Midway through her set, Madonna inserts a mini-tribute to Michael Jackson into her rendition of Holiday. It's appropriate, but not just because of Jackson's recent demise. Born just 13 days apart, the careers of pop's two biggest megastars have always seemed to exist in parallel to each other. But while the last 15 years of Jackson's life saw him slowly waste away, Madonna has spent the same period intent on solidifying her own immortality. This scrappy hunger has been the one constant in a career marked by endless reinvention, a quality which has always been beneficial to her, but having reaffirmed her place at the head of the table several times over, a sense of purposelessness is beginning to creep into it.
Tonight's show finds her emphasising her strength and power above all else. Madonna comes across not so much as the Queen of Pop, but its Iron Lady, intent on bending it to her will. She summons up specially recorded video images of younger superstars - Kanye West, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake - with a snap of her fingers. The choreography is designed to display how limber she is. It is undoubtedly impressive on occasion: during the show's centrepiece, She's Not Me, Madonna abuses four immobile dancer mannequins -ripping wedding veils from their heads, French kissing them, finally strangling one - in a compelling display of alpha female superiority.
But this also has an increasing tendency to manifest itself in tiresome ways. There's no reason why a 50-year-old shouldn't flaunt her gym-sculpted body or express her sexuality; what disappoints is the mundanity of how she does it. Cutesy cheerleader skirts, vague S&M signifiers and choreographed pole-dancing are far from transgressive, especially from a woman who has been genuinely bold in pushing sexual boundaries. Elsewhere, a montage of senselessly arranged "humanitarian" images, from Iranian rebels to Mother Teresa, elicits groans from the audience.
Trying to prove her youthfulness, trendiness and good heart are goals which should be beneath Madonna. She has a back catalogue like no other, and it serves her well enough to redeem tonight's show. A rave version of Like A Prayer, mixed into Felix's Don't You Want Me, is electrifying, the kind of thrilling live moment that few others could match; there's a brilliant perversity in reimagining the bubblegum Dress You Up as a metal guitar-fest.
These are reminders that Madonna is not a woman to be written off, but they also highlight the paucity of interesting ideas elsewhere. Madonna's undisguised questing for immortality comes off as an empty pursuit because she has already achieved it – a fact that her own Jackson tribute should have made clear to her.
Hands up who remembers the album Madonna's Sticky & Sweet tour was supposed to promote?
Full points for Hard Candy, plus a bonus for those who can name any of its hits other than first single 4 Minutes. Ten months after it opened, having already played to more than two million people and earned close to $300 million in ticket sales, Madonna's current tour came back to Britain and rammed home the fact that, for pop's elite, releasing new music now matters less than playing live.
Mind you, in Madonna's case, playing live should be construed as a contentious description. Her full-on, fast-paced, sumptuous-looking show was a triumph of technology, a coup of choreography and an outstanding achievement in the dress department, but a concert in only its most modern meaning.
Madonna may have required her microphone more than Britney Spears, but she relied largely on pre-recorded vocals, while the music was more frequently driven by synthesised beats than her smartly-attired, five-piece band.
To criticise Madonna for placing style over substance is missing the point of the Queen Of Pop, of course. For an artist to whom image has always been all – and whose fans would expect no less – the gig delivered in spades from start to finish. Madonna was magnificent, belying her age by keeping up with her energetic army of several-decades-younger dancers, changing outfit for every other number and remaining the primary focus of a show that had more props and moving parts than a magicians' convention could muster.
Famous friends and collaborators – Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and a demented Ms Spears losing it in a lift – made appearances on screen, but the second most fabulous star on stage was a super-slick hydraulic lift. Or rather, about a dozen of them. Dancers, a dj booth, a boxing ring and even the occasional bottle of water appeared and disappeared within the blink of an eye.
During Beat Goes On, a vintage, convertible car drove itself down a walkway from the main stage to a central podium surrounded by screaming fans, among them Stella McCartney and Valentino.
Screens that started the show as the walls of a cuboid slithered sideways and upwards, splitting in to sections, or – around the podium – encasing the action in a see-through, circular cage.
Some of Hard Candy made it in to the set, though only 4 Minutes and Give It 2 Me felt like more than filler. Mostly, the music was techno and electro reworkings of memorable moments from Madonna's mighty back catalogue.
Hence Holiday became house music aptly performed on a conveyor belt, Ray Of Light swopped its ambient backing for a thundering beat and Like A Prayer thrust its arms in the air and went rave. The effect was akin to a slightly naff, nostalgic disco, with the fun factor turned up to ten.
Madonna only faltered when tried to look credible, notably pretending to play a guitar during half a dozen tracks. Her faux-soloing complete with taped feedback was as excruciating to watch and the heavy blonde wig she donned for the second half of the set must have been itchy to wear.
Still, the compensations came thick and fast – among them a Michael Jackson tribute starring a thrilling, lookalike dancer, a gypsy band with fiddle and accordion players and a spot of pole dancing that set a benchmark for the phrase 'fabulous and 50'. The music may have come second, but the highest-earning tour of 2008 still sparkles.
Madonna thrilled fans in London on Saturday night by performing a medley of Michael Jackson's hits at the O2 Arena -- just a week before the late legend was due to grace the same stage.
The pop superstar restarted her Sticky & Sweet world tour in the British capital but stopped the show to give her own personal tribute to Jackson, who passed away in Los Angeles last week.
The Material Girl recently confirmed that she planned to perform with Jackson at one of his 50 comeback concerts, which were due to kick off on July 13.
Madonna halted the gig halfway through while iconic images of the tragic star flashed up on screens behind her.
As the beat to Jackson's classic hit "Billie Jean" was pumped into the arena, one of her dancers, dressed in the King of Pop's trademark black and white with a wide-brimmed hat and white gloves, began performing Jackson's most famous moves -- including moonwalking across the stage.
The song turned into a medley with another classic Jackson hit, "Wanna Be Startin' Something", much to the delight of the London crowd.
Madonna told the audience, "Let's give it up for one of the greatest artists the world has ever known -- Michael Jackson!"
Later in the gig, the lyrics to Jackson's hit track "Man in the Mirror" were flashed up on screen as Madonna took to the stage wearing a black armband and a single white glove -- in honor of the late music legend.
In an interview before the concert, the star expressed her shock over the sudden passing of her friend -- and explained her onstage tribute.
She says, "I am so terribly sad about Michael Jackson's death. I don't know what artist wasn't inspired by him.
"I chose 'Billie Jean' (to perform at the O2) because it's instantly recognizable.
"Kento, my dancer, was obsessed with Michael all his life. And when Michael was having auditions for his tour, Kento really wanted to go but he'd already made a commitment to me. So now he's about to have his moment and be Michael at my show."↑ Back to top of page