From ‘Lucky Star’ to queen of pop: Madonna’s influential 40 years

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

Madonna’s self-titled debut album paved the way for women in pop, says Jacqueline Warwick, professor of musicology and gender studies at Dalhousie University. Credit: YouTube.

Madonna’s debut self-titled album — filled with hits like “Lucky Star,” “Holiday,” and “Borderline” — turned 40 years old last week. It catapulted her from a downtown club kid to a superstar. 

The album dropped during a pop culture era dominated by rock, where bands like Van Halen and Def Leppard were on heavy rotation. But Madonna’s music brought an exciting new sound to the scene, says Jacqueline Warwick, professor of musicology and gender studies at Dalhousie University.

“You didn't automatically want to admit you were a Madonna fan, but you secretly listened to all the songs and made up your own dance moves. It became part of that adolescent girl culture very quickly,” Warwick says. 

Madonna created her own subversive image in the1980s, featuring black plastic bracelets, sparkly jewelry, fingerless gloves, fishnets — “things that weren't supposed to go together.”

“She really was making it up herself. And I think it's really relevant that she came out of the club scene, that she was training as a dancer, not a musician, and really became a minor celebrity or a personality … in the dance music scene before she really started to write music in a serious way.”

As a kid from suburban Detroit, she famously came to New York in the late 1970s with very little money in her pocket, using her sheer determination to make it to the top, Warwick says. 

“I think her confidence in herself, self-assuredness was unusual at the time, maybe still [is] for a girl, right? We're not used to hearing girls say, ‘One day I'm going to be the biggest pop star in the world’ and owning that, right? And it was a fairly revolutionary and exciting thing to see a young woman doing that.”

In 1984, Madonna performed “Holiday” and was interviewed by Dick Clark on “American Bandstand.” Following a standing ovation from the crowd, she asserted she would one day “rule the world.” The singer was 25 at the time.  

“Obviously she's doing it kind of tongue in cheek. She has this charisma that allows her to get away with that. … But at the same time, it's thrilling to hear a young woman believing in herself to that extent, and at the time, it really was quite startling.”

Adding to her success were her music videos, which became a mainstay on MTV.  Her background as a dancer — including her sense of rhythm and performer instincts — translated well to that medium. 

“With the beginnings of MTV, suddenly the visual became much more important, and she knew how to work with that. She had incredible instincts for style, for what's new, for what's cutting-edge, and pushing the line of what's mainstream pop and what isn't. She was doing that from the very beginning.”

Still, the music icon has been accused of appropriating other people’s work, including the queer ballroom scene during the 1990s. Warwick points out that other artists, such as The Beatles, have arguably repackaged unoriginal work too. 

“There's so much in the pop world that is borrowing and exploiting and repurposing. … It seems hard to single out one or two artists and say, ‘These guys are the worst at doing this,’ when in fact, everybody's doing it. But at the same time, I do take the point that a lot of people think she invented the dance moves in ‘Vogue,’ for example. And that's not true. It’s hard to see her getting credit for something like that.”

Upon its release, the debut album was sneered at by some “older boys,” and considered gimmicky and without staying power, Warwick says. In retrospect, she says it’s vindicating to see how widely loved Madonna is 40 years later.

“She's just this icon in music that no pop … stars working today don't owe a debt to her,” Warwick says. “I think about the association of an artist like Madonna, and pop in general, with girls and the ease with which girls' tastes and preferences are despised and belittled.”

She adds, “It's nice to see this album turn 40 in the same summer that the ‘Barbie’ movie is coming out and this moment of really rethinking what girl culture is and how girls participate in pop culture.”