On her self-titled 1983 debut, Madonna sang perky little tunes about going on vacation (“Holiday”) and falling in and out of love (“Lucky Star” and “Borderline”). These were ideas grandma and grandpa could get behind, and yet the 20-something Michigan native caused a minor sensation, setting the stage for a total pop-culture takeover. Clearly, music was only one of her weapons.
While Madonna offered Middle American mallrats a taste of underground NYC dance culture, what really got people talking was the singer herself. This spunky, self-assured club kid with the belly shirts and rubber bracelets liked being a topic of conversation, and with her second album, Like a Virgin, she endeavored to keep her name on everyone’s lips.
Released 30 years ago today (Nov. 12, 1984), Like a Virgin is sometimes thought of as Madonna’s artistic coming-out party, the moment she swapped frivolous bubblegum for more thoughtful examinations of female sexuality. Such praise stems mostly from what we now know about Madonna. However, for all its merits — and it has many — Like a Virgin isn’t exactly The Feminine Mystique set to music. In fact, it’s not all that different from its predecessor.
As with her first record, Madonna went into Like a Virgin wrestling Warner Bros. for more artistic control. After her negative experiences working with Reggie Lucas, she wanted to handle more of the production herself, and she found a winning collaborator in Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, who’d just worked on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance.
Rodgers gave Madonna’s music some extra snap and sheen, and if he didn’t quite hand the singer her first classic album — she’d have to wait another five years for that — he did get her to the top of the Billboard 200. He also helped craft two of the decade’s most iconic singles.
The first, of course, is “Like a Virgin,” Madonna’s first No. 1 pop hit. It’s here that she most explicitly tackles sexual politics and explores that whole virgin-whore thing so central to her image. The other is “Material Girl,” a winking gold-digger anthem that can be taken a couple of different ways. The remaining seven songs range from fun-enough dance tunes to flat-out filler – but that was all it took to propel Madonna onto the same plain as Prince, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen.
Read on to get our track-by-track take on this ‘80s landmark, an album that had young girls everywhere rocking lace tutus and fingerless gloves and bopping along to a cultural figure who could no longer be ignored.
“Material Girl”: Like so many ‘80s pop classics, this one is inextricably linked to its video, which features a pretty-in-pink Madonna paying homage to Marilyn Monroe. It’s also more clever than most people realize. She’s either making a sarcastic statement about the decade’s rampant materialism or promoting the kind of “I got mine, bitches” feminism that’s always been her guiding light. Either way, “Material Girl” is a stylish sign-of-the-times synth-funk jam she didn’t write but totally owned.
“Angel”: Madonna never made an “Angel” video, so there are no candy-colored MTV memories to taint this underrated single, which she co-wrote with ex-boyfriend Steve Bray. It plays like a straightforward dance-pop love song, but when this lapsed Catholic starts singing about angels, you know there’s some religious subtext. The laughter up front and midway through is a reminder that Madonna is no wretch incapable of saving herself. When heaven sends her an angel, it’s game respecting game.
“Like a Virgin”: Ask a hundred people what this song is about, and you’ll get a hundred interpretations — none as hilariously vulgar as Quentin Tarantino’s in Reservoir Dogs, but each as valid. “Like a Virgin” was actually written by a couple of men (Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly), and that makes the finished Madonna product all the more ambiguous. Atop a bassline like the one heard in “Billie Jean” — another complex song about purity and sex — Madonna is coquettish yet knowing. “Like a Virgin” is about reconnecting with lost innocence through the act of lovemaking, a counterintuitive idea that was bound to confuse people. It didn’t exactly clarify things when she wore a wedding dress and humped the floor while performing the song at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards.
“Over and Over”: The interplay between the shiny synths and clean, jangly guitar is reminiscent of what Prince was doing at the time, though the lyrics are pure Madonna. “You try to criticize my drive / If I lose I don’t feel paralyzed,” she sings, managing to inject some of her go-getter personality into even a fairly skippable filler track.
“Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”: Originally a hit for Rose Royce in 1978, this ballad breaks the run of up-tempo tracks and puts the focus on raw emotion. Never known as a powerhouse vocalist, Madonna gives the soul-diva thing her best shot, and she powers through like she always does, making the most of her squeaky instrument and even affecting some growls toward the end, right before she breaks down crying.
“Dress You Up”: Fashion was obviously a big part of Madonna’s appeal, and here, she proves that clothing can be a good metaphor for sex. Writers Andrea LaRusso and Peggy Stanziale lay it on thick with “silky touch” and “velvet kisses” talk, but Rodgers skims away the cheese with his funky guitar tangles and that melodic solo, which could have come from Purple Rain.
“Shoo-Bee-Doo”: Madonna wasn’t the first female pop artist to merge strength and femininity. In the ‘60s, plenty of beehived girl groups paved the way, and here, Madonna gives thanks (sort of) with a retro experiment that doesn’t quite work. The stylized backing track and sax are straight out of a Malt Shop Memories revue, and the most interesting thing is the way Madonna nudges things into the present with a line that might not have worked 20 years earlier: “Well I can make it on my own, baby / But I’d rather share all the love that’s there.”
“Pretender”: Even when she gets snookered, Madonna is no sucker. “I know all about your kind,” she tells the finagler that inspired this brisk synth-pop groover. Yeah, she went back to his place, let things move too fast, and set herself up for heartbreak, but there’s a sense she saw it all coming.
“Stay”:Like a Virgin ends with neither a triumph nor a trifle — just another semi-memorable synth-pop love song. The coolest part comes at 2:15, when Madonna gets into the “scoop, scoop, scoop, scoodooly be-bop” spirit and makes like a Shangri-La with some spoken-word vocals: “Don’t’ be afraid / It’s gonna be alright.” She might as well have been talking to herself.