Madonna knows how to put on a show. And 25 years ago today, she put on a show that almost got her arrested.
The 1990 Blond Ambition tour supported Madonna's fourth studio album, Like a Virgin, and the soundtrack I'm Breathless. It was a controversial set, juxtaposing sexualization with Catholic imagery. The tour became such a media circus that by the time she reached Italy, Madonna was forced to cancel one of her shows — the Pope attempted to have it banned.
In Toronto, where Madonna put on two Blond Ambition shows, police threatened to have her arrested for the content of her performance during the hit single "Like a Virgin."
The Toronto Blonde Ambition show is one of the most well-remembered, thanks to the 1991 documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare, which chronicles the entire tour and provides insight and behind-the-scenes views.
Truth or Dare is one of the best music documentaries ever made — and my personal favorite. It's shot entirely in black and white, except for the scenes of Madonna on stage, which scream out in color. One of the most riveting scenes is the telling of the Toronto police confrontation.
On the first night in Toronto, two plainclothes policeman observed the show and wanted Madonna to cut the masturbation scene from the end of her performance of "Like a Virgin."
The cops issued a threat: If Madonna didn't remove the masturbation scenes from the show, they would have her arrested, or at least write her a ticket. Madonna, in an on-screen conversation with her manager Freddie, rants about how she will not change her art to meet the city of Toronto's rules.
And the show goes on anyway.
After this performance, the "Like a Virgin" routine from Blond Ambition became iconic. Madonna spends the song on a queen-sized bed on the stage. The sheets are red velvet and Madonna, wearing a curly blonde wig and a gold mini-dress featuring pointy bra cups, goes all-out, in spite of the police officers.
For the first three minutes of the song, Madonna's performance is seductive and sensual, but writhing and references to touching herself are nothing compared to the song's finale: Madonna mimes a masturbating while alone on the bed in front of the audience.
Madonna was not arrested after the performance, despite refusing to change her show. But her camp leaked the incident to the press, generating plenty of headlines about how the raucous show was almost shut down.
According to an article (found in a Lexis search) published by The Globe and Mail (Canada) on June 1, 1990:
In statement released Wednesday, the best-selling singer said: "I would rather have cancelled the show than let anybody dictate how I can or can't express myself as an artist. This is certainly a cause for which I am willing to be arrested."
From the beginning, with her 1983 self-titled debut album, Madonna has shamelessly flaunted her sexuality, and intentionally created songs and routines on stage that are meant to provoke. Sometimes, as with her most recent studio album Rebel Heart, that provocation backfires. But in the early '90s Madonna was considered one of the the biggest pop stars in the world, and her sensual performances not only made headlines — they made her a star.
Even though she wasn't arrested, the 1990 performance of "Like a Virgin" in Toronto sent shockwaves through American pop. That controversial display of female sexuality was, in many ways, blazing a trail for pop performers in the '00s and '10s. Her body was literally policed, but she put on a show anyway.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.