One of the most visible performers of both the 20th and 21st centuries, Madonna burst onto the scene 40 years ago. Her self-titled debut album came packed with hit singles, and her early videos demonstrated the flair for fashion and showmanship that would make her a cultural icon. With her upcoming Celebration tour set to commemorate her four decades in the business, let’s take a look at some of the milestones that make Madonna matter.
According to Madonna herself via various interviews, including one collected in Matthew Rettenmund’s Encyclopedia Madonnica, she dropped out of college and moved to New York City to try to make it in entertainment. The amount of money she had when she arrived? $35. Studying with the likes of choreographer Martha Graham and working with assorted dance groups, Madonna eventually found work as a back-up dancer for other acts.
Prior to her solo success, Madonna belonged to two different bands. In Breakfast Club (which preceded the film), she played guitar and drums in addition to singing. In 1980, Madonna left and formed Emmy & the Emmys, but decided to go solo later that year. Breakfast Club would eventually crack the U.S. Top Ten one time with the song “Right on Track.” A documentary about Madonna’s involvement with the group, Madonna and the Breakfast Club, was released in 2019.
Madonna made the club circuit, convincing DJs to play her demo tracks. She signed with Gotham Records in 1981, but DJ Mark Kamins got her in the room with the legendary Seymour Stein of Sire Records (a Warner Bros. subsidiary). Stein, who had signed future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers like The Pretenders, Talking Heads, The Cure, and The Ramones, signed her three singles with the potential for an album.
Five Hit Singles
The decision to make the complete album was assured almost immediately. “Everybody” and “Burning Up” each rocketed to #3 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Songs Chart. Ultimately teaming up with producer John “Jellybean” Benitez, Madonna recorded Madonna. With frequent TV appearances, daring fashion, and eye-catching videos, Madonna blew up in 1983. “Holiday” went to #16, “Lucky Star” hit #4, and both went #1 on the Dance chart. She became one of the faces of MTV as the cable channel continued to grow across the country from its small August 1981 rollout. Her final single from Madonna, “Borderline,” reached #10 in 1984.
Number Eight and Beyond
Madonna peaked at #8 on the Album Chart and was certified for sales of 5 million copies in the States and 10 million worldwide. Rolling Stone has twice counted it in their 100 Best Debut Albums of All Time list and has it at #50 on their 100 Best Albums of the Eighties. And just to add another superlative, 1984 saw the release of the Madonna video compilation. The VHS tape featured videos for “Burning Up,” “Lucky Star,” and “Borderline” along with the title song of her second album, “Like A Virgin.” The tape sold more than a million copies and was the best-selling videocassette in America in 1985.
94 and More
As of this writing, Madonna has dropped 94 singles, an additional 24 promotional singles (which are released free to promote albums, etc.), one Christmas song (her 1987 take on “Santa Baby” from A Very Special Christmas), and has charted with 22 other tunes outside the U.S. With more than 100 million singles sold worldwide, she sits behind only The Beatles in chart success. She’s the woman with the most Top Tens (a whopping 63) and the most songs to hit #2 (12). Madonna is the best-selling female artist in the U.K. and the biggest singles artist in Germany, period. Between 1982 and 2003, there was at least one Madonna single on the chart every single year. The 2004 gap is likely attributable to the fact that during 2003 and 2004 she was doing things like writing her first best-selling children’s book (The English Roses), suing Warner for millions in mismanaged funds, and conducting her 2004 Re-Invention World Tour, the highest-grossing tour of that year. She returned to the charts in 2005.
Infinity and Beyond
Madonna was scheduled to launch a greatest hits tour, The Celebration Tour, commemorating her 40 years in music, in July. However, she postponed the launch in the wake of a severe bacterial infection that left her hospitalized for several days. The tour will now kick off in Europe in October before coming back to the States in December. According to Billboard, more than one million tickets have already been sold.
Of course, there’s so much more to Madonna than the first record and the astonishing numbers that her career has generated. She has been one of the masters of the music video form, deploying it with incredible effectiveness. Even though she has stretched her boundaries as an artist, she’s always kept one foot squarely in the dance music world that brought her fame. By embracing a role as provocateur, she forced many conversations about sexuality and stood out as an advocate for the gay community. She inspired countless female artists and became a blueprint for them in the business by founding her own label, Maverick. Acts as diverse as Shania Twain, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift have built on various aspects of Madonna’s example to forge global success. And, unsurprisingly, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though her forthcoming tour may be something of a victory lap, Madonna’s predilection for constant reinvention should remind us that she’s never too far from shocking us with something new.
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