Madonna (Contemporary Musicians)
Singer, songwriter, record company executive
The career of pop music superstar Madonna has lasted longer than most of her detractors ever predicted. She has become a kind of modern-day, multimedia ueber-celebrity who dabbles in film, theater projects, and the occasional publishing venture in addition to her recording endeavors. But Madonna's most impressive feat may be her ability to sell millions of records around the world regardless of what the music press says about her. Rock critic Robert Christgau summed up Madonna's magic touch in Vogue, calling the singer-songwriter "a trailblazer in a raceless dance music with discernible roots in postpunk and Eurodisco, who is also on flirting terms with such whitebread subgenres as Vegas schlock, show tune, and housewife ballad." Christgau further described the accomplished performer's million-selling efforts as rife with "corny cool, postfeminist confidence, [and] pleasure-centered electronic pulse."
Off stage, Madonna demonstrates considerable business acumen as chief executive of her own company and record label. Her skills in guiding her career and the "Madonna" persona have, in the space of a decade, made her one of the world's wealthiest women.
Madonna was born Madonna Louise Ciccone in Bay City, Michigan, in 1958. The "Veronica" that is commonly cited as one of her birth names is really her confirmation name, chosen for the religious ceremony when she was in her early teens. Her familyadonna is the third of eight childrenas living in Pontiac, Michigan, at the time of her birth, but they were visiting relatives in Bay City when her then-very-pregnant mother went into labor. Tragically, Mrs. Ciccone died of cancer when Madonna and her siblings were quite young. The children lived for a while with various relatives until her father settled down in Rochester Hills, a suburb of Detroit, and reunited the family.
Madonna's father, an engineer by profession, eventually married the family's housekeeper. Being the eldest daughter of a large brood meant that a greater share of household and emotional responsibilities fell on Madonna's young shoulders. "Sometimes growing up I felt like the unhired help," she admitted to Time writer Carl Wayne Arrington. Of her strict, Italian American, Roman Catholic upbringing, she recalled, "My family life at home was very repressive, very Catholic, and I was very unhappy. I was considered the sissy of the family because I relied on feminine wiles to get my way. I wasn't quiet at all. I remember always being told to shut up."
Interested in dance from an early age, Madonna studied with local instructors as a teenager. In high school, she was an honor roll student and a cheerleader. She graduated early and attended the University of Michigan for two years, continuing her dance training, then dropped out and moved to New York City in the late 1970s. There she attempted to get her foot in the show business door. While working in a series of low-wage jobsncluding a stint as an artist's modelhe took more dance classes and eventually won a spot in the third company of Alvin Ailey's American Dance Theater.
Next, Madonna hooked up with disco performer Patrick Hernandez. She moved with him to Paris for a short time but then returned to New York City and became a part of burgeoning music scene that was combining post-punk-rock shock with the quick-tempoed beats left over from the disco era. She played drums and sang for a number of New York-based ensembles, including Emmy, the Millionaires, and the Breakfast Club.
An Ambitious Streak
Around 1981 Madonna teamed up with boyfriend Steve Bray to form her own band, simply called Madonna. It was also around this time that she first picked up a guitar and started writing songs herself. Playing in New York City clubs, Madonna soon garnered attention with her new act. She found herself a respected manager and began leaning toward a more funky, rhythm-and-bluestinged sound, which went over well in the dance clubs she played. New York club disc jockey Mark Kamins, who had extensive contacts in the music business, helped win her a recording contract with Warner Bros. in 1982. "I was very impressed with how determined she was," remembered recording executive Seymour Stein in an interview with Vogue writer David Handelman. "I don't want to use the word ruthless; at the time, I said, 'She's somebody who would take a shortcut through a cemetery at night to get somewhere.' You could tell it in her eyes."
The contract with Warner Bros. led to the release of Madonna's self-titled debut album in 1983; cuts from Madonna slowly became underground dance club hits. When the first single, "Holiday," got extensive airplay, many listeners were surprised to find that the voice belonged to a white woman. Stardom quickly followed when the singles "Borderline" and "Lucky Star" began climbing the charts. By early 1985 Madonna had become a household name, but her second album, Like a Virgin, did even more for her budding career. The record quickly went platinum, buoyed by the hits "Material Girl," "Into the Groove," and the title track.
At one point, two singles from Like a Virgin were in the Top Five at the same time, and it seemed Madonna was now turning up everywhere in the media. She launched her first tour in the spring of 1985, initially in small venues, but as the shows began selling out in less than an hour, the dates were switched into larger arenasith the Beastie Boys opening for her on some nights. That spring also saw the release of Desperately Seeking Susan, a movie she had made in 1984 when she was still relatively unknown. The low-budget film, directed by Susan Seidelman, became a commercial hit.
The showy "Like a Virgin" tour catapulted Madonna into a very public eye, and it was also during this period that she started to become a sort of icon for fans of her pop music. Teenagednd even youngerirls began adopting the mid-'80s Madonna look of messy, badly-dyed hair, neon rubber bracelets, black lace bras, white lace gloves, a "Boy Toy" belt buckle, and other sartorial signifiers. The cult of Madonna even spawned the term "wannabe"s in youngsters who "wanted to be" like the star.
Early in her career, Madonna was already becoming an accomplished songwriterLike a Virgin included five cuts that she wrote herself. Her next effort, the 1986 release True Blue, was another success, best remembered for the "Papa Don't Preach" dilemma-of-teen-pregnancy track. Shortly thereafter, in 1987, Madonna landed another major film role in Who's That Girl?, a light comedy that was panned by critics. An uneven soundtrack album accompanied the film, followed the next year by You Can Dance, a series of remixes of her best-known hits.
By this time, Madonna's personal life was attracting about the same amount of attention as her music and film performances. Her homes had become bastions of high-tech security measures designed to keep an increasingly frenzied fan base and similarly persistent paparazzi out of her hair. In 1985 she had married actor Sean Penn to much media hoopla, and the ups and downs of their marriage were well-chronicled by the press. By early 1989 the marriage was on the rocks, divorce papers had been filed, and her next full-length studio album, Like a Prayer, was released.
Continued to Provoke Controversy
Like a Prayer was especially notable for the racy videos to both the title cut and another track titled "Express Yourself." Prior to its release, Madonna had inked a $5 million deal with Pepsi for some commercials and sponsorship of an upcoming tour, but the religious symbolism in the "Like a Prayer" video made the cola giant wary; the company canceled the deal, although the increasingly savvy businesswoman kept the money.
During the late 1980s, Madonna took intermittent breaks from her music to work in film and theater. Her role opposite Warren Beatty in 1990's Dick Tracy garnered major media attention as much for her performance as for her off-camera relationship with the film's star. The Trouser Press Record Guide panned I'm Breathless, the album that was released in conjunction with the movie, calling its best-known single, "Vogue," "just an empty shell of a song, style sans substance."
Yet the "Vogue" single was another example of Madonna's ability to capitalize on a still-underground pop culture phenomenon. "Vogueing" had been a flourishing dance trend on the New York gay discotheque scene for a number of years, where menometimes dressed as womenosed and strutted to a high-energy beat. Madonna's video carried this trend into living rooms from Iowa to Omaha. Her next album, The Immaculate Collection, was also released in 1990, but it was mainly an assemblage of her biggest hits to date, including "Vogue."
Late in 1990 Madonna became embroiled in yet another controversy, this time surrounding the video to "Justify My Love," the only new track on The Immaculate Collection. The steamy images of slightly sado-masochistic situations and multiple partnerships, shot with Madonna's then-boyfriend Tony Ward, provoked MTV to initially ban it from airplay. The furor only boosted sales and prompted Time reporter Jay Cocks to point out that the flap made "MTV look an organization of aging church elders, and [Madonna] a champion of feminism and free expression in the process."
Madonna blended her interest in film and music in the concert documentary Truth or Dare. Shot during her 1990 "Blond Ambition" tour by video director Alex Keshishian, the work had a cinema-verite, "you-are-there" feel to it as it chronicled pre-show backstage prayer sessions with her dancers and followed the performer around both her L.A. abode and Manhattan apartment. Time reviewer Richard Corliss called it "raw, raunchy and epically entertaining ... pure, unadulterated Madonna." In another issue of Time, Carl Wayne Arrington described it as "a panoramic, emetic, beauty-marks-and-all" work that "draws its substance from the dark well of Madonna's life."
That dark well of Madonnaspecially the out-there sexuality that seemed to unnerve most of her criticsas further explored in her first book, a hefty volume titled Sex. The 1992 tome contains racy images shot by fashion photographer Steven Meisel, along with intermittent text of Madonna's musings on sex and love written under the name of her alter ego, Dita Parlo. The $50 book was released to much fanfare, especially when some of the photographs appeared in the media prior to publicationeaked or perhaps sold by insiders.
The metal-jacketed Sex came tightly wrapped in Mylar to guard against bookstore peekers and was roundly condemned by more conservative elements in the media. The photographsmong them, one of Madonna hitchhiking nude and several others involving other people and bondage geareemed to be calculatingly titillating. Once again, Madonna was at the forefront of a new trend, opined Newsweek writer John Leland, who wrote: "Call it the new voyeurism: the middlebrow embrace, in the age of AIDS, of explicit erotic material for its own sake." The book was a sell-out across the country.
Madonna reportedly received an advance of $5.5 million for the Sex book from media giant Time-Warner, and the conglomerate also engineered an almost-unheard-of contract with the singer in 1991. (A year earlier, Madonna had appeared on the cover of the staid financial magazine Forbes under the banner "America's Smartest Business Woman?") The seven-year multimedia contract with Time-Warner, reportedly worth $60 million, gave her almost complete artistic control over her musicncluding her own label, Mavericknd supposedly included $5 million advances for each forthcoming album. Included inthe package were deals for cable-TV specials and any film projects she wished to develop.
The Sex book coincided with the release of Madonna's 1992 album Erotica. Again, a steamy video accompanied the title track, but this time the video easily made it onto MTV playlistslbeit in the wee hours of the night. Much of the material, as in the Like a Prayer effort, was written by Madonna with the help of producers Shep Pettibone and Andre Betts. First, they developed the rhythm section for each song, which Madonna would listen to while paging through a journal she keeps for songwriting purposes. The early vocal takes she recorded usually wound up on the final mix, a quirk explained by Pettibone in the Vogue interview: "As soon as she comes up with a melodic idea, we record it, because it has that feeling, which usually gets watered down the more you sing it." In addition to Erotica's bestselling title song, the record also contains "In This Life," a track about people close to the singer who have died of AIDS, as well as "Goodbye to Innocence," a wistful look at the nature of celebrity.
The Erotica album was followed by another film release, a mediocre murder mystery titled Body of Evidence, in which Madonna starred opposite Willem Dafoe. She also embarked on yet another world tour, this one entitled "The Girlie Show." It featured topless women and more racy vignettes set to her musicnd helped earn her condemnation from the Roman Catholic church authority in Rome.
After a short hiatus, Madonna made a splash in the spring of 1994 when she appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. The show was memorable for the antagonism between the host and guest and the audience's apparent willingness to see Letterman skewer her mercilessly. It was a battle of wits, with Madonna using a certain banned word 13 different times stunt that drew her severe media criticism the next day. Entertainment Weekly writer Ken Tucker saw it as an attention-getting ploy, "a way to keep her name in the papers in lieu of actually producing some sort of creative work," and noted that by 1994, "as a feminist culture hero," she was fading from the spotlight.
But Madonna showed another side of her complex persona with the late 1994 release of Bedtime Stories. The record featured quieter, more soul-tinged numbers, and reaction was favorable, although sales were not as brisk as for her previous records. "The eroticism she hints at on Bedtime Stories is actually sexier than that of her more wanton songs and videos," observed Time reviewer Christopher John Farley. The critic added that as "one of the pop-music giants of the 1980s ... she has risked becoming an artifact of that era," but pointed out that her collaborative efforts with some groundbreaking performers of the 1990songs either written or performed with the likes of Me'Shell Ndege-Ocello, Björk, and producer Kenneth "Babyface" Nelsonere quite impressive.
In addition to her work with Nelson, Madonna teamed with a trio of other producers specializing in the contemporary black sounds of R&B. When Rolling Stone writer Zehme asked Madonna if she ever felt black, she replied "Oh, yes, all the time.... When I was a little girl, I wished I was black. All my girlfriends were black. I was living in Pontiac, Michigan, and I was definitely the minority in the neighborhood.... I used to make corn-rows and everything.... If being black is synonymous with having soul, then, yes, I feel that I am."
By the mid-1990s, Madonna had become an active chief executive of the Maverick label. Maverick's roster includes Me'Shell NdegeOcelloho performed on Bedtime Storieseavy grunge rockers Candlebox, and Bad Brains. There is also a separate film production company, not attached to Time-Warner, that allows Madonna to develop film projects, among them Farewell My Concubine and Dangerous Game.
With a contract with Time-Warner that stretches into the very end of the twentieth century, Madonna's musical careernd celebrity statushows no signs of abating. Yet the unwanted attention brought on by her fame may be the most difficult part of her life. Newsweek reporter David Ansen once queried, "Do you ever get sick of being Madonna?," and she replied, "Yes, I do. I do. Sometimes, I just want to go to a movie and not have someone pull on my shirt, you know what I mean? I mean, I can't go grocery shopping, and a lot of times, my secretaries don't get me what I want. And I think, 'God, if I could just go myself, I'd get the right kind of cereal.'"
In a 1995 interview with ABC news correspondent Forest Sawyer for Prime Time, Madonna showed a softer side, ruminating over the loss of her mother, its impact on her life, and her desire to settle down and start a family. Still, she exhibits a philosophical and balanced attitude about her image, her career, and her future. "I see what has happened to me as a blessing because I am able to express myself in many ways that I never would have if I hadn't had this kind of career," she told Arrington in the Time interview. "I am lucky to be in the position of power that I am in and to be intelligent. Most people in my position say, 'Listen, you don't have to do any of that. Just kick back, man. Just enjoy your riches. Go get a house in Tahiti. Why do you keep getting yourself into trouble?' It's not my nature to just kick back. I am not going to be anybody's patsy. I am not going to be anybody's good girl. I will always be this way."
Sex, edited by Glenn O'Brien, photographs by Steven Meisel, Warner Books, 1992.
Madonna, Sire, 1983.
Like a Virgin, Sire, 1985.
True Blue, Sire, 1986.
Who's That Girl?, Sire, 1987.
You Can Dance, Sire, 1988.
Like a Prayer, Sire, 1989.
I'm Breathless: Music from and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy, Sire, 1990.
The Immaculate Collection, Sire, 1990.
Erotica, Maverick, 1992.
Bedtime Stories, Maverick, 1994.
Something to Remember, Maverick, 1995.
Also contributed cuts to the soundtracks for the films VisionQuest, 1985, and Desperately Seeking Susan, 1985.
The Trouser Press Record Guide, 4th edition, edited by Ira Robbins, Collier Books, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, April 15, 1994.
Esquire, August 1994.
Nation, June 8, 1992.
Newsweek, November 2, 1992.
Rolling Stone, March 23, 1989; October 15,1992; November 11, 1993; December 15, 1994.
Stereo Review, February 1995.
Time, May 27,1985; December 17,19904; May 8,1991 ; May 20, 1991; November 7, 1994.
Vogue, October 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Prime Time interview with Forest Sawyer broadcast on December 6, 1995, on ABC-TV.