‘People say I’m controversial. But I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around,’ said a 58-year-old Madonna in 2016, in an iconic speech, delivered as she accepted the Woman of the Year status in 2016.
Seven years on, at 65, this weekend Madonna opened her Celebration Tour at London’s O2 Arena and chose to loudly blast that quote around the stadium as part of the many video packages that trace the 40-year trajectory of her incredible unmatched career.
Predictably though, the pictures and reviews of the two nights she’s performed so far have included the usual ageist comments in headlines and on social media. To which, as someone who was lucky enough to be in attendance at Sunday night’s show, I honestly want to scream: ‘Were you even watching?’
There’s a lot going on, to be fair – a lot of staging, dancing, sex and (sometimes mixed) messaging flashing in and out quickly, flitting as it does through around 40 songs (depending on what time she gets on stage and whether there’s time for the encore – as there wasn’t on Sunday night).
But to miss that the Celebration Tour isn’t just a celebration of Madonna’s career but of surviving and celebrating the miracle of still being alive is a stunning misinterpretation of everything Madonna is saying with her voice, her songs, her dancing, her costumes and her unashamed dedication to self-volition - which she has never, in 40 years, erred away from.
Not only does Madonna defend her right to exist as she wants to (which, in parts of the show is in hot pants, being fondled by a model representing her former self on a double bed, centre stage) at her age, but throughout the show she threads through constant references to her joy at still being simply alive.
Many artists have chosen to nod to ballroom culture in recent years, but as the first mainstream artist to take that out to the wider world with Vogue, much of Madonna’s first section of her show focuses on that scene. That section closes out with a truly touching tribute to the lives lost to the Aids crisis, with pictures of those lost lit up around the stadium as she sings Live To Tell.
The show is littered with references to artists she’s known and outlived – Jean-Michel Basquiat appears in a bizarre (but sweetly funny) section where Madonna is trying to get into a club. Images of her peer-heroes flash on stage in another song, from David Bowie to Sinead O' Connor. Prince’s ‘I Would Die 4U’ flashes on screen at one point, and his famous ‘afterlife’ monologue from the opening of Let’s Go Crazy is heard momentarily.
It's clear that Madonna knows the privilege of not just surviving in relevance, but literally surviving. It’s something she also referenced in that Billboard speech, when she said: ‘Michael is gone. Tupac is gone. Prince is gone. Whitney is gone. Amy Winehouse is gone. David Bowie is gone. But I’m still standing. I’m one of the lucky ones and every day I count my blessings.’
It's especially poignant for Madonna this year. On both Saturday and Sunday night, she made reference to the life-threatening illness that postponed the original start-date of the tour in June. The artist spent several days in intensive care following a serious bacterial infection. On Saturday, she said: ‘I didn't think I would make it, and neither did my doctors. That's why I woke up with all of my children sitting around me.
‘I forgot five days of my life, or my death, I don't really know where I was. But the angels were protecting me. And my children were there. And my children always save me, every time.’ Some of those children appear on stage throughout the show – her angels surrounding her still.
Then Madonna, hardly being subtle with what she’s saying here, takes a guitar out and sings I Will Survive.
How, in the context of all that, can people talk about what Madonna is choosing to wear, do or say, caveating it with the context of ‘at her age’? While she dances, sings and showcases that she has lived the most incredible life, how can you do anything but jump for joy that she’s here at 65, on stage, giving her all and loving every second?
One predictably mean review is headlined ‘Isn’t it time you grew up?’ If you can talk about hotpants or make cruel comments about appearance, when Madonna is on stage calling on her thousands of fans to see every increasing year on their birthday cards to be a cause for pure celebration… then maybe it’s not Madonna who needs to grow up?
On Sunday night, Madonna ran out of time – after appearing on stage late, she failed to have time to do the encore that had run the previous night. Some fans, well-weathered from many a late Madonna appearance barely batted an eyelid. Many were disappointed. Maybe it was poetic though. Because isn’t that always the threat that looms over us? That things can get cut short at any moment?
Maybe that’s taking it too far. But I do know that as I left the stadium, I thought a lot about people who weren't around to see that show. Of people who'd give anything to enjoy those hours with family and friends. One thing about Madonna was imprinted on my mind – she’d added double-meaning to the idea of standing the test of time.