Madonna’s debut, self-titled album was a slow-burn success, taking a year to reach its peak Billboard position of eight 1. It’s a nice disco record, while the catchy singles still hold up, but listening to them at a 30-year remove, you can really hear the thinness. “Lucky Star,” “Borderline,” and “Burning Up” all sound a little tepid — it’s like they never really pushed the tempo past languidly upbeat. Listen to Jellybean Benitez’s production work on “Holiday,” though, and you can totally hear why Warner Brothers pushed to have Nile Rodgers produce her next record. “Holiday” is the only song on Madonna’s debut which sounds like it was recorded by someone who really got what the singer was going for. The low end’s more robust, the tempo relentless, and little touches like the handclaps and synthesizer solo lend it something extra.
Like A Virgin is anchored by its title track and the myriad cultural milestones associated with it. In their 2011 book, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum describe Madonna’s performance of “Like A Virgin” at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards as “the award-show equivalent of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — the ideal against which all successors would be measured.”
In the same book, Nick Rhodes, keyboardist for Duran Duran, perfectly encapsulates Madonna’s performance of the new song, which would officially be released as a single a month and a half later: “She came onstage in a wedding dress and rolled around on the floor. Afterwards, everyone knew that she was going to be a big star. There was a confidence about her, an energy and a charisma that really came across.”
It’s with Like A Virgin that we start thinking of Madonna as “Madonna.” With her debut, the singer had been a scrappy artist — almost a punk rocker, in a sense — to the point of using the Beastie Boys as the opening act on her first big tour. On this record, she starts delving into a wider variety of sounds; for instance, her first tear-jerker ballad, “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and its big string arrangements, hint at the various flirtations Madonna would make with ‘40s chic over the decades.
The singles may not be as numerous as those off the self-titled, but they’re far more robust. “Like A Virgin,” “Material Girl,” and “Dress You Up” are all capital ‘M’ Madonna tracks, although interestingly, “Into the Groove” — which seems like it would’ve been a perfect bridge song between the disco of her debut and the bigger production of the sophomore album — instead was used for the soundtrack of Desperately Seeking Susan. And all of these songs are stone-cold stunners, as well. I mean, “Like A Virgin” itself is more important historically at this point, because of its flashpoint live performance. Seriously: I like the song, but if I’m going to drink too much and dance in my living room, I’m putting on “Dress You Up” every time, no question. Nile Rodgers’ production kills it, and it’s the perfect next step after his work on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. Together, Rodgers and Madonna made a record which built upon something already wonderful and made it absolutely superb. It’s no wonder that the album took the double platinum success of Madonna’s debut and smashed it.
It’s also a selection of songs which have a little more depth lyrically — not just aurally. In I Want My MTV, director Mary Lambert makes the point that a lot of Madonna’s early videos “are largely about her straddling two different worlds,” and Like A Virgin takes the themes explored on Madonna and makes them more prominent. “Borderline,” from the self-titled, is about a woman who finds herself wanting to love someone, but being pushed away, but “Like A Virgin” is about a woman who has found herself someone who loves her back.
“Material Girl” and “Dress You Up” mine the idea of wealth and how it applies to relationships, and it’s appropriate they each start off their respective album sides. “Material Girl” is ostensibly tongue-in-cheek, with the singer playing a role, but the lyrics (“‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash/Is always Mister Right”) definitely suggest that the songwriters had watched Scarface when released the year before: “[W]hen you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.”
However, it’s women who really identify with Madonna. She’s an absolute icon, and her many fans have been lifelong ones. It’s not often you come across someone who’s only been a fan of Madonna for a few years, unless they’re maybe nine or 10. In the interest of representing one of the biggest fandoms out there, I sent some questions to my friend Christa, who has seen Madonna four times in the last five years, to get her perspective on Like A Virgin and Madonna’s perennial appeal.
“As long as I have been a fan (almost 33 years), I sadly did not see my first Madonna concert until 2012 during the MDNA tour,” said Christa. “But once I finally did, I was hooked. I have been to many, many concerts of all different kinds in my (nearly) 40 years, and her shows blow everyone else’s out of the water. They are an experience! After my first Madonna concert, I vowed to never miss another tour. With that, I was able to see her three times during her most recent tour, The Rebel Heart Tour.”
As far as the appeal of Madonna’s music to Christa personally, she says that it’s just that Madonna makes great all-around pop music. Whether it’s a ballad, a dance oriented track, a folk-inspired song, etc.: Christa is a fan of it all.
“She is always willing to take risks musically, and her message has always been so incredibly positive and inspiring,” Christa said. “She has always promoted love, acceptance, and inclusion. She has also never shied away from talking about issues important to her in her lyrics, including issues that some consider taboo (sex, LGBT rights, religion, etc).”
Along with this, Christa appreciates that so much of her music is so incredibly honest — as if some of her lyrics are coming straight from her journal.
“A lot of us have probably always thought of her as this incredibly strong, ‘tough as nails’ woman (which has been her personae for years), but her lyrics have often been very insightful into how sensitive and vulnerable she really is,” she explained. “I love that she’s willing to reveal that side of herself, as I can definitely relate.”
She doesn’t quite remember the first time hearing a Madonna song, and what about it grabbed her, saying that her memory is unfortunately very fuzzy in regards to it, but her earliest (and clearest) memories of her go back to the beginning of the Like a Virgin era.
“I was six years old at the time. I will have to say that the title song (and video) immediately caught my attention, but I remember being familiar with her prior to that time, hearing ‘Lucky Star’ and ‘Borderline’ on the radio before then,” she remembered. “I really enjoyed her music, but what ultimately grabbed me was her image. We had just gotten cable around that time, and when I first saw her on MTV, I was absolutely mesmerized. I’m still mesmerized!”
The certain something about the songs on Like A Virgin that make them still resonate over 30 years later is, for Christa, that it brings back memories of that time, including the nostalgia of being a fan for so incredibly long.
“It made her a superstar! I remember all the young girls (including me), we all wanted to be her,” she said. “So many of us were dressing like her to some extent, wearing our lace gloves and rubber bracelets. As a matter of fact, you still see many, many fans dressing up a la Like A Virgin at her shows — wearing the wedding dress, the Boy Toy belt, the rosaries, the whole nine yards.”
Let’s talk cultural impact, shall we? Less than a decade later, Quentin Tarantino devoted a solid segment of Reservoir Dogs’ screentime to the gangsters sitting around in a coffee shop, discussing the relative merits of Madonna’s early oeuvre, and, most notably, the idea behind Like A Virgin’s title track. Tarantino’s Mr. Brown is of the opinion that, “‘Like a Virgin’ is all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The whole song is a metaphor for big dicks.” Edward Bunker’s Mr. Blue believes that “It’s about a girl who is very vulnerable and she’s been fucked over a few times.” This leads to the infamous bit wherein Mr. Brown breaks down the lyrical metaphors inherent in the song, and while it’s absolutely brilliant, there’s no need to go into the dirty details. You can find the whole bit in any number of places, up to and including the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, and then recite it at parties the way I did during my freshman year of college.
A slightly more family-friendly take is Weird Al’ Yankovic’s parody, “Like A Surgeon,” from 1985’s Dare to Be Stupid. He added it back into his live show during the Mandatory Fun tour, which featured the tune as part of a four-song “Unplugged” set. The light opera version from 2001’s Moulin Rouge is an exceptional cover, as well, flipping the sexuality on its head. My personal favorite take is Meat Purveyor’s version from their Madonna Trilogy single in 1999, which drops the song alongside “Burning Up” and “Lucky Star.”
And, just to bring it all back around, Madonna’s performance at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards featured her, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears performing her new single, “Hollywood,” but both Aguilera and Spears came out singing “Like A Virgin” while dressed as Madonna did in her iconic ‘84 appearance. That was talked about just as much, for further reasons salacious, in that Madonna laid a lip lock on both Spears and Aguilera.
Originally, I had this hot take concept for this piece wherein I compared Like A Virgin to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, wherein I posited that Jackson’s solo career didn’t really start until he left Motown and went to Epic, thus making Off the Wall his first “real” solo record and Thriller the smash follow-up. Much like Off the Wall, Madonna’s eponymous debut owed quite a bit to disco, and while a success, ended up being massively eclipsed by its successor. That’s cool and all, but then I realized that it was re-contextualizing Madonna via the perspective and success of a male artist, so in the interest of smashing the patriarchy, Like A Virgin is best examined in the context of Madonna’s other work, specifically as it relates to her self-titled debut.