Saturday, June 5, 2010

1984: “Like a Virgin” by Madonna

Madonna is in that rare category of modern American singers – along with perhaps only Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson – whose massive success has caused the idea of the artist to trump the artist as an actual entity. Elvis, Michael, and Madonna are not just singers or performers but American icons, ranking along such national treasures as Abraham Lincoln, Coca-Cola, and Mickey Mouse. To speak of them is to speak beyond them, in a way that separates them even from contemporaries as celebrated and prolific as Bruce Springsteen, Prince, and Bob Dylan. Artists like Madonna and Elvis are simply bigger – the ready-made pop culture ambassadors for an international, all-American global brand.

In this regard, talking about Madonna is sort of like an American post-modern equivalent of writing about Shakespeare – the idea will always trump the person. But this was not always so. As a child, I remember constantly mixing Madonna up with another new popular singer of that time, Cyndi Lauper (much to my older sister’s chagrin). Today such a mix-up is laughable, but at the time, they seemed interchangeable to this young boy: A loud, blonde, wildly-dressed girl singer with catchy songs. The piece I was missing, of course, was because of my young age: Sex.

This was clear from the moment she broke big nationally with “Like a Virgin” – a shrewdly calculated perfect storm of a great song, a great album cover, a great video, and a great performance at the then-nascent MTV Music Video Awards. In hindsight, it’s the latter that gets the most attention because it told the story the quickest and (for its day) the most shockingly: A beautiful young girl in a white wedding dress sexily rolling around the stage while cooing about feeling like a virgin touched for the very first time.

Thus, the challenge Madonna presents is to listen to her with fresh ears. Her name has become so synonymous with pop music, many Americans probably think of her before the sacred figure she was named after – who also happened to be an icon in the true sense of the word. And long before Madonna the singer entered the pop lexicon, Madonna the icon provided the basis for the Freudian concept of the Madonna-whore complex. Capitalizing on the twin American obsessions with sacred purity and sexual deviancy, Madonna essentially became a living, breathing, singing Madonna-whore complex – a young Catholic girl with a pure voice and crosses around her neck, who dressed in lingerie, danced sexy, and wore a belt around her waist that said “Boy Toy.”

“Like a Virgin” was thus the perfect song to be Madonna’s cultural breakthrough – her first truly iconic song and her first American number one hit. Although it was technically the title track to her second album, everything about it seemed different and exciting, “shiny and new.” The song’s opening lines are so simple and perfect that they almost glide right by the listener without notice: “I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through.” In its own way, these words capture the entire story of America in eleven words or less.

They hark back to Captain Smith and the early settlers setting up the first permanent colony in the New World – Virginia, named after the recently-deceased Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. Like their northern Puritan brethren who would arrive a few years later, the harshness of the land was something of a shock to these men – the endless tangle of trees, the unruly savages, the extreme elements – such that the next three hundred years or so of American’s history was largely based around the taming and shrinking of its wilderness. Manifest destiny shaped our national perspective on the inside, while the open range-combating cowboy gave us a distinct national identity on the outside. A large part of Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory in the election preceding “Like a Virgin” was a direct result of such ideas – in his speeches he invoked the old Puritan adage of our country being an untarnished “city on a hill” for all the world to see, while in his posters he wore denim and a cowboy hat in an emulation of the Marlboro Man. Like Madonna in her song, the country had made it through the wilderness, but still used its pre-wilderness conquering rhetoric as its guiding philosophy.

Madonna’s opening lines captures the shift from trailblazer to a settler; her mission of conquest is no longer the land, but rather a man who lives on it. The song’s central hook is the perfect centerpiece of her story: The man makes her feel “like a virgin – touched for the very first time.” In this simple yet rich phrase lies the essence of Madonna’s appeal. The key word here is “like,” which turns the phrase from a statement of fact to one of metaphor: The singer is decidedly not a virgin being touched for the very first time, but rather like a virgin being touched for the very first time. The latter implies the singer’s cool detachment regarding sexual activity, while unleashing an endless cycle between pure and tainted: She feels like a virgin being touched for the very first time because she has been touched their before, such that in this shrewd phrase, the two become one. Knowing what it was like to be touched as a virgin makes her aware of how special it feels to be touched in this new relationship’s context.

Thus, Madonna makes herself into a Madonna-whore complex (or perhaps, a complex Madonna-whore) as her body transforms into both a country that has made it through the wilderness and one that is shiny and new. She can bring these two distinct countries together because they are already the same one.

[This is from the continuing series “100 Years of American Recordings, 1891-1991.”]

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