Madonna is one of the most recognizable names in the world – and not just the world of music. She became the first multimedia pop icon, crossing from dance-oriented pop music into movies, television, videos, fashion and books while achieving a level of celebrity comparable to that of a primary inspiration, Marilyn Monroe. Madonna has been a ubiquitous and, at times, controversial figure since erupting on the scene with her debut single, Everybody,” in 1982. No one in the pop realm has manipulated the media with such a savvy sense of self-promotion. Yet Madonna’s career has always had a solid musical footing, and her life – however outrageous and calculated at certain points – has proceeded on an unfolding path of self-discovery and open-hearted revelation.
As a fully liberated woman who’s lived life on her own terms, Madonna has been an icon to many since bursting on the scene in 1981. Certainly Madonna is one of the most fascinating, uninhibited and well-documented figures of the modern age, and her music has provided an ongoing documentary of her life and times. From the energetic dance-floor anthems of her early years to the introspective balladry of her middle period to the religious and political themes that preoccupy her later work, Madonna has offered surprises and challenges at every turn.
She was born Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, the third of eight children, in Bay City, Michigan. She dropped out of college and moved to New York in 1978, bringing only a suitcase and dreams of being a professional dancer. A European tour with a disco singer, for whom she danced and sang backup, led to a half-year in Paris before a return to New York and a turn in a New Wavish band called the Breakfast Club. During her scuffling years in New York, she taught herself to play drums, keyboards and guitar; did modeling work and odd jobs; danced with the Alvin Ailey and Pearl Lange troupes; and made inroads as a singer and dancer on Manhattan’s club circuit.
Her break came in 1982, when she signed with Sire Records (her label for the next 14 years), after famously auditioning for label head Seymour Stein in his hospital room. “She was singing with all her heart, and that’s what came across,” Stein recalled. “I wanted to sign her immediately.” At Sire, Madonna’s provocative persona and musical imagination were given free reign. In short order, Madonna exploded onto dance floors, airwaves and television, where she grabbed the attention of the first generation of MTV viewers. She became an early emblem of “women in rock,” helping dissolve gender boundaries in the music business to the point where that catchphrase has become unnecessary and even a bit anachronistic. She also deliberately pushed the envelope, openly offering sexuality as part of the package.
“I wanted to go, ‘Don’t tell me what to do just ’cause I’m a girl,” Madonna toldPeople magazine in 2000. “Don’t tell me I can’t be sexual and intelligent at the same time…. I’m happy to have been a pioneer.”
Madonna became one of the top stars of the Eighties, selling 60 million records worldwide, making headlines and achieving a level of pop celebrity rivaled only by Michael Jackson, Prince and Bruce Springsteen. She had seven #1 hits (from 1984’s “Like a Virgin” through 1989’s “Like a Prayer") and three #1 albums (Like a Virgin, True Blue, Like a Prayer) in that time. She also sparked debate and controversy with such songs as “Material Girl” and “Papa Don’t Preach.” She released four of the decade’s most high-impact albums – Madonna (1983), Like a Virgin (1984), True Blue (1986) and Like a Prayer (1989). They collectively logged eight-and-a-half years on the charts, making Madonna a ubiquitous presence. She also charted 20 singles in the Eighties, seven of which reached #1 – a number surpassed only by Michael Jackson’s nine.
Madonna also made her presence felt in films, appearing in Desperately Seeking Susan, Shanghai Surprise, Who’s That Girl? and Dick Tracy. She capped off an amazing decade with The Immaculate Collection, a compilation of 15 hits and two new tracks. The sexually frisky video for one of them, “Justify My Love” (written by Lenny Kravitz), triggered more controversy and moral outrage.
She fearlessly entered the Nineties by pushing the envelope even further on the Blonde Ambition World Tour. This elaborate stagecraft, choreography and costuming edged the concert experience closer to a ribald, eye-popping musical. An uncensored documentary of her life, onstage and off, was filmed with Madonna’s authorization. Titled Truth or Dare, it, too, made headlines, with some lauding her unvarnished honesty and others fretting she’d crossed the line again. But all this paled in comparison to the 1992 publication of Madonna’s X-rated picture book, Sex. It was accompanied by another envelope-pushing album (Erotica) and tour (The Girlie Show). That same year, she launched her own label, Maverick Records, in conjunction with Warner Bros.
Madonna’s more self-reflective 1994 release, Bedtime Stories, yielded the single “Take a Bow,” a ballad that became the biggest hit of her career. In 1995, Madonna played the lead role in Evita, a film biography of Eva Peron, the Argentinean leader and heroine. Her work earned the best notices of her film career and won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress. The Evitasoundtrack went to #2 and sold 4 million copies.
The singer’s budding interest in Kabbalah, a mystical religion deriving from Judaism, informed 1998’s Ray of Light. Madonna’s first album of new material in four years found her reassessing her life in light of a spiritual awakening. “It’s about my relationship to fame and how my image spiraled out of control,” Madonna told USA Today. “I convinced myself that [fame] was going to be enough to take the place of real intimacy. I was incredibly naïve.”
Mixing folk and electronica, Madonna’s 2000 release Music returned her to a more extroverted sound and outlook. The title track became her twelfth #1 single. By this time, Madonna was becoming more consumed by family life. She had a daughter (Lourdes) by a boyfriend, Carlos Leon, and a son (Rocco) by husband Guy Ritchie, a British videographer and filmmaker, whom she’d married in December 2000.
Madonna has continued to confuse and confound all stereotypes. Two and a half years after Music, she returned with American Life, which took a withering look at fame, fortune, consumerism and the contemporary political landscape. Proving she was still not averse to stirring up controversy, Madonna locked lips with Britney Spears during their August 2003 performance of “Like a Virgin” on the MTV Music Video Awards. A month later, she published the first of several children’s books, The English Roses, which became a best-seller.
According to The Guinness Book of World Records, Madonna is the Most Successful Female Recording Artist of All Time. She claims the second-longest string of consecutive Top Five hits - and the most by a female artist - with a run of 16 that extended from 1984’s “Lucky Star” to 1989’s “Cherish.”
The 2004 Re-Invention World Tour, documented on the CD/DVD release I’m Going to Tell You a Secret, found Madonna projecting a sexy athleticism and unabashedly contemporary outlook. Madonna’s career came full circle with the 2005 release of Confessions On a Dance Floor, which returned her to the dance-music realm she initially conquered with her self-titled 1983 debut album. At the same time, Madonna’s lyrics and neopsychedelic music echoed the more metaphysical territory she explored in Ray of Light. Wherever her muse takes her in the future is anybody’s guess – and that is half the fun of following Madonna.