A quarter of a century ago, cone bras ruled the world
Madonna kicked off her Blond Ambition World Tour on April 13, 1990, 25 years ago this week. Besides offering the world Madonna in her absolute prime – as a performer and as an all-around focus of attention – Blond Ambition changed the pop-culture landscape.
Fans might be surprised to learn that it’s not Madonna’s highest-grossing tour; Sticky & Sweet, MDNA and The Girlie Show each performed better. And it featured only 57 stops. But it’s still hugely important and might have done the most to define Madonna as a music icon – and here are 25 reasons for that.
(NSFW warning: The article features clips from Madonna in concert, and some of the language might not be work-appropriate. Hey, it’s Madonna.)
Today, most major pop tours are full-scale productions with costume changes, special effects, elaborate sets and a sense of drama that takes the experience beyond someone just singing into a microphone. It wasn’t always that way, however, and Madonna and choreographer Vincent Paterson specifically set out to elevate the concert.
As Paterson explained to PEOPLE in a 1990 interview, “The biggest thing we tried to do is change the shape of concerts. Instead of just presenting songs, we wanted to combine fashion, Broadway, rock and performance art.”
The fact that Madonna divided her performances into five thematic categories – Metropolis, Religious, Dick Tracy, Art Deco and Encore – suggests not only a level of creative planning unusual for concerts at the time but also the sheer volume of material Madonna had to work with – and at only 31 years old, no less.
In the first two hours that tickets went on sale, a total of 482,832 were purchased, for a grand total of $14,237,000. By the end of the tour, Madonna had generated more than $62 million – that’s $113 million adjusted for inflation.
In addition to the vast majority of Blond Ambition’s many stage costumes, Madonna’s bullet bra was designed by haute couture legend Jean Paul Gaultier. In 2012, one of these very bras sold at a Christie’s auction for $52,000.
According to a 1990 edition of PEOPLE’s Style Watch, Madonna’s clip-on ponytail quickly became a look that fans copied when attending Blond Ambition stops. “Lots of women – and men – are showing up at her concerts with this hairdo,” remarked Warner Bros. Records publicity VP Liz Rosenberg. “It’s really catching on.”
You might think Madonna would do anything for a look, but that clip-on ponytail resulted from one specific need: she needed a style that wouldn’t get tangled in the headset she wears when she sings.
Initially, it was to be the Like a Prayer World Tour, sponsored by Pepsi. Of course, the “Like a Prayer” video was met with a great deal of controversy, and Pepsi eventually backed out of a licensing deal with “The Donner.” Thus, Blond Ambition was born.
Blond Ambition kicked off on Friday the 13th – Friday, April 13, 1990, near Tokyo, Japan. Suitably, the weather was miserably wet and cold, and at one point Madonna slid across the wet stage and proclaimed, “You didn’t know you were here for an ice-skating show. Well, I’m Dorothy Hamill.”
And according to the New York Times review of the concert, that meant the concert was more “live” than live. “Madonna has become so perfectionistic, and so athletic in her dancing, that she would clearly rather lip-sync than risk a wrong note,” the review notes. “With tickets priced at $30, concertgoers might expect a more live concert.”
As documented in the 1991 behind-the-scenes movie Madonna: Truth or Dare, Toronto police threatened to arrest Madonna should her performance of “Like a Virgin” feature her miming masturbation. When the faux-Middle Eastern arrangement of the hit song played, however, Madonna did her usual dance, hand motions and all.
Ultimately the police opted not to arrest her on obscenity charges, but she still famously called the Canadian city a "fascist state."
Not that it’s a good thing to earn the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church, but it speaks to what a big deal the Blond Ambition tour was that the Vatican’s official newspaper, Osservatore Romano, declared the show sinful – a more or less unprecedented decision.
Madonna’s response to the condemnation, however, was 100 percent Madonna. After commanding the Italian press to cease talking, she defends her performance. “Like theater, [Blond Ambition] asks questions, provokes thought and takes you on an emotional journey, portraying good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow, redemption and salvation.”
Regardless of what the Pope may have thought of Madonna’s work, she felt she was on good terms with God, and Truth or Dare notes that she began every show with a group prayer.
There’s been no shortage of kerfuffle about Madonna’s relationship with the rest of the Ciccone clan, but the tour featured a touching moment onstage with her dad, Silvio Ciccone, at her hometown show in Detroit.
There’s a moment in Truth or Dare when she mentions that her dad watching the racier parts of the Blond Ambition tour is scarier than confronting the Toronto police.
It’s notable that Madonna was up-front about the fact that six of her seven male backup dancers were gay men. Madonna, after all, had been outspoken about gay rights and gay people in general long before it became the norm among celebrities. In fact
Madonna was good friends with the pop artist Keith Haring, who died of AIDS-related complications on Feb. 16, 1990. The Blond Ambition World Tour’s last American stop, in East Rutherford, New Jersey, was dedicated to Haring’s memory, and the more than $300,000 the show made was donated to the Foundation for AIDS Research. (Madonna’s Sticky & Sweet Tour used a Haring-inspired backdrop, seen in the above clip.)
Skip forward to the 5:45 mark in this clip of the Blond Ambition performance of “Now I’m Following You” to see six dancing Dick Tracys pair off into three male-male pairs. It’s quite the spectacle, and it’s even more notable when you realize that most of the tour began before the 1990 Dick Tracy remake (in which Madonna starred) hit theaters, meaning this chorus line was the first glimpse fans saw of the reinvented Dick Tracy.
And no, none of those Dick Tracys were Warren Beatty, who played the title character and who was dating Madonna throughout the tour.
You have to hand it to Madonna: Encouraging the use of condoms was on-point in 1990, and every show had her introducing “Into the Groove” by saying, “You really never get to know a guy until you ask him to wear a rubber.”
For the Blond Ambition take on “Material Girl,” Madonna sang the entire song in an accent that falls somewhere between dumb blonde, “Noo Yawk” housewife and gangster’s moll. Say what you will about Madonna taking herself very seriously, but most singers wouldn’t ever perform in curlers and a bathrobe.
The first act of the show is themed “Metropolis.” That’s not Superman’s city. That’s the 1927 German expressionist epic Metropolis, and you can see it in the retro-science-fiction aesthetic of the stage. Hey, if you were Madonna, you’d aim for high art.
In a 1991 New York Times interview, Madonna described the Blond Ambition performance of “Keep It Together” as “Bob Fosse-meets-Clockwork Orange.”
“It’s the show’s ultimate statement about the family, because we’re absolutely brutalizing with each other, while there’s also no mistaking that we love each other deeply,” she said.
There’s a famous scene in Truth or Dare in which Madonna parties with other celebs after a Los Angeles show. Among them is Kevin Costner, who tells Madonna he found the show “neat.” It’s an amazing moment, and Madonna is predictably incensed that Costner would use that adjective to describe her. “No one’s ever described me quite that way,” she tells him. Later, she decrees “Anybody who says my show was ‘neat’ has to go.”
Costner would forgive the diss in 2007.
The documentary about Blond Ambition was released in 1991. It cost $4.5 million to make. It earned $29 million. Sure, Madonna was nominated for a Razzie for Worst Actress – for playing herself, no less – but she had piles of money with which to console herself.
Truth or Dare – and by extension, Blond Ambition – were skewered two times, by Julie Brown in Medusa: Dare to Be Truthful and by English comedians Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in In Bed with French and Saunders. We’d like to think Madge took it all in stride.
The tour concluded in August 1990. Everyone was all “Wow, Madonna has an amazing library of hits.” In November 1990, her first greatest hits collection, The Immaculate Collection, was released. You do the math.