Why there can only be one Madonna: A look at the reigning Queen of Pop's legacy as she celebrates turning 62
Thanks to her talent, charisma, reinvention and chutzpah, the ageless Madonna paved the path for an entire generation of stars, be it men, women, and everyone else on the gender spectrum
Pop queen, disco diva, gyrating virgin, rhinestone cowgirl, sex siren - the music icon Madonna is all of these and so much more. The revered queen of pop turns 62 on August 16 and even in 2020, almost four decades since her debut, pop culture's biggest names are still taking notes from her. Madonna is undeniably a living legend and a pioneer of reinvention, with her latest avatar being Madame X in her 14th studio album of the same name. "Madame X is a secret agent traveling around the world, changing identities, fighting for freedom, bringing light to dark places," she said in the teaser video. In fact, it is she who normalized it for other females artists to keep reinventing their sound, image and creative narrative.
Born Madonna Louise Ciccone on August 16, 1958, the young artist moved to New York City in the late '70s to become a dancer. She found her true calling when she started working as a backup dancer and knew she wanted to become a world-conquering solo singer and performer. Her eponymous debut album came out in 1983 and her sophomore release 'Like a Virgin' — which was pretty scandalous for its time — established the diva as a provocateur. She basically wore a wedding dress while singing about the joys of sex, something unheard of for its time. The wedding dress made jaws drop again when Madonna rolled on the floor, moaning 'Like a Virgin', on the very first VMAs in 1984. And who can forget about those iconic Jean Paul Gaultier conical bras from her Blond Ambition tour back in 1990.
Madonna has flirted with controversy many times since then - from kissing Britney Spears at the 2003 VMAs to dangling from a disco ball crucifix during her 2006 Confessions Tour. Not to forget the one time when she featured burning crosses in her 'Like a Prayer' video, which was banned from MTV. Even the Vatican condemned it and Pope John Paul II urged a boycott, but Madonna was fearless even in the face of her numerous controversies.
Madonna is also an eternal inspiration to the LGBTQIA++ community. In 1991, during the peak of HIV infections and deaths, she reached out to the community with her activism and music. Madonna, who had earlier released a public-service announcement about safe sex, endorsed the HIV activist group Act-Up. Two of Madonna's good friends, artist Keith Haring and her ballet teacher and mentor Christopher Flynn, had died of AIDS in 1990.
She went a step further and introduced same-sex couples in her videos, something that was considered taboo back in the '90s. In 'Justify My Love', she had her first on-screen lesbian kiss. In the 1991 documentary 'Truth or Dare', two of her male dancers shared a kiss. Many gay men have said that this was the first time they ever saw their wishes being played out onscreen so naturally. And it's no coincidence that Lady Gaga's monster hit 'Born This Way' borrows heavily from Madonna's classic track 'Express Yourself'.
The Queen of pop has time and again changed up her sound and identity and this has left a lasting impression on generations of musicians. Artists who were inspired by Madonna's reinvention included stars like Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Adam Lambert, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, Paulina Rubino, Miley Cyrus, and even Madonna's protégé Britney Spears, just to name a few. Katy Perry went from rebellious girl next door to princess of 'purposeful pop', Miley Cyrus graduated from Disney Channel to become a rebellious rockstar before returning to her country roots and Taylor Swift went from shedding teardrops on her guitar to ruling pop and then going folksy with 'Folklore'.
Madonna also helped change the way artists release their music. Thanks to MTV and a lot of focus on singles-driven music videos, rock-oriented concept albums saw a decline in the '80s. Madonna was instrumental in bringing back concept albums in mainstream pop with 'Erotica' and 'American Life'. Today, Lorde ('Melodrama'), Janelle Monáe ('The ArchAndroid') and Halsey ('Hopeless Fountain Kingdom') are among those who swear by concept albums.
With her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour, Madonna also changed the way pop concerts would be held thereafter. Donna Summer and Michael Jackson had both fused popular music and theater during live performances but what Madonna did was much bigger and bolder. She brought Broadway to her full-scale production concert tours with special effects, elaborate sets and lots of drama and this helped change the face of popular music culture.
The revolutionary in her also changed the rules that were previously followed by other artists, especially women. Taking creative control of her projects, Madonna made talent scouting an essential part of her art - be it fashion designers, stylists, video directors, or producers. Her relationship with her collaborators is a major theme in the blockbuster 1991 tour documentary 'Truth or Dare'.
She was also one of the first major pop stars to leave a record deal. She released her first album in 1983 under a division of Warner Bros Records. But in 2007, 24 years and 200 million albums later, the diva left the label and signed up with concert promoter Live Nation, who offered a 10-year partnership worth $100M. The deal proved that Madonna as an artist was still a touring powerhouse. It also helped cement the future of musicians in a digital age where it is proving rather difficult to sell physical albums, nowadays downloads and streams are the new norm.
She also made the hiring of stylists a standard procedure. She started working with fashion designer Maripol in the '80s and since then she decided to have her own stylists. Generations of singers followed her and now everyone has a stylist of their own.
Even today, Madonna is pushing the boundaries of what the ageist music industry and society, in general, expects of older women. Just ahead of her 62nd birthday, Madonna released a banger collaboration with Dua Lipa and Missy Elliot called the 'Levitating' remix, which came out on August 14 - yet again proving that age is just a number after all.
Madonna's music, artistry, and boldness passed on that revolutionary spark that we still see today in the modern age of feminism. Thanks to her talent, charisma, reinvention and chutzpah, she paved the path for an entire generation of stars, be it men, women and everyone else on the gender spectrum. Here's wishing the ageless queen of pop a happy birthday. Long may she reign supreme!