Bryget Chrisfield explores the creation, impact, and astonishing legacy of her favourite classic records. This month: Madonna’s Like A Virgin (1984).
“I stand before you as a doormat. Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer.”
This is how Madonna kicked off her moving 2016 Billboard Woman Of The Year acceptance speech. “Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse… If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. You’re allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart… You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness.”
Right out of the gate, Madonna was sexually unashamed in a way that we were accustomed to celebrating in male singers (pretty much since Elvis). But in female artists? Not so much. Madonna oozed sexual desire from every pore while challenging the power dynamics of gender, sex, religion and race, all of which made her a hot topic of discussion in school yards, around the dinner table, in the media and even The Vatican (Pope John Paul II spoke out against Like A Prayer’s music video).
Madonna took to Instagram last year, on the 30th anniversary of this film clip’s release, posting: “30 years ago today I released Like A Prayer and made a video that caused so much controversy because I kissed a black saint and danced in front of burning crosses! I also made a commercial with PEPSI that was banned because my video was seen as inappropriate. Happy Birthday to Me and Controversy!”
I was a ballet-obsessed 12-year-old when I first clapped eyes on The Queen Of Pop, recorded all of her film clips to VHS tape and played them Over And Over (badum-tsh!), studying her every move while attempting to learn the chorey (especially that cool, figure-eight-hips Holiday step), and cluelessly mimicking her erotic posturing.
Burning Up – Madonna’s second single – dropped in 1983, and scenes in the accompanying music video feature the singer executing some provocative floorwork (in the middle of a road). When Burning Up came on in a shopping centre record store around the time of release, a school chum felt compelled to drop to the floor – in full school uniform – and replicate the moves from said section of this film clip (much to the bemusement of shoppers).
“A woman in control of her sex life and career was such a new idea that Madonna became the biggest thing to hit pop, and popular culture, in years,” music journalist Caroline Sullivan observed in 2011. “And she’s stayed that way: her influence on the way women came to view sex, love and themselves was so great that some universities offered courses in Madonna studies.”
Like A Virgin’s title track (and lead single) was debuted at the first MTV Video Music Awards in 1984. Holding a bouquet and wearing a wedding dress with bustier bodice, veil and trademark ‘Boy Toy’ belt buckle (from the album’s cover photograph, which was shot by Steven Meisel – a regular Madonna collaborator), Madonna commenced her performance atop a giant three-tiered wedding cake prop beside a tuxedoed male mannequin – a personalised wedding cake topper, of sorts. After kicking off her heels, Madonna perched seductively on each tier of the cake as she descended to stage level. Removing her veil and rearranging her permed tresses, she then put her white stilettos back on and piffed the bouquet before strutting, skipping, spinning and rolling around on the floor. She concluded this performance by simulating sex using the veil as makeshift sexual conquest.
It’s just Madonna up there, owning the stage, and her star quality was immense; the audience hesitated, awestruck, before wild applause was punctuated by scattered whoops of appreciation.
Madonna herself declared: “I have always loved to play cat and mouse with the conventional stereotypes. My Like A Virgin album cover is a classic example. People were thinking, who was I pretending to be – the Virgin Mary or the whore? These were the two extreme images of women I had known vividly, and remembered from childhood, and I wanted to play with them. I wanted to see if I can merge them together – Virgin Mary and the whore as one and all. The photo was a statement of independence: if you wanna be a virgin, you are welcome. But if you wanna be a whore, it’s your f-cking right to be so.” Amen.
Remember the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs? The action takes place in the booth of a diner where a besuited gang analyses Like A Virgin’s lyrics over breakfast. Mr. Brown (played by the film’s director, Quentin Tarantino) presents his case that “the entire song” is “a metaphor for big d-cks”. When Margy Rochlin asked Tarantino to share Madonna’s assessment of his take on the song during an interview, the filmmaker had this to say: “After she saw the movie, she wanted to meet me. So I met her at Maverick, her film company. She told me that that wasn’t where she was coming from. [Laughs] But I think she really got a kick about the fact that I thought that, because she signed my Erotica album, “To Quentin – It’s about love, not d-ck. Madonna.”
Like A Virgin was Madonna’s first #1 album on the Billboard 200, becoming the first by a female artist to sell over five million copies in the States, and this Diamond-certified record remains one of the best-selling albums of all time. Madonna wrote six songs on Like A Virgin, five of which she co-wrote with her ex-boyfriend Steve Bray. The title track became Madonna’s first #1 single in Australia and the U.S. (among other territories).
After a difference of opinion with Reggie Lucas midway through the recording of her debut self-titled record resulted in the producer being let go (with John “Jellybean” Benitez taking over), Madonna wanted to produce Like A Virgin herself, but her label declined. Madonna said of the situation: “Warner Bros. Records is a hierarchy of old men and it’s a chauvinist environment to be working in because I’m treated like this sexy little girl. I had to prove them wrong, which meant not only proving myself to my fans but to my record company as well. That is something that happens when you’re a girl. It wouldn’t happen to Prince or Michael Jackson.”
With the approval of Warner Bros. executives, Nile Rodgers was eventually recruited to produce Like A Virgin. Rodgers enlisted former Chic bandmates – bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson – for the sessions, and, in exchange for their help, Edwards insisted Rodgers himself should play guitar on the record. Result!
Since Rodgers partied hard, recording sessions for Like A Virgin kicked off in the afternoon. This also suited Madonna, who recalled, “It was impossible for me to reach there at morning.” On his in-studio chemistry with Madonna during these sessions, Rodgers has gushed: “When we did that album, it was the perfect union, and I knew it from the first day in the studio. The thing between us, man, it was sexual, it was passionate, it was creativity… it was pop.”
Although she wasn’t required at all of the sessions, Madonna was present for every minute of recording as well as the entire mixing process. Audio engineer Jason Corsaro comments: “Nile was there most of the time, but she was there all of the time. She never left.” And Madonna’s still hard at it, despite acknowledging in her aforementioned acceptance speech that, for female artists, “to age is a sin”: “People say that I’m so controversial, but I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.”