Madonna :: Her Live Ambition (Part 1)
For three decades the unopposed Queen of Pop revolutionized the live stage show and toured around the world commanding record audiences with an unparalleled ease!
The benchmark of any pop-artist’s career is the live show! The ability to sell out a venue whether a house as epically regarded as Madison Square Garden or Los Angeles Staples Center is sure an easy enough swift kick to the ego, but once you have those fans in the house, you best be prepared to set a table! No other artist has evolved more dramatically and pushed the creative of the live pop-show than Madonna.
When she first hit the road in 1985 on her critically well-received and perfectly named premiere showcase, Madonna didn’t mince words and The Virgin Tour was not only about getting her music out to her fans, but it was also about introducing herself to the world as a force in entertainment. That initial concert tour broke records as it criss-crossed North American and Canada and played to sold out venues, including a record-breaking 3 nights in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall.
Madonna had come a long way since her days hitting the pavement and securing appearances at downtown East Village venues including Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs.
Appropriately designed The Virgin Tour predominantly promoted her first two album releases and immediately set the pace for what Madonna had in store for her audience. She would continue to evolve and charge the expectations of her audience especially with each consecutive live stage appearance, and the next time Madonna brought her music to life, she took it globally and never looked back.
Who’s That Girl took Madonna to the global stage and marked her first world tour. Arbitrarily coordinated to promote the comedic film of the same name starring Madonna as well as its accompanying soundtrack, it incorporated tracks from her then-latest release True Blue, but no one would be prepared for what was to come next, as Madonna took herself off the live stage forum to focus on reassessing her priorities in life (her marriage to actor Sean Penn was ending) and recharged her creative energies.
With the release of her fourth full-length studio album Like A Prayer Madonna was poised to reintroduce herself as more than just a pop-act! The critically successful release positioned her (finally) as one of the music industries most innovative and unique artists. With a new blockbuster film set for a summer release, Madonna had secured a key role in Warren Beatty’s big-screen adaptation of the comic strip Dick Tracy, and a new single that would ignite a wildfire.
With so much swirling around her at the time, 1990 would prove one of the most pivotal years in her career, both creatively and personally. Her high-profile marriage to Penn was behind her and the artist dove herself emphatically into her work including her music and movie projects. Like A Prayer would prove one of the year’s biggest hits and give her audience a unique insight into Madonna’s world, although it was only a glimpse. To maximize her exposure Madonna would chart all new territory and mount a world tour unlike anything anyone had ever experienced.
Perfectly christened the Blond Ambition World Tour it would span the globe the summer of 1990 and redefine the live pop music concert! The tour was designed to engage both the artist and audience in an experience that was transportive. Madonna, an accomplished dancer, directed a nearly two-hour stage performance (along with long-time collaborator Vincent Paterson) with an all-male troupe of dancers, back-up singers Niki Haris and Donna DeLory and her full band. The tour would be artistically directed by Madonna’s brother Christopher Ciccone with costumes by fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Mixing elements of Broadway and old Hollywood glamour, with high-fashion and state of the art stage and lighting execution, Madonna’s Blond Ambition World Tour established a new dictum for how to approach live concert tours, and imitators would follow, though none would match Madonna’s sensibilities and her taste for controversy. The themes explored within the two-hour long installation did not only serve to spotlight her growing catalog of hit songs, but it explored a narrative.
Not simply content to sing at the microphone any longer, Madonna was more interested in giving her fans a cathartic experience. She brought to life many of her already innovative videos, by building the sets of the dystopian future from the “Express Yourself” video inspired by the film Metropolis to taking it to the oceans and fashioning fishtails for her dancers turning them into mermen to evoke the “Cherish” video. Madonna has said that the tour was about her “growing” — “Once you get on this train, you can’t get off.”
The Blond Ambition Tour certainly suggested Madonna had grown-up as an artist and personality, and she was decidedly taking us all along for the ride. Evoking many religious themes and exploring the contradictions of life, faith, sex, endings and new beginnings, the show pushed Madonna’s agenda as a provocateur and feminist, mostly she intended to inspire, to give her audience reason to ask questions and come up with conclusions of their own.
It was a liberation that was told through the lyrics of Madonna’s hits “Like a Virgin”, “Papa Don’t Preach” and culminated with the fierceness of “Vogue”, but the entire time it was Madonna finally putting it all out and truly expressing herself.
This is the first part of a retrospective look at Madonna as an innovator on the concert stage. Part 2 will focus on the follow-up to Blond Ambition - a particularly hard act to follow, but the Material Girl was determined to put on another huge show!