Madonna premiered the song at a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden to raise money for medical research for AIDS. She dedicated the song to the memory of her friend, artist Michael Burgoyne. Madonna has since performed the song on three of her world tours. In 1987, during the Who's That Girl World Tour, she performed the song standing motionless in a single spotlight, wearing a black ensemble with tassels, golden tips and ribbing, designed by Marlene Stewart. Two different performances of the song on this tour can be found on the videos: Who's That Girl – Live in Japan, filmed in Tokyo, Japan, on June 22, 1987, and Ciao, Italia! – Live from Italy, filmed in Turin, Italy, on September 4, 1987. Three years later on her Blond Ambition World Tour, Madonna evoked Catholic images during the performance. She wore a black kaftan and a neon crucifix, while singing on a confession bench, with Roman columns and a platform full of votive candles in the background. Two different performances were taped and released on video, the Blond Ambition – Japan Tour 90, taped in Yokohama, Japan, on April 27, 1990, and the Live! – Blond Ambition World Tour 90, taped in Nice, France, on August 5, 1990.
Madonna's performance of the song was the subject of controversy during the 2006 Confessions Tour. She was raised from the floor hanging on a mirrored cross wearing a red blouse and velvet pants, with a crown of Thorns on her head. During the performance, the number 12,000,000 flashed above her on the stage's backdrop screens, along with images of African children. This was intended to detail the estimated number of children who have been orphaned by the AIDS pandemic in Africa.
German prosecutors in Düsseldorf threatened to sue her for blasphemy, and Protestant bishop Margot Käßmann said that "maybe the only way an aging superstar can attract attention is to offend people's religious sentiments." The Russian Orthodox Church and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR) described Madonna's performance as amoral, and urged all members to boycott her upcoming concert in Moscow. The performance at Rome's Olympic Stadium—located near the Vatican—was condemned as an act of hostility toward the Roman Catholic Church by religious leaders. Italian cardinal Ersilio Tonini called the concert "a blasphemous challenge to the faith" and a "profanation of the cross", also calling for Madonna to be excommunicated. Reverend Manfredo Leone described it as "disrespectful, in bad taste and provocative".
Muslim and Jewish leaders also criticized the performance. Mario Scialoja, the head of Italy's Muslim League commented "I think her idea is in the worst taste and she'd do better to go home." Riccardo Pacifici, the spokesman for Rome's Jewish community said "It's a disrespectful act, and to do it in Rome is even worse." Madonna released a statement about the controversy:
I am very grateful that my show was so well received all over the world. But there seems to be many misinterpretations about my appearance on the cross and I wanted to explain it myself once and for all.
There is a segment in my show where three of my dancers 'confess' or share harrowing experiences from their childhood that they ultimately overcame. My 'confession' follows and takes place on a Crucifix that I ultimately come down from. This is not a mocking of the church. It is no different than a person wearing a Cross or 'Taking Up the Cross' as it says in the Bible. My performance is neither anti-Christian, sacrilegious or blasphemous. Rather, it is my plea to the audience to encourage mankind to help one another and to see the world as a unified whole. I believe in my heart that if Jesus were alive today he would be doing the same thing.
My specific intent is to bring attention to the millions of children in Africa who are dying every day, and are living without care, without medicine and without hope. I am asking people to open their hearts and minds to get involved in whatever way they can. The song ends with a quote from the Bible's Book of Matthew: 'For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me and God replied, "Whatever you did for the least of my brothers... you did it to me.'
Please do not pass judgement without seeing my show.
Read more about this topic: Live To Tell
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