Home » Madonna and Her Rise to Fame in the 1980s

Madonna and Her Rise to Fame in the 1980s

by Les Hewitt

Music is very much a personal choice. While certain people will tend towards a particular style or fashion, there are a few artists that can, and do, try to cater for more than one taste. Perhaps the best known of these artists would be David Bowie. But he was by no means alone. If the 1960s belonged to the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, then the 1980s must surely have belonged to the phenomenon that would be Madonna Veronica Louise Ciccone.

madonna 1983

A polaroid picture of Madonna taken in 1983. Image Credit: Richard Corman

Madonna in the 1970s

As the 1970s drew to a close, the teenage Madonna took a cab in New York and simply asked the driver to take her to the middle of everything. Using his own perceptions, the driver took his customer to Times Square and dropped her off there. No sooner had she arrived with a mere £35 on her, she auditioned for, and won, a scholarship in the Alvin Alley American Dance Theatre. It didn’t take her that long to study the famed Martha Graham technique. Her commitment to dance professionally was a strong one, but the get-up-and-go within her meant that any opportunity would have to be made and not waited upon. For this reason, the chance to sing and dance for a French singer’s international tour was one not to be missed.


Madonna in New York City during the spring of 1979. She has recently moved to New York City to study dance at the Alvin Alley American Dance Theatre. (Photo by Michael McDonnell/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Beginning of Her Music Career

After six months, New York proved once again to be a huge influence on the aspiring performer. Having had a taste of both music and dance, Madonna made the decision to combine her talent for dance for her desire for music. Madonna furthered her education by visiting numerous dance clubs on a regular basis. Madonna quickly realised that she had to get herself noticed somehow. When she recorded a demo tape, she managed to talk a local club DJ into playing one of the songs from the tape. At a local venue called Danceteria, the DJ, clubbers and even a record executive that happened to be there were all impressed by the song called ‘Everybody’. Madonna signed a recording contract on that very night. Over the course of the next few months, several songs from her debut album were released to the pleasure of early 80s clubbers.


Madonna acting silly in 1981.

Not content with this moderate success, Madonna wanted more. Refusing to rest on her laurels, a new single was set to be released but this one, called ‘Borderline’, was going to be different. A promo video was shot and proved to be something of a watershed moment in the career of the driven young woman. In her own words, this video broke the mould that was generally believed to have been in place. Madonna firmly believed that she was considered to be typecast as a would-be soul artist that was just one of many struggling for recognition. When the video was released and broadcast on MTV, few were apparently prepared to see this beautiful Italian American woman cavorting around in front of the camera lens. As far as America was concerned, Madonna had firmly announced her arrival.


A 1984 photo of Madonna relaxing in a hotel.

Europe was another market to be reckoned with. An appearance on BBC’s Top of the Pops during the summer of 1984 did help. John Benitez, known simply as Jellybean, offered her a song which she accepted. A fusion of her chorographical talents, distinctive look and voice, coupled with the infectious appeal of ‘Holiday’ made the whole of Europe start to take notice of her. It would take a tad less than six more months and the worldwide success of the Like a Virgin LP that established the Michigan native that she was the megastar that she’d always dreamed of being. It wasn’t just American women that wanted to be her, American men that wanted to be with her; Europeans were starting to jump on this bandwagon as well. Even this phenomenal success was just the beginning.

Madonna Movies

Music was just a means to an end. The newly crowned Queen of pop turned her focus towards films. Having already had a couple of bit part roles in a soft-core B-movie called ‘A Certain Sacrifice’, made long before she hit the big time, and a cameo role as a nightclub singer in the film ‘Vision Quest’. Neither of these roles could scratch that metaphorical itch though. Acting was just another step in the self-entitled plan to rule the world. Madonna saw this chance when offered the title role in a comedy drama called ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ alongside another up and coming star, Rosanna Arquette. The film did considerably well at the box office, no doubt purely because of its star. Buoyed by this success, Madonna probably had a slew of offers for new roles. It was said that she was first choice for the role of Barbara Stone in ‘Ruthless People’ – a role that later went to Bette Midler.


Madonna starred in 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan

Her next big screen role was Gloria Tatlock in the universally panned ‘Shanghai Surprise’ with then husband, Sean Penn. This was the only Madonna and Sean Penn movie the couple would make together. The filming was a difficult process due mainly to the Paparazzi that constantly followed Madonna around. Whether on location in Shanghai or in a London East End studio. Both Madonna and George Harrison, whose Handmade Films production company was making the film, held a press conference in order to complete filming. When the finished film was released, reviewed and bombed at the box office, both its star and producer blamed each other for the failure.

The following year, in 1987, Madonna starred in a screwball comedy called ‘Who’s that Girl?’ Even with the cameo of a talent like Sir John Mills, it proved to be another flop. Many of the critics considered Madonna’s use of an accent she picked up in and around the Bronx district as ammunition against her and the film itself. After bursting onto the music scene in the style that she did, it did seem as though Madonna was simply not able to do wrong. Her fledgling film career threatened to become the first chink in Madonna’s armor. Madonna never made a secret of her desire to become a multi-talented artist in more than one manner. Perhaps the choice of roles that she opted for in the latter part of the 1980s made things easier for critics. With the exception of ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’, much of her work on the silver screen proved more of a setback than anything she had done in her career to that point. Perhaps a wiser Madonna took on board some of the comments aimed at her as the 1990s wore on. Critics were more pleased with her acting roles in the likes of ‘Dick Tracy‘ – which won the Oscar for Best Song, ‘A League of their Own‘ and her Golden Globe winning performance as Eva Peron in ‘Evita‘.

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Madonna and Sean Penn in Shanghai Surprise (1986).

By far Madonna’s best year was her breakout year of 1985. Being well on her way to achieving her dream of controlling the world, every moment of virtually every day was as hectic as anyone would expect a schedule to be. Basing her musical career on a simple and basic look that heavily promoted her obvious sex appeal, Madonna’s legion of female fans finally had someone they could look up to and be inspired by. Her fans were dubbed in the press as ‘Wannabes’ and seeing then on the streets of the 1980s America and beyond was not unusual. Retail outlets started to sell scores of cheap, plastic jewellery, crucifixes, bangles and torn, figure hugging outfits that left little to the imagination. In the then male dominated music scene, Madonna turned into something of a spokeswoman for a generation. It can be argued that she was the right woman in the right place at the right time. As hard as she worked during that year and as busy things got for her, Madonna still found the time to appear in the American leg of Live Aid, conduct a nationwide tour and get married.

Madonna and Sean Penn

On her 27th birthday, Sean Penn became both the most fortunate and despised man in the whole world when he and Madonna got married in a cliff-top ceremony in Malibu. The bride’s wedding dress was the very same one that was famously worn at the debut performance of Like a Virgin at the MTV Awards show in 1984. Steps were made by the couple of keep as much about the wedding day a secret from the press. Invited guests were sworn to secrecy but even with these precautions, some intrepid media personnel managed to find out at least some details about the wedding plans.


Madonna and Sean Penn were married in 1985. Image: RPA.

The marriage lasted for a little over two years before Madonna was granted an annulment. During their two years together, stories would often reach the press about the volatile time that they shared. It is true that the pair were seen arguing in public on a regular basis. What may not be true is the apparent violence that took place behind closed doors. Reports in gossip columns have claimed that Madonna was often tied to a dining chair or beaten about her head with a baseball bat. Madonna and Sean divorced in January 1989 citing irreconcilable differences. Years after the divorce, Sean did admit that he spent the majority of the marriage suffering from alcoholism.

Madonna can be called many things. Some of these are accurate and some are not. One thing that Madonna is and has thrived on is her ability to shock and surprise. Controversy and Madonna are often never too far from one another. Many of these controversial moments took place in the 1990s and beyond, there were some notable moments that played a part in shaping both the 1980s and the Material Girl herself. In addition to her initial impact on 1980s culture and first marriage, two times Madonna put someone’s nose out of joint helped to keep her in the news while establishing herself in the eyes of anyone whether they would listen or not. Madonna took the old axiom of ‘talk good about me or bad about me, but talk about me’ and ran with it headlong all the way into the 2010s.

Controversy Over True Blue Album

In 1986 the entire world seemed to hold its breath in anticipation of the new Madonna album. The world was not going to be disappointed. For the most part it was something of a departure from Like a Virgin but not so much as to spark intense debate about the subject matter of one song in particular. ‘Papa don’t Preach’ became one of the most hotly discussed topics of the entire year. Originally written by songwriter Brian Elliot, he described it as a love song with a difference. Madonna discovered it, included it on the new album (True Blue) and had a huge number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Almost immediately anyone with a voice used it to either denigrate the song and its artist or commend the issue for being brought to mainstream attention. In the song and accompanying video, Madonna played a teenage tomboy that discovered that she was pregnant. Gone were the crucifixes and the remainder of last year’s look and in came basic jeans and a slogan t-shirt that read simply: Italians do it better. Various Right to Life groups and organizations were quick to participate in the fallout, as were those with contrary opinions on the matter. At the time of its release, feminist attorney Gloria Alfred was the most vociferous campaigner against the message the song seemed to promote. Alfred was very much concerned that the precedent that was being set might end up as some form of religion or code of conduct. Elliot chose to remain neutral during all of this. Madonna likely sat back and allowed the debate to rage on and on, solidifying her place as something of a spokeswoman for a generation.

madonna papa don't preach

Madonna wearing the “Italians Do It Better” shirt.

If Papa don’t Preach sparked debate, then what was to follow just three years on almost seemed like an act of war. Throughout the late 80s, Coca Cola and Pepsi were bitter rivals in the so-called cola wars. For generations, Coca Cola was seen as the premier soft drink, but Pepsi hit back with advertising campaigns that featured stars such as Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and, in 1989, Madonna was added to that illustrious list.

Like a Prayer Video Controversy

In another change of musical direction, Madonna released Like a Prayer album. Heavily reliant on gospel music, it was chosen as the new collaboration with Pepsico. Pepsi’s version of the song saw Madonna relaxing in a chair while watching home videos of herself as a child. The promo would end with Madonna dancing in a school corridor with several children of about the same age as she was depicted in the home movie. Finally Madonna would be seen back in the chair holding an open can. However, at no point did she actually take a sip. The real video for Like a Prayer caused such an uproar that even Middle Eastern religious sects got involved.

madonna like a prayer

Image still of Madonna’s 1989 video “Like a Prayer”.

In this video, Madonna went back to her Catholic roots and used her nous for creating controversy and causing offense to obvious push as many buttons as she was able to get away with. The furore from this video put Papa Don’t Preach to shame, featuring such aspects as White Supremacists, a graphic stabbing of a lone woman and subsequent arrest of an African American for the crime by would some might see as prejudice police officers. On top of all of that, add in some burning crosses, Madonna kissing the feet of a black statue of Jesus, which then come to life and walked out of the church and a stigmata scene. Its little wonder that Pepsi cancelled Madonna’s advertising contract and the Vatican denounced the video too. The original Pepsi advert was only ever broadcast on television once, but is now available to view on YouTube.

madonna lollipop

The end of the 1980s did not see an end to the rise and rise of Madonna. Far from it. Taking the things she learned during the 80s, she expanded on them and caused more sensations in the decade that followed. In ten years from her humble 1981 beginnings, Madonna went onto becoming much more than a mere singer or dancer. She became a world class artist recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest selling female artist of all time. Madonna became a business woman of some pedigree. And best of all, she fulfilled her dreams of ruling he world.

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