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Madonna’s Last Tour: Summarizing four decades of successes, scandals & cultural milestones in two hours

The Celebration tour will pay tribute to Madonna’s four-decade career. Madonna had never toured without a new studio album to promote. She has never given a greatest hits concert. The tour seems to work to reinforce the artist’s musical legacy. Not only is she responsible for the highest-grossing tours in history, but, with the Blonde Ambition Tour in 1990, she invented the pop concert as we know it today: a theatrical event divided into acts, combining both songs and visual spectacle .

After a 40-year career, she allows herself to be nostalgic and recognize her accomplishments. How will she distill a wide catalog that includes so many personal reinventions? It was common for her past tours to follow her character of the moment: new age techno on Drowned World Tour, disco diva on Confessions Tour, ghetto colorism on Hard Candy, the sad after-party muse of MDNA. But how will she combine them all in a concert that lasts about two hours?

How to retell her beginnings

If this review of her live career were chronological, which doesn’t seem likely, Madonna could start with her most successful song on Spotify: “Material Girl,” from her second album Like a Virgin (1984). Its resurgence is thanks to Tiktok and Stranger Things, which featured her in a scene. In its day, the song did not reach number one in the most important markets (it stayed at number 2 in the United States and number 3 in England). But it’s perhaps her first big song, because it gave Madonna a nickname – she was known as the Material Girl for decades – and a legacy to destroy (several songs from Ray of Light, 1998, and American Life, from 2003, dedicated themselves to annulling that reputation).

Madonna on her Virgin Tour, 1985.
Madonna on her Virgin Tour, 1985.Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)

Madonna was presented as a blank canvas on which to project the fantasies of a decade. Her first album, Madonna (1983), achieved moderate success. It presented her to the world as an irreverent disco diva. She could sing about going on vacation (“Holiday”) as well as burning with sexual desire (“Burning Up”). But it was Like a Virgin (1984) that began to build her character: the eponymous single, her first number one, introduced us to her love of double meanings in her titles. “Material Girl” gave her as much satisfaction as headaches when, in the following decade, she wanted to shed the label. She has only sung the song on two tours in almost 30 years, although in 2022 she released a cover of the song as a duet with rapper Saucy Santana, in which she clarified “a materialistic girl is not tasteless.”

The Madonna that we know now

Her first album (Madonna) became a hit. Her second album (Like a Virgin) was a runaway success. By the time True Blue (1986) was released, Madonna was already a superstar. Recorded during her first year of marriage to Sean Penn, True Blue is the mold in which Madonna herself was cast. “Papa Don’t Preach,” the song that launched that album, is one of the strangest in pop history: a danceable number about a young woman who confronts her father because she refuses to have an abortion. Family planning associations criticized the singer, who endeared herself to conservatives, both parties seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the singer was simply claiming the right to choose. In any case, in the video clip for the song, directed by James Foley, Madonna invents her first meme: the T-shirt with the phrase “Italians do it better.” Almost four decades later, an independent Los Angeles music label called Italians Do It Better ended up releasing an album of Madonna covers in which “Papa Don’t Preach” was an icy, whispered ballad, as if that woman so sure of bringing a baby into the world in 1986 was not really sure of doing so in 2021.

Madonna and Sean Penn, then married, in 1987.
Madonna and Sean Penn, then married, in 1987.Ron Galella, Ltd. (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

La Isla Bonita,” another Madonna classic included on this album, was first offered to Michael Jackson to become part of his album Bad. Here, Madonna’s career begins to intersect with Jackson’s, as she reaches his league.

Madonna climbs into the pulpit

True Blue sold even more than Like a Virgin. Her fourth album, Like a Prayer (1989), was preceded by the single of the same name, one of the songs that Madonna has never tired of singing. The artist has an ambivalent relationship with her own hits: there are some that she has rarely sung again.) The video for “Like a Prayer,” in which Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint who comes to life, angered conservatives – who realized that perhaps Madonna was not anti-abortion, just provocative – and paved the way for another of her greatest successes. But on the album Like a Prayer, which today appears on several lists of the best in history, there is more than controversy. A revenge song against Sean Penn (“‘Til death do us part”) seems today, after the success of Shakira and Bizarrap, like an elegant chamber piece. “Promise” is an emotional piano ballad in memory of her mother, who died when Madonna was five years old. If she sang it today, at 64 years old and as the mother of six children, the song could paralyze a stadium. For the same reason, “Oh Father” would also be a must if Madonna wants to get personal in the middle of the celebration. “Express Yourself” was the subject of controversy in 2011 when many, including Madonna, considered Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” too similar to it. She came to sing the two songs in a row on her MDNA tour as a taunt towards the artist. At this point, they have a good relationship, and they have the recipe for an epic stadium moment: singing it together.

Madonna gets naked

On the soundtrack of Dick Tracy, Madonna demonstrated something unprecedented: that she was a good singer. Stephen Sondheim’s “Sooner or Later” remains her great exercise in vocal virtuosity today – she performed it at the Oscars – but no one goes on a Madonna tour for her voice. In that soundtrack, as an epilogue, there came “Vogue,” the closest thing to a signature song that Madonna has. If it is emblematic, it is because she herself seems comfortable with it: she sings it, claims it, covers it and honors it. Any other Madonna hit could be left out of this greatest hits tour, but the absence of “Vogue” could cause a revolt.

Madonna on the Blonde Ambition tour, 1990.
Madonna on the Blonde Ambition tour, 1990.Jim Smeal (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

This song is from 1990, but with it, she closes the eighties to enter a new era in which she decided to play with themes even more provocative than religion: free sex without guilt.

It’s not that singers weren’t sexualized before. But Madonna decided to sexualize herself according to her own rules. In 1990′s “Justify My Love,” the artist lists her sexual fantasies. And when Erotica arrived, the theme continued. Erotica (1992) is actually about love, loss and AIDS, but the public will always associate it with provocation and the book Sex. This album, it would seem, made Madonna uncomfortable for a few years due to the setback it caused in her career, but lately she has claimed it. At 64 years old, she is pushing the same buttons that she did then: those who think that a woman, no matter how old she is, should not talk about her desires.

Madonna dresses up

The period after Erotica is very divisive. For some, she becomes a serious and respected artist capable of sweeping with a ballad. For others, she becomes a bit of a boring songstress. It is difficult for a festive atmosphere to fit anything from the soundtrack of Evita (1996). If she were to choose something from Ray of Light (1998), considered his resurrection and best album by many critics, it should be “Ray of Light” itself, a trance anthem that she recently turned into a electro-minimal-trap anthem, only two minutes long, for the TikTok era. This is one of the intrigues of the tour: will we see the Madonna who in the last two years has tried to capture a new Tiktok audience by turning her hits (“Frozen,” “Material Girl,” “Hung Up”) into pieces primed for cell phone choreographies? Madonna’s skill has always been in not being guided by common sense.

Madonna on her Drowned World Tour.
Madonna on her Drowned World Tour.New York Daily News Archive (NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Madonna’s spiritual era closed with Music, which was already showing much more playful tendencies. Madonna performs and celebrates it whenever she has the chance. Some may think it essential for a greatest hits tour, although her fans would possibly appreciate the inclusion of “Don’t Tell Me,” a sad, evocative, catchy tune whose video caused all the fast fashion stores in Europe to sell cowboy-style women’s accessories in 2000 and 2001.

Madonna keeps dancing

In recent years and tours, Madonna has grown introspective, recalling albums and moments in her career that were less successful but that she values more than some of her hits. Will she remember in this greatest hits concert that in 2003 she released an album called American Life, from which no one except her most ardent followers remembers a single song? On her last two tours (Madame X and Tears of a Clown, the latter a mini-tour with only two dates) she brought back songs from the album. But an audience waiting for the chart-toppers could take advantage of this moment to go to the bathroom. So pulling “Confessions on a Dancefloor,” her return to the charts and a massive success in 2005, will be a better choice. “Hung Up” is a must (let’s just hope it’s not her Tiktok version with Tokischa). And since she has announced that the tour will be a tribute to New York, the presence of “I Love New York” seems obligatory.

Madonna during the Rebel Heart Tour.
Madonna during the Rebel Heart Tour.

In Hard Candy (2008) Madonna continues to dance, albeit to R&B, and it is worth asking whether she will sing “4 Minutes,” which could be considered her last great hit.

A strange blank space

Madonna’s last decade, which goes from MDNA (2012) to today, through the albums Rebel Heart (2015) and Madame X (2019), has left jewels, rarities and discoveries, but hardly any hits. How will she include this last decade in her career retrospective, if at all? If we go by the numbers, Madonna should sing “Gimme All Your Luvin’” (her last single to reach the top 10 on the US
Billboard chart), “Bitch I’m Madonna” (the only resemblance to a hit from Rebel Heart, thanks in part to its star-studded video clip) and “Faz Gostoso,” which became a hit on Spotify thanks to Anitta’s presence. But if anything is memorable about this last decade, it is that Madonna becomes human, fragile and afraid of failure, as shown in “Love Spent,” “Joan of Arc” or “Wash All Over Me,” true hidden gems of this era.

Madonna is reclaiming her legacy by her mere presence on stage. She is going on a tour that, against all odds, will bear no resemblance to the complacent self-homage of other artists her age. Madonna has not been known in the last decade for opening new musical paths, but rather for leaving a path open for other pop artists who are not willing to retire. With a social media presence that makes many uncomfortable – sometimes showing her breasts or inhaling poppers – Madonna is doing what she always did. Once, apart from causing controversy, she also sang. If, on this tour, she does both, we will be able to confirm her return.


How Brandy Melville, American teenage girls’ favorite brand, ended up engulfed in a racism and sexual harassment scandal | Culture

In 2014, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch Mike Jeffries resigned from his position. He did so after years of public accusations and lawsuits for racism and discrimination within the brand that glorified the white American heterosexual man. He did it because sales had plummeted. In 2022, the Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch recalled the story of a brand that now seems to have recovered after issuing a public apology and advocating diversity and sustainability.

Also in 2014 American Apparel managed to “get rid” of its founder, Dov Charney, after several lawsuits for labor violations and sexual harassment of employees. If Abercrombie made a fortune with its muscular, shirtless young blonde men, American Apparel did so with its snapshots of anonymous young girls in openly sexual poses, many of them taken by Terry Richardson, a photographer who fell from grace after harassment complaints. Curiously, or maybe not, today Charney works as a manager at Yeezy, another brand cancelled by public opinion and owned by Kanye West.

That same year, 2014, Bloomberg published a report titled Brandy Melville: Instagram’s First Retail Success, which focused on how quickly the brand had become a favorite among American teenagers. Like American Apparel, Brandy Melville sells basic clothing for young people (tanks, shorts, colored tops) at prices slightly higher than those of other fast fashion brands, meaning that they are accessible but slightly ‘different’ from their competitors.

However, unlike Charney’s brand, its campaigns do not show women in leggings and provocative poses, but rather very young, long-haired Caucasian girls posing casually on the street or in front of the mirror. Its aesthetic is based on Tumblr-addicted teenagers who considered the Coachella festival to be the epitome of aspirational leisure. Although the Italian brand dates back to 2009, since it opened its stores in California in 2013, it has not stopped growing. It has nearly one hundred stores around the world and, according to The Wall Street Journal, it is estimated that it will have a turnover of more than $212 million in 2023.

Brandy Melville courted controversy for its strategy of offering only size S in its stores. Furthermore, taking into account that its clientele is mostly adolescents, the psychological havoc that its business model can wreak is beyond doubt. Later, it was understood that the business model was not always like this. The brand’s Italian owner, Stephan Marsan, decided to give the order to remove sizes larger than small from stores when the stores landed in the United States.

Business Insider journalist Kate Taylor revealed this decision in an extensive report published in 2021. She was the first to expose the very elusive Marsan, about whom hardly any information exists on the internet, and his more than questionable business practices. That article caught the attention of director Eva Orner, who has just released the documentary Brandy Hellville and the Cult of Fast Fashion on HBO: “I’ve done so many films in war zones and with refugees, and when I started this, I was like, what is happening here? I can’t get people to speak. We reached out to hundreds of girls. I think part of [the reticence to speak] is because they’re young girls, they’re scared,” Orner said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

One full body photo a day to send to the boss

Both the documentary and the report offer statements from several former employees and some store managers. The girls who work at Brandy Melville stores, many of them teenagers, are recruited in the store itself for “adhering to the brand’s style.”

In a 2022 report in a California university magazine, two former shop assistants said that, when they were offered the job, they only asked for “full-body photos and the link to their social networks.” Brandy Melville’s Instagram, which is different for each region (in Spain it has 175,000 followers, and in the United States it has more than three million) is based on homemade photos of the brand’s staff or influencers, who are asked to advertise free in exchange for clothes. “Workers are instructed to take full-body pictures of themselves and send them to the manager daily, as well as ask to take pictures of customers who are ‘on trend,’” said a former employee in the 2022 report.

The company only hired thin, white women, according to the various reports and the documentary. If a worker gained weight, those in charge received orders to fire her. “If she was Black, if she was fat… [Marsan] didn’t want them in the store,” said Luca Rotondo, former vice president of the company.

The non-Caucasian girls worked in the warehouse, not facing the public. Rotondo and the directors of the company that owns the Canadian stores (Marsan operates with a series of companies and franchises to avoid responsibility) were themselves fired for refusing to fire their staff.

In addition to accusations of plagiarism from brands such as Forever 21 and Bubblered, Brandy Melville has had complaints of harassment. Marsan’s right-hand woman Jessy Longo has been accused of inappropriate behavior by three former employees; another accused the manager of one of the New York stores of harassment. Apparently, in that same store, one of the brand’s largest, the bosses can see the girls entering from the first floor and use a button to activate a red light to alert the manager that they want to hire her. In the documentary, Kate Taylor tells how the brand’s executives take their favorite employees on lavish trips, which are actually trips to Italian factories so they can choose the clothes they want and document those trips on social media. In these trips, the girls are “treated like queens.”

Antisemitic memes and clandestine factories

During Taylor’s investigation, former directors of Brandy Melville sent her screenshots of the WhatsApp groups they shared with Marsan. Among others, he sent them images of girls taking their breasts out of their shirts (“the shirt is clearly Brandy,” he comments), racist memes that compared a monkey with a Black boy or an image of Hitler congratulating them on the New Year. Marsan distributed Atlas Shrugged among his employees, a book by Ayn Rand that advocates individualism, the virtues of selfishness and extreme capitalism, and which became topical again for being claimed by the ultra-conservative North American right. “I called it the Brandy Melville Bible,” says one of the employees.

As one would expect, Marsan does not want to pay taxes. And for this, a million-dollar business with little traceability has been set up. Its name does not appear in any financial statements and its stores operate through local companies that are different in each country. It is a textile company that has a turnover of more than $200 million annually, but it is impossible to find any statements regarding its sustainability plans. What is detailed on their website is the origin of each product. They are mainly manufactured in China and Italy, where the brand originated. However, the documentary travels to Prato, the Italian area sadly famous for hosting clandestine factories where immigrant workers under exploitative conditions manufacture garments for fast fashion brands. It also travels to Accra, in Ghana, the place where 39,000 tons of clothing end up per year. Yes, Brandy Melville is also available there, although its production volume is less and its prices are somewhat higher than those of certain fast fashion platforms.

A textile dump in Ghana.
A textile dump in Ghana.cortesia de HBO (cortesía de HBO)

You can’t blame teenage girls for wanting to fit in with their high school peers. However, the firm that encourages one-size-fits-all should be blamed. Of course, it is not the wearers’ fault for feeling good about being complimented on their style or for wanting to work for a brand with which they identify, nor was it the fault of the dozens of victims who worked at American Apparel. However, as long as the authorities fail to take forceful measures, it is the customer who has the power to change things. Jeffreys left Abercrombie and Charney left American Apparel when sales had already plummeted and both brands were on the verge of bankruptcy. Firing the big boss is difficult, but not impossible.

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When painting becomes haute couture: The work of John Singer Sargent is also a history of fashion | Culture

He painted aristocrats, industrialists, writers, politicians, and even suffragettes, just as Velázquez and Van Dyck portrayed the royalty of their time. Or perhaps he is more like Frans Hals, the Flemish artist who distanced himself from monarchs to portray a the newly established middle class who ruled during the Baroque period.

In the work of John Singer Sargent (Florence, 1856-London, 1925), the most European of the American painters, there is a collective portrait of Paris and London of the Belle Époque, the two cities where he became one of the most influential people of his time. This was no mean feat in a period with many exuberant characters, the nouveaux riches, unscrupulous careerists ,and ladies forced to change their outfits four times a day to signal their superior social standing.

Sargent was distinguished by his taste for fashion, in which he saw the distinctive sign that allowed him to understand the vicissitudes of the individuals he painted. This is demonstrated by a new exhibition which is one of the highlights of the cultural spring in London. The Tate Britain’s Sargent and Fashion is open to the public until July 7.

The exhibition, which displays around 50 oil paintings along with some of the real dresses that inspired them, reflects the extraordinary attention he paid to his models’ wardrobe. Among them were clients of the haute couture that was then flourishing in the French capital. Firms such as Doucet, Paquin, and especially Worth, which employed 1,200 workers in 1870, supplied silk and velvet garments to young buyers — in many cases American women looking for husbands in Europe. Those dresses were “their social armor,” as Edith Wharton, perhaps the best chronicler of that social stratum, would later write.

'Miss Elsie Palmer' (1889-90) and two Charles Worth dresses from the same period, in the 'Sargent and Fashion' exhibition at London's Tate Britain.
‘Miss Elsie Palmer’ (1889-90) and two Charles Worth dresses from the same period, in the ‘Sargent and Fashion’ exhibition at London’s Tate Britain.Jai Monaghan (Tate)

When choosing these dresses, their wearers had the garments’ pictorial representation in mind. These women wondered what their reflection would be on the canvas, just as today’s stylists are concerned about how photogenic the dresses they choose for their clients will be. Oil painting was the red carpet of the Belle Époque. Renowned for his impressionistic lines and his attention to attire, Sargent was one of the most sought-after portrait painters of his time. His paintings circulated throughout society and attested to the new power acquired by its stars, like the profiles of the Roman emperors on the coins of antiquity.

“I only paint what I see,” said Sargent. Of course, he was lying. The artist, who charged 1,000 guineas per portrait (about $107,000 in today’s dollars), was known for ignoring the preferences of his models, no matter how much they paid him. He not only acted as a painter, but also as an artistic director. He chose the dresses and accessories, sometimes despite the protests of his clients, imposed the most appropriate decoration, and modeled the fabric on their bodies as a dressmaker would do. Lady Sassoon (1907) is a portrait of Aline de Rothschild, heiress to the banking dynasty, dressed in a black taffeta cape lined with pink satin, a garment full of folds and undulations that seem to look better in the painting than in the museum room, where it seems poorly lit and devoid of magic. Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889) is another example of Sargent’s power of transformation: a portrait of the famous actress in a jeweled robe, in shades of green and maroon, more spectacular on canvas than in reality, which always seems aa little more prosaic.

Sargent not only acted as a painter, but also as an artistic director: he chose the dresses and accessories, imposed the most appropriate decoration and modeled the fabric on the body as a dressmaker would do.

Each portrait is a small representation, a function on the identity of its sitter, which Sargent stages with relative simplicity, with an elegant economy of resources. The best example could be Portrait of Madame X, one of his most famous works, on loan from the Metropolitan in New York. It is the haughty profile portrait of Virginie Gautreau, born in New Orleans and living in Paris, which caused an immense scandal when it was presented at the Salon in 1884. Her tight black bodice is fastened with two straps full of precious stones. In the original version, the one on the right had slipped from her shoulder, which sparked a controversy that forced Sargent to go into exile in London and repaint the painting with the two straps in place. In 1916, he donated it to the Metropolitan with a message to its director: “I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done.”

'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' (1885-86) at the Tate Britain in London. Its major exhibition dedicated to the great portrait painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) reveals the artist's ground-breaking role as stylist, fashioning the image his sitters presented to the world.
‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ (1885-86) at the Tate Britain in London. Its major exhibition dedicated to the great portrait painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) reveals the artist’s ground-breaking role as stylist, fashioning the image his sitters presented to the world.Alamy/ Cordon Press

In reality, that woman with light-looking skin — a product of makeup, as Sargent demonstrates with malice when contrasting her with a red-hot ear — was descended from slave owners with a large plantation. This is information that is not provided in a show that, at times, feels sumptuous but superficial and deceitful. Some of the dresses and accessories are period pieces, but not all of them. Visitors discover a top hat from 1900 and a French lace collar, devoid of the aura about which Walter Benjamin theorized. They do not match those worn by his models. When a piece of textile does not correspond to the one in the painting, the show falls apart.

A portrait of John Singer Sargent.
A portrait of John Singer Sargent.Library of Congress (Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

The exhibition timidly explores the subversion of gender roles that Sargent practiced, which would have to do “with the deliberate sexual ambiguity and with the homosexual and homosocial circles in which he often moved,” its curators Erica Hirschler and James Finch point out in the exhibition catalog. However, this aspect is not mentioned in the exhibition spaces. And yet it is fundamental to understanding the relationship with the women who posed for him, in whom there is more complicity and fascination than eroticism, or his male portraits, in which it some ambiguity does reside. After all, homoeroticism was one of the motifs of that time, as also demonstrated by the works of Henry James, a close friend of Sargent, or those of E. M. Forster, a great admirer of the painter.

The Tate exhibits androgynous portraits such as that of the languid Albert de Belleroche, a young English painter. There is also the larger-than-life-size canvas of Samuel Pozzi, a French gynecologist wearing a bright scarlet robe de chambre with slippers peeking out from the bottom. The portrait shows Pozzi in an unusual pose for his time that defied the conventional public image of powerful men. But the exhibition does not dare to show Sargent’s secret lithographs, discovered after his death, where he painted naked men barely covered by sheets. Elegance, Balenciaga said, is elimination.

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Sheldon Garon: From the Spanish Civil War to Gaza and Ukraine: A history of bombings targeting civilians | International

The house at number 10 Peironcely Street in Madrid seems to be frozen in time. Uninhabited, with exposed brick and sealed off to deter squatters, it is the only one-story house among the surrounding multi-story buildings in the Entrevías neighborhood of the Spanish capital. This property became one of the most famous monuments to the bombing of Madrid by Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and was immortalized by photographer Robert Capa at the beginning of the conflict. It was also the first place in Spain that Princeton University historian Sheldon Garon visited to research his book The Global War on Civilians, 1905-1945. It is a symbol of what he describes as an “important turning point” in the history of the aerial bombardment of civilians, a strategy that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century and is being carried out today on populations in Gaza and Ukraine. Madrid was the first capital city to be continuously bombed, causing an alarming number of victims. His next destination was Barcelona, a city to which he attributes the genesis of air-raid shelters built by civilians. Those in Barcelona were highly organized and served as a reference point for the United Kingdom and France in World War II (1939-1945).

“Aerial bombing started in World War I (1914-1918). The Germans bombed London and Paris particularly, but on a small scale, leaving just under 1,000 dead in the former and about 250 in the latter,” explains Garon, who quotes Hispanist historian Hugh Thomas to recall that around 2,000 people died in Madrid. The strategy of targeting civilians used by the Nationalist forces, using the German pilots and aircraft of the Condor Legion, was greatly intensified in later conflicts: World War II, the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Vietnam War (1955-1975), up to the present day in Ukraine and Gaza.

“Instead of simply targeting armies and navies of the enemy, you target their cities and their civilians,” the American details. “You bomb densely populated areas, usually working class areas, with the objective of trying to win the war by breaking the morale of the civilians so they will pressure their government to surrender. That was the rationale in the Spanish Civil War.” That several countries resorted to the same tactic in the same time-period was not coincidental. In his book, Garon connects the different cases to provide a complete picture using a methodology known as transnational history.

Sheldon Garon
Historian Sheldon Garon in front of a building in Madrid that was bombed in the Spanish Civil War. Álvaro García

At the same time that Franco was bombing Madrid in an attempt to break Republican resistance, Japan was attempting to cow China by targeting the cities of Shanghai, Nanjing, and particularly Chongqing, the capital during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which suffered four years of aerial bombardment with an approximate death toll of 9,000. “Nobody is safe, nobody is protected, there’s no difference between civilians and soldiers. Civilians are simply considered soldiers at home,” Garon says to explain “the concept of total war.”

If Madrid was important in understanding the offensive aspect of aerial bombardments, Barcelona had the same importance in understanding the rearguard, what Garon refers to as the home fronts. “In Barcelona in 1937 they had a lot of time to prepare and they built many shelters. It was far from the front. So Barcelona had a lot of time to prepare, unlike Madrid.” The population of the Catalan capital, the last bastion of the Republican government, formed neighborhood organizations that provided first aid, distributed food rations, set up guards on the tops of buildings to warn of approaching planes, dug trenches, and sheltered children.

“Barcelona became a model to other Europeans at the time, because in the First World War there weren’t many shelters in London and Paris. The British and the French had observers in Barcelona and they studied the shelters. It was almost a laboratory for them. By the time World War II started they had all organized home fronts,” he points out. “So, again, it’s a transnational history.”

A Spanish Civil War-era air raid shelter in Barcelona.
A Spanish Civil War-era air raid shelter in Barcelona. Marcel.lí Sàenz

It is impossible to talk of aerial attacks on cities without mentioning Germany. The United States and the United Kingdom had destroyed 200 by 1944, mainly industrial areas such as Hamburg, Dresden, and the Rhine Valley. In France, 70% of Cannes was destroyed, Garon estimates. In Japan, 66 cities were devastated, two by atomic bombs and the rest by incendiary devices. This intimidating strategy had already been used in the 1920s and 1930s against insurgencies in the colonies. In 1926, Spain and France bombed the rebels in Morocco in the Rift Valley, and the United Kingdom did the same shortly afterwards against those seeking independence in Somaliland and Iraq.

Garon’s research ends with the conclusion of World War II, but the dropping of bombs targeting the civilian population “continues to the present day, unfortunately.” The U.S. became the biggest exponent of bombing campaigns in the second half of the 20th century, in Vietnam (where deadly napalm fuel was dropped), North Korea (as part of the Korean War of 1950-1953) and in Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.

All the cases detailed by Garon reverberate today with Ukraine and Gaza, although incendiary and heavy bombs have been exchanged for ballistic missiles and drones. “The scale and the technologies become much more sophisticated, but the strategies don’t change much: the demoralization of the population.” The United Nations has condemned reports of Israeli attacks in the Strip against hospitals and refugee camps and some 70% of the more than 30,000 Palestinians killed during the war are women and children. On the other hand, the Kremlin has consistently targeted the Ukrainian power grid but has also attacked Kyiv and other cities with aerial strikes.

Guerra Israel en Gaza
A house destroyed by bombing in the southern Gaza Strip.
Anas Baba (EFE)

International rules of engagement have not been able to deter warring nations from using weapons against civilians. There are laws such as the 1923 Hague Regulations on aerial warfare, which prohibited the bombing of cities that were not being attacked from the ground, or the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949, which was created precisely to protect the population in times of war. However, they have been regularly violated under the claim that military targets are mixed among civilians.

This willingness to use the citizenry as a means of warfare was verified by Garon when he gained access to official documents. The 1941 British Air Force files noted that the new targets were not industrial factories or port cities, but “the morale of the German people.” Other records detailed the types of poison effective against rebels in British colonies. Garon highlights the one that shocked him most: “When the U.S. was fighting the Japanese in 1945, they blockaded food supplies to Japan. They called it Operation Starvation and the goal was to cut 20% to 30% of the calories that the Japanese people consumed.”

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