Madonna’s appearance on the Tsunami Aid: A
Concert of Hope telethon last month was the latest
in a long line of distinguished, highly anticipated live
performances of the icon. Critics, of course, sharpened
their knives and picked at the performance of Imagine,
calling it “technical” and “empty.”
Furthermore, cynics wondered why a woman so immersed in
the Kabbalah faith, to the point of reportedly turning her
back on non-believers within her inner circle, could sing
with a straight face a line like “Imagine no religion
But we the fans didn’t tune in and obsessively
re-watch to pick out flaws or learn a lesson about spirituality.
No, we got a dose of Madonna in her element for the first
time in months. Her hair a silky golden sheen, her tasteful
black outfit properly subdued for the occasion, Madonna
sang the John Lennon classic from a heartfelt place.
And by the time she had shed that perfectly-timed tear,
the suitably mellow piece had whet our appetite for what
will undoubtedly be her next live gig on record.
As we patiently await the Re-Invention Tour DVD
and endure countless rumors about its enigmatic release
date, we’ll need to get our “Madge Live!”
To hold us over, let’s construct a playlist of some
of Madonna’s greatest live performances, a mini-marathon
of Madonna belting out the tunes without a discernible safety
net, one for every month we have thus far waited since the
announcement of Re-Invention last March.
These twelve live performances set the bar higher for all
artists and are a great sampling to include in a time capsule
of Madonna’s illustrious musical career. They are
listed chronologically (and by no means exhaustively), so
set your mindset on “shuffle” and enjoy:
(1) Like a Virgin at the 1984 VMAs:
So the lore goes … Hello, MTV. I’d like to introduce
you to Madonna, the brazen, pull-no-punches young lady who
has made a name for herself in the club scene with respectable
fluff hits like Holiday and Everybody.
Madonna, meet MTV, a burgeoning new cable station accused
of “killing the radio star.”
MTV and Madonna, meet the masses … and history. This
performance, always ranked as one of those precious few
singular moments in pop/rock history, represented a seismic
shift in how people “see” music.
And there was Madonna, all “Boy Toy” buckle
and slutty wedding dress, gyrating to her smash national
hit and sending ripples throughout the world.
A marriage made in heaven.
(2) Where’s The Party from Who’s
That Girl Tour (1987):
Dancers dressed as photographers flank Madonna, decked
out in feather boa, tasseled bra, and funky, bedazzled
shades as she vogues in front of a blown-up New York Post
headline screaming “I’m Not Ashamed!”
The cameramen quickly turn into annoying paparazzi, however,
and threaten to thwart Madonna’s call for a good
time, even plastering her moving image on video screens
around the stage.
A sterling early example of Madonna as she seeks to separate
her public image from her personal life and to brush off
critics who were hung up on her past. By the end of the
song, she has literally shed her “public”
self, dropping the glam accessories.
((3) Express Yourself from Blond
Even casual Madonna fans can rattle off the accruements
she so famously adopted this tour: headset, monocle, conical
bra, thick eyebrows, ponytail (for some of the tour, at
least). What better way to include the quintessential Madonna
live experience that was Blond Ambition
than mention its memorable opener?
It’s difficult to choose only one portion of this
concert as “better” than others, but the seamless
adaptation of the then-fresh, Fritz Lang-inspired Express
Yourself video is certainly a good place to start.
You can practically smell the factory complex culled by
The back-breaking choreography of this five-minute piece
is alone worth the price of admission. Everything came together,
cementing Madonna as the consummate live performer, a triple
threat capable of professional shows on a grand scale.
(4) Vogue at the 1990 VMAs:
Sure, Elton, it’s lip-synched, as all performances
of Vogue are. But you try donning Marie
Antoinette drag after coming off your biggest year yet and
blow away the MTV generation without so much as breaking
a sweat on your pretty powdered face.
The hardest-working woman in show business struck again
in this elaborate showstopper that included snapping fans,
garter belts, and, naturally, oddly sophisticated sexual
provocation. Using the dancers she had collaborated with
on Blond Ambition (and back-up singers
Nikki Harris and Donna De Lory), Madonna capped a successful
summer of touring, documentary filming, and Dick
Tracy publicity with an early fall revelation.
Memorable as all get-out, this performance was even included
on the yet-to-be-released Immaculate Collection’s
video compilation. The reason God invented the word “fierce.”
(5) Sooner or Later at the 1991 Academy
It’s as if Madonna said to her stylists, “They
want Marilyn Monroe? I’ll give ‘em effin’
You really can’t go wrong with the clever Oscar-winning
Stephen Sondheim lyrics, so Madge went for broke.
Not so much re-recreating character Breathless
Mahoney from Dick Tracy as much
as just letting her freak flag fly, coquettishly doffing
her gloves, nibbling her finger, cooing a shout-out to
American General Schwartzkopf, and feeling herself up,
Madonna almost made everyone forget that she had shown
up to the telecast with Michael Jackson on a blind date.
Between this performance and 1997’s You
Must Love Me (from Evita), you
almost wish the Oscar could be shared with the singer
and not just the lyricist and composer. Poor Jon Bon Jovi
singing Blaze of Glory from Youngs Gun II didn’t
have a chance in hell.
(6) Fever on Saturday Night Live (1993):
A tasteful, reverent twist on the scorching tune. Amid
all the crazy shenanigans surrounding the release of Erotica
and the Sex book, this performance, introduced
by host Harvey Keitel, was a refreshing escape from the
barrage of naked Madonna. It also acted to silence those
who had never heard Madonna sing live. (The few off notes
add personality and do not detract from the overall performance.)
though her make-up is unmistakably Erotica
era, the synergy of band, back-up singing, and song interpretation
allow it to hold up amazingly well.
It verges on timeless. Plus, the deliberate hissing (“Sssssssssun
lights up the daytime ... ”) is a fun touch.
(7) Bye Bye Baby from The Girlie Show (1993):
Oh, the mind boggles with this tour! So many songs, so many
dances, so many looks. Coming on the heels of a hilarious
“wunderbar” re-conception of Like a
Virgin, Madonna is joined by Nikki and Donna in
matching tuxedos and top hats as they make like frisky gentlemen
at a burlesque.
They ham it up with three lingerie-clad vixens, using chairs
and walking sticks as props. In a concert full of colors
and moods, this light-hearted diversion provided an amusingly
ironic role reversal for Madonna. The song is concluded
with the singers as Noo Yawk-tawking tough guys, grabbing
their crotches and dissing “brawds.”
This piece was also re-created for that year’s VMAs,
as well, in a failed bid to launch the song as the next
(8) Ray of Light on The Oprah Winfrey Show
Or the precise moment when Madonna went from the Material
Girl to the Ethereal Girl. It’s a tough song to sing
live, what with the electronic hiccups and eardrum-piercing
highs. But as images from the award-winning video flash
behind her, Madonna lets it all out, declaring (sometimes
defiantly shouting) her new image to the housewives of America,
triumphant over some dark years, both public and private.
You can sense Madonna’s exuberance, launching an acclaimed
album, growing comfortable in her skin, and showing off
her svelte bod (Lourdes had been born less than a year and
a half prior). And even though Oprah is one of the few African-American
women who sorely lack rhythm, she can be seen rocking out
and grooving along with the lucky studio audience. A ray
of light, indeed.
(9) Nothing Really Matters at the 1999
There is something haunting but absolutely essential about
this oft-overlooked performance. Perhaps one of those most
out-there Grammy numbers, Madonna’s geisha-infused
set piece is inimitably hers, never to be replicated and
I mean, there are very few grown-ups that we as a consuming
public will allow play dress-up on such a large scale.
Madonna recreates the herky-jerky movements from the video
while balanced on obscenely high platform boots.
This performance just barely edges out The Power
of Goodbye performance from the Europe VMAs,
but only because Madonna would later (finally!) collect
several trophies for the Ray of Light
album throughout the evening, making the 1999 Grammy telecast
(10) Music at the 2001 Grammys:
No one can open an awards show quite like Madonna, who
is guaranteed to whip the crowd into hysteria before the
proceedings even start.
This was her first national performance of the blockbuster
song that critics dubbed a return to Holiday
And --- ouch -- those deep leg lunges!
E!Online said it all: “We love Madonna's Jennifer
Aniston 'do, we love her cool black threads, complete
with ‘Material Girl’ tank, we love the video
montage of Madonna highlights past, we love the gold confetti
falling on the crowd, we really love the pimp-daddy limo
driven by Lil' Bow Wow...
If the rest of the ceremony is even half as ghetto fabulous
as Madonna's opening performance of her Grammy-nominated
Music, we are so gonna be lovin' this
(11) I Deserve It from Drowned World
As authentic and intimate as she gets, Madonna sang this
down-tempo number with just a guitar, perched perilously
close to the audience on a makeshift couch.
The maturity with which she wrote about her relationship
with Guy Ritchie translates to the stage in a sweet run-down
of this less-acclaimed song from Music,
punctuated by Madonna’s sly smile and proximity
to her fans.
A touching, meaningful moment in Madge’s long career.
Like a Virgin/Hollywood at the 2003 VMAs:
Much ink has been spilled over this salacious performance,
most notably for the famous Britney-Madonna-Christina kiss.
Love it or hate it, it certified Madonna as the elder stateswoman
of kickass pop performers.
A play on her classic aforementioned 1984 VMAs shocker,
this number found the wedding-attired starlets crooning
bits of Like a Virgin before the queen
herself rose from a wedding cake and presented herself as
groom, breaking into Hollywood, thus bridging
old and new, claiming her crown while passing the proverbial
Forget the conspiracy theories about who kissed whom during
rehearsals and the alleged gay marriage subtext and enjoy
it for what it is: Madonna reasserting herself as someone
who, twenty years later, simply enraptures audiences on
(and off) stage.