5 Early Madonna songs that prove she’s a pop pioneer
In the age of Beyonce and Taylor Swift, it may be easy to forget that female pop stardom as it is today was something that had to be created. That there had to be walls and ceilings torn down so that Beyonce could publicly declare she’s a feminist and Taylor Swift could release whole alternate versions of her albums. But all that re-invention, the coded imagery in music videos, the ownership of femininity alongside sexuality, and the credibility of the female pop star (and her fans) would not be the default in pop culture today if it wasn’t for Madonna. She emerged in the 80s New York club scene to become a dancer, singer, producer, actor, director, and LGBTQ+ icon the world over. And along the way, like many women in the music industry, she was also dismissed and overlooked because of the music she made (and didn’t always get credit for making) and the various outcries about the way she expressed herself. For her 65th birthday on August 16, 2023, we took a look at five songs from her early career that shaped pop music culture as we know it today.
Material Girl (Like a Virgin) 1984
Released as the second single from her second album Like a Virgin, “Material Girl” is the track that established Madonna as an icon. It may be in part because, in the music video, she channeled another icon, Marilyn Monroe, in a pink dress and blond hair from a number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the undeniably bouncy synth punctuated with robotic backing vocals likely contributed too. Plus, the audacious triumph in the last verse where she declares experience has made her rich and now the moneyed men are after her may have been an early version of the boss girl.
Papa Don’t Preach (True Blue) 1986
“Papa Don’t Preach” was a controversial song to release in 1986 because of its narrative about teen pregnancy and the narrator in the song choosing to keep her baby. Opposition came from all kinds of women’s organizations who either thought the song was encouraging teen pregnancy, or that it was promoting an anti-abortion message. “[The song] just fit right in with my own personal zeitgeist of standing up to male authorities, whether it's the pope, or the Catholic Church or my father and his conservative, patriarchal ways,” Madonna said in a 2009 Rolling Stone interview. The music video also saw Madonna debut a new look, appearing with cropped, platinum hair, and beginning a journey as the queen of reinvention.
Like A Prayer (Like A Prayer) 1989
There is so much to this song: the guitar intro from Prince, Madonna’s strong and clear voice, the tear-inducing gospel choir, and of course, the iconic music video, which extended her beef with the Catholic Church. In the video, a Black man is accused of a murder committed by a group of white men, and he runs into a church for refuge. Images during the mini-movie include stigmata and other Catholic symbolisms, the KKK and burning crosses, and Madonna kissing a Black saint. The Vatican wanted the video banned, and Madonna lost a deal with Pepsi during the controversy. Drama aside, the song was a massive success, showcasing Madonna as a producer as well as singer, and igniting singalongs worldwide with its anthemic refrain.
“Vogue” (I’m Breathless) 1990
“Vogue” was inspired by vogue dancers and choreographers Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Xtravaganza from the Harlem "House Ball" community. The song and its success highlighted the power of Madonna’s influence as one of the first works in mainstream popular culture to bring the queer, Black- and Latino-led ballroom scene into the mainstream spotlight. Its release was also particularly significant because the song and video came out during the height of the AIDS pandemic, celebrating queer life at a time when it wasn’t common or even deemed safe to do so. In addition, “Vogue” brought club culture and dance music to the mainstream sound, fusing the house and techno music popular in queer communities with the melodies and gloss of pop.
Human Nature (Bedtime Stories) 1995
By 1995, when her sixth studio album Bedtime Stories was released, Madonna had released Sex, a coffee table book, and an album called Erotica, both of which were heavily criticized by a society not always open to the idea of female sexuality. “Human Nature”, which samples East Coast hip hop group Main Source’s “What You Need,” is a response to the media and critics. In it, Madonna is directly unapologetic (“And I’m not sorry,” she sings over the R’n’B beat) and at one point dares to ask if it would be better if she was a man. The video is an S&M and latex-inspired choreographed dream which also highlighted her continuous nod to queer and underground subcultures, showing yet again that through her reinventions she’d always be consistently outspoken.