Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 2 – ‘LIKE A VIRGIN’ (1984)
Welcome back to Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi! We hope you liked our first episode, where Abdi (author of the Madonna-rich, queer coming of age story “Like a Love Story” and associate producer of Luca Guadagnino’s Academy Award-winning Call Me By Your Name) and I discussed the Queen of Pop’s eponymous first album.
Now we take on her breakthrough, Like a Virgin. A blockbuster smash, her first #1 single and the beginning of a lifelong string of controversies and reinventions. While she wrote or co-wrote six of the album’s nine tracks, her label still wasn’t ready to let her produce. She was, however, given her choice of producer and picked legendary musician Nile Rodgers for his work with David Bowie and as a co-founder of Chic. It was with Like a Virgin that Madonna began (boy) toying with her religion as a source of defiance and establishing herself as a provocateur. Let’s dig in.
EA: I might start to sound like a broken record here but “Material Girl” is another undeniable classic. The title became her given moniker for so long, I still see writers using it today to identify her. The opening 30 seconds have been my ringtone for years! Like a Virgin was actually the first album I was ever able to buy with my own earned money and as a really poor kid, the fantasy of jewels and gifts and materialism spoke to me.
AN: Well, here we go. I mean, we could probably do a whole piece about this song alone. The song that would define and haunt her for decades. Madonna has talked about her difficult relationship to this song, and about how she felt no one understood the irony in it, and as a fan, I kind of have my own difficult relationship with it. I mean, I love the song and I was obsessed with it as a kid, but I’m not sure I want it to be THE defining song of her career. As a chart obsessive, I’ve noticed that since being featured on Stranger Things, the song has become her most-streamed song on Spotify, which is fun but I wish that honor went to a song that she wrote, and that felt more authentic to who she truly is. Also, it’s hard not to discuss the video in a discussion of this song. It’s a video I love, love, love. I wish more were written about Mary Lambert as a director, and about Madonna’s early work with female directors (hi Susan Seidelman!) What I love about the video is that it was Madonna’s most overt use of pop culture archetypes in defining her own image. She clearly loves Marilyn Monroe, and also updates the Marilyn persona to give Marilyn some of the agency she herself wasn’t able to achieve in her era. It’s beautiful. I’m grateful to Madonna for being a portal to other great artists. It’s through her that I fell in love with so many artists as a kid, from Marilyn and Rita Hayworth and Dietrich to Pedro Almodóvar and Keith Haring and Frida Kahlo. I love artists who lead their fans to other great artists. I think Lana del Rey and Beyoncé are doing that beautifully these days.
EA: You’re absolutely right that the song and the video were such a mixed blessing for her. Madonna has always been someone that defined herself and to have that kind of taken away from her wasn’t in her plan. What I think has been able to happen though is a better understanding of the satirical element of it – certainly through hindsight of the Reagan-era, me me me decade – and certainly the irony.
AN: I think you hit on something so important about Madonna – the struggle between her defining herself, and others imposing definitions on her. That’ll play out for decades to come and is still being played out (have you seen the very odd responses to her Eurovision performance, where people think she’s a satanist who predicted or created the coronavirus. I mean…).
EA: She’s smart though, she knew right away that the song wasn’t being interpreted the way she wanted it to be (even though she didn’t write it) and she’s got to great lengths each tour that she’s performed to make that point. “Do you really think I’m a material girl? I’m not!” from The Virgin Tour kicked that off. Ugh, the Eurovision responses…I can’t and I won’t!
AN: I think any mention of Illuminati conspiracies demands a palette cleanser like “Angel.”
AN: I know you saw Stephen Bray tweet out recently in celebration of this song’s 35th anniversary. That made me so happy because this is probably Madonna’s most forgotten major hit. It went to no. 5, probably on the strength of Into the Groove as its B-side (B-side!!) but still. I think this song was also featured in Stranger Things, but I’m not sure that it had as big of a resurgence as Material Girl has because of the show. I love the joy in this song, the effortlessness of it. It’s a rush of a pop song. Just perfect. I wish it got a proper video, but apparently she had so many videos in rotation that they worried she’d get oversaturated, ha. This feels like the right time to mention that eight-year-old me convinced my parents to take me to The Virgin Tour in Chicago. EPIC. The Beastie Boys opened, and I got to see “Angel” and “Over and Over” and “Gambler” (one of my favorites) live.
EA: I’m so glad you mentioned the 35th anniversary of the song and what great timing for this! I don’t think there is a single hit of her career that probably goes more unnoticed than Angel. It was a top 5 hit! But it never gets the recognition of her other major songs. I wonder how much of that was due to the lack of a music video, as you mention, right at the beginning of the MTV era and Madonna quickly becoming a massive video star. I’ll echo that The Virgin Tour was also my first (in San Francisco), albeit I was a bit older than you at the time.
AN: Two Virgin Tour attendees, look at us! Yeah, no music video, plus no inclusion in any of her greatest hits…
EA: Well, I hope this brings it back into some playlist rotation because it deserves it! It also is one of the first examples of Madonna playing with her lower register, which she does a lot on this album, sometimes to gorgeous effect.
AN: Big love for her lower register!
EA: We talked about the legacy of ‘material girl’ as a moniker but nothing comes close to what Like a Virgin did for (and to) her. Her first #1 song and the first time she pivoted to using her newfound stature to unapologetically court controversy. Simply, I love it. It’s racy, it’s catchy, it’s horny, it’s funny. It cemented her pop icon status in a way we hadn’t seen before.
AN: All hail her first #1 hit. She really deserved it. I’ll confess this wasn’t a song I returned to often for a while, but recently it came on while we were lounging in the backyard with the kids, and they were obsessed with her high-pitched “Hey!” in the chorus, and so we started putting it back into heavy rotation. Their response to the song (they’re the exact age I was when the album came out) reminded me of how much I loved the song when it came out. It’s an undeniable song. I guess I gravitate more to the songs Madonna writes herself though. I listened to a podcast about this album not long ago, and the two guys discussing the album talked about how this was Madonna’s best album because she was still open to recording songs she didn’t write. And I’m sorry, but anyone who thinks “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” are better songs than the ones Madonna would write herself in the future does not get Madonna or who she is. One thing I love is how this song has been reinvented through the years. The Girlie Show Dietrich version and the haunting MDNA version and of course the iconic Blond Ambition version are all brilliant attempts at taking the song and redefining it. I cannot comprehend people who go to concerts to hear the album versions of a song. Give me reinventions every time.
EA: Isn’t it wild that her two most defining songs aren’t actually her own? Like I mentioned above, I think this is why she’s fought so hard for so long to be understood and on her terms. We both know she’s often said she doesn’t like doing her old hits unless she can do something new with them but what she did with this on the Blond Ambition tour was nothing short of revolutionary. I’m with you, give me reinventions, it’s how she reclaims her identity. If I wanted to listen to the radio version I could do that at home. I want an experience!
AN: Absolutely. And of course, the subject of what her most defining songs are is so interesting. These two might be her defining songs to some, but I would put Like a Prayer and Vogue atop the list myself.
EA: Oh definitely. “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” defined her emergence as a star and the 80s, whereas Like a Prayer and Vogue allowed her to leave that behind. One of the good things about this single is that, even though it wasn’t written by her, it still came from a place about a woman being in control of her sexuality and her choices and for it to be her first #1 and to have such impact is a good thing. Wait, we didn’t even talk about the MTV Video Music Awards performance of this! Talk about iconic. Masturbating and writhing around on stage? No one had ever seen that kind of thing before.
AN: You’re right, I can’t believe that wasn’t top of mind, but that just shows how rich this song’s evolution has been.
AN: My favorite song on the album, hands down. Obsessed. Love the drive of the song, and the lyrics are quintessential Madonna. I listen to this one a lot. It’s so motivating. I just love when Madonna releases songs that are about her being, um, unapologetic about her identity. The lyrics here are a manifesto for who she is and for all that was to come, and it was a message to all her fans – many of whom were being told by 80s society to conform, conform, conform – that it was okay to not only be yourself, but to scream it from the highest mountain. “I’m not afraid to say I hear a different beat. And I’ll go out in the street. And I will shout it again. From the highest mountain.” She empowered people to do the same.
EA: Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah! Maybe her best ever? I know, that’s a bit of a reach. But the energy this has. The vivacity this has. The urgency this has. As a gay kid that got beat up a lot in school, the empowerment of ‘You get up again, over and over’ was indelible. I end up playing the remix version on You Can Dance more but since doing a deep dive album by album before starting this gave me such an appreciation for this version in a big way.
AN: Yes, an absolutely vital message to all the queer kids who felt beaten down at the time.
EA: And now, as I’m much older, it’s the song that keeps me going during a workout! That’s Madonna, always there for me.
AN: 100%. Now, does love live here anymore?
EA: A stunner. From top to bottom. I’m not always a huge fan of a lot of Madonna’s ballads (I know!) but this Rose Royce cover is total perfection. She hasn’t done very many covers in her career and this was such a perfect opportunity for her to show her range, to not let herself be pigeon-holed as one type of pop performer and vocalist. “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” is sad and sultry and, I’ll probably say this a few times during this series, a great example of something that could fit in a different Madonna era or album. This would feel right at home with the soul of Bedtime Stories.
AN: We’ve already established I love a Madonna ballad. Many of my favorites from her are ballads. Also, after her recent Elvis performance on Instagram, I do dream of a covers album from her. I agree she hasn’t done many, and that would be so exciting. Maybe something experimental and unexpected like Tori Amos’ Strange Little Girls. I’m glad this song got revisited and even charted in the Something to Remember era (where is Something To Remember 2? I need that). I also love it got a moment to shine in the Rebel Heart tour (what a surprise that was). I agree it could fit right in alongside some of the Bedtime Stories tracks (one of my favorite albums).
EA: Rebel Heart is the only tour I’ve missed of hers so it broke my heart not to get to hear it. YES to a covers album, please!
AN: Why does Spotify not have the correct album version where it’s supposed to be? I feel like I want to go all Mommie Dearest on the powers that be and tell them to “tear down that remix and put the original mix where the original mix ought to be.” My cousins and I would sit by the radio waiting for this song to come on. It really spoke to me as a kid. Something about the suits that are custom made in London really had an impact on me, like it was the ultimate height of style. I’ve still never had a suit custom made in London, by the way. Who has though? And also, how hilarious that this sweet poppy song was so controversial in its day. Tipper Gore was very upset about this song’s sexuality.
EA: Tipper, the Karen of her day. I might have to start clocking how many times I exclaim ‘classic!’ or ‘best ever!’ because this is an ALL TIMER. From a fashion standpoint in the performance video it’s legendary. It’s pop perfection and, like, Burning Up, fuses rock guitar to drive it in just the right places.
AN: Maybe Tipper liked Shoo-Bee-Doo?
EA: What a perfect segue!
EA: I’ll admit, the last three songs on Like a Virgin have often had me hit the skip button. But, revisiting this album has had me rethink a lot. I still don’t like the name of the song but I’m much warmer to it now. It feels like a precursor to True Blue.
AN: That’s so interesting ‘cause I love the last three songs, probably ‘cause they haven’t been overplayed. I realized recently when showing the kids Grease for the first time that the 50s and 60s are to me what the 80s and 90s are to them, which is scary. And the kids love 80s and 90s pop music the way I loved the 50s and 60s. I always loved the early Madonna songs that nodded to her love for a bygone sound. This one really has a love for Motown written into it. True Blue definitely has those eras in it.
EA: I love that generational example! That this is the only song on the album solely written by her speaks to where her influences come from. Paying homage to Stevie Wonder’s song and being a Detroit suburb native, wanting to do a Motown-inspired song makes perfect sense. It’s also probably a good time to point out that the entire album was produced by Nile Rodgers and his imprint is everywhere, definitely here.
AN: A genius. Chic. His work with Diana Ross and David Bowie. And what happened to the work he did with Dua Lipa for her second album? It didn’t make the cut, which is so disappointing. I want to hear that.
EA: Maybe it will end up on her third. So many songs end up getting pushed to next albums so there’s hope!
AN: I love her voice on this song, and the idea of pretending speaks to the importance of illusion in her work. I just re-watched Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (fun fact: Fassbinder’s DP Michael Ballhaus went on to become Scorsese’s DP as well as the DP for the “Papa Don’t Preach” and “True Blue” videos. Watch the camera movement in Petra and Goodfellas and “Papa Don’t Preach” and you’ll see his fluid style throughout). I digress. The movie Petra Von Kant ends with the song “The Great Pretender” because of course, so much of it is about examining artifice. And no one examines artifice like Madonna. One of my favorite scenes in my novel LIKE A LOVE STORY is the characters discussing her use of “like a” in her album and song titles. For a long time, I expected more “like a” albums from her, but obviously that hasn’t happened… yet.
EA: I would have LIVED for every album to have been a ‘Like a’ record. I love this recalling of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. I wonder if Madonna pulled Ballhaus in because of it. I can totally see that for her. “Pretender” is a fun song. It’s could have lived on her first album quite easily, being thematically similar – not putting up with a man’s bullshit, singing the song not to him but as warning to others. This is always one of my favorite things about songs; who they’re being to and about. It’s full of her trademark empowerment.
EA: I love this as a closer because, as we just talked about her songs of empowerment and not letting a man rule her life, Stay allows her to still express that she wants love, that she can forgive. It’s a vulnerable song without being sappy and like “Shoo-Bee-Doo” features some callbacks to a bygone era with that ‘then we can scoop, scoop, scoop, scoodooly be bop yeah.’
AN: I also think this is a stellar closing track. It has urgency and drive and phenomenal vocals. You know something wild… If I had to rank all the Madonna albums, this would be near the bottom which says something about the brilliant consistency of her career, because as we’ve established in this conversation, I love every song. I feel like Madonna got the whole world’s attention with this album, and she would hereafter lead the world to places that were surprising and challenging. No one else has used their cultural capital to pivot the conversation like she has. I love her so much. And as we close up, big big love to Steven Meisel for the artwork, which is so important to the story of this album.
EA: Cultural capital is exactly right, I love it. I’m also totally with you; I did an album ranking a few years ago and it was at the bottom but now I’m not so sure! This album was most people’s introduction to her and what an entrance. I’ll echo the love and importance of Meisel. He was instrumental in visualizing her iconography and so early established that her desire for a strong visual style and representation of her work was an inextricable part of it.
AN: Yes!! The visual language of her albums is unparalleled.
LIKE A VIRGIN by the numbers
- Released November 12, 1984
- Peaked at #1 on Billboard 200 album chart on February 9, 1985 (for three weeks)
- Length: 43:10
- 10M US / 21M worldwide
- Billboard Hot 100 hits: “Like a Virgin” (#1), “Material Girl” (#2), “Angel” (#5), “Dress You Up” (#5)