Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ Turns 35
Oftentimes, sophomore albums either propel or plummet artists’ careers. We’ve all heard those incredible debuts from musicians who seem primed for lasting success but then collapse under the weight of sudden stardom and high expectations.
Then there are those sophomore LPs that prove how the artist is ready for the long haul. The debut sparkles with just the right amount of magic; listeners take notice, but the ensuing success isn’t great enough to become paralyzing. The artist can then refine his or her vision.
Madonna’s Like a Virgin falls into the latter category. Released 35 years ago, on November 12, 1984, the album intensified her burgeoning stardom through such Billboard chart favorites as “Material Girl,” “Angel,” “Dress You Up” and the title track, which became her first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1.
Similar to how Prince progressed between his 1978 LP, For You, and 1979’s Prince, Madonna burnished the diamond-in-the-rough aesthetic of her 1983 debut to create Like a Virgin. Powered by five massive Billboard-topping dance singles—“Holiday,” “Borderline,” “Burning Up,” “Everybody” and “Lucky Star”—Madonna introduced the world to a captivating singer, songwriter and dancer who’d hailed from a Detroit suburb and transformed herself on New York City’s rugged downtown scene.
As catchy as those tunes were, nothing on the album suggested someone who would become a worldwide icon with a career spanning four decades. The music was very much in the same spirit as the bubbly, synth-laced dance tracks released by the likes of Shannon, the System and Irene Cara.
But Madonna was already bringing strategic game to her career, especially in her knack for recruiting ace producers. For Like a Virgin, she enlisted guitarist Nile Rodgers, one half of the creative engine behind the disco band Chic. With Rodgers on board, Madonna delivered a fizzy cocktail that channeled New York City’s pulsating club energy and topped it off with a sleeker pop sheen. Rodgers corralled members of Chic—notably bassist and creative partner Bernard Edwards, drummer Tony Thompson and keyboardist Robert Sabino—along with other top-notch New York-based session musicians.
The resultant music was far warmer, fuller and more soulful than the often cold and tinny synth sounds that typified a lot of underground dance music. Through Rodgers’ efforts, Like a Virgin had enough R&B flavor for Madonna to retain the black audience she cultivated via “Holiday” and “Lucky Star”; at the same time, the album’s bright, lacquered sonics attracted a mainstream white audience.
Like a Virgin certainly didn’t sound like the LPs that Rodgers and Edwards had helmed for Diana Ross and Sister Sledge—albums containing songs that could easily have been released as Chic singles. In fact, two of Like a Virgin’s biggest cuts slightly evoked the work of Michael Jackson. While the title track’s melody harked back to the bubblegum-pop era of the 1950s and early ’60s, Edwards’ rolling bassline hinted at the one that propelled Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Similarly, Edwards underscored the staccato, New Wave-ish melody of “Material Girl” with a jutting bassline that recalled the Jacksons’ 1980 hit “Can You Feel It.”
Nevertheless, it’s testament to Madonna’s artistry that she imbued those songs and others with conviction and a singular personality, so much so that comparisons could seem moot. (On the title track, to offer one example, she gave songwriting duo Steinberg and Kelly’s suggestive lyrics enough of an erotic charge to infuriate some conservative parents.) She co-wrote four tunes on the album with her erstwhile boyfriend, Stephen Bray, the best being the dreamy uptempo pop ditty “Angel,” and she crafted the piano-driven ballad “Shoo-Bee-Doo” by herself. While “Shoo-Bee-Doo” wasn’t released as a single, it has gained a reputation as a hidden gem providing a better showcase for Madonna’s singing than the hits.
More intriguing, though, was the cover of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” an R&B torch song. For Madonna to record it could have been considered a ballsy move, given how it’d become a signature soul hit for Rose Royce in 1978. Rodgers draped Madonna’s voice in a dramatic string arrangement that echoed the original, thickening the rest of the accompaniment with stabbing synth riffs. Madonna’s earnest version couldn’t hold a candle next to Royce’s; still, it demonstrated how she could convincingly deliver soul music that wasn’t designed specifically for the dance floor. In some fashion, the song also anticipated her 1994 album, Bedtime Stories, her most explicit nod to R&B music, on which she collaborated with Dallas Austin, Babyface, Dave “Jam” Hall and Nellee Hooper.
Just as Madonna upgraded her sound, she elevated her visual sense without jettisoning her street cred. With the increasing influence of MTV, image had become paramount to pop artists’ survival. Madonna had burst onto the music-video market with attire culled from New York City’s club scene, but the videos for “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl” revealed a newfound attention to glamour.
At this point in her career, journalists and scholars had yet to devote heaps of essays to her place inside hot-button issues like cultural appropriation and intersectionality. Nevertheless, questions about her being a white artist who dipped her toes in R&B and became bigger than her black counterparts weren’t completely avoided.
From my vantage point then, as a closeted gay teenager of color in small-town Mississippi, Madonna received cursory invites to black America’s proverbial cookout, though she hadn’t gained card-carrying status like the brilliant white R&B vocalist Teena Marie. It’s also worth noting that many other white artists—Boy George, Wham!, Thompson Twins and Eurythmics, among others—were making similar inroads on black radio at the time. The mere fact of Madonna being a white singer who released vaguely black-sounding music wasn’t earthshattering.
What made Madonna’s ascent groundbreaking was that she essentially created her own throne. She became the Queen of Pop. And because of that far-reaching mainstream pop appeal, Madonna’s transgressive tendencies—her supposed heresy, her sexually boundary-pushing material—were afforded greater scrutiny and buzz-worthy controversy.
Many of us in the black community, however, chuckled as white conservatives made such a nationwide fuss over “Like a Virgin.” “Haven’t they heard Vanity 6’s ‘Nasty Girl’?” we thought. “What about Grace Jones’ ‘Pull Up to the Bumper,’ or any of Millie Jackson’s raunchy mid-song dialogues?” In 1984, Madonna’s more provocative, more soul-stirring songs, such as “Live to Tell,” “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Like a Prayer,” were yet to arrive. So were the accolades and criticisms that followed her dalliance with the black and Latino gay community’s underground vogue balls in the early 1990s.
In the end, such fiery cultural conversations were only possible after the triumphs of Like a Virgin. It reached No. 1 on Billboard’s 200 chart, and made Madonna the first female artist in the United States to sell more than five million copies of an album. This music continues to pack dance floors, and it allowed Madonna to create an archetype of pop stardom that the likes of Gwen Stefani, P!nk and Lady Gaga have followed. It proved to the world that Madonna was a force to be reckoned with.
John Murph has held editorial positions at AARP The Magazine and BET, and written for the Washington Post, NPR Music, the Atlantic, the Root, DownBeat and other outlets. He lives and DJs in Washington, D.C.
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