The only conceivable explanation is that this is where the fates aligned. Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly write a song with lyrics sincere yet easily misinterpreted as risqué, which is by chance passed on to a woman on the verge of becoming the defining sex symbol (and so much more) of her generation, whose given name JUST SO HAPPENS to be Madonna, the Virgin Mary’s most sacred of names. With so many brilliant coincidences, could it have happened any other way?
Let’s talk the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards. In the first time the public ever heard Like a Virgin, Madonna emerges from atop a wedding cake in a full wedding dress, sings it rather breathlessly without any choreography and ends up writhing around on the stage floor, exposing a rather beautiful ass to much of America. Various accounts exist as to how it happened - Madonna herself maintains that one of her heels came off, she knelt down to put it back on (which is possible - though you can’t see her do it), that one thing led to another and MTV took advantage of her exposure; others claim they saw her rehearsing it beforehand. But regardless, the fact remains that the controversy did wonders for her career, in that it was likely the start of mud-slinging accusations that she emphasised sex over talent, or even worse, that what she did was morally wrong. To those people, I say: have you ever considered what takes place ON a couple’s wedding night? By wearing a wedding dress in such a sexual way, Madonna intentionally brought the concepts of the sacred and profane closer than ever before - to where they actually met in real life. But of course, religious and social conservatives would prefer to oppress, to not overtly acknowledge what already exists. This theme runs through virtually all of the many controversies that surrounding Madonna throughout the years - with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clearer and clearer that detractors responded to her social progressivism with kneejerk feelings of discomfort rather than genuine criticism. But naturally, she turned most situations to her advantage and revelled in the attention.
As for the song itself, Like a Virgin is absolutely a high point of pure mainstream pop as a genre unto itself, eschewing all other influences or moods (so excluding Like a Prayer, Billie Jean etc.). Madonna’s singing is particularly unique - perhaps her highest-sounding tone on record; her enunciation full of little hooks and coos; no backing vocals whatsoever, only extremely subtle double-tracking. Though the final recording changes little of the melody and arrangements from Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg’s original demo, Madonna’s impassioned vocal and Nile Rodger’s excellent reverb-soaked production are, really, what seals it as a classic.
Though the lyrics obviously express her dedication to a lover (as amusing as Reservoir Dogs may be), they’re also a classic case of Madonna encouraging a little harmless controversy. Her first impression of the demo was to call it “sick and twisted” - one assumes because of how easily it was to misinterpret as sexual as soon as one heard the word “virgin”. If you found that offensive enough to denounce it, congratulations - Madonna not only pre-empted your reaction, but rode the subsequent wave of publicity to her very first number one single.
The music video is, for lack of a better term, well, irrelevant to the song. In fact, its irrelevance to the song is also irrelevant when - whether in those blue leggings (back in fashion today!) or reprising the wedding dress - Madonna looks as stunning as she does. The Venice setting is classy, though really just a vehicle to get her dancing to the camera on a boat (spoofed so disturbingly by Weird Al in Like a Surgeon), but why the lion? Why does its tongue move to the beat at the end of the bridge? And why was that guy wearing a creepy lion mask? I always wanted to feel Madonna was singing about me - “you made me feel shiny and new” - but of all the alternatives, you pick him?! If I’d been alive in 1984, I still wouldn’t be over it.
Madonna’s played various versions live over the years, with Blond Ambition’s a highlight, but this rarity from an in-store at the now-defunct Tower Records is a particular gem. Playing intimate shows on the promotional trail for American Life - basically a singer-songwriter record - made sense, but her initial performance of Hollywood is a flat version of a flat song. Skip ahead to 1:00, where for no real reason she asks for requests, and ends up singing a “country and western version” of Like a Virgin with, rather obviously, no prior rehearsal. It’s uncharacteristically one of the loosest and most disarmingly amusing performances of her career. It sums up much of what’s to like about Madonna - timeless songs that sound great even without studio sheen, her adaptability, the fact that she doesn’t take herself too seriously despite the fact she’s promoting one of her most artistically “serious” albums… She still sounds amazing singing it in the original key too - shame she does so many of the older songs down a tone nowadays.
(If anyone has decent-quality video or audio of that gig from the TV broadcast, I would do unspeakable things to get my hands on a copy…)
I’ll try not to write too many full essays; the next will probably be for that other “like a” song/career-defining moment. A little more sacred, a little less profane.
Material Girl is a classic case of that “she sings it, so she must believe it” misinterpretation. Many confused a satirical exaggeration of what people thought pop starlets were like for a brutally, yet somehow charmingly honest admission of superficiality. Even worse was the media’s shortcut to calling Madonna herself the Material Girl - does she of two marriages and many more relationships with less famous men really live the gold digger’s manifesto? Surely they’ve worked it out by now. And though she may be posturing, playing a part, there’s one absolute truth in the third verse:
“Experience has made me rich
And now they’re after me”
Don’t think for a second she’d ever portray herself as the dependent one in a relationship.
But maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to blame. A chorus that catchy easily loses all context when overplayed… yet it’s hardly the average ’80s pop song - the verse and chorus have slightly different tonalities that never quite resolve. The baritone backing vocals, chorused, wobbly guitar and bouncy bassline all add to the mild weirdness. Material Girl may be one of Madonna’s campest songs, but to her credit, she’s sharp, witty and sexy enough - even if she’s just leading all you potential suitors on - that it really doesn’t matter.
“She’s fantastic, I knew she’d be a star.”
“She could be, she could be great, she could be a major star.”
“She is a star, George.”
“The biggest star in the universe, right now as we speak…”
The genius of this video is that it does not at any point try to establish Madonna’s star. No, it just opts to call her “the biggest star in the universe” and runs with it, never doubting it for a second. The truth is, somewhere between the MTV VMAs and the Material Girl video, Madonna was only just becoming a household name. But that maintained level of self-assurance could practically manifest itself as hallucinations of peer pressure - “she IS a star, George!” - and if you didn’t know who she was, you’d better do something about it quickly.
The song and its meaning are, as they should be, inextricably linked with the video - at the time easily her best to date. Madonna goes all meta on us and plays a variation of herself playing an actress paying homage to Marilyn Monroe’s performance of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend - the first time she’d adopt a classic look and, naturally, totally look the part. Madonna’s attempts at “retro” are never pure imitation - though the set, costumes and some of the moves are the same, the choreography is in parts more intricate than the original. The scene where she breaks the fourth wall, staring at the camera as she cavorts with a fur scarf is particularly captivating - my heart never fails to skip a beat.
Superficiality, and how little it takes to dig deeper and find the truth, is the clear overall theme here - especially in Madonna’s obvious comparisons to Marilyn, which start and end with their looks. Similarly, Keith Carradine plays the part of just about any man - infatuated, he mistakes Madonna for her onscreen persona. When he discovers expensive gifts are wasted on her, he instead charms her with exaggeratedly cheap flowers; an ironic suggestion that neither is entirely true of the real Madonna. But when she falls for him in the back of a run-down car, the overall message couldn’t be clearer. That the video has become as iconic as Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend itself is just an added bonus.
Album: Like a Virgin (1984)
Songwriters: Madonna/Stephen Bray
Producer: Nile Rodgers
You know, I literally never realised until I started writing this review, but face it - Madonna and Stephen Bray never wrote that many great songs together. Sure, Express Yourself and Into the Groove (outside the UK, bizarrely relegated to the b-side of Angel) are masterpieces, but ultimately their collaborations are the inferior tracks on the Like a Virgin album. There’s a strange dichotomy - the outside songwriters’ work has a variety of styles and instrumentation (Tony Thompson’s drumming is a particularly strong asset), whereas the Bray cowrites fall back on more typical synthpop. Angel suffers heavily as a result - the drum machine beat comes in lightly, as if it’ll build later on, but it just never gets off the ground. The chorus should escalate, but the backing never changes, and smoothed out, it comes and goes so quickly it makes little impact. To me, it’s not even a highlight of the filler compared to, say, the far more passionate Stay, let alone worthy of release as a single. It says a lot that Into the Groove, despite being purchased by most of the world as the b-side, is so much more fondly remembered.
It’s unclear why, but Angel only has a promo video made up of clips from Burning Up, Borderline, Like a Virgin and Material Girl - which I guess has contributed to its deservedly overlooked status over the years.
It’s widely recognised that a song better expressing the pure joy of song and dance simply does not exist. The eponymous groove is just massive - the complex, busy drum machine grounds the song whilst the synth floats in the background; the bassline runs circles around everything else, but never to the detriment of the beat. Madonna herself sounds unrestrainably enthusiastic, her vocals flitting from pure hook to occasional soaring high note via the magic of ’80s reverb. Despite coming some five years later, I’d call the Immaculate Collection version definitive - the vocals sound fuller and shorn of some unnecessary repetition, not to mention the totally unexpected keyboard solo that somehow fits perfectly.
The lyrics conjure images of a million Madonna wannabes wearing out vinyl grooves in their bedrooms, singing into hairbrushes, making eyes at boys across dancefloors - this was Madonna the teenage idol in full force, commanding an almost Springsteen-esque empathy in the soundtrack to their lives. But ultimately, teenagers and their popstars grow up - Into the Groove was a fleeting yet glorious moment that Madonna the icon thankfully never tried to prolong. And that, folks, is how you drive a mere ’80s pop song with oh-so-unimportant, generic lyrics about dancing and singing and love to near-mythological status. Into the Groove feels like an anecdote of teen life - not unlike where I am in the present day - but from a more innocent time in 1985, before all those kids grew up and renounced pop music and became our teachers and bosses and had their own kids. Is there a word for “nostalgia for a time before your birth”? Oh, I know. Envy.
The songwriting’s strong enough that Into the Groove’s survived multiple Madonna recontextualisations too - it works with bagpipes on the Re-Invention Tour and hip-hop jump rope on the Sticky & Sweet Tour - even Into the Hollywood Groove, the GAP ad with Missy Elliott, isn’t too bad.
(that’s Into the Groove’s appearance in Desperately Seeking Susan; here’s the music video as a montage from the film)
Into the Groove obviously transcends Desperately Seeking Susan, the film it was written for, but since I obviously like to reduce entire decades to transient cultural references, the association’s quite strong in my mind. No modern-day parody of ’80s excess could possibly contain more amusingly, excessively stereotypically ’80s imagery as what’s shown here. But yes, Desperately Seeking Susan and The Terminator really do inform my perceptions of the decade - especially regarding really sluggish discos, where Into the Groove makes its appearance. The film is essentially a comedy of errors, with an absurdly convoluted plot (this hilarious Videogum piece is as close as a summary gets to brevity) to match the worst Dan Brown has to offer. And in her first major acting role, yes, Madonna is not only absurdly seductive, but steals the show - though mostly because she’s effectively playing herself. Rosanna Arquette admittedly doesn’t have much to work with - when not playing a bored suburban housewife/stalker, she plays a foggy-minded recovering amnesiac masquerading as an imitation of Madonna. Oh, and you thought that was confusing. Overall, though, it’s not a bad film - the weird approach to its plot makes it infinitely more interesting than any modern Matthew McConaughey movie. The sheer datedness is really part of its appeal - maybe in 2034, people will laugh at how I watched the whole thing on YouTube whilst the Hangover is injected directly into their consciousness.
(the way I feel about Madonna in 1985… times three)
Proving once again that the outside contributions were, somewhat unfortunately, Like a Virgin’s best tracks, Dress You Up is - as any true Madonna fan will tell you - an overlooked classic. It sounds like the aural equivalent to Madonna’s onstage costumes for the Virgin Tour - playful, colourful, alluring, but very surface-level. But as with most pop music, to point out a lack of deeper meaning is to risk missing the point - the lush synths, alluring vocal melodies and Nile Rodgers’ blistering Prince-esque guitar solo are enjoyable and classy enough for it not to matter. Dress You Up’s lyrics are an especially perfect fit for Madonna’s image at the time (as with Like a Virgin and Material Girl - particularly impressive considering neither of those songs were originally written for her) - highlighting style and a taking a merely hinting approach to sexuality.
Yeah, the overall vibe I get is rather stylish and classy - but once upon a time, it was considered vulgar, even threatening. Dress You Up was included on the Parents Music Resource Center’s “Filthy Fifteen” list after future second lady Tipper Gore heard her daughter listening to what she considered overtly sexual lyrics. Which, like the entire PMRC series of events, sounds like a complete joke in hindsight. Compared to the inclusion of Prince’s far blunter (but equally, probably more brilliant) Darling Nikki on the list, it’s nothing - a far cry from Erotica, and it’s clear the entire endeavour was misguided anyway. Madonna’s inclusion and praise by Al Gore for the Live Earth concerts in 2007 was something of an amusing concession for the few paying attention who even recalled the PMRC’s existence. Just another case of Madonna outlasting a controversy and coming back even stronger for it.
Dress You Up is likely Madonna’s single most representative moment - certainly not of herself as an overall artist, but as a public figure whose adulation was driven largely by fans who could identify with her. In 1984 to 1985, particularly as she reached vast audiences on the Virgin Tour, she was, music aside, the popstar who’d created a comparatively streetwise, inexpensive yet highly individual style all her own. The end result was a myriad number of girls - never wearing the exact same clothing, but all looking identifiably “Madonna” without ever breaking the bank. When she sang “gonna dress you up in my love”, she might as well have been singing about the fashion results of being a Madonna fan.
“Then, suddenly, I was on the stage at Madison Square Garden and I looked out into the audience and every girl was dressed like me. Freaked me out.”- Madonna at her 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction (here at 13:32)
But such a state of affairs could never last. As Madonna the idol toned down her overaccessorised, girlish image and made a very deliberate transition into a more timeless look, she would become Madonna the Icon - far more admired than imitated. Dress You Up marked the end of the beginning, with bigger things to follow.
There was never an official video, but a live version from the Virgin Tour was widely used as a promo. Even if it is a typical overdone ’80s stage production, it’s actually great - even as she struts around onstage, Madonna’s vocals are strong, no weaker than the studio recordings. However, the rather overdone costume - and the imitations by all the fans at the start - make it even clearer why she’d soon discard her early style.
…oh, and the recent Sticky & Sweet Tour version’s great too.