At London’s O2 Arena earlier this week, at the start of Madonna’s Celebration tour, a sense of disbelief rippled through the crowd as people took their seats to a DJ set of club classics, courtesy of Honey Dijon. Disbelief for a few reasons: first, that Madonna would be taking to the stage at all, after a life-threatening bacterial infection just four months ago put her in the ICU and postponed the tour. Second, that an artist who has always plugged herself into (and often entirely reshaped) the zeitgeist should, by undertaking a greatest-hits tour, decide to look back instead of looking forward.
But then the lights went down, the music started pumping, the spectacle began—and any lingering questions dissolved away. Emerging from a circular podium that formed just one part of the sprawling stage set covering most of the arena floor, Madonna appeared, resplendent, in a kimono-inspired gown by Eyob Yohannes with sweeping sleeves, an enormous silver and crystal headpiece (by House of Malakai) shimmering above her like a halo. She looked the best she has in years, and sounded it too; belting out “Nothing Really Matters” as an opening number, the trip-hop ballad from her 1998 masterpiece Ray of Light, her voice (admittedly, with a little help from a backing track) soared.
Given that “Nothing Really Matters” is one of Madonna’s most personal tracks, mulling the insignificance of her career compared to the recent birth of her first daughter, Lourdes, it made for a neat introduction to a show that offered a deliberately looser, chattier glimpse at Madonna, the woman. Beyond her surprisingly warm—and often very funny—asides throughout the show, there was also the inclusion of three of her children (and, on the opening night, four), dancing, singing, and even accompanying her on their instruments. (Take that, Blue Ivy.)
But first, she wound the clock all the way back to the beginning, raucously performing her debut single, “Everybody,” with a troupe of backing dancers in ’80s downtown New York garb, quickly followed by fist-pumping renditions of “Into the Groove” and “Holiday.” (The show’s musical director is Stuart Price, Madonna’s collaborator on her disco-ready comeback album, 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, meaning there were plenty of segues and mash-ups—including a bonkers interpolation of “Like a Prayer” with Sam Smith and Kim Petras’s “Unholy”—to help lend the evening its riotous energy.) A particular highlight of this early section was a scuzzy version of “Burning Up” performed on electric guitar by Madonna herself, with clever VHS-style projections that recalled her days bouncing off the walls at CBGB.