Once upon a time in America, specifically the final 25 years of the 20th century (1975 – 1999), cassette tapes were a state of the art media tool. People were proud of the ‘high fidelity’ quality of their ‘home stereos’. ‘Crazy Eddie’ was ‘insane’ as were his omnipresent television commercials. Spraking of television, cathode ray tube televisions aka ‘box t.v.’s’, were ubiquitous in society. People committed phones numbers to memory. Hopelessly tangled phone cords frustrated millions, and malfunctioning desktop amswering machines frustrated millions more. The post office would deliver encyclopedia sized books, often refered to as the ‘yellow pages’, were societies information ‘search engine tool’ du jour. These were some of the universally acknowledged realities of modern life in America as our Gregorian calendars turned to the 1980’s. Society walked into the decade wide-eyed, and impressionable. While the burgeoning power of popular culture eagerly supported futuristic advancements. Anticipation of the next big technological advancement, was analagous to the bodies want of water when dehydrated. The 1980’s would not disappoint. In many observable ways, it was a decade that forever changed American pop culture.
Madonna, the once upon a time ‘Material Girl‘, is now 60 years old. Remarkably, she’s been a music legend and pop culture icon for the better part of four (4) decades. As history instructs us, at the time of to her 1983 debut album release, Madonna Ciccone was just 24 years old. Indeed, ‘time’ is a ‘jet pilot’.
AMERICAN POP PRESENTS
Madonna Ciccone in a classic 1980’s era pose with the ubiquitous ‘boom box’ radio.
WHEN THE MATERIAL GIRL RULED THE WORLD / 1980 to 1990
The 1970′s were officially coming to a close when a young, ambitious, certainly talented singer named Louise Ciccone arrived in the ‘Big Apple’ aka the ‘City that never sleeps’ aka the borough of Manhattan in New York City.
Ms. Ciccone was smart, hungry, and meant business. Indeed within just a few short years she was an established downtown lounge singer with a reputation that spoke of her talent. It wasn’t long before she was signed to a recording contract by Seymour Stein, President of ‘Sire Records’.
By July 27th of 1983, Louise Ciccone’s name had changed to the mononymous ‘Madonna’, and her eponymous titled debut album was released upon a world that had no idea what was about to hit them.
The album’s sound was created using state of the art studio sound recording systems including upbeat synthetic disco sound, using new technology of the time, including the ‘Linn Drum Machine’, the ‘Moog Bass‘, and something called an ‘OB-X synthesizer’. Liberal use of these tools combined with Madonna’s voice talent and charisma, produced a unique synthesizer and keyboard heavy, fresh dance pop music sound that would heavily influence the 1980’s pop music sound. In fact, it could be argued that the album’s subsequent runaway commercial success, virtually guaranteed that off shoots of the ‘Madonna sound’ would eventually become synonymous with 1980’s era pop music.
In an industry where recording artists are hopeful for one of any given album’s dozen or more tracks to catch fire commercially, Madonna’s 8 song debut album ignited five such fires in relative succession, that quickly reached near inferno levels. Indeed, her singles ‘Holiday’, ‘Lucky Star’, ‘Borderline’, ‘became smash international commercial successes, with ‘Burning Up’, and ‘Everybody’ performing quite well domestically. Before all the smoke had cleared, ‘Madonna’ had reached RIAA Certified 5X Platinum in sales. The album also climbed to #8 on the U.S. Billboard 200, in addition Madonna’s debut album broke into the Top 10 music charts in the United Kingdom, France, Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden and New Zealand. Indeed, Madonna’s self titled album went on to sell in excess of 10 million copies worldwide.
LIKE A VIRGIN 1984
With the astronomical success of her 1983 debut album still orbiting at high-speed around the universe, Madonna was working harder than ever. In fact by the very next year, 1984 she had already recorded and subsequently released her sophomore album ‘Like a Virgin’. Despite the success of her debut album, Madonna wasn’t at all satisfied. She felt like she had something to prove, because the reality was that for all of the commercial success of ‘Madonna’, none of her songs reached #1 on U.S. music charts. She aimed to change that with ‘Like a Virgin’, as well as put to bed any whispered notions that she was a ‘one hit wonder’.
Although Madonna wanted the freedom to be the main creative producer for her 2nd album, record executives weren’t too keen on the idea. So, she chose Nile Rodgers Jr. a talented record producer, and one of the founding members Disco supergroup, ‘Chic’, to produce ‘Like a Virgin’, a decision that would prove prudent as the collaboration of Madonna and Rodgers created an album of legendary repute. Released on November 12th of 1984, the album proved to be a powerhouse. Madonna released five singles from the 9 track album, among the five was the title track ‘Like a Virgin’, which Madonna promoted with a September 14th 1984 performance at the 1st inaugural MTV Video Music Awards show. ‘Like a Virgin’ went on to become Madonna’s very first U.S. Billboard Chart #1 single. It also proved to be controversial as some voices in the conservative establishment did not appreciate or approve of Madonna’s sexually suggestive lyrics and racy nature of her live performances on the ‘Like a Virgin’ tour.
Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ tour was off the charts successful and sales of her album grew exponentially. The backlash from conservative groups, especially with regards to her songs ‘Material Girl’ and the aforementioned ‘Like a Virgin’, grew steadily louder and their displeasure to fever pitch levels. However, Madonna understood that this was mid-1980’s America and not the 1950’s. Madonna wasn’t about to be ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ed’ type of dissuaded, nor was she going to repress the sexualized nature of her artistic expression. It could be argued that Madonna’s defiant insistence on projecting the social and sexual independence of women was instrumental in changing America’s decades long outdated puritanical attitudes, regarding female sexuality in particular. As a consequence Madonna’s success was forcing front and center, long avoided topics dealing with sexuality, directly into the bloodstream of national discourse.
Undeterred, and with fan support Madonna carried on. ‘Like a Virgin’ the single, earned RIAA Gold Certification, and went on to be a #1 song in the United States, Japan, Australia, and Canada. For its part, ‘Material Girl’ kept the trend of commercial success going strong as it hit #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in the United States, and registered in the top 5 on music charts in Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Australia, Ireland, and Japan. The 3rd single release from ‘Like a Virgin’, ‘Into the Groove’ had limited release in the United States, however it hit #1 on music charts in the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Australia, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.
The album ‘Like a Virgin’ did reach #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, a position it held for 3 weeks in 1984. At the end of the day ‘Like a Virgin’ earned an RIAA 10X Platinum Certification, easily surpassing the remarkable success of her debut album. Besides the transcendent, worldwide commercial success of ‘Like a Virgin’ and the accompanying tour, it is widely acknowledged that the controversy and notoriety surrounding ‘Material Girl’ and title track ‘Like a Virgin’, combined with Madonna’s attitude, and reinforcement of the worldwide commercial success of both songs, solidified Madonna as a bona fide American made global cultural icon.
TRUE BLUE 1986
In 1986, Madonna kept at her dedication to work and released her 3rd studio album ‘True Blue’ in the summer of 1986. For this album Madonna fought for and was afforded the opportunity to produce it. The album’s production process saw Madonna along with collaborators Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard, co-write as well as co-produce the entirety of the album from top to bottom. The theme of this album marked a departure from the overtly risqué pop dance style of her initial two albums. Instead Madonna tackled deeper issues of love, relationships, and melancholy of disharmony with both.
Madonna dedicated ‘True Blue’ to her new husband at the time, talented Hollywood bad boy A-List actor, Sean Penn. Madonna used some more traditional musical elements in the production of ‘True Blue’, such as the use of stripped down acoustic guitars and some latin themed chord progressions and accent elements. The end results couldn’t really be argued with. Indeed, it received wide critical acclaim and many observers were impressed with Madonna’s willingness to tackle difficult social issues such as teen pregnancy in ‘Papa Don’t Preach’.
One important element that did not diverge from Madonna’s first two albums was the remarkable level of global commercial success. In this regard, ‘True Blue’ was Madonna’s most formidable commercial success yet. The album grabbed #1 spots on music charts around the globe. In fact the tally is a record-setting, and mind-blowing 28 individual nations on planet earth, including the United States. France, Germany, and the United kingdom to name exactly 4 of the 28. ‘True Blue’ dominated the #1 spot on the European Top 100 Albums Chart … for 34 consecutive weeks. In addition, for the year 1986, ‘True Blue’ was by far the top-selling album … on earth.
‘True Blue garnered worldwide sales that are estimated to be in excess of 25 million copies, To date ‘True Blue’ remains in the rarefied air and transcendent company of artists with one of the best-selling albums in the history of music. Indeed, each and every one of the five singles released from ‘True Blue’ broke into the Top 5 of Billboard’s Hot 100, and more notably, the singles, ‘Open Your Heart’, ‘Live to Tell’, and ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, at one time or another, all held the #1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100. That is nothing short of amazing.
LIKE A PRAYER 1989
By 1989, Madonna’s first three studio albums had sold multiple tens of millions of copies worldwide. Her wildly successful world tours in support of those albums, ingratiated her to untold millions of fans in corners and around bends, the world over. Her self-styled attitude, will, and independence had inspired, and influenced many more millions, while at the same time managing to ruffle some feathers of some, and instigating the clutching of pearls, in others. Nevertheless, history instructs us that in less than 10 years, Madonna had overcome obscurity, introduced herself to the world, by entertaining it, then she grew to become part of the cultural discourse. That’s was a three album run that was nothing short of a remarkable. So, it should come as no surprise that Madonna was going to play right on through decades end with a 4th album contribution to add to her decade of dominance.
‘Like a Prayer’ indeed became Madonna’s 4th studio album in less than 7 years upon it’s March 21st 1989 release. For the album’s production Madonna brought the proverbial winning team back together, which translated to co-writing and co-producing on all of album’s songs, collaborating with Stephen Bray, and Patrick Leonard. There was an additional collaborator on ‘Like a Prayer’, a hyper talented mega star named Prince Rogers Nelson aka ‘Prince’. With this team of creatives, it would have been next to impossible for ‘Like a Prayer’ to be an artistic failure, and unsurprisingly, it was not.
‘Like a Prayer’ dealt with emotional questions of existential gravity, head on. Madonna described the album as a ‘collection of songs about my mother, my father, and family bonds.’ Whatever her motivations for creating this album, the result was her most mature and artistically refined effort yet. Madonna’s team organized and composed and album that is dripping with examples of deftly accented instrumentation, as well as the clever implementation of multiple genre elements. To wit, listeners will recognize the use of soul, funk, dance and even some gospel choir for good expressive measure. There are moments of introspection, reflection, dramatic outbursts and occasionally haunting musical refrains, as with the title track, ‘Like a Prayer’. There are moments of inspired emotional resolution and empowerment in ‘Express Yourself’. Notions that ring true regardless of sex, though the song is pointedly colored with notions of female empowerment in particular.
The Commercial legacy of ‘Like a Prayer’ stands almost as a punctuation to the 4 albums that so dominated the decade. Once again, this Madonna album was a smash international success. Once again it went on to hit and then hold #1 ranking in multitudinous countries around the globe, indeed many if not all of the same nations identified in review of the first 3 albums. ‘Like a Prayer’ has achieved RIAA 4X Platinum Certification, Madonna’s second multi-platinum selling album in a row. ‘Like a Prayer‘ bore 6 single releases which was more than any of the previous three albums. They were all charted hits including ‘Oh, Father’, Express Yourself’, ‘Cherish’. The title song ‘Like a Prayer’ went on to become Madonna’s seventh #1 single in seven years, from her first four studio albums. Madonna closed out the 1980’s with an album that sold in excess of 15 million copies worldwide. Thus, firmly, figuratively placing an exclamation mark and/or planted her flag atop the mountain called the 1980’s.