It wasn’t supposed to be successful. Disco was dead. There weren’t supposed to be any dance records that succeded in pop or rock circles after 1980. The backlash against disco and dance music was thorough and complete as the 80s came into view. But like most genres that fall out of favor, they don’t completely disappear; they go underground, far from the lofty heights of the pop charts for sure, but they don’t die.
Such was the case in the 1980s. There was plenty of dance music to be heard, particularly on the R&B side of the musical tracks, but it wasn’t getting a lot of pop success. Give credit to Michael Jackson for helping to break down the wall, with his hits from Off The Wall and Thriller, as well as getting his videos played on MTV, which kept many dance and R&B artists off the airwaves.
In 1982, a woman who left her home in Michigan for New York City with dreams of becoming a dancer began a journey that would see her become an icon of pop music and culture. While she started out dancing, she eventually moved into singing, joining the bands the Breakfast Club and Emmy and began writing songs with one-time boyfriend Steven Bray. Eventually, she went solo, and those songs the duo had written impressed Seymour Stein, founder of Sire Records. Stein liked what he heard so much, he signed that woman, a one-named artist called Madonna, to a singles deal.
The first two singles from that deal, “Everybody” and “Burning Up” were successes in the dance clubs and on the dance charts as well. Those successes led to development of an album for Madonna, and her eponymous debut album is the one that helped forged the path as one of the albums that impacted my musical education. Even over thirty years later, its impact is still felt and its timelessness lives on. (For more on the Albums That Forged The Path series, go here.)
While the bulk of that debut album was produced by Reggie Lucas, the album’s third single “Holiday”, was produced by John “Jellybean” Benitez, a dance music producer and DJ who was her boyfriend at the time. The song proved to be the one that got Madonna some pop exposure, as well as some play on R&B stations. I know that the first time I heard it was on an R&B station, so I assumed that Madonna was a black woman. Imagine my surprise when I was watching Solid Gold (please tell me some of y’all remember Solid Gold, right?) and saw this white woman in this weird outfit with bleached blonde hair singing the song. Not that it mattered; I loved the song then, and still love it now—but what that song did was open the door to the Madonna era of pop music, and put dance music back on the pop charts.
With the door now opened, all Madonna needed was a top ten hit. The next single delievered in a big way. “Borderline,” written by Lucas, became the top ten hit that was embraced by the masses. Ironically, it wasn’t so much a dance song as the first three, but a mid-tempo ballad. No one would ever consider Madonna a great singer at this point, but she had tons of personality. And though she would become a better singer through the years, her ability to sell a song with her vocals was present from the very beginning. She sold “Borderline” with a vocal full of yearning and passion, and the rest was history. “Lucky Star” went back to the dance style, and since Madonna had broken through at this point, it also went top ten on the pop charts.
When Like A Virgin was released in 1984, the Madonna movement had reached critical mass. That woman who wanted to become a dancer was now one of the biggest pop stars in the world. There was the famous (or infamous) performance at the MTV Video Awards in the wedding dress, movie roles, her marriage to Sean Penn, and hit record after hit record. Her fashion sense inspired women all over the globe. Her every move became tabloid fodder. As her stature grew so did her influence, so much so that calling her an icon wasn’t an overreach.
But it all stated with the music on this album. It influenced countless artists, and its sound was still popular for a few years after it was released. Without a doubt, it brought dance music back from the underground to the mainstream, while setting the stage for the latin freestyle music to become popular. I still play the album every now and then, thrilling to the hits as well as the album cuts. Every song on the album is a winner, with the possible exception of “I Know It” which closes the first half of the album. The sleeper cut, at least to me, is “Think Of Me,” which follows “Holiday” on the second half of the album. That song could have also made the top 10 had it been released, in my opinion.
A great album that proved to have influence both musically and culturally. That’s why it is one of the albums that meant a lot to me and my musical memories.