If you asked nearly anyone in 1981 what they imagined when they heard the word “Madonna,” they would have answered the Virgin Mary or another idealized woman cloaked in modesty — submissive, gentle, embracing, calm. If you asked the same question a decade later, the answer would have been radically different.
By then, the world had discovered a new Madonna, a corset-wearing, ballsy provocateur from Michigan. That Madonna said what she wanted, did what she pleased and dared others to do so, too. That Madonna was a showgirl and most definitely not a virgin.
Madonna turns 65 this week. During her 40 years in the spotlight, she has been loved and loathed in equal measure. It is safe to say no other artist of her renown stirs such passionate debate. At the heart of it lies a basic misconception as to who she is. Though she is most often described as such, Madonna is not merely a blinding blue star in a vast celebrity galaxy. She has accomplished what few artists — and even fewer female artists — have done: She has changed the world. Though you wouldn’t know that from her press coverage.
From 1984, when she nearly killed her nascent career by flashing her panties while performing “Like a Virgin” at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, up to today’s press and social media fixation on how she looks and whom she dates, facile headlines screaming “sex” and “outrage” have dogged her career and defined Madonna for many people. While there have been plenty of both in her life, those words don’t begin to explain the challenge she poses, much less the source of her allure. Not sex but power. Not outrage but courage.
Madonna is a cultural wrecking ball who has dared to be everything — performer, songwriter, producer, actor, director, children’s book author, muse — at a time when women were encouraged to stick to one lane. She has broken through social barriers, too, using her words and her work to confront the music industry, Hollywood, the Taliban, the Putin regime and the Vatican, to name just a few of her adversaries, over sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia and hypocrisy.
Because she is a woman and a pop star, critics generally dismiss her political statements as opportunistic grandstanding. But young people looking toward a future that seems closed to them see past that criticism. The novelist Soniah Kamal was introduced to Madonna’s music as a child while living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She said Madonna represented “pure, unadulterated, raw sexual liberation” and hope: “Hope that sexy girls did not necessarily die bad deaths, hope that sexy girls lived to tell their tales, hope that sexy girls could rule the world. And do.”
Madonna’s fans have come to know her story almost as a fairy tale: a middle-class girl from Middle America without a single professional connection in New York who worked hard, really hard, to become the person she dreamed of without compromising herself as a woman or as an artist. When her first single, “Everybody,” was released in 1982, she was as surprised as anyone to hear her voice coming out of the radio.
The timing of Madonna’s arrival was critical to her impact. It was the start of the Reagan presidency, which was emboldened by the first Republican-controlled Senate since 1954. The political right and religious right believed they finally had the power to reverse liberal gains made during the previous two decades on women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights.