Three songs into the opening night of Madonna’s Celebration world tour last month, the most successful solo artist in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 chart took a moment to greet her adoring 20,000 strong crowd. If it was not the traditionally victorious address one might expect – no “Helloooo England!”, no “Are you ready to ROCK?”, not even a “What’s my name, mother****ers?” – it was, in an odd way, all the more triumphant for it.
“I’m pretty damn surprised I made it this far,” she told the London O2 Arena, later adding: “I didn’t think I was going to make it. Neither did my children. I forgot five days of my life – or my death.” Later in the set she launched into an acoustic cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” and after delivering the lyric “Did you think I’d lay down and die?” stopped the music again. “Well did you?” she asked the crowd.
“Nooooo!” came the roar. But the truth is, for a little while there, even Madonna herself wasn’t so sure.
This summer the singer developed what was described by her longtime manager Guy Oseary as a “serious bacterial infection” and after being found unresponsive at her home in New York, was rushed to hospital. She was admitted on June 24; four days later, Oseary confirmed that her condition was so severe that she underwent “a several day stay in the ICU [Intensive Care Unit],” later adding that the singer’s “health is improving, however she is still under medical care.”
The Celebration tour was scheduled to start the following month, but Oseary confirmed: “We will need to pause all commitments, which includes the tour.”
As she recovered, Madonna herself posted a note on Instagram. “Thank you for your positive energy, prayers and words of healing and encouragement,” she wrote. “I have felt your love. I’m on the road to recovery and incredibly grateful for all the blessings in my life. My first thought when I woke up in the hospital was my children. My second thought was that I did not want to disappoint anyone who bought tickets for my tour.”
And then, less than four months later, there she was, commanding the stage at the O2 Arena, daring the crowd to believe she would ever just lay down and die. Since that opening night she has played 13 shows in six countries across Europe, in a whirlwind start to a campaign that criss-crosses the continent for another month before shifting to North America, where it will continue until the end of April: a total of 78 shows in seven months. (And then, if the rumors are to be believed, a headlining appearance at Glastonbury in June.)
If it sounds like a punishing schedule at the best of times, for a 65-year-old woman recently discharged from Intensive Care, it is nothing less than mind-blowing.
Onstage in Antwerp a week after her London gigs, she told the crowd, “I must tell you, I don't feel very well right now. But I can't complain because I'm alive.” She also admitted that her time in hospital had rekindled memories of her mother, who died of breast cancer aged 33, when Madonna was just five years old. “I had this strange thought,” she continued. “I suddenly had sympathy and empathy for my mother – about how lonely she must have felt in the hospital, knowing that she wasn’t going to live. And I was given another chance.”
That Madonna was not only given another chance – but has grabbed it with both hands and taken it on a dizzying waltz around the world – is not only a testament to her own powers of recuperation… but also throws into sharp relief just how singular a phenomenon she is. The Celebration tour is well-named: what was conceived as a party to mark 40 years on top of the charts has become a defiant exhibition of all the vitality and energy and sheer bloody-mindedness that has made her what she is.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Or, to put it another way: “What’s my name, mother****ers?”
Since Madonna Louise Ciccone first burst into the public consciousness 40 years ago with 1983’s “Holiday” – followed by a blistering succession of peerless pop singles (“Lucky Star”, “Borderline”, “Like A Virgin”, “Material Girl”, “Crazy for You”, “Angel”, “Into the Groove” and “Dress You Up” all bombarding the charts in a little less than two years), she has evolved not only into the most successful solo artist in Billboard history (and second overall to the Beatles), but also the bestselling female rock artist of all time and the first woman to earn $1 billion in concert revenue.
She has acted in movies including acclaimed turns in Desperately Seeking Susan, A League of Their Own and Evita – for which she won a Golden Globe – and in 1992 released the “coffee table erotica” book SEX: the $50 volume sold 1.5 million copies within days, and remains one of the most in-demand out-of-print publications of all time, with mint condition copies selling on eBay at up to twenty times the original cover price.
She created the hugely successful record label and media company Maverick, has launched a range of business enterprises including fashion brands and health clubs, founded the charities the Ray of Light Foundation and Raising Malawi, been married twice, and raised six children, including David Banda, Mercy James and twins Stella and Estere, whom she adopted from Malawi.
Musically, she’s continued to push the boundaries of pop music, incorporating a dizzying range of styles and working with collaborators including Jellybean Benitez, Reggie Lucas, Shep Pettibone, Nile Rodgers and William Orbit, and more recently Nicki Minaj, Timbaland, M.I.A and Justin Timberlake.
But most of all, she’s done it all on her terms. From the very beginning of her career, when she was just a fiercely ambitious teenager, newly dropped out of college and barely scraping by as a dancer in New York, she has shown a unique strength of character and determination to succeed without compromising her beliefs.
Mark Kamins, the DJ at New York’s uber-hip Danceteria – so cool was the club that its employees included bartender Sade and bus boys Keith Haring and the Beastie Boys – remembered Madonna dancing through the crowd to the DJ booth one night in 1982 to hand him her demo cassette. Impressed by her chutzpah, he cued it up without even listening to it first.
“She had this spark, a certain energy that transcended everybody else,” he later said. “I love spontaneity, I believe it’s the magic of life. Madonna had a cassette, I threw it on, and it worked.”
Kamins also introduced her to Seymour Stein, the celebrated boss of Sire Records… and from that moment of chutzpah, a legend was born. (She later repaid the favor by writing the song “Lucky Star” about Kamins.)
Stein – who had previously signed the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Pretenders – also saw something in the upfront, ambitious young woman, and the following year her debut LP Madonna was released, peaking at number eight in the Billboard chart and number six in the UK.
But it was to be her appearance at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards in 1984 that really catapulted Madonna into the global consciousness – both for her rendition of new single “Like a Virgin”, and for the performance that accompanied it. Wearing a basque and near-see-through wedding dress, her three-and-a-half minutes on stage was both mesmerizing in delivery and shocking in content: she ended the song writhing on the floor, dress hitched around her waist, white stockings and suspenders exposed.
“I don’t know why they chose ‘Like a Virgin’ because I thought it was quite controversial,” she revealed last year. “It turned out the controversial thing wasn’t the song itself but my performance at the MTV Awards. Those were the days when you shouldn’t show your butt to have a career. Now it’s the opposite… I didn’t even know my butt was showing.”
So scandalous was the incident, that she also claimed that after coming off stage, furious management told her that her “career was over”.
They could not have been more wrong. Not only had the outrageous performance made her a household name, but amidst the furore the world also realized the tune itself was a stone-cold banger. “Like a Virgin” went on to sell six million copies worldwide and become the first of Madonna’s 12 number 1s on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2014 that “career ending” routine was described by MTV itself as “one of the most important and most unforgettable VMA performances ever, if not one of the most iconic pop performances of all time.”
Whether the so-called “butt slip” was by accident or design, the reaction it provoked became a lesson Madonna learned well. She may not have been the only artist to understand the power MTV would hold through the '80s and '90s, but, with the possible exception of Michael Jackson and David Bowie, no other pop star has so effectively exploited the use of visual imagery or music videos to market their singles.
As early as “Material Girl” (the follow-up single to “Like a Virgin”) she was playing with Marilyn Monroe iconography, 1985’s “Into the Groove” almost directly referenced her Danceteria days, “Papa Don’t Preach” saw her transformed into a shorn-headed gang girl, and just eight months after that, “La Isla Bonita” cannily (or shamelessly, and with a little geographic license) reinforced her Mediterranean roots in full-on flamenco style.
But it was to be the video for 1989’s “Like a Prayer” that would ignite a storm even bigger than that of “Like a Virgin”. Against a backdrop of police brutality and the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan, audiences watched a bare-legged and amply-cleavaged Madonna take refuge from a lynch mob in a church, where she prostrated herself before – and then embraced – a Black Jesus-like figure.
If she was asking for trouble, she got it.
After the video’s premiere on MTV, there was a furious backlash from religious groups including the Vatican itself, with one noted Italian Roman Catholic historian declaring: “The video is a blasphemy and an insult because it shows immorals inside a church”. Pope John Paul II called for an Italy-wide boycott of her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, and bowing to pressure from so-called “family values” lobbies, Pepsi cancelled their sponsorship contract with the singer… though in a typical style, she somehow managed to retain her $5 million fee.
Once again, while conservative audiences professed outrage, the music itself remained beyond reproach. “Like a Prayer” topped the Billboard Hot 100 and the UK singles charts, and the video won the viewers’ choice award at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards. In 2011 a Billboard poll voted it the second-best music promo of the 1980s, behind Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
“I think I’m offending certain groups, but I think that people who really understand what I’m doing aren’t offended by it,” Madonna said at the time.
Three decades later, she was still thumbing her nose at the haters. “30 years ago today I released 'Like a Prayer' and made a video that caused so much controversy because I kissed a black saint and danced in front of burning crosses!” she posted on Instagram in 2019 to mark the anniversary of the song’s release. “I also made a commercial with PEPSI that was banned because my video was seen as inappropriate… Happy Birthday to Me and Controversy!”
As if to show how little she cared about the views of conservative America, the SEX book followed three years later, as well as the breathy, blatantly suggestive singles “Justify My Love” and “Erotica”. The former topped the charts in the US, the latter reached number three.
Since then there have been reinventions and musical revelations that, while not always entirely successful (“American Pie” is still best glossed over), have also thrown up some of pop music’s most sublime moments. “Vogue” is another peerless melding of sound and vision; “Ray of Light,” released fully 15 years after “Holiday,” sounds as fresh and exciting and infectious today as it did in 1998; and throughout the last two decades her collaborations and remixes have regularly topped the Billboard dance charts.
And still, she continues to annoy all the right people – for refusing to “grow old gracefully”, for cavorting with male dancers half her age, for still playing songs like “Like a Virgin” as a 65-year-old mother of six. The columnists and commentators may tut or sneer, but then, haven’t they always? For the sell-out crowds every night, Madonna remains an icon. And ever since she shimmied through the crowd at Danceteria in 1982 with a demo cassette in her hand, they’re the people she’s been most focused on. That’s why, when she woke in the ICU in June, her first thought was for her children… and her second was for “anyone who bought tickets for my tour.”
For 40 years, Madonna has played by her rules… and more often than not, she’s won. After her hospitalization this summer it might be a near-miracle she’s performing on the Celebration world tour at all – but then when did Madonna ever do what she’s expected to?
“Growing up in a suburb in the Midwest was all I needed to understand that the world was divided into two categories,” she wrote in 2013. “People who followed the status quo and played it safe, and people who threw convention out the window and danced to the beat of a different drum. I hurled myself into the second category.”