Two singles made a solid impact on the worldwide dance tracks, but it was the third, ‘Holiday’, that crossed over in early 1984 and launched Madonna as an international star. Her self-titled debut LP sold steadily across that year, fueled by further hits such as ‘Lucky Star’ and ‘Borderline’.
Enlisting Chic’s Nile Rogers for production duties on her follow-up album, Like A Virgin, the title track became a Christmas US chart-topper and she took her place as the world’s biggest female music draw. In 1985, Madonna was unstoppable. Like A Virgin was mined for further singles, among them ‘Dress You Up’. New song ‘Crazy For You’ became her first soundtrack hit (again topping the charts in the US) and ‘Into The Groove’ (her first UK No.1, performed at that summer’s Live Aid concert) helped launch her critically acclaimed role in the movie Desperately Seeking Susan. Never off the charts, there was little pause for breath before True Blue, her third LP, staggeringly, became an even bigger hit in 1986, thanks to classic Madonna cuts ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, ‘Open Your Heart’ and ‘La Isla Bonita’ all topping the charts in either in the UK or the US.
If her music career appeared unbeatable, crowned by 1987’s Who’s That Girl tour, which saw her perform for the first time at stadiums across the globe, her appearances in the movies were received rather less warmly. A turn in Shanghai Surprise (alongside then husband Sean Penn) and a lead role in Who’s That Girl? couldn’t stop them from becoming critical and commercial flops.
1988 saw no new record releases while she appeared in a play on Broadway and battled to save her marriage. It was a fight Madonna declared she had lost on the eve of the release of her masterpiece, Like A Prayer, in 1989. Huge multiple hits from Madonna albums were nothing of a novelty by this stage, so it was something of a surprise when the US-issued ‘Oh Father’ stalled at No.20 stateside that winter, her first single in a run of 16 to miss the Top 5.
But there was a swift return to form. ‘Vogue’, released in April 1990, became her biggest hit to date and ended up the world’s most successful single of the year, enjoying four weeks at the top in the UK. It helped launch a star turn in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, and Madonna dated the actor/director for a brief time, while taking her Blond Ambition tour around the planet. This show is widely regarded as the inspiration for the theatrical productions common at today’s stadium gigs, and acted as the backdrop for the behind-the-scenes documentary Truth Or Dare (or In Bed With Madonna, as it was known outside the US). 1990 also saw the release of her first greatest hits collection, but there had been just so many of them by this stage that The Immaculate Collection was even forced to ignore tracks such as ‘Who’s That Girl’, which had topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Madonna’s desire to shock had been a characteristic of her career stretching back to the provocative Like A Virgin, but she surpassed herself in 1992 with the release of the Sex photography book and the Erotica album. It was an attempt to provoke and led to the first real backlash of her career, with conservative media condemning the work. Her music’s chart performance, while still solid, was also softer than she was used to, with songs such as ‘Bad Girl’ failing to make the US Top 20. 1993’s The Girlie Show tour – her first to reach Australia – also failed to find universal favour, while reviews of her ongoing movie work, including Body Of Evidence, solicited a savage response.
As 1994’s Bedtime Stories took its influence from the new soul sounds dominant stateside, there was a sense Madonna was starting to tread water – despite the inclusion of the seven-week US chart-topper ‘Take A Bow’. A starring role in Alan Parker’s film adaptation of the musical Evita secured her a Golden Globe Award but did little to dispel the sense that Madonna’s moment had passed.
So her staggering critical and commercial reinvention with Ray Of Light, in 1998, likely came as a surprise even to the star, who had also recently had her first child. The album, recorded with maverick Brit musician William Orbit, earned her a Grammy for Best Pop Album and sold more than 16 million copies worldwide. She followed it – characteristically – by moving on and recording with French electronica wizard Mirwais. 2000’s Music was another big hit and the title track was another chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic – her last to date in the US. By now, Madonna had also married English film director Guy Richie, and the following few years saw her alternating tours with stage or movie projects and record releases. 2003’s American Life was a relative commercial misfire, but 2005’s Confessions On A Dance Floor contained another enormous hit with the ABBA-sampling ‘Hung Up’, which topped the UK charts for three weeks.
In 2008, her marriage to Guy collapsed and Madonna turned some of her focus towards charitable deeds, particularly with building resilient education projects in the African state of Malawi, where she adopted two children. Her last studio album of the decade was 2008’s Hard Candy, which saw her draw from the R&B sounds once again dominant in the world’s charts. A duet with Justin Timberlake, ‘4 Minutes’, produced by Timbaland, gave her another big hit worldwide and remains her final UK chart-topper to date.
With the music industry in a period of significant change, Madonna chose to form a new, wider business alliance with Live Nation, releasing her MDNA (2012) and Rebel Heart (2015) albums with the company, and spending months on two enormous global tours in support of them. These phenomenal concert runs saw her named the world’s biggest live act and, in 2016, she was named Billboard’s Woman Of The Year.
While her position as the planet’s biggest female music star may have slipped for now – the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift have certainly captured a younger generation – Madonna unapologetically clings tightly to her crown as the Queen Of Pop. She has inspired a generation of new chart goliaths and, while we have lost so many of those great artists from her breakthrough era, she appears – as ever – in strikingly good shape and focused firmly on the future. Her current work contains more than a nod to her illustrious past, but a master of reinvention never forgets it’s where you’re headed next that really counts.
Although she never left it behind, it's been easy to overlook that Madonna began her career as a disco diva in an era that didn't have disco divas. It was an era where disco was anathema to the mainstream pop, and she had a huge role in popularizing dance music as a popular music again, crashing through the door Michael Jackson opened with Thriller. Certainly, her undeniable charisma, chutzpah, and sex appeal had a lot to do with that -- it always did, throughout her career -- but she wouldn't have broken through if the music wasn't so good. And her eponymous debut isn't simply good, it set the standard for dance-pop for the next 20 years. Why did it do so? Because it cleverly incorporated great pop songs with stylish, state-of-the-art beats, and it shrewdly walked a line between being a rush of sound and a showcase for a dynamic lead singer. This is music where all of the elements may not particularly impressive on their own -- the arrangement, synth, and drum programming are fairly rudimentary; Madonna's singing isn't particularly strong; the songs, while hooky and memorable, couldn't necessarily hold up on their own without the production -- but taken together, it's utterly irresistible. And that's the hallmark of dance-pop: every element blends together into an intoxicating sound, where the hooks and rhythms are so hooky, the shallowness is something to celebrate. And there are some great songs here, whether it's the effervescent "Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday" or the darker, carnal urgency of "Burning Up" and "Physical Attraction." And if Madonna would later sing better, she illustrates here that a good voice is secondary to dance-pop. What's really necessary is personality, since that sells a song where there are no instruments that sound real. Here, Madonna is on fire, and that's the reason why it launched her career, launched dance-pop, and remains a terrific, nearly timeless, listen. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Madonna had hits with her first album, even reaching the Top Ten twice with "Borderline" and "Lucky Star," but she didn't become a superstar, an icon, until her second album, Like a Virgin. She saw the opening for this kind of explosion and seized it, bringing in former Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers in as a producer, to help her expand her sound, and then carefully constructed her image as an ironic, ferociously sexy Boy Toy; the Steven Meisel-shot cover, capturing her as a buxom bride with a Boy Toy belt buckle on the front, and dressing after a night of passion, was as key to her reinvention as the music itself. Yet, there's no discounting the best songs on the record, the moments when her grand concepts are married to music that transcends the mere classification of dance-pop. These, of course, are "Material Girl" and "Like a Virgin," the two songs that made her an icon, and the two songs that remain definitive statements. They overshadow the rest of the record, not just because they are a perfect match of theme and sound, but because the rest of the album vacillates wildly in terms of quality. The other two singles, "Angel" and "Dress You Up," are excellent standard-issue dance-pop, and there are other moments that work well ("Over and Over," "Stay," the earnest cover of Rose Royce's "Love Don't Live Here"), but overall, it adds up to less than the sum of its parts -- partially because the singles are so good, but also because on the first album, she stunned with style and a certain joy. Here, the calculation is apparent, and while that's part of Madonna's essence -- even something that makes her fun -- it throws the record's balance off a little too much for it to be consistent, even if it justifiably made her a star. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
True Blue is the album where Madonna truly became Madonna the Superstar -- the endlessly ambitious, fearlessly provocative entertainer that knew how to outrage, spark debates, get good reviews -- and make good music while she's at it. To complain that True Blue is calculated is to not get Madonna -- that's a large part of what she does, and she is exceptional at it, but she also makes fine music. What's brilliant about True Blue is that she does both here, using the music to hook in critics just as she's baiting a mass audience with such masterstrokes as "Papa Don't Preach," where she defiantly states she's keeping her baby. It's easy to position anti-abortionism as feminism, but what's tricky is to transcend your status as a dance-pop diva by consciously recalling classic girl-group pop ("True Blue," "Jimmy Jimmy") to snag the critics, while deepening the dance grooves ("Open Your Heart," "Where's the Party"), touching on Latin rhythms ("La Isla Bonita"), making a plea for world peace ("Love Makes the World Go Round"), and delivering a tremendous ballad that rewrites the rules of adult contemporary crossover ("Live to Tell"). It's even harder to have the entire album play as an organic, cohesive work. Certainly, there's some calculation behind the entire thing, but what matters is the end result, one of the great dance-pop albums, a record that demonstrates Madonna's true skills as a songwriter, record-maker, provocateur, and entertainer through its wide reach, accomplishment, and sheer sense of fun. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Out of all of Madonna's albums, Like a Prayer is her most explicit attempt at a major artistic statement. Even though it is apparent that she is trying to make a "serious" album, the kaleidoscopic variety of pop styles on Like a Prayer is quite dazzling. Ranging from the deep funk of "Express Yourself" and "Keep It Together" to the haunting "Oh Father" and "Like a Prayer," Madonna displays a commanding sense of songcraft, making this her best and most consistent album. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Perhaps Madonna correctly guessed that the public overdosed on the raw carnality of her book Sex. Perhaps she wanted to offer a more optimistic take on sex than the distant Erotica. Either way, Bedtime Stories is a warm album, with deep, gently pulsating grooves; the album's title isn't totally tongue-in-cheek. The best songs on the album ("Secret," "Inside of Me," "Sanctuary," "Bedtime Story," "Take a Bow") slowly work their melodies into the subconscious as the bass pulses. In that sense, it does offer an antidote to Erotica, which was filled with deep but cold grooves. The entire production of Bedtime Stories suggests that she wants listeners to acknowledge that her music isn't one-dimensional. She has succeeded with that goal, since Bedtime Stories offers her most humane and open music; it's even seductive. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Returning to pop after a four-year hiatus, Madonna enlisted respected techno producer William Orbit as her collaborator for Ray of Light, a self-conscious effort to stay abreast of contemporary trends. Unlike other veteran artists who attempted to come to terms with electronica, Madonna was always a dance artist, so it's no real shock to hear her sing over breakbeats, pulsating electronics, and blunted trip-hop beats. Still, it's mildly surprising that it works as well as it does, largely due to Madonna and Orbit's subtle attack. They've reined in the beats, tamed electronica's eccentricities, and retained her flair for pop melodies, creating the first mainstream pop album that successfully embraces techno. Sonically, it's the most adventurous record she has made, but it's far from inaccessible, since the textures are alluring and the songs have a strong melodic foundation, whether it's the swirling title track, the meditative opener, "Substitute for Love," or the ballad "Frozen." For all of its attributes, there's a certain distance to Ray of Light, born of the carefully constructed productions and Madonna's newly mannered, technically precise singing. It all results in her most mature and restrained album, which is an easy achievement to admire, yet not necessarily an easy one to love. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Most pop stars reach a point where they accept the slow march of time, but not Madonna. Time is Madonna's enemy -- an enemy to be battled or, better still, one to be ignored. She soldiers on, turning tougher, harder, colder with each passing album, winding up with a record as flinty as MDNA, the 2012 record that is her first release since departing Warner for Interscope. That's hardly the only notable shift in Madonna's life since the 2008 release of Hard Candy. Since then, she has divorced film director Guy Ritchie and has seen her '80s persona co-opted and perverted by Lady Gaga, events so cataclysmic she can't help but address them on MDNA. Madonna hits the divorce dead-on, muttering about "pre-nups" when she's not fiercely boasting of shooting her lover in the head, and she's not exactly shy about reasserting her dominion over dance and pop, going so far as to draft Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. as maid servants paying their respect to the queen. Whatever part of MDNA that isn't devoted to divorce is dedicated to proving that Madonna remains the preeminent pop star, working harder than anybody to stay just on the edge of the vanguard. All this exertion leads to an excessively lean album: there's not an ounce of fat on MDNA, it's all overly defined muscle, every element working with designated purpose. Such steely precision means there's no warmth on MDNA, not even when Madonna directly confesses emotions she's previously avoided, but the cool calculations here are preferable to the electronic mess of Hard Candy, not least because there's a focus that flows all the way down to the pop hooks, which are as strong and hard as those on Confessions on a Dance Floor even if they're not quite so prominent as they were on that 2005 retro-masterwork. MDNA does echo the Euro-disco vibe of Confessions -- "Love Spent" consciously reworks the ABBA-sampling "Hung Up" -- yet as a whole it feels chillier, possibly due to that defensive undercurrent that pervades the album. Even if she's only measuring it in terms of pretenders to her throne, Madonna is aware of time passing yet she's compelled to fight it, to stay on top, to not slow down, to not waste a second of life, to keep working because the meaning of life is work, not pleasure. Naturally, all that labor can pay off, whether it's through the malevolent pulse of "Gang Bang" or the clever "Beautiful Stranger" rewrite "I'm a Sinner," but, ironically for all of Madonna's exhausting exertion elsewhere, these are the songs that benefit from her finely honed skills as a pop craftsman, illustrating that no matter how she combats it, she can't escape her age and may indeed be better off just embracing it. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Rebel Heart was introduced to the world with an indiscipline uncharacteristic of Madonna. Blame it on hackers who rushed out a clutch of unfinished tracks at the end of 2014, a few months before the record's scheduled spring release. Madonna countered by putting six full tracks up on a digital service, a move that likely inflated the final Deluxe Edition of Rebel Heart up to a whopping 19 tracks weighing in at 75 minutes, but even that unveiling wasn't performed without a hitch: during an ornate performance of "Living for Love," she stumbled on-stage at the BRIT Awards. Such cracks in Madge's armor happily play into the humanity coursing through Rebel Heart (maybe the hiccups were intentional after all?), a record that ultimately benefits from its daunting mess. All the extra space allows ample room for detours, letting Madonna indulge in both Erotica-era taboo-busting sleaze ("Holy Water") and feather-light pop ("Body Shop"). Although she takes a lingering look back at the past on "Veni Vidi Vici" -- her cataloging of past hits walks right on the edge of camp, kept away from the danger zone by a cameo from Nas -- Rebel Heart, like any Madonna album, looks forward. Opener "Living for Love" announces as much, as its classic disco is soon exploded into a decibel-shattering EDM pulse coming courtesy of co-producer Diplo. Madonna brings him back a few more times -- the pairing of the reggae-bouncing "Unapologetic Bitch" and Nicki Minaj showcase "Bitch I'm Madonna," their titles suggesting vulgarity, their execution flinty and knowing -- but she cleverly balances these clubby bangers with "Devil Pray," an expert evocation of her folktronica Y2K co-produced by Avicii, and "Illuminati," a sleek, spooky collaboration with Kanye West. These are the anchors of the album, grounding the record when Madonna wanders into slow-churning meditation, unabashed revivals of her '90s adult contemporary mode, casual confession ("I spent sometime as a narcissist"), and defiant celebrations of questionable taste. Undoubtedly, some of this flair would've been excised if the record was a manageable length, but the blessing of the unwieldiness is that it does indeed represent a loosening of Madonna's legendary need for control. Certainly, the ambition remains, along with the hunger to remain on the bleeding edge, but she's allowing her past to mingle with her present, allowing her to seem human yet somewhat grander at the same time. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine