First perched on top of the giant cake, next writhing around the stage in her bustier/wedding gown, lacy stockings, shiny “Boy Toy” belt and piles of crucifixes, Madonna smothered the already eyebrow-raising song Like A Virgin in whole new layers of sauce. Middle America’s collective jaw hit the floor. In the audience, Seymour Stein was smiling from ear to ear, “People wanted to kill her afterwards,” he remembers. “But plenty more people loved her. They saw a true star.”
Nile Rodgers was also in the audience, seated next to Cher. “That’s my artist,” Rodgers informed the aghast singer. “She’s ready to kick ass and take the world by storm.”
The world was ready. The week after the MTV awards, the debut Madonna album climbed back the charts to Number 8, while the single Lucky Star hit Number 4. Now Madonna was on a roll.
On 12 November, Sire threw a launch party for Like A Virgin at New York’s Private Eyes club. The album’s sleeve, shot by hip pgotographer Steven Meisel, who would work with Madonna again for her 1992 book Sex, was provocative. Madonna’s instinct for raunchy imagery, controversial enough to take her into the global consciousness but restrained enough not to scare the horses, was totally on the money. On the front cover, a reprise of the wedding dress/Boy Toy look. On the back: dazed and in black lingerie among rumpled sheets, the inference was clear. This was Like A Virgin, with “like” being the operative word.
On 13 November, MTV premiered the video of the title track. As a counterpoint to the album sleeve’s New York arthouse stylings, the setting was Venice – Madonna in ripped black T-shirt, dripping with crucifixes and jewellery, as a gondola carried her beneath the floating city’s exotic, European architecture. As she writhed, mouthing the words to the song, she held the camera’s eye like a Hollywood diva.
The Like A Virgin clip also changed the shape of music videos. No longer simply promotional shirts, they were becoming big-budget productions. “The cost was going to be $10,000,” remembers Stan Cornyn, then a record executive at Sire’s parent company Warner. “Then the producer says, We want to shoot it in Italy, so it’s going to be 25. Well, the whole thing ends up at $100,000. At this point, management are shitting cornerstone-sized bricks.”
They weren’t the only ones in a flap. The Catholic Church, notably, took exception to Madonna’s use of crucifixes and rosary beads. “I was being provocative,” Madonna would later admit. ” I like irony. I like the way things can be taken on different levels. Like A Virgin was always absolutely ambiguous.” At the time, in Penthouse, she claimed she found crucifixes “sexy” because “there’s a naked man on them”.
It certainly worked. Less than a month after the release of Like A Virgin, the album had sold more than two million copies in America. The title track shot to Number 1 in the US and stayed there for six weeks, going triple-platinum by the beginning of February.
Second single Material Girl – the video for which featured Madonna aping Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – reached Number 2 in the US (Number 3 in the UK), followed by Crazy For You, another big hit. the singer was relentlessly ambitious, yet this was success on a level she could scarcely have imagined.
Yet, even while she was conquering the pop charts, Madonna was plotting her next move. Desperately Seeking Susan, the film directed by Susan Seidelman and starring Rosanna Arquette alongside Madonna, was released in the US in March 1985, capitalizing on the singer’s new megastardom. One of the very few movies in Madonna’s career to earn plaudits for her acting chops, it authentically captures the underground scene in mid-’80s New York City, the same scene that Madonna had worked so efficiently. Into the groove, featured in the movie, was a UK Number 1.
Now Madonna was everywhere. With a fresh-faced Beastie Boys in support, she began the 39-date the Virgin Tour in Seattle on 10 April. It was by far the biggest live draw of the year. In her adopted home in New York, all the tickets for shows in radio city Music Hall on 6,7 and 8 June sold out in 34 minutes.
Madonna T-shirts were being sold at the rate of one every six seconds. Meanwhile, the Like A Virgin album was shifting 80,000 copies a day.
Nile Rodgers was heard to confess we were now living “in Madonna world”. The drive, character and ambition in the girl from the Detroit suburbs had, in a few short years, paid off in an unprecedented way. “Sometimes you had to be a bitch to get things done,” Madonna later reflected on these early years. “I’m tough, I’m ambitious and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch – OK!”
Seymour Stein thinks we’ll never see her like again. “They say people like Madonna come along once in a lifetime,” he grins. “But that’s not true. People like Madonna come once in life.”
© Q Magazine