To say that Madonna is one of the world’s most influential pop stars is an understatement. After all, her near-mythical origin story — she stepped foot in New York City with 35 dollars in her pocket and worked odd jobs to fund her first forays in the music business — and her constant reinvention of her image and sound not only entertained countless fans, they also helped pave the way for the many female music stars who have followed in her footsteps.
Simply put, Madonna is a legend. And in honor of her birthday this month, we’re taking a look back at some of the most #ICONIC performances in the Queen of Pop’s colorful, decades-spanning, career.
Like A Virgin, MTV Video Music Awards 1984
Despite establishing herself as a club star early on in her career with the release of her eponymous debut LP, Madonna’s popularity rose exponentially with the shocking — and career-making — debut performance of her then-upcoming single Like A Virgin at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, during which she gyrated and writhed suggestively on the floor while dressed as a punk bride.
The performance paid off: Like a Virgin soon became her first No. 1 single on the Hot 100 and No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, with her sophomore LP eventually selling over 21 million copies worldwide and becoming her first number-one album in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, the UK, and the US.
JFK Stage, Live Aid 1985
Despite having a hit that seemingly espoused materialism and excess, Madonna exhibited an early penchant for activism and social justice when she agreed to take part in the Live Aid series of concerts that raised money to help fight famine in Ethiopia.
Aside from performing her hit singles Holiday and Into The Groove, as well as the True Blue deep cut Love Makes The World Go Round at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium, Madonna also used the platform to address the unauthorized leak of images from her early days as an artist’s model, telling the crowd that she wouldn’t take her jacket off because “[the media] might hold it against me ten years from now.”
Who’s That Girl? World Tour, 1987
By 1987, Madonna was already a household name: she starred in the hit Hollywood comedy Desperately Seeking Susan, sang in the soundtracks for a couple other films, and released her third studio album True Blue, which spawned three number one singles.
Madonna, as expected, took it up a notch when she embarked on the Who’s That Girl? show, her very first world tour.
Boasting a 14 song set, the tour effectively drafted the template for Madonna’s future shows: numerous costume changes, designer collaborations, theatrics, massive sets, a ton of corsets, big dance numbers, song interpolations (mixing I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) with Like A Virgin? Genius!), and social commentaries (see: Papa Don’t Preach versus Reaganomics and 80s-era conservative policies).
The Blonde Ambition World Tour, 1989
Madonna continued her penchant for reinvention and ever-evolving theatrics with her second globe-trotting show, The Blonde Ambition World Tour.
The show, which began its first leg in Japan before heading over to the US and Europe, became the subject of intense controversy and received threats of boycotts from conservatives and the Vatican primarily because of its now-infamous Like A Virgin number, which saw Madonna simulating sexual acts onstage.
Despite the controversy it endured however, the show achieved critical success, with publications such as Rolling Stone praising its creative incorporation of theater, sexuality, fashion, and religion.
All in a day’s #WERK for the Queen of Pop.
Vogue, MTV Video Music Awards 1990
Honoring her roots as a club kid, Madonna took LGBT ball culture from the underground to the mainstream with her hit single Vogue, the release of which saw an entire generation mimicking the #FIERCE choreography — a series of complex hand motions and poses meant to echo those of Golden Age Hollywood stars — from the David Fincher-helmed music video.
Further cementing her status as a gay icon, Madonna, alongside her entire Blonde Ambition Tour troupe, adapted a version of the dance for the MTV VMAs on September 6, 1990.
Dressed in full Marie Antoinette garb, Madonna not only served us style and camp and grace, she made us eat it too.
Sooner or Later, Oscars 1991
Madonna, bless her soul, was never really considered by music critics as a vocalist. Sure, she can dance the house down and do tricks on an S&M carousel horse like no one else but for the longest time, her voice wasn’t really seen as her strongest asset.
That all changed at the 1991 Academy Awards.
Performing the Sondheim-penned Sooner Or Later from the Dick Tracy soundtrack, Madonna, dripping with silks and jewels and armed with the requisite fur stole, was every bit the chanteuse: not only did she serve strong, pitch-perfect vocals, she did so while also evoking Old Hollywood glamour.
PS: The song won the Oscar for Best Original Song that same night.
Bad Girl / Fever, Saturday Night Live, 1993
Two years after her Oscars performance, Madonna took to the Saturday Night Live stage to perform two tracks from her Erotica LP: the somber ballad Bad Girl and her funked-up cover of Peggy Lee’s Fever.
Showcasing more mature vocals compared to her 80s heyday, her SNL set was hailed as an achievement, with the The Huffington Post stating that the “legendary performance” was the “highlight” of her appearance at the program.
Ray of Light / Little Star, The Oprah Winfrey Show, 1998
Three months after launching her Ray of Light LP at a surprise concert at the Roxy NYC nightclub, Madonna appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show on May 29, to perform the title track as well as the song Little Star.
Sporting a new look inspired by mystics and her recent studies on Kabbalah, Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga, Madonna exuded a powerful yet grounded aura during her appearance, leading Oprah to dub her as the “Spiritual Girl”.
Spiritual, elemental, and every bit enlightened, this performance was hailed by many as another bold step for the superstar. They’re not wrong.
Live to Tell, The Confessions Tour, 2006
By now, it’s safe to say that no Madonna tour is complete without the singer making a political statement and The Confessions Tour from 2006 is no different.
The show, which travelled to over 12 countries and watched by one million people globally, found notoriety because of a number in which Madonna appeared on a mirrored crucifix to sing her 1986 classic Live to Tell as a death toll of African AIDS victims counted down on a screen above her.
Iconic? Yes. Powerful? Absolutely.
Super Bowl Halftime Show
Following in the footsteps of her contemporaries Michael Jackson and Prince, the Queen of Pop delivered a performance like no other at the 2012 Superbowl.
Dressed like a mythological goddess of sorts, Madonna entered the field on a golden throne carried by Spartan warriors before treating the crowd to a carefully-curated setlist composed of hits from her packed catalogue and a new single from her then-upcoming album MDNA.
The result? Her performance notched in 114 million viewers, 3 million higher than the viewership of the game itself.
Living For Love, Brit Awards, 2015
It’s a scene etched in everyone’s collective memory: Madonna, ascending a flight of stairs before taking an unfortunate tumble due to a wardrobe malfunction.
For any other artist, that would have resulted in a cancelled performance, a media blackout. But no, Madonna’s not like any other artist, and just like the OG fighter that she is (sorry, Xtina!) she soldiered on, inadvertently mirroring the lyrics of her then-new house anthem Living For Love.
Talk about iconic.
Medellin, Billboard Music Awards, 2019
After a couple of years away from the spotlight, Madonna took to the stage at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards to debut her comeback single, Medellín, live for the first time. And as expected, she did so in epic fashion.
Not only was the Queen of Pop joined by Colombian singer-songwriter and rapper Maluma and an entire troupe of dancers on the BBMA stage, she also had to dance with four other versions of herself — a feat made possible by new augmented reality technology.
What followed is best described as a flurry of dance and color: it was fun, it looked exhilarating, it was fresh. It showed the Queen was still on top, and more importantly, it showed the younger generation of popstars how to do a proper comeback.