From the album Madonna (1983)
Featured on You Can Dance (1987), Ciao Italia: Live from Italy (1988), The Immaculate Collection (1990), The Girlie Show ~ Live Down Under (1994), Drowned World Tour 2001, I’m Going to Tell You a Secret (2006), Celebration (2009)
Written by Curtis Hudson/Lisa Stevens
Produced by John “Jellybean” Benitez
Madonna’s first big hit and breakthrough single - could it be any more obvious why? Holiday’s perfect combination of groove (the bassline is truly a work of art) and catchy melody makes it a defining work in the dance-pop genre. It was great enough that the “assembly-line” hit single factory Stock Aitken Waterman would even use near-identical chord progressions in many of their songs four years later, from Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky (just the first time she’d follow in Madonna’s footsteps, hah) to Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up. Holiday’s lightweight, breezy feel allows it to spread its universal “let love shine” message of celebration with as much sincerity as the likes of We Are the World, with many times the subtlety. At the same time, this makes it more inherently disposable than ANY other Madonna song, partly due to having been written by outside songwriters. Yet this only seems to have increased its appeal - for the song’s significance to her career now extends far beyond the original single. As a near-staple of her live tours, the way she performs it generally reflects her feelings at the time - see the oddly commanding, militaristic Re-Invention Tour version documented on I’m Going to Tell You a Secret. Still, in its disposability, the studio recording says next to nothing about Madonna as an artist, except that she adapted herself rather well to a song intended for/rejected by Mary Wilson of the Supremes. But who cares? - Holiday is an undisputed classic, regardless.
The music video, however, is tragically bad, and never officially released for that reason - Madonna and her backup dancers (including brother Christopher) simply perform rather daggy dance moves through an absurdly exaggerated psychedelic filter. Much more interesting is Madonna’s 1983 appearance on American Bandstand - her first ever televised live performance. Though it’s lipsynced as usual for such shows at the time, Madonna is genuinely captivating as, alone without choreography, she struts her stuff surrounded by a studio audience. A natural center of attention, her energy is infectious; the resulting cheers actually disproportionately enthusiastic for the kind of performers one would usually get on such shows. The interview afterwards is the source of one of THE classic Madonna quotes, as shown in a slightly edited form at her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction:
“We are a couple of weeks into the new year; what do you hope will happen, not only in 1984, but for the rest of your professional life - what are your dreams, what’s left?”
“To rule the world.”
For a twenty-five-year-old then-one-hit-wonder, that’s either an admirably courageous or absurdly egotistic statement, but to actually achieve, maintain and surpass it for another twenty-five years is what makes that moment the stuff of legend. Perhaps, considering all that was to follow, it wasn’t so pretentious at all. Many other popstars who followed in Madonna’s wake talked the talk, but could they walk the walk?
Easily the highlight of Madonna’s first album - not quite dance but certainly too fast to be a ballad, Borderline’s dance/pop/soul hybrid of styles is about as stylistically universal as pop music gets. Simply, the songwriting and production are strong enough that only the main keyboard patch playing the lead comes across as dated. As a result, Borderline is possibly the most relevant of Madonna’s earliest hits today - see the recent reinterpretations by Duffy (impromptu, but unforgivably terrible), Counting Crows (very country-twang but surprisingly great), the Flaming Lips (fascinating) and even Madonna herself on the Sticky & Sweet Tour (which rocks straight power chords at the expense of any melodic subtlety). But none of them even approach definitive - for many reasons, but the strength of Madonna’s original vocal can’t be denied. How she was ever maligned as a singer overall is beyond me; the average person attempting Borderline at karaoke is doomed to failure. Madonna soars over the top of the synths and piano - just strongly enough that the longing in her voice never overpowers the song’s emotional content. As much as the album succeeds at its dance-pop aims, Borderline was the first hint that Madonna was something more than just another popstar.
What a difference a budget makes. Borderline’s video, a captivating slice of ’80s imagery, is all about duality. The street-smart Madonna and her Latino boyfriend make for a distressingly good-looking couple, but in the pursuit of fame, she takes her relationship with a hilariously British-looking photographer beyond the professional. Boyfriend (filmed in colour) becomes resentful, Madonna inexplicably spray-paints British dude’s car at a photoshoot, realises that true love (or good looks, hah) outweighs fame. Boyfriend takes her back (who could stay mad at a girl THAT good-looking?!), suggestively teaches her to play pool, the end. Though the message (ironically reversed from the lyrics, where Madonna’s lover is to blame) is clear, the video’s setpieces can easily be watched as a mere series of glamourous images. What’s not to love?
Easily the best of the dance songs on her first album. The minimal, rhythmic production is perfect - but more importantly, Madonna was a damn good songwriter. Lucky Star is basically one massive hook from start to finish - especially in the single/Immaculate Collection edits, the melodies almost go by so quickly you’ve barely had time to sing along.
Special note must be made of Madonna’s lyrics, which not only successfully incorporate a nursery rhyme, but relate love to the star metaphor in a genuinely intelligent, imaginative way. In particular, the bridge of “shine your heavenly body tonight” is GENIUS, a perfect alignment of physical attraction and celestial objects if there ever was one. Lucky Star scoffs at other so-called intelligent pop lyrics - Lady Gaga can reference playing cards and muffins as much as she likes, but the imagery she creates still won’t make any sense.
For once, a low budget (reverting back after Borderline, oddly enough) doesn’t hinder the music video. The minimalist three-person choreography (including brother Christopher Ciccone on backup) may be the best example of the dance style of those early nightclub track dates, but as the numerous close-ups prove, the focus is clearly on Madonna herself. The video simply drips with sex appeal - it’s a testament to the idea of true sexiness as a confidence projected from within that Madonna looks utterly radiant, the embodiment of desire, when the most skin she shows is her stomach. No lingerie? Not even a hint of cleavage? To continue my “most subsequent popstars are vacuous” theme, Madonna achieves infinitely more with infinitely less removal of clothing. With only two dancers, all dressed in monochrome black on a boring white background, Lucky Star can still charm the pants off the unsuspecting viewer - really, who else could turn a whole nation’s gay men straight?
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.