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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Madonna Strikes a Pose

The history of ‘Vogue’ and Madonna’s decade, with an assist from The New York Times’ Caryn Ganz

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 38, which breaks down “Vogue” and Madonna in the ’90s.

Madonna’d already done enough shocking people for several lifetimes by 1990.

What a strange experience, to be a little kid—to be a young, impressionable, but presexual human—in the mid-to-late ’80s, as Madonna ascended to MTV dominance and global megastardom, and to understand that this person was controversial and confrontational and quote-unquote sexy and possibly outright dangerous without quite understanding why. Boy, this lady sure makes my parents uncomfortable. Boy, this lady sure smooches a lot of dudes. Boy, this lady sure likes rolling around on the ground. Boy, this lady sure loves her belly button. The belly button thing is not conjecture, on my part. Her second-best quote of the ’80s—taken, like the naked guy on the crucifix bit, from a 1985 cover story in Spin magazine—reads as follows:

My favorite button is my belly button. I have the most perfect belly button: an inny, and there’s no lint in it. I never wore a jewel in my belly, but if I did it would be a ruby or an emerald, but not a diamond. When I stick my finger in my belly button, I feel a nerve in the center of my body shoot up my spine. If 100 belly buttons were lined up against a wall, I could definitely pick out which one is mine.

I love it. There’s narcissism, and then there’s boasting that you’re the best at narcissism. The world revolved around this lady. So much of what happened in the world, on both a personal and sociopolitical level, appeared to be a direct, visceral response to the antics of this lady. First concert I ever saw in my life: the Monkees, with “Weird Al” Yankovic opening. This was after MTV started showing Monkees reruns in the mid-’80s; this is Dare to Be Stupid–era Weird Al. It was getting late and we had to leave the show before the Monkees did “I’m a Believer,” I was so bummed. I remember exactly one song from this whole evening, and it was Weird Al doing “Like a Surgeon.”

Weird Al naturally had a whole elaborate stage setup: the hospital bed, the scrubs, the EKG, possibly even the lion from the “Like a Surgeon” video—don’t bet against it. He’s a professional.

Did I even know what a virgin was in that moment? Don’t worry about it. Madonna was everywhere. Madonna parodies were everywhere. Madonna criticism, something frightfully close to Madonna hatred, was everywhere. She first made the cover of Rolling Stone in 1984, same year as her second album, Like a Virgin, and the coverline was MADONNA GOES ALL THE WAY, and the cover story, by Chris Connelly, portrayed her, uh, uh, as ambitious. Relentless, and perhaps even heartless, in her ambitiousness. You know the deal. Quote:

She’s in the same sans-midriff getup featured in her videos, but in person, she doesn’t adopt the coyly fetching approach you might anticipate. This is a woman who saves her sex-bomb act for the times when the meter’s running. And don’t let her oft-flashed “Boy Toy” belt buckle fool you. The men who have gotten close to her—tough guys, a lot of them—have gotten their hearts broken as often as not. Throughout her life, there has been one guiding emotion: ambition.

That Rolling Stone piece also got around to sketching out the Madonna origin story: Born Madonna Louise Ciccone in Bay City, Michigan. Oldest daughter in a family of six. A Daddy’s Girl. Her mother, also named Madonna Louise, died of cancer, when the younger Madonna was just 6 years old. Young Madonna’s father remarried. There were father issues. Stepmother issues. Broad family issues. School issues. Catholicism issues. Young Madonna gets a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan but bounces after five semesters and heads off to New York City. She takes a bunch of dance classes, writes a bunch of songs, and meets a bunch of guys. Maybe not in that order. Those guys, some of whom will become romantic interests and/or musical collaborators; some of whom will remain in Madonna’s artistic orbit for years; some of whom will not. None of whom, of course, will appear on the cover of the first Madonna record, in 1983, her self-titled debut.

Could Madonna sing? Yeah! Was Madonna primarily a singer? Was she clearly about to be super-famous because of how well she sang? Ehhhh. Maybe Madonna gets super-famous without MTV. Maybe not. Either way, if I can use the popular cultural construction of Mount Rushmore, Madonna is on the Mount Rushmore of MTV-borne ’80s pop stars, along with Michael Jackson, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen? Maybe. Springsteen’s “Glory Days” video was formative for me. The “Glory Days” video taught me what nostalgia was, actually. In the Rolling Stone cover story Madonna is asked, I hope tactfully, how she managed to project “seething sexuality” more effectively than most ’80s pop stars, and she said, “I think that has to do with them not being in touch with that aspect of their personality. They say, ‘Well, I have to do a video now, and a pop star has to come on sexually, so how do I do that?’ instead of being in touch with that part of theirself to begin with. I’ve been in touch with that aspect of my personality since I was five.”

Don’t worry about it. What I knew, when I was 5 and transfixed by the lady with the floppy hat with the giant bow on it in the “Borderline” video, was that there was something winsome, something workmanlike, something profoundly human about how this lady sang the word way.

Madonna’s greatest hits—of which there are several dozen—are so ingrained in me, and I think so ingrained in everyone, that I fixate now on these granular details. She is the solar system; every individual word she sings is a new planet to explore. Highest compliment I can pay to the first Madonna album: I was driving around last weekend trying to find an open Waffle House on the Fourth of July, with a starving 10-year-old boy and his starving 7-year-old brother in the back of the minivan, and I’m starving too, and we can’t find an open Waffle House, and I’m playing the first Madonna album, and I’m very sensitive to what a terrible headspace I’m in and how this may alter my perception of the first Madonna album, but no, the Madonna song “Holiday,” even in this very stressful context, still feels to me like a holiday. I can still appreciate—I can still fixate on—the way she sings the words it would be. This tends to jump out at me more in live versions.

Super tiny but to me very striking vocal hitches like this, as I got a little older and analytical about it, I’d wonder: Is that an accent thing? Is that Michigan? Is that transplanted New Yorker? Is that any early stirring of her fake English accent? But no, I think it’s just effort. It’s just incomprehensibly hard work. When you listen to early Madonna, imagine her singing while bench-pressing 225 pounds. That’s two 45-pound weights on each side plus the bar. Three sets of 25 reps. She’s got no spotter. Nobody else in the gym. It’s a sexy gym, if you need it to be. Was Equinox around at this time? You’re in charge of the details. The point is that Madonna was never the best singer or the best dancer—Madonna quite famously would later say, explicitly, that she wasn’t the best singer or the best dancer. She just worked harder. She worked smarter. She knew how to get her attention. And more importantly, she knew how to keep it.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.