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Why Madonna’s Girlie Show Tour Was A Two-Fingered Triumph
In Depth

Why Madonna’s Girlie Show Tour Was A Two-Fingered Triumph

Madonna’s Girlie Show world tour set new standards not only for the “Queen Of Pop”, but also for the blockbuster live shows of the future.

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Just a decade after her self-titled debut album hit the shops, Madonna’s career appeared to have completed an entire orbit around the supernova of global fame. Her breakthrough had swiftly scaled once MTV got the Like A Virgin album’s singles in their sights: she’d enjoyed a solid run in the super-league with that record’s follow-up, True Blue, and basked in creative recognition with Like A Prayer, while the controversial Erotica pushed the envelope beyond anything yet seen in pop music. Launched in the autumn of 1993, The Girlie Show tour was crafted to remind everyone just what had made Madonna one of the best musicians of the 80s.

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The setlist: A sharp, slick affair

The structure and storytelling of Madonna’s previous tour, Blond Ambition, had established a new template and creative standard for stadium concerts. Three years later, The Girlie Show was a sharper, almost slicker affair, segmented into four simple sections.

Opening proceedings with Madonna’s recent hit single, Erotica, the Dominatrix portion showcased the erotic, voyeuristic themes omnipresent in Madonna’s early-90s work. The next section, Studio 54, started as an effervescent headrush before, almost as quickly, darkening with reflections on the AIDS crisis, which was arguably at its vicious peak as The Girlie Show made its way around the world. In 1993, there wasn’t much optimism that the health disaster would be over any time soon, and as one of the most pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians of the era, Madonna made awareness of HIV’s dangers and the plight of those affected a signature of her work.

The third segment, Weimar Cabaret, was the show’s lightest, with campy crowd-pleasers such as Like A Virgin performed in a Marlene Dietrich style, along with a rare airing for I’m Going Bananas, from 1990’s I’m Breathless soundtrack album. The final two songs of The Girlie Show setlist – Justify My Love, in a Cecil Beaton homage, and a celebratory Everybody – made up the fourth act: the night’s inevitable encore.

After a decade in the business, Madonna wasn’t about to take the easy option by simply parading her catalogue of hits in a crass attempt to win favour. Many of the best Madonna songs, among them Vogue, Express Yourself, La Isla Bonita and Holiday, were present and correct with the aforementioned Like A Virgin, but that was it. Anyone hoping for a quickfire rendition of Madonna’s groundbreaking run of No.1 singles was at the wrong show, with the “Queen Of Pop”’s restless focus on moving things along already in evidence on what would become her last international tour of the 20th century.

The tour dates: A challenge to her “enemies”

Across Madonna’s international tours, The Girlie Show stands out for the places she didn’t visit – the entire East Coast of the US, plus continental Europe outside Paris (a Frankfurt date got cancelled due to technical problems) – while taking in less-routine territories such as Turkey and Israel. The Girlie Show also marked Madonna’s first concerts in Australia and South America, with performances in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. It wouldn’t be until 2016 that Madonna would play in Oceania again, where she closed the Rebel Heart Tour in Sydney. Fans left unable to visit the countries she did play on The Girlie Show were rewarded with a 1994 VHS cassette and LaserDisc release, filmed in Sydney’s Cricket Ground on 19 November 1993. The Girlie Show: Live Down Under was later reissued as a DVD.

Launching The Girlie Show on 25 September 1993, in London, where the tabloid reaction to Erotica and the Sex book had been particularly combative, was a brave move, but Madonna wasn’t in the mood to take prisoners at this juncture in her astonishing career. She went on record saying she was opening the 39-date tour in the UK because it was where she had the “most enemies”. Fans were dazzled by the 17-song set, though controversy would follow (there were protests by Orthodox Jews in Israel). Madonna, however, had long since stopped worrying about the storms that trailed in her wake.

The legacy: Repositioning Madonna as a masterful live performer

The Girlie Show was an attempt by Madonna to reset focus away from the headlines and back on her ability to stage a spectacular live show. With brother Christopher Ciccone as tour director, plus a troupe of world-class dancers, including Carlton Wilborn, who had appeared with Madonna on Blond Ambition and in its groundbreaking documentary feature, Truth Or Dare (aka In Bed With Madonna), and many costumes created by Dolce & Gabbana, this was a glittering tour de force, drawing on the edges of what staging technology could create in the early 90s. The tour broke attendance records in Brazil and grossed a reported $70 million in US dollars.

More importantly, The Girlie Show repositioned Madonna as a masterful live performer with an adoring audience. The “Queen Of Pop” had arguably never looked or sounded so confident on stage, and each night demonstrated just how inspiring she can be when she comes out fighting. The musical renaissance of Ray Of Light was five years in the future, but The Girlie Show tour set Madonna’s live legacy on an even footing with her studio creations, and would be something she would lean into more strongly in the next millennium.

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