Ranking 30 Years Of Madonna’s Tours: Which One Is The Greatest?

We settle the debate once and for all, just in time for the 30th anniversary of Madge's first tour.

Written by Christopher Rosa

During this week in 1985, a fresh-faced pop star named Madonna embarked on her first-ever concert tour, aptly titled The Virgin Tour. Little did concertgoers know, they were in the presence of arguably pop’s most dynamic performer (next to Michael Jackson, of course). Since The Virgin Tour, Madge has embarked on a total of nine stage shows and will begin her 10th — The Rebel Heart Tour — later this year. There’s no question her tours are both amazing and profitable — her 2008 Sticky & Sweet Tour is the highest-grossing solo artist trek in history — but which one reigns supreme? We’re about to find out.

Picking the best Madonna tour is like picking the tastiest flavor of ice cream. They’re all good for different reasons, and you might instantly regret ranking one over the other. Nevertheless, we took on the challenge. We factored in setlists, special effects, choreography and iconic moments in making our final decision. Get ready for a lot of vogueing.

  1. The Virgin Tour (1985)

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    Lady M’s debut show is definitely energetic and full of ’80s teen bombast; however, it lacks the style and sophistication of her other tours. Granted, she was only 26, but to put The Virgin Tour on the same level as something like The Re-Invention Tour is criminally wrong. While the throwback setlist is gold —”Holiday,” “Into the Groove,” and “Everybody” are performed in a row — The Virgin Tour just isn’t up to par with Madge’s other efforts.

  2. Drowned World Tour (2001)

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    Drowned was Madonna’s return to the stage after an eight-year touring hiatus. Despite being a shape-shifting visual feast — one second, she’s cyber-punk; the next, a cowgirl — something about this tour feels very cold and vacant. The show’s sheer lack of classic hits (only four, and that’s if you include “Secret”) was a letdown for audiences, not to mention the fact Madge seemed icier than ever. In a review of the Drowned World Tour, a New York Times writer noted, “[Madonna] represents self-love backed by plenty of gym time and a whole troupe of devoted flunkies, all laboring to delight an audience she only seems to disdain.” Yikes. And we thought music brought the people together.

  3. The MDNA Tour (2012)

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    In her most recent stage show, Madonna spared no expense to let us know she was angry. (During the performance of “Gang Bang,” she fake-shoots her dancers with several guns while blood projects on large screens. Working through Guy Ritchie demons, perhaps?) After the original shock of “WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING?!” wears off, The MDNA Tour is actually a very solid concert that harkens to Madonna’s earlier themes of sex, religion and playing the shock factor for all its worth. In a slowed-down version of “Like a Virgin,” she literally strips for the audience and demands tips. But that’s not to say the show doesn’t have its lighter moments; the cheerleader-inspired renditions of “Express Yourself” and “Give Me All Your Luvin'” are spellbinding, and “Open Your Heart” gets an electrifying makeover. Madonna really should have closed the show with “Give Me All Your Luvin,'” because her “Celebration” finale might be the most disappointing in her career.

  4. Sticky & Sweet Tour (2008-2009)

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    S&S is living proof a show can get by on splashy sets and practically aerobic choreography. You can’t hate this tour because it’s just so damn fun. From the bright colors that perfectly match the candy theme to the predominantly uptempo setlist (including “Borderline”), the Sticky & Sweet Tour is a tireless display of showmanship. A sugar rush, really.

  5. The Girlie Show (1993)

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    Madonna’s Erotica persona reached new heights in The Girlie Show, a sleek and sexy concert divided into segments like “Dominatrix” and “Studio 54.” Yup. It’s a must-watch for any diehard Madge fan, especially because it’s the last time she performed “Justify My Love” live. (And no, The MDNA Tour dance interlude doesn’t count.)

  6. Who’s That Girl World Tour (1987)

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    OK, so maybe it’s not as stylish as The Girlie Show, but Who’s That Girl wins for its ~iCoNiC “Open Your Heart” opener and setlist that rivals any Madonna tour to date. The show includes some of M’s most effervescent performing, so it’s definitely worth revisiting.

  7. Confessions Tour (2006)

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    Starting with the Donna Summer-infused “Future Lovers” and ending with the ABBA-tinged “Hung Up,” the Confessions Tour took audiences to the dance floor. Literally. Madonna used this show to explore different types of dance, from Saturday Night Fever-era disco to new wave and even hip-hop. Oh, did we also mention that she hung from a cross (yup, like Jesus) to sing “Live to Tell?” Because that was a thing that happened. Despite the controversy, the Confessions Tour remains one of Madge’s most ambitious treks ever.

  8. Re-Invention World Tour (2004)

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    Supporting perhaps her weakest album (2003’s “American Life”), the Re-Invention Tour is actually one of Madonna’s strongest shows. The warmth and happiness M radiated on this trek was a far cry from 2001’s hollow Drowned World Tour. The setlist also included “Material Girl,” “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Holiday,” among other classic hits, thus ending Madonna’s oldies ban. With this tour, M proved her greatest reinvention could just be showing more of herself. (Also, she opens with “Vogue,” which is everything.)

  9. Blond Ambition Tour (1990)

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    This. Tour. Blond Ambition doesn’t compare to any other pop show. Period. Madonna pulled out all the stops for this tour, from the Jean-Paul Gaultier cone bra that later became her signature look, to simulating masturbation on stage during “Like a Virgin” and questioning the Catholic Church in “Live to Tell”/”Oh Father.” Simply put, the Blond Ambition Tour solidified Madonna’s status as a cultural tour-de-force and groundbreaking pop artist. Rolling Stone seems to agree, because it dubbed Blond Ambition the best tour of the ’90s. Damn straight.

    Do you agree with our ranking? Let us know your top choices in the comments below.

    [Photo: Getty Images]