In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“Let me tell you what ‘Like A Virgin”s about.” That’s the first line of dialogue in the first scene of the first Quentin Tarantino movie. The opening credits haven’t ended. The faces haven’t appeared onscreen yet. We’re seeing a blank void, and we’re hearing the voice of Tarantino himself, introducing his theory that Madonna’s first #1 hit is “all about a girl who meets a guy with a big dick.”
For the first two minutes of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s 1992 debut, Tarantino defends his “Like A Virgin” thesis. Tarantino is sitting down at a diner table, enjoying breakfast with a group of fellow armed robbers. As soon as they get done paying the bill, these men will spectacularly botch a jewelry store heist, and almost all of them, Tarantino’s character included, will be dead. But before this can happen, Tarantino has to tell everyone about the saga of “this cooze” and “this John Holmes motherfucker” and how “it’s like ‘whoa, baby.'” Nobody has ever accused Quentin Tarantino of being a great actor, but in this scene, he gives an uncanny portrayal of the kind of coked-up freako nerd who you can’t escape at a party.
By 1992, Madonna was such a big pop-cultural deal that Tarantino, our most pop-culturally fascinated filmmaker, had to get off some takes about “Like A Virgin” before he could even start his first movie. It was the throat-clearing that Tarantino needed. While Tarantino is talking, the other armed robbers sitting around the table are also firing off their own opinions on Madonna. It’s telling that Tarantino is discussing “Like A Virgin,” the song that first turned Madonna into the sort of pop-cult phenomenon that might need to be discussed in a Tarantino film.
Madonna did not arrive as a ready-made supernova. When she debuted with her single “Everybody” in 1982, Madonna was one of many club-ready dance-pop singers coming out of New York. Even then, Madonna was a canny stylist, one who knew how to fuse new-wave skitter with post-disco thump. She didn’t have an especially huge or versatile voice, but she knew how to pick songs, and she knew how to communicate sexual appetite. Madonna and MTV were built for one another; she could give looks to the camera that were worth entire books. But Madonna wasn’t an icon yet. That took luck and timing and chess-level strategy. It also took the right song. “Like A Virgin” was the song.
The singer of “Like A Virgin” couldn’t possibly have chosen a better stage name than Madonna, but she didn’t have to. Madonna Louise Ciccone was born — with that name — in Bay City, Michigan, the same town that once gave a group of Scottish teen-dream chart-toppers their name. (As it happens, Madonna arrived into the world 12 days after Billboard launched the Hot 100. Prince and Michael Jackson, Madonna’s two closest ’80s-pop peers, were born during the same summer — Prince two months earlier, Jackson 13 days later. The #1 song on the day of Madonna’s birth was Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool,” the first-ever Hot 100 chart-topper.) Madonna’s father was an Italian immigrant who worked as an engineer at General Motors. Her mother died of breast cancer when she was a small child. Catholicism and death and angst and efficiency and religious crisis are built right into her biography.
Madonna spent a year studying dance at the University Of Michigan, and then she dropped out of school and moved to New York. She worked at a Dunkin Donuts and danced with an Alvin Ailey troupe. She survived a sexual assault. For a little while, she found work as a backup singer and dancer for the French disco artist Patrick Hernandez. (Hernandez’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “Born To Be Alive,” peaked at #16.) Madonna formed two bands, the Breakfast Club and Emmy, that never went anywhere. She hung out at clubs. And she got noticed.
Seymour Stein signed Madonna to the Warner Bros. imprint Sire Records on a singles deal. “Everybody” and the absolute immortal banger “Burning Up,” her first two singles, did well in clubs, though neither of them charted on the Hot 100. So Madonna got to release an album. When she was working on her self-titled 1983 debut, Madonna locked horns with producer Reggie Lucas, a mainstream-pop hand from the Warner Bros. stable. Madonna got her boyfriend Jellybean Benitez, an in-demand club DJ, to remix some of the tracks and to produce her single “Holiday,” which peaked at #16. She also wrote a bunch of the songs herself.
Two of the singles from Madonna made it into the top 10. (The Madonna-written “Lucky Star” peaked at #4. It’s an 8. The Lucas-written “Borderline” peaked at #10. It’s a 9.) The album sold a couple of million copies. Madonna was a success, but she hadn’t quite set herself apart yet. She was impatient to fully prove herself. Madonna wanted to produce her second album herself. Sire wouldn’t let her. So Madonna chose Nile Rodgers, who she admired from his work with Chic and David Bowie, as her producer. Rodgers had seen Madonna play an early club show, and he knew she was a star in waiting.
While Madonna was working on her second album, the songwriting team of Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly — a duo who will appear in this column a bunch of times — was pitching tracks. Steinberg had just gotten into a new relationship after a long rough period, and he wrote the “Like A Virgin” lyrics while driving a pickup truck around his father’s vineyards in the Coachella Valley. (Turns out Tarantino was wrong about “Like A Virgin.” Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde was right. Trust a Blonde to understand a Madonna song.) Steinberg brought those lyrics to Kelly, who put them to music. They recorded a demo, with Kelly singing lead and Steinberg singing backup.
Steinberg and Kelly hadn’t written “Like A Virgin” with any particular singer in mind. In fact, they weren’t sure the song would make sense with anyone. They thought it might be too weird. But they still played the song for the Warner Bros. A&R guy Michael Ostin in a meeting. Ostin had a meeting with Madonna coming up the next day, and the lightbulb went off. With its naked sexuality, “Like A Virgin” seems like the kind of song that Madonna might have had to fight her label to release. But no: The label brought it to her.
Madonna loved “Like A Virgin” right away. Nile Rodgers did not. Rodgers thought that the song was dumb and that the title didn’t work. Four days later, Rodgers realized that “Like A Virgin” was still stuck in his head, so he apologized to Madonna and said that maybe they should record the song after all. Rodgers and Madonna recorded the song together at the Power Station, Chic’s New York home base. Rodgers played the sparse, itchy guitar interjections. Chic’s great rhythm section, bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson, laid down the beat.
“Like A Virgin” is an insanely smart piece of pop iconography. Madonna was already wearing crucifixes and rosary beads, repurposing them as straight-up jewelry. With “Like A Virgin,” she tied herself more closely to her namesake, playing on religious and sexual imagery at the same time. The lyrics find artful, economical ways to convey a sort of lovestruck euphoria. The opening lines are practically mythic: “I made it through the wilderness/ Somehow, I made it through/ Didn’t know how lost I was until I found you.” When Madonna sings that this person makes her feel shiny and new, it’s a provocation and a slippery come-on. Virginity, to this song, is some sort of distant, alien, holy state. The love described on the song doesn’t make Madonna a virgin again, but it makes her feel like one.
Musically, I’ve never quite connected with “Like A Virgin” the way I have with a lot of Madonna’s other singles. Rodgers’ production and the Chic members’ playing is sharp and in-the-pocket, and Thompson’s drums sound huge. But that’s an unforgiving track, and it leaves Madonna’s voice nowhere to hide. The hook is huge, and she projects personality all over it. But she also sounds tinny and small. As pure image-making, “Like A Virgin” is one of the sharpest pieces of work in pop history. As a song, though, I tend to think that it’s merely pretty good.
But then, the imagery is what everyone remembers. Take, for instance, the video. Madonna shot the clip in New York and Venice with director Mary Lambert, who would later make horror movies like Pet Sematary. Madonna wriggles around on a gondola, ducking under bridges while dancing. (She must have hit her head at least once when she was filming, but we always see her anticipating those bridges just before they decapitate her.) Then she’s in a ripped-up bridal gown in some old, ornate room. An actual lion prowls around, and in a pretty funny touch, he pants to the song’s beat. Later on, we see that Madonna’s lover is a dude in an actual lion mask, which is both sexually symbolic and extremely silly. The video, as much as the song itself, wedged itself into the pop consciousness.
But Madonna’s debut performance of “Like A Virgin” might’ve been even more impactful than the song, or the video. More than a month before she released “Like A Virgin” as a single, when the songs from her debut album were still lingering in the charts, Madonna gave “Like A Virgin” a grand premiere at the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards. At that first VMAs, most of the performers were rock-establishment types: Rod Stewart, Huey Lewis And The News, David Bowie, ZZ Top. Mick Jagger, Carly Simon, Diana Ross, and Roger Daltrey all presented awards. The hosts were Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler. Nobody remembers any of that. All anyone remembers is Madonna singing “Like A Virgin” in public for the very first time.
Madonna opens her “Like A Virgin” performance while standing atop a giant wedding cake, wearing a bridal gown and a “BOY TOY” belt buckle. Near the end of the song, Madonna drops to the ground, humps the floor, crawls, rolls around. PMRC co-founder Susan Baker later accused Madonna of teaching little girls to act “like a porn queen in heat”; this performance is ground zero of that. Madonna later said that she’d accidentally kicked off a high heel and that she’d dropped to the floor as a way of covering it up, but it sure looks like both of her shoes are still on at the end of the performance. She knew what she was doing, and she made the impression that she wanted to make.
Madonna’s Like A Virgin album went on to sell more than 20 million copies globally. In the US, Like A Virgin was the #3 seller of 1985, behind only Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA and Bryan Adams’ Reckless. The LP established Madonna as a superstar on the level of Michael Jackson or Prince, two artists who she has now outlived. Madonna will be in this column many more times.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Weird Al” Yankovic’s pretty-great video for “Like A Surgeon,” his 1985 parody of “Like A Virgin”:
(“Like A Surgeon” peaked at #47. “Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the nicely fuzzed-out power-pop cover of “Like A Virgin” that Teenage Fanclub released in 1991:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie Moulin Rouge where Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, and Anthony Weigh sing a creepy version of “Like A Virgin”:
(Baz Luhrmann’s highest-charting single, 1997’s “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” peaked at #45. Moulin Rouge will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2008 Fred Wolf movie The House Bunny where much of the cast sings a “Like A Virgin” parody called “Like A Loser” at karaoke:
(Katharine McPhee’s highest-charting single, her 2006 version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” peaked at #12.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the genuinely awful “Like A Virgin” cover that Mötley Crüe recorded for the soundtrack of their 2019 Netflix biopic The Dirt:
(Mötley Crüe’s highest charting single is 1989’s “Dr. Feelgood,” which peaked at 6. It’s an 8.)
THE 10S: Pat Benatar’s operatic, maximalist new-wave power-ballad anthem “We Belong” peaked at #5 behind “Like A Virgin.” It belongs to the light, it belongs to the thunder, and it’s a 10.