“I know that I’m not the best singer and I know that I’m not the best dancer. But, I can f—ing push people’s buttons and be as provocative as I want. This tour’s goal is to break useless taboos.” There was only one all-singing, all-dancing chart-topper who could get away with such a bold declaration at the turn of the ’90s, and it wasn’t Paula Abdul.
From the moment that she writhed around suggestively in a wedding dress at the 1984 MTV VMAs, Madonna became the live act that you couldn’t — and didn’t want to — take your eyes off. Singing in front of a traditional guitar-bass-drums trio was never going to cut it for the woman seemingly hellbent on shocking middle America.
Then the undisputed Queen of Pop by quite a margin, Madonna had already toyed with the theatrical on 1987’s Who’s That Girl Tour, a whirlwind of glitzy costume changes, giant video screens and dramatic reenactments that she described as “Broadway in a stadium.” But 1990’s Blond Ambition — which kicked off 30 years ago — took Madge’s natural sense of showmanship to new heights.
Madonna asked Jean-Paul Gaultier to create more than 60 costumes for the tour, an amount which the haute couture designer admits took 350 aspirins to get through. Luckily, all this headache-inducing work paid off. The Frenchman’s conical bra creation, which was later sold at auction for $52,000, became one of the defining fashion statements of the decade. And items such as the polka-dotted blouse, clip-on ponytail and mic headset all became a part of the chart-topper’s style legacy, too.
Unsurprisingly, Madonna was just as fastidious when it came to the tour’s choreography. “Wimps and wannabes need not apply” read the call out seeking “fierce male dancers” for the tour. Led by Vincent Paterson, the chosen army of six were put through boot camp-like rehearsals in preparation for a tour that spanned 57 dates, five months and three continents. And with its large hydraulic platform and multiple elaborate sets, Blond Ambition’s staging essentially cost the same as the GDP of a small country. Simply no one else could compete, not even the King to Madonna’s Queen of Pop. A few years prior, Michael Jackson’s Bad Tour had impressed many with its slick moves and dazzling lights – even the BBC’s cult hero John Peel hailed it as a “performance of matchless virtuosity.” But Madge’s elaborative high-concept, five-act production left it for dust.
Blond Ambition didn’t give fans a single opportunity to get bored or head for the bar. Every four minutes there was something new to digest. Take the opening ‘Metropolis’ section, inspired by the expressionist sci-fi of Fritz Lang, for example. Madonna simulates sex in that bra while performing “Express Yourself,” straddles a chair during “Open Your Heart” and belts out “Causing a Commotion” while playfully wrestling her two backing vocalists to the ground. And this was just the first quarter of an hour.
As you’d expect from an artist whose Pepsi commercial had been yanked amidst calls of blasphemy, the second ‘Religious’ section was even more attention-grabbing. Wildly rubbing her crotch in a red velvet bed, Madonna left little to the imagination on a sensual reworking of “Like a Virgin.” And on “Like a Prayer,” the track whose provocative video had caused the soft drink giants to bail, the star and her crew are kitted out as nuns and priests.
Of course, much of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation of Italy didn’t appreciate this type of cosplay. A second date at the Stadio Flaminio was called off after none other than Pope John Paul II implored citizens to boycott “one of the most satanic shows in the history of humanity.”
The controversial blend of religion and erotica also incurred the wrath of the Toronto police force, particularly the “lewd and obscene” display of “Like a Virgin.” But despite the threat of arrest, Madonna and her management team refused to bow down to authority. The star even referenced the furor during her second show at the city’s SkyDome, asking the crowd “Do you think that I’m a bad girl?… I hope so.”
Madonna famously described Toronto as a fascist state in Truth or Dare, the illuminating backstage documentary which further boosted Blond Ambition’s pop cultural cachet. Who can forget the scene where the star pretends to gag after Kevin Costner – then the biggest movie star in the world – summarizes 105 minutes of sense-assaulting, boundary-pushing entertainment as “neat”?
Thankfully, the sell-out crowds reacted to the tour with a little more enthusiasm, even the Dick Tracy section featuring several numbers that would have been unfamiliar at the time. The comic book adaptation, which co-starred Madonna as femme fatale Breathless Mahoney, hit the big screen half-way through Blond Ambition’s run. And the ever-astute star attempted to guide fans towards the cinema with a high-kicking third act dedicated to the trench coat-wearing detective.
But for sheer entertainment value, the ‘Art Deco’ segment is tough to beat. Sporting a pink bathrobe and curlers while seated under a beauty parlor hair dryer, Madonna performed the whole of “Material Girl” in a comical Noo-Yawk accent before throwing fake dollar bills into the crowd. “Cherish” saw the star take up the harp accompanied by (what else?) a troupe of dancing mermen. And following a West Side Story-inspired routine for arguably her finest pure pop moment, “Into the Groove,” she wrapped things up with a faithful recreation of the iconic “Vogue” video.
By the time each and every crew member bids an on-stage farewell during the Bob Fosse-meets-A Clockwork Orange encore of “Keep it Together,” it’s clear that you’ve just witnessed a spectacle of ground-breaking proportions. As dancer Luis Camacho said, Madonna “wanted to give the audience an experience, rather than them just going to a concert. She set the stage for concert shows and experiences that followed.” The tour even impressed Grammy voters, who were notoriously slow to recognize Madonna’s greatness. The video of the tour won the 1991 award for best music video, long form — Madonna’s very first Grammy Award.
Sure enough, no longer were audiences content to watch their pop idol simply play the hits. Elaborate production values and strong narrative arcs soon became just as integral to the superstar tour as the music itself. You only have to look at Michael Jackson’s Dangerous shows, complete with catapult stunts and ghoulish illusions, two years later to recognize the immediate impact Blond Ambition had. And it has continued to inspire pop’s A-listers ever since. Without Blond Ambition, it’s unlikely we’d have the gravity-defying acrobatics of P!nk, the candy-colored razzmatazz of Katy Perry or the formidable conceptual journeys of Beyoncé. And it goes without saying that its footprints were all over the various balls staged by Lady Gaga.
Madonna herself has refused to rest on her laurels, going even bigger and bolder on the likes of 1993’s The Girlie Show, 2004’s Re-Invention and 2008’s Sticky and Sweet. But nothing has ever changed the game quite like her extremely blond and incredibly ambitious 1990 world tour.
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