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Live Review: Madonna Gives a Master Class in ‘Eras’ in San Francisco

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Madonna in black leather and lace
Madonna performs during The Celebration Tour at The O2 Arena in London on Oct. 15, 2023. The singer performed at Chase Center in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2024.  (Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation)

Let’s get this out of the way: She looked great. Sure, we could talk about Madonna’s face — about how we require aesthetic perfection from women, demand they stay frozen in amber after 40, then become cruel if they try too hard to maintain the appearance that’s tied to their economic and cultural value — but it’s actually the least interesting thing about her. And if that’s what you wanna talk about, you clearly were not at her Celebration Tour at Chase Center in San Francisco on Tuesday night, because if you were, the only thing you would say about Madonna’s appearance is: Bitch looked great.

Even more impressive? This show was rescheduled from October, because the whole Celebration Tour was postponed for six months after a bacterial infection put Madonna in a medically induced coma for several days. Then she got better, got back to rehearsals and went on the damn tour, because she’s Madonna.

a young Black man and an older blonde woman stand side by side on a stage with guitars in western gear
Madonna and her son David Banda perform during The Celebration Tour at The O2 Arena in London on Oct. 15, 2023. (Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation)

“We honor our mothers, always, don’t we? They gave us life. No matter what, we honor our mothers. Even if they’re motherfuckers!” said the 65-year-old pop star, clad in a leather corset, cowboy hat and fishnets, as the stadium full of people in sparkles, leather and fishnets roared back at her. This was about 90 minutes into a two-hour-and-15 minute set that careened sonically, visually and not-quite-chronologically across her four decades in show business — all for the cumulative effect of a sometimes unintentionally funny but nonetheless captivating musical about Madonna’s life, written, directed and produced by (and of course starring) Madonna.

This show had everything: Versace bodysuits; a voguing competition; athletic and scantily clad dancers; Bob the Drag Queen; vaguely Y2K screensaver-esque visuals; Prince and Michael Jackson tributes; an abridged but otherwise transcendent version of “Like a Prayer” flanked by rotating neon crosses; and charming appearances by three of Madonna’s musically talented children (her youngest, voguing in a Versace bodysuit, natch). There was also such a high volume of pop culture references, delivered at such a frenetic clip, that when images of Che Guevara and James Baldwin flashed on screen amid clips of Cher and Ariana Grande sometime near the finale, I kinda just went “Sure, that makes sense.”

four people in sparkly outfits pose and vogue during a stadium show
Bob the Drag Queen and Madonna’s daughter Estere perform during “Vogue” at Madonna’s Celebration Tour show in New York. (Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation)

If you wanna talk “eras,” you have to talk about Madonna, who has — unlike some artists who use the word to describe album cycles — actually reinvented herself a dozen times over the course of 40 years. Back in the “mother” era of the show, as it were, she’d just performed “Mother and Father” with her son, guitarist David Banda, in front of giant photos of both their biological mothers.

“And as a mother, I want to say a prayer for peace for the children of the world who are being killed, kidnapped, hurt, harmed, the list goes on,” said Madonna. After imploring the crowd to “do the research, learn the history…not just pick sides and call names,” she told us to turn our phone flashlights on, then led us in a stripped down sing-along of “Express Yourself,” her voice strong and unencumbered without a backing track. Four minutes later we were transported to “La Isla Bonita.” Tropical island breeze, all of nature wild and free, you know the one.

a blond woman performs on a rotating stage in a stadium with dancers
Madonna performs during The Celebration Tour at Barclays Center in New York on Dec. 14, 2023. The pop star performed at Chase Center in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2024. (Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation)

If the tonal shift seemed abrupt, well, Madonna had a lot of career left to pack in. As she reminded us over the course of seven musical “acts” about her life, Madonna has not just courted controversy over her four decades in the spotlight; she drew the blueprint for making a career of it. In the ’80s and ’90s, she challenged societal norms by expressing female sexuality in a way that made enemies out of the Catholic Church, Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center and countless other arbiters of so-called family values. (In one of several between-song skits with her dancers, she dramatized her 1990 near-arrest by Toronto police for simulating masturbation onstage while performing “Like a Virgin.”)

Since the aughts, as Madonna herself noted in a voice-over during a montage of outraged headlines, she’s battled ageism along with misogyny: “The most controversial thing I’ve ever done is stick around.” I think that’s probably true. And yet… at some point, after I lost count of how many times she seemed to be visually likening herself to Jesus, I wrote in my notes that “Madonna is always being persecuted!!!?” Which is, frankly, a hilarious framing for someone worth an estimated $850 million, with seven Grammys and two Golden Globes, who was recently re-certified by the Guiness Book of World Records as the reigning best-selling female artist of all time.

jeans with pictures of Madonna on them
Fan Heather Breiling wears Madonna pants while attending the Madonna Celebration Tour concert at Chase Center in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Part of the dissonance, surely, is that pop has evolved since Madonna helped build MTV with shock value, and some of what made her a visionary now seems tame: “Like a Virgin” no longer ruffles feathers in a world with “WAP.” One could argue that’s what happens when visionaries are successful at pushing culture forward — what was once rule-breaking becomes the industry standard.

What is undeniable is just how much she still means to people. Specifically, to the LGBTQ community — to whom Madonna has been an outspoken ally since before the word “ally” was part of our lexicon — and who showed up and showed out last night in style. Local legends from the queer community were everywhere, if you looked, including Sister Roma, Peaches Christ, Honey Mahogany and more.

a drag performer in white makeup and a purple wig poses in front of a sign reading Madonna the celebration tour
Sister Roma poses before the Madonna Celebration Tour concert at the Chase Center in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

It made sense, then, when the most genuinely moving moment of the show arrived with a tribute to people who died from AIDS, introduced as an ecstatic performance of “Holiday” drew to a close. The backing track suddenly sounded like a warped record as one of Madonna’s dancers slowly collapsed on the rotating stage. The singer bent to check his pulse, and draped her coat over his body before they both sank into the floor.

a tribute to people who have died from AIDS
A tribute to people who died from AIDS during Madonna’s Celebration Tour at The O2 Arena in London on Oct.14, 2023. (Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation)

Then, as she traversed the stadium in an aerial box performing “Live to Tell,” massive screens began to show black and white photos of Keith Haring, Martin Burgoyne, Alvin Ailey, Arthur Ashe, Freddie Mercury and more, until there were hundreds of tiny photos surrounding us, willing us, here in a city whose gay community was devastated by the AIDS crisis, to look each one of them in the eye.

Madonna has built a career out of pushing forward, and has until now eschewed the idea of a “greatest hits” show, which I’ve always respected. But that moment alone lifted the exercise out of the ordinary, for me. It was the kind of thing that could only really be pulled off, one might say, by someone who’s had the audacity to stick around.

Madonna performs again tonight, Wednesday, Feb. 28, at Chase Center in San Francisco. 

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