Nobody quite embodies the 1980s like the ‘Material Girl’ from Detroit, Madonna Louise Ciccone.
Ciccone enjoyed a comfortable suburban middle-class upbringing (her father, Tony, was a scientist employed in Detroit’s car industry), although with five siblings to compete with and the loss of her mother when she was just five meant little “Nonnie” soon learned how to get attention, starting with her father – Simultaneously defying and dazzling him, she insisted on dance classes rather than piano lessons, all the while achieving straight As at school.
Moving to New York aged 20, she spent years on friends couches, in squats and in empty music studios. Her father begged her to return to Michigan. “Let me do it my way”, she responded. She lived on her wits, boyfriends’ money, dead-end jobs and a subsistence diet of popcorn (although the later stories of ransacking garbage for food were exaggerated).
At one New York party, Madonna met the man who would be the catalyst for her career. Soon she was sharing Dan Gilroy’s room in a disused synagogue, his bed and his band, The Breakfast Club. Under his tuition, she started playing the drums and was soon writing songs and insisting on coming forward from the drumkit.
Throughout the 1980s Madonna showed herself to be a supreme manipulator of style and her own image – eventually earning more money in that decade than any other female pop artist, and appearing in the same year in both a nude pictorial in Penthouse magazine and on the cover of Time magazine.
One of her first hits was the provocative song Like A Virgin (1984). The accompanying video was a self-conscious and calculatedly sexy cocktail with Madonna’s ‘coy’ lace undies and navel display set against the faux naivety of the lyrics and the symbolism of the crucifix.
That was followed by a string of successes that she promoted with a knowing, ironic and erotic image. When it was discovered that she had starred in a low-budget soft porn film, A Certain Sacrifice, in 1979 her record sales actually rose!
Madonna was one of the few performers in the 1980s who possessed a talent for popularising underground trends just before they hit the mainstream.
In the mid-1980s she broadened her scope and appeared in a number of films, including Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) and Dick Tracy (1990). Her movies were slammed by critics and her videos were slammed by the Vatican but she didn’t care.
She made statements that were slammed by everybody and she still didn’t care. No other pop star (except perhaps Prince) was as self-possessed as Madonna. After all, the Eighties was the decade of Self.
In 1990, inspired by the way men were dancing at the gay clubs she frequented, Madonna wrote some lyrics that connected the act of striking a pose to classic Hollywood glamour. Producer Shep Pettibone, who’d remixed some of the pop star’s earlier singles, whipped up a booming disco beat and synth bass, then later mixed in syncopated stabs of house piano after Madonna had recorded her vocals in a Manhattan basement. Vogue was born.
The message behind her pop videos, songs and a book of sex photographs (1992) seemed to be that women should exploit their sexuality – Feminists were divided on whether to support or condemn her for using her body to promote her career, but it was Madonna’s business acumen and marketing prowess that made her an icon of the 1980s and 1990s.
But there is more to Madonna than meets the groin. She has certainly lived up to her name, by acting like a real Prima Donna.
Her marriage to Sean Penn was kept a strictly private affair to which only the brides closest 5000 friends were invited. Security was so tight that only 10,000 members of the press were allowed in.
The tabloids dubbed the couple ‘The Poison Penns’ after Penn nearly strangled a member of the paparazzi and ran over the foot of a Sun photographer.
By December the following year, the material girl had filed for divorce. She changed her mind, filed again in January 1988 and then changed her mind again. Third time lucky, she finally served Penn with the papers (while dropping the assault charges she had taken out against him).
Madonna married her second husband, British filmmaker Guy Ritchie, at Skibo Castle on 22 December 2000. They divorced in 2008.
Madonna is a distant relation of both Celine Dion and Camilla Parker Bowles. Both Dion and Madonna trace their lineage back to Zachary Cloutier, who died in 1708.