On its parent album's 35th birthday, the elements that made Madonna's first signature hit a classic
A version of this story originally ran on November 12, 2014, for Like a Virgin’s 30th anniversary.
It defies logic a little bit, but the biggest hit off of a diamond-selling album by one of the biggest pop stars of all-time has become underrated. On the crit-praise aggregator website AcclaimedMusic.net, Like a Virgin ranks as the No. 230 most-beloved song ever — a solid ranking, but a couple of hundred spots below When Doves Cry and Billie Jean, the signature songs from two of Madge’s megastar contemporaries, Prince and Michael Jackson.
The song appeared on neither the NME’s or Slate’s recent respective Top 100 Songs of the ’80s — despite the latter featuring five other Madonna songs in its top 50. Most incredulously, Virgin only ranked as Rolling Stone’s 67th-best pop song of 1984 alone, falling behind relatively forgotten hits like Laura Branigan’s Self Control and Rebbie Jackson’s Centipede.
Its declining reputation might lead one to believe that Like a Virgin is a poorly dated hit that was perhaps more historically significant than actually good — all of which couldn’t be further from the truth about a song as immaculate as Virgin. In honor of the 35th anniversary of the Like a Virgin album, we’ve written about the 10 qualities that make Virgin as much of a jam today as it was three decades ago, a song many of us may have come to take for granted, but one still worth serious consideration in any list of the greatest pop songs of all-time.
With no particular rank:
1. The Moroder-esque synth bass.
It goes throughout the majority of Virgin, anchoring the song’s disco-funk groove. The three-note pattern is borrowed from the Four Tops’ similarly enduring and chart-topping I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), a subtle and brilliant lift that gives the song an instant familiarity that you might never even be cognizant of if it wasn’t pointed out to you. And it has such a lurking, prowling insistence to it that of course they had to have a lion in the music video.
2. The surprisingly patient Nile Rodgers guitar hook.
Most of the Chic guitarist’s famous riffs are noteworthy for how crowded they sound. Think about Get Lucky — is there a millisecond in that song where Rodgers’ choppy strumming isn’t leading the way? But in Like a Virgin, he takes it supremely chill — when we first hear his guitar in its intro, it’s just four sharp strums of the same chord, spaced out over two measures. Where the bass line propels the song forward, the guitar hook keeps it from getting too rushed, giving the song a relaxed strut befitting the steaminess of the lyrics.
3. The first chord change.
Takes nearly 20 seconds to arrive! The song just bops on its opening chord for the entirety of its intro and the first four measures of its verse, before taking an unexpected jump up and then settling back down. It’s a very power-pop sort of chord change (which may help explain why Teenage Fanclub’s cover of the song turned out so well) and the way Madonna’s voice twists around it — at first matching the high note and then dropping down underneath it in time for the change back — is one of the song’s sexiest qualities.
4. “Didn’t know how lost I was until I found you.”
Just a brilliantly symmetrical pop lyric, courtesy of the ever-underappreciated Billy Steinberg — who didn’t write the song for Madonna or any other singer, but just based off his own experiences in romance, giving the song its intimate, personal feeling.
5. The wind-up into the chorus.
You don’t just drop into a chorus as revelatory as that of Like a Virgin, and Steinberg and co-writer Tom Kelly smartly build in an extended lead-in to raise excitement for it. They shift to a third chord, as Madonna teases the payoff with an extended “But you made me feel …,” pausing, then repeating “Yeah, you made me feel …” thereby creating an almost-unbearable tension before the title phrase finally lands.
6. Making you wait for the second chorus for the “HEY!“
One of the most instantly unforgettable elements of Virgin is the ecstatic, falsetto’d “HEY!” that Madge releases after the title phrase in the chorus, the song’s greatest moment of pure release. BUT: It doesn’t give it to you the first time around. Once you’re familiar with the song, you expect it immediately after the first chorus, but it doesn’t actually show up until the second chorus, again building anticipation and delaying satisfaction, but proving well worth it once the rush of the long-awaited “HEY!” finally hits.
7. “You’re so fine … and you’re mine.”
Another perfect lyrical nugget, encapsulating the awe inspired by a burgeoning new relationship in six simple words, and delivered with the perfect amount of wonder and glee by the Material Girl. Steinberg and Kelly liked it enough to be the only line in the verse to appear twice, and it’s easy to see why.
8. The drum fills.
Chic drummer Tony Thompson doesn’t get a ton of room to flex on Like a Virgin, naturally, but he does get a couple lead-ins where he’s able to add character to the song’s drum part with some brief fills to introduce the next chorus. Small flourishes, but they keep the song from ever getting too monotonous, and help announce the arrival of the refrain with the authority it deserves.
9. “Can’t you hear my heart beat … for the very first time?”
Madonna’s breathless ad libs throughout the song’s outro section keep Virgin enrapturing through to its final seconds, none more so than on this most sensual of phrasings. Surprisingly, the now-trademark ad libs weren’t even Madonna’s own, but were copied faithfully from the original Steinberg/Kelly demo, apparently much to the writers’ amazement.
10. The title.
Great song titles ask a question that the ensuing song proceeds to answer. The phrase Like a Virgin could mean so many different things — things mysterious, exciting, even a little bit scary — that the title is basically daring you to unwrap the song to find out what it’s all about. You have to listen to both the verses and chorus of Virgin to totally get to the bottom of it, but the payoff is there: A song that’s sexy as hell while maintaining a core sweetness and never coming off the slightest bit exploitative. It’s a rare thing to promise and a rarer thing to deliver, and it’s the primary reason why Like a Virgin is still such an enjoyable listen 35 years after its release.