As Madonna takes “The Celebration Tour” from Europe to New York for the start of a 52-date North American run next week, she leaves behind a trail of headlines as long as an asteroid’s tail.
There are stories about her remarkable recovery from a potentially fatal illness, stories about her fans’ joy that she had finally given them what they were clamoring for—a greatest hits tour. And, of course, countless stories dedicated to her wardrobe, her appearance and her personal life.
However, largely missing from all this coverage is a mention of the tour’s political and social significance: “Celebration” is Madonna’s most radical statement in support of the LGBTQ community since her paradigm shift with the “Blond Ambition Tour.” in 1990, and perhaps his most radical stage performance ever.
At a time when LGBTQ rights are under threat globally, and as U.S. groups supporting those rights issue unprecedented warnings about increased attacks, both legislative and physical, Madonna produced a concert that not only embraces and reassures the community gay and trans, but also presents how she sees herself to the world.
And it truly is a remarkable place, a moving, pulsing spectrum of humanity in all its glorious otherness.
Madonna’s show, hosted by Bob the Drag Queen, can only be described as post-gender. The designations “man” and “woman” are irrelevant. The usual markers indicating masculine and feminine are eliminated or swapped.
Women have shaved heads, men have long hair; women wear pants, men dresses; they are both topless, and yet there is nothing lewd about seeing a woman’s breasts—any more than a man’s.
In the world that Madonna imagines, a person is not this or that, they are whatever they want to be. They are themselves.
“The show is a huge declaration of freedom and learning to love yourself for who you are and not giving up fighting to be yourself and therefore not being afraid,” Kimberly van Pinxteren of the fan site told me MadonnaUnderground.
She has attended nine Madonna tours, for a total of 83 shows, and considers “Celebration” to be the artist’s most powerful affirmation of LGBTQ rights in decades.
All of Madonna’s shows since 1990 have included LGBTQ elements and tributes, some more direct than others.
In 2012, for example, during her “MDNA” tour stop in St. Petersburg, Russia, she defied the city’s ban on “gay propaganda,” which she called “a ridiculous atrocity” on her Facebook page, by presenting advocating for community rights on stage and handing out rainbow posters with the words “No Fear” to spectators.
Dozens of spectators were arrested and she was sued for more than US$10 million by activist groups for “moral damages”, among other alleged transgressions. The case was later dismissed.
But only twice in Madonna’s long career has queer and trans culture been the central focus of her show.
The first was in 1990. Madonna’s “Blond Ambition Tour” took place at a time when tens of thousands of gay men were dying from AIDS. Instead of receiving help or comfort, they were largely shunned and shamed.
The undercurrent of homophobia that permeated society before AIDS began to be expressed openly and cruelly. When gays were mentioned in the press, the narrative was about death and the subtext of much of the commentary was that they deserved it. “Blond Ambition” helped change history.
On stage with Madonna were seven dancers, only one of whom was heterosexual and three of whom, although she didn’t know it at the time, were HIV positive.
The story she and they told through music and dance was one of life and joy. Her dancers were beautiful, powerful, funny and sexy young people who inspired audiences as much as she did. In fact, they became celebrities as the tour toured the world.
And when it was all over, gay men everywhere could see themselves in those dancers and feel empowered. Many heterosexuals also viewed gay men differently.
Not everyone was convinced. Pope John Paul II called the tour “one of the most satanic shows in the history of humanity.” But the conversation began, the fear dissipated, the closet doors opened.
“Madonna 100% helped change the narrative,” Brad Mayer of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBTQ civil rights group in the United States, told me.
“She saw the beauty of the people in our community and their contributions. And, yes, Blond Ambition was huge.”
Matthew Rettenmund, a writer who has attended all but the first of Madonna’s concerts, called the message of “Blond Ambition” “very subversive” and a direct response to the times.
Now, decades later, the times demanded another such message. In response, Madonna put together “Celebration,” her second show with LGBTQ rights at its core.
In its 40 years of operation, the CDH has only issued one emergency declaration and that was last June.
At that time, state legislatures had passed a record 76 anti-LGBTQ bills out of the 525 that had been introduced in 41 states in the first six months of 2023.
From “don’t say gay” laws to book and bathroom bans, those most impacted by the measures, according to the HRC, were children.
The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that about a third of high school-age transgender youth live in states that prevent them from playing sports.
Data from the HRC Foundation determined that about one-third of transgender youth ages 13 to 17 live in states that prohibit their much-needed medical care.
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy group, has issued a similar series of red alerts this year, most recently last month regarding violence against the community and its allies.
“We have seen anti-LGBTQ lies and misinformation spewed from the mouths of politicians, delivered to millions of people on social media, and inciting violence everywhere from elementary schools and libraries, to places of worship, school board meetings, places of business,” wrote GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis.
Internationally, where more than 60 countries have anti-LGBTQ laws in place, the threat is no less widespread.
“Madonna’s tour is coming at a time of ongoing state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans and really provides a lot of critical context,” HRC press secretary Cullen N. Peele told me.
“This fight is far from over. Culture has evolved in many incredible ways, but there are political forces that cannot tolerate this and are pulling the emergency brake and trying their best to turn back the clock.”
Pop culture can change minds in ways that academics, pundits or politicians cannot, by “showing” rather than “telling,” and showing is what Madonna does best.
The clubs from which she emerged in early 1980s New York were palaces of inclusion and freedom; everything and everyone was allowed.
It was a loving environment and a rejection of an increasingly repressive world outside those walls. That vibe is at the heart of Madonna’s “Celebration” show.
She didn’t simply resurrect her life story to showcase her greatest successes, she resurrected an era so that audiences in need of hope can find courage.
The arc of a Madonna show always travels from darkness to light, and this tour is no exception.
Singing “Live To Tell” near the start of the show, Madonna is surrounded by enormous photographs of the people she has loved and lost to AIDS, followed by increasingly smaller photos representing some of the hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. — and dozens of millions of people around the world — who have died from the disease.
The action is a reminder, a tribute and a recognition that HIV continues because, according to US government statistics, people between the ages of 13 and 34 represent 58% of new AIDS cases in 2021.
The story of your show begins in that dark moment, as your 24 dancers try to find a way to continue. Using religious imagery, they are hung like martyrs on an altar during “Like A Prayer”.
They return as boxers in a ring prepared to fight during “Papa Don’t Preach,” and as a writhing pile of flesh in bare socks during “Justify My Love.” In this case, they are people who dare to show their love despite adverse reactions.
After Madonna’s next song, “Vogue” — her iconic statement about gay and trans culture — she is arrested. Asking, “What did we do? We were just having fun,” Madonna is attacked and taken away.
Just like Madonna herself, the LGBTQ community she showcases is strengthened by adversity. The words “No Fear” appear as body paint on a dancer’s bare torso and in video messages on big screens. Pride flags proliferate.
As the show unfolds, the performance becomes bolder, more explicit. Sexual, social, racial and ethnic boundaries do not simply dissolve, they do not exist. The result is pure carnival, pure fun, crazy joy.
In the end, the audience is immersed in Madonna’s world as it was before “Blond Ambition”. It is a world where personal freedom is unlimited, if allowed. And that, according to Madonna doctrine, is a good thing. Forty years into her career, her advice remains what it has always been: to have courage and, by all means, express yourself.
See also: Madonna postpones shows after serious bacterial infection
Source: CNN Brasil
I’m Robert Neff, a professional writer and editor. I specialize in the entertainment section, providing up-to-date coverage on the latest developments in film, television and music. My work has been featured on World Stock Market and other prominent publications.