CLEVELAND, Ohio – Racking up four decades in pop music and by extension pop culture is no easy feat. But throughout her storied, iconic, and often controversial career, Madonna has seldom taken the easy way, usually preferring to poke, prod, and sometimes deliver a swift, stiletto-heeled, patent leather-booted kick to the metaphorical nethers of societal norms and limitations, not just for women but any folks who desire or dare to do themselves without shame or apologies.
Madonna, a 2008 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, has also seldom looked back, but her “Celebration” tour is all about looking back through the decades at her music, her many transformations, and subsequently, her effect on American pop culture and music. It is a two-hour audio-visual extravaganza.
The tour hasn’t been without a bit of controversy as the star has hit the stage hours late in a few cities, late enough for someone to attempt to sue Madonna and Live Nation for her lateness. Thursday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Madge didn’t make the faithful wait too long. Shortly after a bouncy uptempo set by opener DJ Mary Mac, whose microphone sounded as if it was salvaged from the dumpster behind an abandoned Radio Shack, Bob The Drag Queen, who served as the evening’s host and hype-queen, walked through the crowd, to the LED-lined, X-wing-fighter shaped stage and introduced the evening’s star shortly after the stroke of 10 p.m.
Musically, any fans hoping for familiar renditions of her classics may have been a bit disappointed. There was no band and no one cared that she performed to tracks. But a result of that choice was that some songs, particularly the ‘80s hits she touched early on in the set, such as “Everybody,” were either remixed arrangments or incorporated recognizable bits of other songs, such as “Holiday,” which incorporated a dash of Chic’s disco classic “I Want Your Love.”
Early on, Madonna greeted the fans, telling them, “This is the story of my life,” before walking themt hrough her early days of struggle in New York, with the help of one of the many montages filled with photos and clips of her from various eras playing on the big screens at the back of the stage and the hanging screens on each of the wings of the stage. Madonna reminisced alongside one of her dancers in costume as pre-fame Madonna, a recurring theme of Madonna performing with various versions of herself from the Madonna career timeline.
Though the show was ostensibly career-spanning, several hits were missing. Unsurprisingly, there was no “Like A Virgin,” which she hasn’t performed regularly for several tours, but also missing were other early hits such as “Material Girl,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Lucky Star,” and “Borderline.”
But younger Boomer and older Gen-X fans, who seemed to make up the bulk of the eclectic, nearly sold-out crowd, did get a fun “Burnin’ Up” with Madonna on guitar and “Holiday,” which referenced the late ‘80s disco and club scene before leading into Act II, the evening’s most serious section.
“Live To Tell” and mournful take on “Like A Prayer” became the musical backdrop to a sobering montage, beginning with single photos of lost friends and then expanding to the thousands of people, some famous most not, who died during the AIDS epidemic as she floated and sang above the crowd in a small box.
She also paid tribute to a pair of her fallen fellow ‘80s icons. Prince, with whom she co-wrote and recorded the song “Love Song,” was represented by a dancer in one of the Purple One’s outfits and wielding his signature cloud guitar. During a costume change, a montage of Madonna and Michael Jackson’s famous photographed hang-outs was displayed as a mashup of “Like A Virgin” and “Billie Jean” played, as two dancers dressed as era-correct versions danced in silhouette behind a huge back-lit white screen.
Madonna is one of the artists who established the blueprint for the elaborately staged, multi-act thematic concerts that are now standard, but “Celebration” also followed a few of the current trends of those shows.
A few of her six children appeared in the show, Mercy James playing classical style piano, giving “Bad Girl” a welcome live feel to all the canned music. Mercy’s younger sister Estere Ciccone drew cheers as she limberly vouged down the “runway” during the faux competition judged by her mother and a guest drag judge attached to an extended version of the pulsing dance classic. Madonna’s son David played acoustic guitar during “Mother Father” featuring photos of both of her and his birth parents and other family members.
When Madonna spoke, she spoke of the struggle of her early years, the self-confidence “No Fear” attitude it took to weather the media storms from her many controversial choices and the value of a Midwestern upbringing.
The 65-year-old, who nearly died from an illness last summer, may not have as many moves as she used, but her team of dancers did enough moving for everyone in the arena. The talented bunch of lithe dancers held down the non-video end of the show’s themes; writhing and simulating an orgy, doing some sexy faux boxing during “Erotica,” and being human props for the Queen whenever needed.
The show didn’t go off without a hitch as Madonna seemed to be having some issues with her in-ear monitors at various points, actually losing the beat during a truncated “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” and awkwardly singing “I Can’t Hear the Music.”
Despite that, a few of the best musical moments were the simplest, such as “Express Yourself” with Madonna on acoustic guitar, which quickly became a life-affirming singalong for everyone.
“I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is stick around.” Madonna’s disembodied voice said at one point and the very self-aware pop icon is correct. Early on, her detractors hoped she’d fade away as many pop stars do. Though she no longer automatically tops the charts, her presence and influence on pop music and culture can be seen and felt in nearly every big arena show by today’s pop stars who, as she has done for 40 years, champion being yourself at all times and at all costs with no regrets.