Four decades after its release, one VF writer looks back at Madonna’s self-titled, self-assured debut album and how it laid the foundation for a young woman from Michigan to one day become the queen of pop.
Unlike the others, I’d do anything / I’m not the same, I have no shame,” a 24-year-old Madonna proclaimed on Burning Up, the second single from her eponymous debut album. At the time, the world didn’t know just how true that was about the woman who’d go from shilling her singles on the dance floor to becoming the biggest, most influential pop star of all time. Whether performing an intimate acoustic set or entertaining thousands, Madonna is not and has never been like “the others.” If anything, the others have been trying to emulate her since she burst on the scene with Madonna on July 27, 1983, forever changing pop music. Through a mix of moxie, talent, and sheer force of will, she ascended to the highest echelon of music history—inventing the idea of the modern pop star and becoming the best-selling female recording artist of all time. There was Elvis. There was Michael Jackson. And there’s still Madonna.
And boy, have we seen the multitudes behind her artistry over the course of her four-decade career. What makes Madonna remarkable is her perpetual reinvention. From her penitent Catholic Like a Virgin era to the Kabbalah-embracing Confessions on a Dance Floor moment—she laid the blueprint for aspiring female pop stars to continue evolving. Much ink has been spilled over the myriad ways Lady Gaga has seemed to model her career after Madonna’s (a comparison Gaga has refuted). And it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Taylor Swift owes the entire concept of having various “eras” to Madonna’s legacy. But before you can reinvent yourself, you have to prove that you’re someone worth paying attention to in the first place. And 40 years ago to the day, Madonna did just that.
Cut to New York City in the early ’80s, when a 20-something Madonna, originally Madonna Louise Ciccone of Bay City, Michigan, was just a downtown girl with a dream. After trying her hand at modern dance and fronting two bands, Breakfast Club and Emmy, Madonna decided to strike out on her own. Legend has it that her big break came when she tried to get DJ Mark Kamins to play her demo, and then met Sire Records’ Michael Rosenblatt during a night out at Danceteria. Rosenblatt introduced her to Sire founder Seymour Stein, who signed her, and thus Madonna was born—well, almost.
She still had yet to fully establish herself in the music industry. Enter Madonna, her self-titled debut album. Making Madonna was not necessarily an easy process, but the trials and tribulations underscored something that the world would soon discover about the once and future queen of pop: She’s always known exactly what she wants. Case in point: After recording Madonna, she wasn’t happy with the finished product, and brought in John “Jellybean” Benitez, a relatively unknown DJ, to assist (a story that her main producer on the album, Reggie Lucas, refuted). A risky move, but she knew exactly what she was going for with her music and how to get there.
It’s no wonder that the album became a slow-burning hit when it was released on July 27, 1983. Madonna slowly crept up the charts, debuting on the Billboard 200 at number 190 and peaking at number eight on that same chart in 1984, around a year after its release, having sold over 2.8 million records. Critics and fans alike were taken by Madonna’s seamless integration of disco and pop beats, with critic Don Shewey writing for Rolling Stone that Madonna was an “irresistible invitation to dance.” Of course, not everyone loved Madonna out of the gate—Robert Christgau of The Village Voice called the aspiring popstar a “shamelessly ersatz blonde” with “a shamelessly ersatz sound that’s tighter than her tummy”—but even her biggest critics couldn’t deny the confidence of her catchy debut.
Listening to the album 40 years later, her confidence and self-assuredness are hard to ignore. It’s nearly impossible not to bop along to the funky synth of Lucky Star, the album’s first track. Or lose yourself in the recursive choruses on songs like Borderline which plays at the double entendre inherent in the title. Or get swept up in the joyous percussiveness of Holiday, the album’s most enduring song. It’s evident that Madonna was in complete control of her artistry, even from the jump. “You better think of me,” she demands on one earworm-y hook. And we would for the next 40 years.
In his review of Madonna for All Music, critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine seemed to figure her out immediately. “All of the elements may not be particularly impressive on their own—the arrangement, synth, and drum programming are fairly rudimentary,” he admits. “But taken together, it’s utterly irresistible.” This remains true of both Madonna the album—sublime in its simplicity—and Madonna the performer. She has always been more than the sum of her parts and her mystique is the result of what she’s done with those parts, making herself the very personification of a pop star by simply being herself. She knows precisely who she is, what she likes, and what she loathes (note to self: Never send Madonna hydrangeas).
This past year has been a difficult one for the queen of pop. In January, she kicked off the year by announcing her Celebration world tour. But in June, Madonna landed in the hospital with a bacterial infection, forcing her to postpone the North American leg of the tour, a total of 41 shows. “My focus now is my health and getting stronger and I assure you, I’ll be back with you as soon as I can,” she said in a statement. “I’m on the road to recovery and incredibly grateful for all the blessings in my life.”
Of course, there’s so much more to Madonna than the music. There’s the movie stardom, the celebrity, the controversies, the fashion, but the music is where it all began. On July 27, 1983, it was impossible to know that Madonna would become forever synonymous with pop music, that indelible pop hits like Like a Virgin, Material Girl, Like a Prayer, Vogue and Hung Up were in her future. But what was evident even four decades ago was that a new force to be reckoned with had burst onto the scene, fully formed and ready to take over. And you can still hear why: On Madonna, she laid the groundwork for all the iterations to come. She may have been a once-in-a-generation lucky star, but we’re the luckiest by far.