Three decades on, the controversy-courting concert tour is still shaping the ways female artists express their sexuality
In Toronto, Madonna simulated masturbation on a velvet bed under the watchful eye of the Canadian police, who threatened her with arrest if her show went ahead. In Italy, unions called for a general strike if Madonna performed, and Pope John Paul II declared her concert “one of the most satanic shows in the history of humanity”. The Blond Ambition tour, which turned 30 years old last month, remains among the most controversial tours of all time.
It seems bizarre now that so much fuss was made over a little fake frotting and a few gyrating nuns. But this was 1990, when Kylie Minogue was still performing in straw hats, Bananarama were deemed dangerous and the gossip pages raged over Annie Lennox singing Would I Lie to You in a bra. Into this age of relative wholesomeness landed Blond Ambition Madonna, on a mission to combine fashion, rock, Broadway theatricality and performance art, to “be provocative” and “break useless taboos”. Mission accomplished. Jean Paul Gaultier’s famous conical corset has been described as a “Freudian nightmare”, a generation of teenagers asked their parents what S&M stood for, and the coy suggestiveness of the live pop spectacle was blown wide open.
The themed set-pieces – religion, German expressionism, art deco, Madge’s rubbish new movie Dick Tracy – set a new bar for confrontational theatricality that only greater shock tactics could ever challenge. Marilyn Manson’s onstage Bible shredding is straight out of the “Madonna 90” guidebook, and with her firework bras, stage blood and copious dry-humping, Lady Gaga looks as if she was conceived at a Blond Ambition gig. But the key taboo Madonna broke that summer was that of feminine sexuality as strength rather than titillation, as something owned by the artist not cashed in by the svengalis. That’s what gave us SexKylie, “zig-a-zig-AH!”, Wrecking Ball-era Miley and Nicki Minaj’s bottom-obsessed Anaconda. It’s one of the reasons female artists feel comfortable singing about sex and desire today.
Sex sells, though, and more sex sells more. Over the decades, overt sexuality became the expected – nay, contractual – pop norm. Attention-grabbing boundaries were pushed to their limits, and artists were pressured to play this new, ever raunchier game. Enter Billie Eilish, defiantly covered, mocking the uber-sexualised expectations of modern pop with a film of her stripping off beneath blackened water: “If I wear more, if I wear less, who decides what that makes me?” she intones, shaming the bodyshamers and staring out the monetisable male gaze. By asserting ownership of her body she is not re-establishing any old taboos, she’s breaking the oldest one of all – subservience. Her image, her body, her art, her rules. Which was Madonna’s point all along.