Date: January 29, 2024

Venue: Madison Square Garden ( New York City)

Tour: The Celebration Tour

The word “queen” is unambiguously appropriate for a female artist whose reign (in pop music years) has been almost Elizabethan. Today, with this frame of reference, the “queen of pop music” label can only be used for one person on the planet – and that person is the unstoppable force that is Madonna.  Over the years, where she fell slightly short in terms of vocal competencies (something she seems to have an abundance of self-awareness of), she more than compensated with raw emotion and melodrama in her vocal delivery. This irresistibly seductive attribute set her up well as a heart-wrenching balladeer with timeless hits such as “Crazy for you”, “Rain”, and “You’ll See”. This side of her persona (often its forgotten aspect) represented only half her musical identity – one defined by a duality riddled with contradictions. The other facet was that of the seminal popstar – one that led her to be plastered on the walls of fans (especially youngsters of both genders) across the planet. Boys wanted her. Girls wanted to BE her. This other facet had some defining tenets –  a knack for forging a creative chemistry with great musicians (which led to timeless classics such as “Papa Don’t Preach”, “Vogue”, and “Who’s That Girl”), a natural gift as a dancer and to be the scintillating centerpiece of eye-popping dance routines, a penchant for courting controversy by pushing cultural boundaries (which propelled both her star factor and notoriety), an enviable ability to navigate the fickle press, and an unwavering desire to prove that age ain’t nothing but a number in the world pop music (often considered the fortified domain of the young). At the age of 65, she is channeling an energy and spunk that is commensurate with someone far younger. In doing so, she’s venturing into relatively uncharted waters (historically speaking) of both contemporary pop culture and music. To be more specific, there is no one else with her level of global ubiquity doing something like this. Her aptly titled “Celebration Tour” is a creative showcase of a stellar musical and cultural legacy that has spanned a little over four decades – an eternity in the context of today’s ephemeral nature of pop music’s pervasiveness. More importantly, she has outlasted most (if not all) her contemporaries. The expectations for this concert tour were undoubtedly high – especially since some of the North American tour dates had been rescheduled from the Fall of 2023 to 2024 because of a medical emergency that Madonna needed to deal with. Of course, being the posterchild for resilience that she is, she bounced right back and embarked on her European tour and basked in the glow of rave reviews. Hence, the expectations of fans were undoubtedly high. Fortunately, the taste of our collective delayed gratification could not have been sweeter.

In light of the hit-heavy catalog (including several US #1 singles) with a chart run (i.e. Billboard top 40 singles chart hits) spanning over at least three decades that Madonna has to look back on, she undoubtedly had to make difficult trade-offs as she assembled her concert setlist. Regardless of the direction she went in with the setlist, she was bound to make noteworthy omissions (oddly enough, this is a truly enviable situation for an artist to be in). That being said, the flavor of trade-offs (and allocation of concert time) that she did end up making provide a fascinating glimpse into what Madonna considers a “celebration” (as per the title of the tour). To her, a celebration involves  shining a spotlight on her career’s critical inflection points (both commercial and stylistic), defining attributes of the brand that she had meticulously cultivated and nurtured over the years, and the cultural moments inextricably linked to the music. Here were some of the defining elements of this brilliant approach:

Leveraging her longstanding brand attribute of stylistic evolution and using it to facilitate generous audience proximity:

The measure of what constitutes “good tickets” or “good seats” for a concert is always a function of the distance of the ticket-buyer from the stage. In the context of the concert layout of Madison Square Garden, this essentially means that if you a concert attendee that is NOT in the first 15 rows of floor seating or on the lower-levels of the first two side sections to the front of the stage, the view of the stage is average at best and there is a feeling of a vast distance to the music act performing. But what if there are multiple stages dispersed across the floor seating area and connected by ramps (which are also leveraged as platforms by the artist’s dance troupe)? What if the artist performing is made to hover in a glass container above the audience in the floor seating area and taken all the way back of the stadium (I am incredibly curious about what the insurance implications are for this type of over-the-top setup)? What about the use of screens that drop down periodically to face the audience sitting on the sides to bolster an already awe-inspiring visual and performance aesthetic? In the case of Madonna’s concert on January 29(2024), NONE of these are hypothetical questions. All of the above were used in a way that bridged the distance between the star of the evening and the audience. The main stage was a circular one with a revolving perimeter – but only some of the action happened there. At times, there were performers on different stages and on the ramps at the same time. In addition to audience proximity, this unconventional stage design made for a stunning visual spectacle of the sort that we rarely ever see.

Leaning into the idea of pop music being an essential ingredient of the history of social culture:

Today, as each of us experiences music in algorithmically curated sonic bubbles, the concept of music being a type of cultural connective tissue in communities is becoming rapidly more antiquated. We do not have a shared sonic backdrop as a result. As a child, the catalyst for connection with others was some combination of sports and music (the latter being far more important to me). The mythology, history, and the rich back-stories behind our favorite songs and artists (and their mysterious journeys from humble beginnings to the doors of stardom) only mattered because it was a SHARED fascination (especially in the pre-internet era of relative information scarcity) between us for these almost other-worldly creatures that popstars had morphed into in our minds. Madonna seems to understand this and leaned into this realization quite heavily by opening the concert with a quick video montage that begins in 1978 and talks about the girl that arrived in New York City from Bay City (Michigan) with $35 in her purse. The video moves quickly from one milestone to the next chronicling the journey of the starry-eyed girl looking to make it in the city that dreams are made of. Around two or three songs into the performance, she paused to express gratitude to the audience for still being interested in what she had to offer. She was open about the fact that despite years of experience, she still had “butterflies in her stomach” and was nervous. She also mentioned that in the early years, she lived in the third floor of a walk-up building right across Madison Square Garden (on the 33rd st and 8th avenue) and shared space with people (one of them was battling schizophrenia) whose emotional stability was precarious at best. This was also a space that routinely got broken into. She reminded the audience that her story was that of someone trying to make it in New York City. There was also a video montage of video clips of media backlash over the years and Madonna’s response to each of those instances reminding us that controversy was a trademark tenet of her long career.

Jettisoning signature hits in favor of a creatively brilliant era that had been overshadowed (and also somewhat forgotten) by controversy:

We feel the need to quote one of our guest bloggers Eric Generic for his 30th anniversary retrospective of the 1992 album “Erotica” by Madonna:

“Erotica represented a comedown from the heights of “True Blue“, “Like A Prayer” and “The Immaculate Collection“. She had never been a stranger to controversy, and it’s fair to say that 1987 hadn’t been a vintage year for Madge with the handful of perfunctory “Who’s That Girl” songs and then the past-its-prime remix album, but the “Erotica” era felt like the first minor wobble of her career. The backlash was on all fronts – the book, the videos, the album artwork, the lyrics to several tracks. Had she overplayed her hand? By 2022 standards, the more risque elements of “Erotica” are quite tame but 30 years ago it took some balls and bloody-mindedness to challenge the cultural taboos of the era in such a direct fashion.”

The book being referred to above is titled “Sex” – a coffee-table book with photos that immersed themselves in the wide landscape of sexual fantasies. This was released in conjunction with the “Erotica” album and sadly led to a scenario (especially in America) of having some of the album’s fantastic singles relegated to relative obscurity (despite their chart performance) outside of the core Madonna fanbase. Careers are not just defined by moments of widespread acclaim. Sometimes, they are characterized by harsh criticism because of the contours of a difficult  cultural climate in which those moments took place. A celebration of a career should involve acknowledging the storms that were weathered as part of a journey to lasting relevance. Once again, Madonna seemed to understand this and artfully distilled the musical merits of this era from the controversy that shrouded it by delivering fantastic performances of the album’s title track (featuring boxers in a ring as dancers), a shortened-version of “Fever” (the album’s 4th single), and an exhilarating vocal delivery on “Rain” (albeit without the song’s Middle 8 and spoken section) while wearing a black cape blown behind her by simulated wind. But the evening’s most classy and sonically exquisite performance (and rare moment of visual minimalism on stage) was that of “Bad Girl” (the Erotica album’s third single) featuring her daughter Mercy James on a grand piano. Mercy James brought a freshness to the song that fans didn’t know it needed with achingly beautiful melodies as sonic embellishments (especially alongside the line “I don’t wanna feel blue”). To say this was an improvement over the studio original would be an understatement. Showcasing this phase of her career instead of crowd-pleasers such as “Material girl”, “Like a virgin”, and “Papa don’t preach” (although a bit of the orchestral intro was featured as an interlude between two songs) is bold – but then again, Madonna’s boldness has always been undebatable. In the past, we have been critical of fantastic and insanely talented bands such as Duran Duran for not taking similar risks with their setlists and playing it safe thus obscuring large sections of a legacy that is far more remarkable than they get credit for. Of course, Madonna did compensate with a series of crowd-pleasers such as “Into the groove”, “Hung Up”, “Ray of Light” (which she sang from one of those hovering glass containers), “Like a Prayer” (revisiting some of the controversial elements of its somewhat antagonistic music video), “La Isla Bonita” (which featured a Cello player that really does need to feature on a reworked version of this classic), “Vogue” (with what felt like an extended fashion show added to the end of the performance), and euphoric performances (which were true to the sound of the studio originals) of both “Open your heart” and “Live to tell”. We hope more veteran artists (especially those that are prolific, have long careers, and that rose to prominence in yesteryear) borrow from this page of Madonna’s playbook for the Celebration tour.

A spotlight on humility and humanity:

Popstars often pride themselves on their perceived resilience and love to put up a stoic front while reminding fans they’ve survived – and rarely is that attitude seasoned with even an iota of humility. Madonna, on the other hand, addressed the elephant in the room that this concert was rescheduled from the Fall of 2023 because of an illness that shattered that inflated perception of self-reliance and made her excessively dependent on a care-taker that accompanied her at home once she was released from the hospital. She choked up in tears as she admitted the need to be reassured by a “mother figure” which her caretaker (who Madonna named) graciously did. It reminds us that popstars, for all their god-like status, are still fragile humans that are not as shielded from the harsh realities of life as we think they are.

Like any concert, this one had its share of missed opportunities or miscalculations worth highlighting. Classics such as “Rain” and “Crazy for you” were shortened in favor of unnecessarily extended performances of songs such as “Vogue” and a mashup tribute (with “Billie Jean” and “Like a Virgin”) to the King Of Pop Michael Jackson. While the sentiment behind the latter is undoubtedly sweet and reverent, it should have been accommodated elsewhere in the concert in a more time-effective way thus freeing up time for full performances of some of the songs that were shortened. Ending with a powerful closer with cross-generational appeal would have been far more apt in context of a legacy celebration. Instead, Madonna opted to end the concert with the self-indulgent and cringeworthy “Bitch I’m Madonna”. Those that had read the setlist and new this was the closer had already started to exit from the venue when this performance began and this did dilute some of the impact that Madonna had created through the length of the show. In fact, a better way to have ended the show would have been with the second video montage (which chronicles the various episodes of controversy that she was the focal point of) in which she ends the montage by saying “the most controversial thing I did was to stick around”. In my humble opinion, her hit single “This Used to be my playground” would have made a classier closer. Of course, in the grander scheme of things, these are minor issues that do NOT take away from the sheer magnificence of this artistic endeavor.

To say this concert was one of the best I have attended would be an understatement. In addition to experiencing timeless classics married with jaw-dropping (and sometimes unabashedly provocative) dance routines, it was an opportunity to re-evaluate one of the most stunning careers in pop music history.

As Madonna mentioned earlier in the concert, her story is of a girl making it in New York City. The city is the backdrop for serendipitous connections that led to longstanding collaborative relationships. Those, in turn, became foundational elements of her sustained success. Some of the spots where Madonna’s creative endeavors happened in New York will become tourist destinations (e.g. Patrick Leonard’s apartment in NoHo where “Papa Don’t Preach” was recorded after they convinced songwriter Brian Elliot to give Madonna the song as opposed to giving it to Cristina Dent – an upcoming singer at the time).  This distinguishes Madonna’s New York City concerts from her concerts elsewhere – especially a concert that celebrates a legacy that the city is inextricably linked with. She’s also an example of a time when people didn’t have to be great with their debut. They were given the room and time to grow into the artists they became. She is an example of the possibilities at play when myopic obsessions with instant celebrity do NOT overshadow a focused investment in artistry that translates to music with potential with longevity. While some might argue that not all her music will stand the test of time (which is arguably true), her career was built on a long imperial phase (which includes “Erotica“) of infectious pop which cemented her future and shielded her from the impact of any creative misfires. One cannot help but be curious as to what she will do next but after the January 29 concert at Madison Square Garden, I will confess that I do look forward to the next chapter of her career – regardless of how it manifests.

Here is a short video highlights reel of the concert:

STAR RATING: 5 out of 5 stars


Broadcasting Worldwide

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