Madonna is the most media-savvy American pop star since Bob Dylan
and the most consistently controversial one since Elvis Presley
. In the mids of her supporters, her sassy approach to dance music and in-your-face videos gave feminism a much-needed makeover throughout the '80's, smashing sexual boundaries, redefining the nature of eroticism, and challenging social and religious mores. To her detractors, she merely reinforced the notion of "woman as plaything," turning the clock back on conventional feminism two decades. One thing is rarely disputed: At nearly every turn, she has maintained firm control over her career and image.
Born in Bay City, Michigan, Madonna Ciccone was one of six children. Her mother died when Madonna was six, leaving her father, a Chrysler/General Dynamics engineer, to raise the family. She began studying dance at 14 and, after graduating from high school in 1976, continued her dance studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She moved to New York in 1978, where she studied briefly with the Alvin Ailey dance troupe.
Her first crack at pop music came when a boyfriend let her sing and play drums in his band, the Breakfast Club. While in the band, she landed a brief job as backup singer and dancer with disco star Patrick ("Born to Be Alive") Hernandez. In 1981 she quit the Breakfast Club and started writing songs with a former boyfriend from her college years, Steven Bray. The two gained attention in the trendy New York club Danceteria, where the DJ, Mark Kamins, played her tapes; it was Kamins who took Madonna's demo to Sire Records and produced her first club hit, 1982's "Everybody." After a 12-inch single, "Burning Up"/"Physical Attraction," hit #3 on the dance chart in early 1983, she began recording her first album with the high-profile DJ John "Jellybean" Benitez, with whom she became romantically involved. A few months later Sire released her self-titled debut, which peaked at #8. It spawned "Holiday," a single that crossed over from nightclubs to radio, eventually topping out at #16 on the pop chart by the following year.
Madonna enlisted manager Freddie DeMann, who had guided Michael Jackson
from the Jacksons' late-'70s slump through Thriller. DeMann soon had Madonna making history with a couple of titillating videos. In March 1984 "Borderline" (#10), with its video celebrating interracial love, was released; it was followed by "Lucky Star" (#4), whose video offered provocative glimpses of the star's navel. Public opinion was - and would remain - split. Most critics initially dismissed Madonna as a prefab disco prima donna offering style over substance; a few, however, saw something different and hailed her as a strong new female voice, BOY TOY belt and all. Madonna (#8, 1983) sold more than 5 million copies.
In late 1984 the Nile Rodgers-produced Like a Virgin (#1,1984), with its #1 title song, shot to the Top 10 upon its release; it eventually sold more than 10 million copies. Doubtless inspired by her indisputable videogenic presence, DeMann had negotiated movie deals for Madonna (before her stardom, she had already acted in the low-budget indie film A Certain Sacrifice
), landing her a small part as a nightclub singer in Vision Quest and the title role in Desperately Seeking Susan. Throughout 1985 Madonna was ubiquitous, appearing in both movies, with hit songs on three albums. By March, "Crazy for You" (#1), from the Vision Quest soundtrack, and "Material Girl" (#2), from Like a Virgin, were in the Top 5 simultaneously. Her other hits were Virgin's "Angel" (#5) and "Dress You Up" (#5), and the club smash "Into the Groove," from the Susan soundtrack. Her Virgin Tour was the hot ticket during the first half of the year.
Also in 1985 Madonna married actor Sean Penn
, with whom she appeared in the critical and commercial flop Shanghai Surprise (a film produced by ex-Beatle
George Harrison). Then she hit the pop world with a musical left hook: "Papa Don't Preach" (#1,1986). The initial single from the 7-million seller True Blue (#1, 1986) drew criticism for its message that young unwed women should keep their babies. As the lyrical content of Madonna's songs deepened, critical acceptance of her began to grow. Her subsequent 1986 hits were "True Blue" (#3) and "Open Your Heart" (#1), followed in 1987 by "La Isla Bonita" (#4). Another ill-advised acting venture, 1987's Who's That Girl, was tied into a #1, platinum album of the same name, which included the hit title song (#1) and "Causing a Commotion" (#2). In 1988 she appeared in David Mamet's Broadway production Speed the Plow. The next year she and Penn divorced.
She returned to music in 1989 with Like a Prayer (#1), and the title song's video - complete with burning crosses and an eroticized black Jesus - launched Madonna's biggest and costliest controversy thus far. Released in March, it was censured by the Vatican, and the public response prompted Pepsi-Cola to cancel the singers' lucrative endorsement deal. Despite that, "Like a Prayer" debuted at #1. The international controversy only raised the singer's profile. Like a Prayer spawned four other Top 20 hits: "Express Yourself" (#2), "Cherish" (#2), "Oh Father" (#20), and "Keep It Together" (#8).
Madonna hit her megastar stride in 1990, when she appeared as Breathless Mahoney with then-boyfriend Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy
; its soundtrack, I'm Breathless (#2, 1990), bore hits in "Hanky Panky" (#10) and the non-movie double-platinum single "Vogue" (#1), which honored and revived the popular gay dance craze. In 1991 she scored hits with "Rescue Me" (#9) and "Justify My Love" (#1); the video for the latter fanned the flames of controversy yet again with its explicit depiction of various forms of sexual expression. She then oversaw the film Truth or Dare, a documentary of her Blond Ambition Tour dressed up to look like D.A. Pennebaker's Dylan movie, Don't Look Back. Madonna also became one of the first pop stars to speak out about AIDS and help raise money for research.
The singer affirmed her business acumen in 1992 when she signed a seven-year, $60-million deal with Time Warner, guaranteeing release of all albums, films, and books under her Maverick production corporation. Her first Maverick project was a highly controversial 128-page coffee-table photo book, Sex, which had Madonna posing nude and wearing S&M gear. Sex was followed by the mostly panned erotic film thriller Body Of Evidence
and the album Erotica, which peaked at #2 and produced Top 5 hits in 1992; the title track (#3, 1992) and "Deeper and Deeper" (#7). "Bad Girl" (#36) and "Rain" (#14) were both Top 40 hits in 1993. By then, Maverick was releasing work by other artists, including hip-hop chanteuse Meshell Ndegeocello, and Madonna embarked on her worldwide Girlie Show Tour, which drew a mixed critical reaction. An appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman
returned Madonna to the headlines in spring 1994, when, using an abundance of profanities, she engaged in a verbal sparring match with the comedian. She also returned to the pop chart that year with the #2 single "I'll Remember," from the 1994 film With Honors. Her late-1994 album, Bedtime Stories (#3), presented a fairly traditional R&B sound and yielded the hit singles "Secret" (#4, 1994) and "Take A Bow" (#1, 1995). The title track (#42) was cowritten by Bjork. Madonna then released the compilation Something to Remember (#6, 1995), which gathered the singer's ballads with three new songs. She soon won the lead role in a filmversion of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita, a musical based on the life of Argentina's Evita Peron. Evita earned Madonna favorable reviews and spawned the hit singles "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" (#8) and "You Must Love Me" (#18).
Despite her chameleon inclinations, Madonna stayed consistently within the dance world during the '90s. Her only foray into rock came in a duet with brother-in-law Joe Henry on 1996's Sweet Relief II: Gravity of a Situation benefit album. She gave birth to daughter Lourdes in October 1996; the father was personal trainer Carlos Leon.
Madonna assumed an active role at the increasingly successful Maverick, personally approving every act signed, including the chart-topping Alanis Morissette. In 1998 Madonna released the soul-searching Ray of Light (#2, 1998), an album produced by William Orbit that explored the new sounds of drum and bass, trip-hop, and other forms of electronic dance music. It spawned the hit singles "Frozen" (#2), "Ray of Light" (#5), and "The Power of Good-Bye" (#11). Madonna then recorded a dance version of Don McLean's "American Pie" (#29, 2000), which also featured production by French dance artist Mirwais Ahmadzai. Aingles from Music included "Music" (#1, 2000) and "Don't Tell Me" (#4, 2000). She gave birth to a son, Rocco, in 2000, and in 2001 she married Rocco's father, British director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Snatch)
*This Bio is a work in progress*