredding her way through “Burning Up” with rare abandon.
The singer had a close call with fate this past summer when she contracted a bacterial infection that forced her to postpone her summer tour until now. “No one is more surprised [than me] that I’ve made it this far,” she told the audience after “Into the Groove.” “Four decades, motherfuckers. I’ve got to tell you that I didn’t think I was going to make it this summer… but here I am.”
The celebration in the tour’s name simply denotes the fact that Madonna is here, especially since she acknowledged so many peers who have died in various ways throughout the show. Prince, Michael Jackson, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among them. Screens bearing black and white images of dozens if not hundreds of notable people who died of A.I.D.S., from Robert Mapplethorpe to Eazy-E, accompanied by her moving rendition of “Live to Tell.” It would’ve felt like an awards show’s farewell montage if the rest of the concert weren’t so joyous.
Structured into seven acts that are supposed to tell Madonna’s story loosely, the Celebration Tour opened with compassion and excitement as she sang, “Nothing really matters/Love is all we need” from Ray of Light’s “Nothing Really Matters,” before segueing into “Everybody” — “Everybody, come on, dance and sing.” There’s no band on this tour, only occasional moments featuring guitar, cello, and her daughter Mercy James on piano, so it’s up to Madonna and about two dozen dancers to keep the energy level up. The visuals in the first act paid tribute to Danceteria and Paradise Garage, right down to a giant disco ball and a doorman who wouldn’t let her in, for “Holliday.” “Always remember the struggle,” she told the audience. “For me, it never ends.”
The second act was her elegy for her late friends with the “Live to Tell” montage and a group of druids who abducted her in a cloak while dancers strike religious poses in a giant zoetrope behind her. Pope John Paul II, who denounced Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour as “one of the most satanic shows in the history of humanity,” would not have approved of her rendition of “Like a Prayer” where she joined the would-be messiahs and climbed all over them until a musician dressed as Prince played a beatific guitar solo. And his Holiness would have absolutely blanched at the third act.
The orgy began with erotic boxing in laser-banded rings, as Madonna sang “Erotica,” and it congealed into a mass of people for “Justify My Love.” She just climbed right in and gave out kisses. For “Hung Up,” topless women and men came out and teased her until she kissed one of the women, all leading her to climb on Mercy’s grand piano to sing “Bad Girl.” (How intimidating must it be to have your mom be Madonna singing next to you and then mounting your instrument in a red satin negligee like it’s a seedy cabaret?)
The 14,000-strong, sold-out audience, which was a broad mix of genders, races, and sexualities, many of whom were wearing “Italians Do It Better” T-shirts (how Brooklyn!), seemed stunned by the spectacle. Shouldn’t everyone have been dancing and making out during “Erotica?” And in the fourth act, shouldn’t everyone have been striking a pose during Madonna’s ebullient “Vogue,” a song that found Madonna and one of her crew members grading her dancers’ (and one of her daughters, Estere’s) vogues like Dancing With the Stars? Instead, most of the crowd seemed to just take in the concert, possibly because they knew it was a special occasion or possibly because it was approaching midnight on a Wednesday. The appreciative crowd still cheered for every song, though.
After “Vogue,” Celebration’s plot seemed to come apart as dancers dressed as cops “arrested” Madonna (“Fucking pigs,” she called them) for the run-up to “Human Nature” and “Crazy for You.” The fifth act began with a lengthy dance in which soldiers fought each other inexplicably. A quotation from Armenian philosopher George Gurdjief flashed on the screen: “To be born, we must first die, and to die, we must first awake.” But that didn’t quite make it over the net since the next song was “Die Another Day.”
Madonna lifted the mood with Music’s “Don’t Tell Me,” in which she battled the evening’s occasional MC, Bob the Drag Queen, who was dressed like a cowboy with a cow print hat. Before singing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” on her acoustic guitar, she pleaded for peace in the Middle East, asking the audience to turn on its cell-phone flashlights. “Each and every one of us have a light inside of us,” she said. “And each and every one of us can share that light with the with the person standing next to you… even the people you don’t like. Be counterintuitive. Share your light with someone you don’t want to share your light with… Keep your lights on when you leave here tonight.” And then she recapitulated the evening’s theme in “I Will Survive”: “Did you think I’d crumble, did you think I’d lay down and die… Did you?” she asks pointedly.
The final two acts served as something like Madonna’s statements of intent — to provoke, to enrich, to confound. After a montage of all her controversies, Madonna, in voiceover, said, “I think the most controversial thing I’ve ever done is to stick around.” And then she sings three songs that exist on different planes from each other: the surrealistic “Bedtime Story,” the lysergic dance song “Ray of Light” (which she sings floating in a giant cube over the audience), and the down-to-earth “Rain.”
She capped these songs with the intro to the final act that focused on her sometime friendship with Michael Jackson. It was long and strange and mashes up “Billie Jean” with “Like a Virgin” (which she did not sing) and the only explanation for why she made it is in the title of the next song, “Bitch I’m Madonna,” which is the other message of the whole evening: “Bitch, I’m Madonna/Who do you think you are?” (That self-assuredness is also the only explanation why she skipped “Borderline” and “Dress You Up” and “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Frozen.”) Her troupe, dressed like a thousand different Madonnas from pop-music history, danced to the song, and the night ended quickly with “Celebration” and a “Thank you, Brooklyn” before she disappeared into the stage.
The abruptness of the final song was another reminder to appreciate Madonna and the fact that she’s doing a tour like this while you can. Her voice is still as strong as ever and she won’t be able to make out with dozens of dancers onstage forever, so now is the perfect time for her celebration.
Madonna Set List:
“Nothing Really Matters”
“Into the Groove”
“I Love New York”
“Open Your Heart”
“Live to Tell”
“Like a Prayer”
“Justify My Love”
“Crazy for You”
“Die Another Day”
“Don’t Tell Me”
“Mother and Father”
“I Will Survive”
“La Isla Bonita”
“Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”
“Ray of Light”
“Bitch I’m Madonna”