Madonna changed teenage girls’ lives in 1984, and we never looked back.
On November 6 of that year, Sire Records released “Like A Virgin,” a racy pumping ode to love, romance and sex. Madonna using the word “virgin” in a song title in the uptight Reagan era was savvy brilliance on her part, setting the stage for her sexually-charged brand for decades.
The word itself sent off tingles in many a teenagers’ fantasies. If we hadn’t lost our virginity, we wanted to, and if we had, we wanted some romantic figure to make sex seem shiny and new. Parents cringed.
Produced by the genius Nile Rodgers, “Like A Virgin” became Madonna’s first number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100, while reaching the top of the charts in Australia, Canada, and Japan and the top-ten of other countries. Madonna didn’t write the song, which remained at number one in the United States for six weeks, but it ignited her career globally.
Madonna first appeared on my radar a year earlier when her “Burning Up” video played every morning on MTV while I primped for junior high. In a short white dress, Madonna writhed around on a highway telling some guy how she was burning up for his desire. Of course, I identified in my teenage mind, because, after all, there was that cute guy who was a year older than me that I totally liked. (Later, my best friend stole him away from me, but that’s another story.)
But it was “Like A Virgin” that made the entire country suddenly notice Madonna. Who talked about such things as virginity, especially where I lived in the conservative South? No one. She appeared singing the song while gyrating on the floor in a wedding dress and a Boy Toy belt buckle at the MTV Music Awards a couple of months earlier. After that, we wanted more and more Madonna. I bought the 45 of “Like A Virgin” at The Joker, a record shop in Russellville, Arkansas, and played it relentlessly.
Then there was the video with Madonna dancing in a gondola on Venice rivers and roaming through a palace in a white wedding dress with a man in a lion’s mask popping up as surreal eye candy. It was erotic and romantic simultaneously, and scholars have since noted that the video portrayed Madonna as a sexually independent woman. And that’s what most teenage girls wanted to be. We wanted to take our crushes and make mad passionate love to them even though we didn’t know the first thing about any of that.
In my high school universe, Madonna was queen.
My friends, Nell and Sheree, and myself idolized Madonna, and we wrapped our arms in rubber O-ring bracelets and wore neon leggings with the obligatory crucifix around our necks. Sheree, a natural blond, took the Material Girl obsession a bit further, wearing cut-off lace gloves with her lacy tops and headbands and black tights. She loved Madonna more than anyone I knew, and she didn’t care if anyone laughed at her in her Madonna-inspired fashion.
Conservative Christian groups were offended by the song and video because they promoted sex without marriage, undermined family values and used Christian symbolism with sexual images. That only made us support Madonna more.
Madonna taught Gen X girls that we didn’t have to play innocent and obey the rules in fashion, love or careers. She taught us to embrace our lives, especially our sexuality, with confidence – something that high school counselors never dared to mention. And that’s what most of us who worshipped at the Madonna Shrine have done.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt”, “1000 Best Bartender’s Recipes” and the upcoming novel, Echo Ellis: Adventures of a Girl Reporter. She writes frequently for The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist and numerous other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker.