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!” fix somehow.


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 Ambition (1990):

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 imagination.

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 Awards:

It’s as if Madonna said to her stylists, “They want Marilyn Monroe? I’ll give ‘em effin’ Marilyn Monroe!”
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.)


Even 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 big single.


(8) Ray of Light on The Oprah Winfrey Show (1998):

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 Grammys:

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 virtually critic-proof.


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 truly historic.

(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 fun.

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 show.”

(11) I Deserve It from Drowned World Tour (2001):

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.


(12) 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 baton.

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.



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