The Madonna Timeline: Song #107 – ‘Like A Virgin – 1984

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{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

The woman stands alone in the spotlight. Thousands of screaming fans surround her, watching her every move, but she is undeniably alone, and, dare it be said, perhaps a little lonely. Her hair is disheveled, her body is both beautiful and a wreck – bound by a corset, restricted by lace, and held only half together by her trademark fishnet stockings. She looks a bit broken and fiercely forlorn. The familiar pop chirp and breezy bounce of the signature track is almost unrecognizable in this waltz – and the woman, almost three decades after she first sang the song, imbues the performance with a tragically ironic take on all that is shiny and new. This is Madonna and her latest incarnation of ‘Like A Virgin’ – the emotional high-point of the MDNA Tour. She sings to a plaintive slowed-down ballad version, with world-weary fatigue and heartrending abandon. Here, then, is our Queen, laid low by life. It is a mesmerizing moment from a woman who has made a career of transcending the boundaries of pop culture.

‘Like A Virgin’ is the album that catapulted her into the pop culture stratosphere, and it remains her best-selling album in the United States. As for the title song, it had a bass-line influenced by Michael Jackson, and the synth-heavy production so favored in the 80’s. It also had a universal message, particularly when you take out the mundane literal readings of the lyrics, and nothing that has lasted all this time could ever be seriously dismissed as a novelty song. Madonna herself has always claimed that ‘Virgin’ was less about losing one’s virginity and more about a freshness, a feeling of newness and wonder as befits the beginning of any relationship. There was a sexual aspect running through all of it, however, one that even she couldn’t deny, but to peg it solely as a sex song is largely missing the mark, and ignoring its lasting cultural influence.

I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through
Didn’t know how lost I was until I found you
I was beat, incomplete, I’d been had, I was sad and blue
But you made me feel, yeah you made me feel shiny and new… 

Going back a few years before the opening scene, she gave the song an electro-twist, riding around on a futuristic abstract horse on the Confessions Tour in 2006, while x-rays of her recently-broken ribs flashed across screens behind her. In that version she was the triumphant rider, returning to the scene of a crime in Madonna-fashion, defying that which struck her down a few months prior. By that time, ‘Like A Virgin’ was already a well-tread warhorse of its own, having undergone such drastic tinkering as 1993’s Girlie Show incarnation.

For that circus-like romp, Madonna donned a top hat and tails, channeling Marlene Dietrich in full androgynous glory. It came, right after the ‘Sex’ book and ‘Erotica’ album, with a comforting wink and nod (and only one phallic rising that was more comical than offensive). At the very moment that her career was saturated with sex, Madonna made ‘Virgin’ the unlikely heart of a rather family-friendly portion of an otherwise erotic-heavy show. That’s defiance. That’s the power of the shiny and new.

Like a virgin
Touched for the very first time
Like a virgin
When your heart beats
Next to mine.

It’s withstood the test of time due in large part to Madonna’s varied performances of the song, from a silly throwaway mash-up on the ‘Who’s That Girl‘ Tour to more magnificent executions such as in the epic Blonde Ambition Tour documented in ‘Truth or Dare.’ To this day, the latter remains my favorite rendering of the song. Maybe it was the time period that ‘Truth or Dare’ was released – the summer of 1991 – and its coinciding with my budding adolescence, or the infamous golden Gaultier cone-bra, or the simple brazen act of someone who had the nerve to rub one out for all the world to see, but for whatever reason, that’s the rendition of ‘Like A Virgin’ that means the most to me.

Gonna give you all my love boy
My fear is fading fast
Been saving it all for you
Cause only love can last.

“So, what’s considered masturbation?” the diminutive woman asked as she adjusted her head-set beneath the tangle of her blonde, Barbie-doll pony-tail.

“When you stick your hand in your crotch,” her brother sheepishly answered.

Such was the exchange that Madonna had with her brother Christopher before going on-stage in Toronto for that night’s show. It was, by many accounts, the pinnacle of her outrageous power, and her masturbatory performance of ‘Like A Virgin’ was the centerpiece of sexual provocation. Forget the cone-shaped bras strapped onto the male back-up dancers, the harem-like Middle-Eastern revision of the song, and the red velvet bed on which our tainted heroine draped her body – it was the simple act of self-satisfaction that had so many in an uproar, and this boy in rapt wonder and awe.

Watching her command the audience, and the world, with a brush of her nether-regions, illustrated the power of sex. It was titillation, it was promise, it was tease and release. It was a woman in control, with men as supporting players at best (and likely gay and uninterested to boot.) With a single touch, she brought a parochial world to its knees. With a simple grind, she felled centuries of male-domination. With one final flourish, she cried out to God and released the tormented torrent of the life of a woman.

You’re so fine,
And you’re mine
Make me strong, yeah you make me bold
Cause your love thawed out
Yeah your love thawed out
What was scared and cold.

As a gay boy, I didn’t quite get turned on by the proceedings, instead I took a different lesson: the power of self-love. Literally. Tied in with that was the power of sex and the power of seduction, along with the power that comes from being the object of desire, untouchable but for her own hands, isolated and alone yet watched by thousands. It was a daring show of raw sexuality and unabashed self-pleasure that left jaws-dropping wherever the Blonde Ambition tour landed. It is the image of ‘Like A Virgin’ that I retain to this day. It’s a far cry from its original version.

Like a virgin
Touched for the very first time
Like a virgin
When your heart beats
Next to mine.

Back in 1984, a lot of the world hadn’t quite heard of Madonna. I myself missed out on her debut album – including ‘Holiday’, ‘Lucky Star’, and ‘Borderline’ (I was, after all, only nine years old) but by 1985 ‘Material Girl’ brought her into my life, and my life into sudden-focus. Its infectious beat kept me glued to the rest of the ‘Like A Virgin’ album. Even so, the title song, and its accompanying Bride-in-Venice video didn’t do much for me. It was catchy enough, and I sensed in the title a certain degree of naughtiness, but at that time in my life I listened, shrugged, and fast-forwarded to ‘Dress You Up.’


You’re so fine, and you’re mine
I’ll be yours til the end of time
Cause you made me feel, yeah you made me feel
I’ve got nothing to hide.

Looking back, I wish I’d paid more attention to this moment and that first flush of Madonnamania. My wanna-be years were a bit further off, but something must have touched me. Now, it means a little more. ‘Like A Virgin’ tugged at my ears, at my pants, at my head, and at my heart. As it grew in resonance over the years, it came to mean different things at different times, but always the hope of starting over, the freshness of a new beginning, the bright bursting of a heart newly in love. If I listen closely enough, if I close my eyes and let my mind wander back, I can remember the innocence of childhood – and there it is again, all shiny and new… for the very first time.

Song #107 – ‘Like A Virgin’ – 1984

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