'Like A Virgin' Lives On, A Winking Anthem For Women Getting Married
This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.
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Some pop culture just lends itself to being argued over — and when it's the type that pokes fun at purity, sexual norms or religion, controversy is almost guaranteed. Debates over Madonna's "Like a Virgin" have raged everywhere, from the opinion pages of the Chicago Tribune to the opening scene of Quentin Tarentino's Reservoir Dogs.
The furor really began during the first MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, two months before the song's actual release. Madonna shimmied through the number in an abbreviated wedding dress accessorized with dangling crucifixes and a silver belt emblazoned with the words "Boy Toy." But it was her provocative moves that sent American eyebrows soaring.
At the time, Matthew Rettenmund was glued to the screen. Then a teenager, he would eventually write the exhaustive, 600-page Encyclopedia Madonnica.
"She rolled around on the stage and the cameras went right up the wedding dress," Rettenmund remembers, diplomatically passing over the moment when Madonna rapturously humped her wedding veil on the floor. "And you knew it was scandalous because they then showed the audience of all these seasoned rock and roll veterans watching her with blank expressions — like, 'What is this?' "
"Like a Virgin" became Madonna's first No. 1 single, topping the charts for six weeks. But beyond that, the singer expertly revived the song every few years as a flashpoint for outrage. Take the time in 2008 when she dedicated its performance to the Pope. Or how she made headlines in 1990 during her Blonde Ambition World Tour, when she simulated masturbating while singing "Like a Virgin" onstage. The documentary Truth or Dare, which came out the following year, chronicles the brouhaha when Toronto police threatened to arrest Madonna unless she censored the song. (She refused.)
"She's just this roaring zeitgeist," director Mary Lambert says affectionately. Lambert directed Madonna's original "Like a Virgin" video — at the time, the most expensive in MTV's short history. Filmed in lavish Italian palazzos and on the canals in Venice, the video featured gondolas, a live lion (requiring an armed trainer on set the entire time), and Madonna prancing around in virginal white.
"It just seemed really obvious that she should wear a wedding dress — and not just a wedding dress, but like, the grandest wedding dress that was ever created," Lambert says, recalling Madonna's interest in juxtaposing the sacred and profane. She points out that even at today's weddings, "There's the theater of being a virgin. They still wear the white dress."
And that's perhaps why the song's become an especially beloved anthem — for bachelorettes.
It's quite a serious song, really. The general public tends to see it as just titillating, because Madonna was titillating.
"That's like, the most requested song when we have bachelorette parties," says Maria Narciso, who manages The Pyramid Club in New York, a nightspot where Madonna used to dance — and the site of a yearly "Maddonnathon," where diehard fans dress up in cone bras and rubber bracelets and dance to her hits all night. "We're talking about a second chance at a new beginning. Learning to love — and be loved once again. Like a virgin, brand new, pure."
Cara Awill-Lyba, a clubgoer at the Pyramid, told NPR she played "Like a Virgin" at her own bachelorette party, precisely because it's an anthem about reinvention: "Which I think every woman should do whenever she feels like it." Or every man, suggested attendee Oscar de la Cruz: "Someday, when I get married, I will play 'Like a Virgin.' And I fantasize about wearing a white dress and rolling on the floor."
Understanding "Like a Virgin" as an anthem for bachelorettes makes sense to Karen Tongson, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies, among other things, karaoke. She sees bachelorettes singing "Like A Virgin" in clubs all the time.
"Bachelorettes never show up looking chaste," she observes. "They're wearing their sluttiest clothes – with a veil—and that's part of the fun. And then they get to writhe around with their gal pals."
According to the National Survey of Family Growth, the vast majority of today's brides are not virgins — in fact, only about 5 percent are. Tongson says that's exactly what makes the song meaningful for bachelorettes. "Fundamentally, it allows you the fantasy to revisit being a virgin and appreciating the joy of that feeling, even though you're someone with experience instead of innocence," she says.
Despite its provocative history, "Like a Virgin" wasn't conceived as a sexy song. Lyricist Billy Steinberg says he wrote it earnestly, having just ended a toxic relationship and embarked on a meaningful new one.
"It's quite a serious song, really," he reflects. "The general public tends to see it as just titillating, because Madonna was titillating. When I perform the song, I perform it as a ballad. The combination of Madonna's image and the title just pulled it, totally, into being this song that was sung almost with a wink. And the sincerity of the lyric got a little bit obscured."
But perhaps that's what makes it work: The arch sensuality of Madonna's interpretation wards off its baked-in sentimentality. During my conversation with Steinberg, I mentioned once seeing the novelist Isabel Allende say that we live in a world where "virgin is an insult."
"It's not," he said. "Not at all."
That amuses Madonna chronicler Matthew Rettenmund. "Because Madonna's the kind of cool chick who in school would consider virginity a negative, you know?" he says. "Oh, what are you — a virgin? Especially at that time, 1984, 1985, she had that vibe. And yet, she had that vulnerability to praise it and to be nostalgic about it."
If virgin positivity is a trait not exactly associated with Madonna, it didn't stop a nun known as Sister Cristina from singing "Like a Virgin" on TV, for the Italian version of the The Voice. In interviews, she has said the song functions for her as a sort of lay prayer.
"When she sings 'I didn't know how lost I was until I found you,' the 'you' she's referring to is God," explains Billy Steinberg, who says Sister Cristina's version is his favorite cover. "I think it's kind of nice that this song can even be reflected upon in that light."
In all its incarnations, "Like a Virgin" can be considered not only an anthem, but a hymn — which speaks not to the condition of the hymen, but the state of the human spirit.
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