Madonna (Louise Ciccone)

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Madonna (Louise Ciccone)

Madonna (Louise Ciccone), personified the 1980s emphasis on artifice and attitude over content and commitment, and was the first music act to achieve mainstream popularity thanks to regular and frequent exposure of her music videos on cable television’s MTV network; b. Bay City, Mich., Aug. 16, 1958. Her lavish videos, usually produced by movie directors, and her carefree party sound, clearly derived from disco music, reinforced the rise of a fashionable club scene based on dancing and dress, and opened the door for the success of video-dance artists such as Paula Abdul. Although exhibiting only a modicum of talent for singing, song-writing, and dancing, Madonna became the most conspicuous and commercially successful recording act of the 1980s and 1990s.

Madonna initially appealed largely to an impressionable adolescent female audience. Inspiring a fashion trend based on lace, bare midriffs, and undergarments worn as outerwear, Madonna titillated, intrigued, and outraged adults and critics unused to a strong, if superficial, female personality. Her regular changes in physical appearance invited comparisons to the periodic image shifts of David Bowie, and her puerile, voyeuristic sense of sexuality was compared with that of Prince. Additionally, Madonna projected a set of seemingly contradictory images (slut/goddess, boy-toy/domina trix, narcissist/romantic) that confounded the media and enticed fans outside of music to follow her exploits. Madonna repeatedly fostered public controversy, whether calculated or incidental, while transcending the confines of pop music and transforming herself into an international celebrity.

Madonna dropped out of the Univ. of Mich.’s dance department to move to N.Y. in 1978, where she briefly worked with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. She later met Dan Gilroy in France, forming the club band the Breakfast Club with him on their return to N.Y. She subsequently formed Emmy with drummer Steve Bray, and was “discovered” by nightclub disc jockey Mark Kamins, who produced her club hit “Everybody” in 1982. Signed to Sire Records, Madonna scored her first major hit with “Holiday,” written and produced by John “Jellybean” Benitez. Her debut album, which remained on the album charts for more than three years, also yielded a near- smash hit, “Borderline.” and the smash “Lucky Star.”

In late 1984 Madonna broke through with her Like a Virgin, which stayed on the album charts for more than two years and sold seven million copies in the United States. The title song, written by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, became a top pop and near-smash R&B hit. It was promoted through the first of a series of engaging and provocative videos popularized by the cable television network MTV. The album, produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, featured scratchy guitar, swirling keyboards, and infectious dance rhythms, yielding smash hits with “Material Girl,” “Angel,” and “Dress You Up.” The album and videos quickly established Madonna’s image as an aggressive, spoiled, and slightly decadent chanteuse. She appeared in a cameo role in the 1985 movie Vision Quest; the soundtrack album produced her top hit “Crazy for You.” Madonna broke through as an actress later that year in the film Desperately Seeking Susan, portraying an amoral, unconventional, hard-living rebel opposite Rosanna Arquette.

International celebrity quickly followed, as Madonna appeared on the cover of Time magazine in May 1985, performed at Live Aid in July, and married actor Sean Perm in August. Her public exposure and offbeat reputation were enhanced with the publication of nude photographs in Playboy and Penthouse magazines and the rerelease of her 1980 sleaze movie A Certain Sacrifice. Madonna’s True Blue album yielded a top pop and easy-listening hit with “Live to Tell”; top pop hits with “Open Your Heart” and the simplistic yet controversial “Papa Don’t Preach”; and the smashes “True Blue” and “La Isla Bonita,” another top easy-listening hit. However, her next two endeavors, the films Shanghai Surprise (with husband Sean Perm) and Who’s That Girl, failed critically and commercially, although the Who’s That Girl soundtrack featured four new Madonna songs, including the top hit title song and the smash hit “Causing a Commotion.” In late 1987 seven extended remixes of her dance hits were released as You Can Dance.

Madonna’s tour in support of Who’s That Girl showcased carefully prepared staging and choreography. She remained in the public eye through cover appearances on Life and Vanity Fair, introducing her new image as a glamour queen. In January 1989 Madonna signed a $5 million deal to globally promote Pepsi Cola with an elaborate two-minute commercial, but the advertisement, based on the video for the song “Like a Prayer,” was withdrawn within two months of its debut in March. Viewers had apparently confused the commercial with the top hit single and video “Like a Prayer,” which portrayed Catholic beliefs in what some viewed as a sacrilegious light. The resulting publicity helped make the album of the same name, coproduced with new collaborator Patrick Leonard, an international bestseller.

Ostensibly showing a more honest and mature side of Madonna, Like a Prayer represented a bid for critical acceptance among young adults rather than teenagers. The album included two songs concerned with the tenets of the Catholic religion, “Like a Prayer” and “Act of Contrition,” and three songs concerned with family relationships: “Till Death Do Us Part,” “Promises to Try,” and “Oh Father,” a major hit. Featuring a sultry duet with Prince on “Love Song,” the album yielded smash hits with “Express Yourself” and “Cherish” (a top easy-listening hit), and a major hit with “Keep It Together.” Madonna’s performances in David Mamet’s Broadway play Speed the Plow had drawn favorable reviews in May, but the movie Bloodhounds of Broadway, based on characters created by Damon Runyon, quickly failed at the box office upon release at year’s end.

The year 1990 proved to be the most successful year of Madonna’s career. Her “Vogue” dance video/single capitalized on the Manhattan posing- style dance trend and became a top hit. From April through August she conducted her worldwide Blond Ambition tour, which featured extravagant costuming, spectacular staging, and tight choreography. Madonna costarred with Warren Beatty in the popular movie Dick Tracy and released the album I’m Breathless: Music from and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy, which contained “Vogue” and “Hanky Panky,” a near-smash hit, as well as three songs written by Broadway master Stephen Sondheim: “Move,” “Sooner or Later,” and, in duet with Mandy Patinkin, “What You Can Lose.” Near year’s end the rap-style song “Justify My Love,” co written with Lenny Kravitz, became a top hit, but the attendant video became the first by a major artist to be banned from airplay by MTV. Produced by Madonna and Shep Pettibone, “Justify My Love” and the near-smash “Rescue Me” were included on the anthology The Immaculate Collection; the album remained on the album charts for more than two years.

However, several Italian Catholic organizations subsequently sought to ban Madonna’s performances as vulgar and blasphemous. The banishment of her “Justify My Love” video became international news when ABC-TV interviewed her and played the video on Nightline. Additionally, one of her remixes of “Justify My Love,” “The Beast Within,” was attacked as anti-Semitic by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

Appearing on the covers of Glamour, Entertainment Weekly, and, later, Vanity Fair, Madonna granted the gay-oriented magazine Advocate a lengthy candid interview in May 1991. That same month the tour documentary Truth or Dare, taken from her Blond Ambition tour, opened to brisk business in limited release, despite attacks that the film was unabashedly narcissistic, flagrantly exhibitionist, and artificially spontaneous.

In April 1992 Madonna signed a seven-year agreement with Time-Warner, the parent company of Sire Records. Worth a reported $60 million, the deal enabled her to establish her own multimedia entertainment company, named Maverick. One of the most lucrative contracts offered to a pop star, the deal was unprecedented in its value and magnitude for a female performer. In September she appeared topless at a Paris fashion show, and the following month she appeared nude in Vanity Fair as part of a massive campaign to promote her Erotica album and Sex picture book, her first efforts for Maverick. Returning to her disco sound and embracing the style of rap music, the album was comprised largely of songs written by Madonna and producer Pettibone. It included her celebration of oral sex, “Where Life Begins,” and yielded the smash hit “Erotica,” the near-smash “Deeper and Deeper,” the major hit “Rain,” and the moderate hit “Bad Girl.” The tawdry, amateurish book Sex featured Madonna posing with a variety of sex partners in an apparent explication of her sexual fantasies.

Both Erotica and Sex were greeted by a harsh critical backlash, a situation exacerbated by the early 1993 release of the grim movie Body of Evidence, which was regarded by at least one critic as one of the worst movies ever made; in less than six months the film was available on videocassette. Madonna subsequently toured internationally with her Girlie Show tour in the fall. Performances featured scantily clad and topless dancers, sometimes simulating sexual acts, and provoked controversy in Puerto Rico and Germany. In March 1994 Madonna appeared on the David Letterman late-night television show, shocking viewers and her host with her frequent use of four- letter words. She later appeared in the equivocal film Dangerous, with Harvey Keitel.

Madonna deemphasized the feigned eroticism of her music with 1994’s R&B-styled Bedtime Stories, cut with coproducer Shep Pettibone. The album yielded a smash hit with “Secret” and a top hit with “Take a Bow.” In November the Fox cable network broadcast a biographical movie based on her early career. In 1995 Madonna canceled her tour in support of Bedtime Stories to work on the film musical Evita, based on the life of Eva Perón, the wife of Argentine dictator Juan Perón.


The Early Years (1995); M. (1983); Like a Virgin (1984); True Blue (1986); Who’s That Girl (soundtrack; 1987); You Can Dance (1987); Like a Prayer (1989); I’m Breathless (1990); The Immaculate Collection (1990); The Royal Box (1991); Erotica (1992); Bedtime Stones (1994); Something to Remember (1995); Evita (soundtrack; 1996); Ray of Light (1998); Music (2000).


Debbvi Voller, M.: The New Illustrated Biography (London, 1990); Marie Cahill, M. (London, 1991); Christopher Anderson, M. Unauthorized (N.Y., 1991); Douglas Thompson, Like a Virgin: M. Revealed (London, 1992).

—Brock Helander