Thirty years ago, before the Internet, Madonna scandalized society with her brash underwear, explicit sexuality, and the song “Like a Virgin.” Madonna’s clothing, performances, and music videos had a huge cultural and social impact on fashion, music and the emerging Internet of its era—the edgy counter-culture youth driven cable television network known as MTV.
Madonna’s 1984 title track, “Like a Virgin”, topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six consecutive weeks. It was criticized for promoting premarital sex and undermining family values, and there were efforts to ban the song and the accompanying video.
In July 1985, Penthouse and Playboy published several nude photos of Madonna taken in New York in 1978. Desperate for money, Madonna posed for as little as $25 a session. Their publication caused a media backlash and social criticism, but Madonna remained defiant and unapologetic. Madonna later appeared on the cover of the NY Post saying about the photographs “I’m NOT ashamed.”
Then there was Madonna’s 1992 book that was simply entitled Sex. It was shrink-wrapped and could not be previewed, and was filled with sexually provocative and explicit images. While the book was strongly criticized, it sold 1.5 million copies at $50 each in a matter of days.
Finally, in September 1993, Madonna embarked on The Girlie Show World Tour, in which she dressed as a whip-cracking dominatrix surrounded by topless dancers. Once again the show faced strong negative reaction. In March 1994, Madonna appeared as a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman, using profanity that had to be censored and handing Letterman a pair of her underwear and asking him to smell it.
Madonna’s sexually explicit films, music and books, combined with her unabashed appearance on Letterman, led some to conclude that Madonna was so far outside the mainstream that her career and her legacy were effectively over.
They were wrong.