Lucky Star: Madonna’s Debut at 40

Inside the Material Girl’s infectious first LP

Madonna 1983 publicity photo (Image: eBay)

To paraphrase a well-known proverb, the greatest trick Madonna ever pulled was convincing the world that she exists. 

Oh sure, Madonna Louise Ciccone was born in 1958 in Bay City, Michigan – about two hours north of Detroit, which claims her as its own – but Madonna didn’t come to be until the 20-year-old willed her into existence after escaping the Great Lakes State to create one of the most fascinating personae the pop music world had ever seen. 

The single-named Madonna took inspiration at every stop she made on her circuitous journey around the music world, honing her moves as a backing dancer for “Born to Be Alive” one hit wonder Patrick Hernandez and exploring a dark side in a romantic (and sometimes musical) relationship with Michael Gira, who’d go on to form Swans and record such anthems as “I Crawled” and “Raping a Slave.” But while she added bits and pieces to her palette with the ease she’d later add accessories to her hair and limbs, she never lost her core – which was equal parts ambition and a native intuition for what makes a great pop song. 

Check that – the lesson she learned, and went on to impart to hundreds of imitators, was what makes a great dance-pop song. In 1982, that was still relatively untilled ground, so when Madonna started digging into it, the territory was plenty fertile. And she worked it masterfully when crafting her initial demos, which included an embryonic version of “Everybody,” which she got a chance to play for Sire Records majordomo Seymour Stein as he was lying in a Manhattan hospital bed. 

Stein remembered the encounter during a 2013 interview with WNYC radio host John Schaefer, saying  “I could tell right away, she couldn’t have cared if I was laying in the bed in a coffin, as long as I could sign a contract. She was as anxious to see me and get herself started as I was to see her. That was very, very impressive to me.” 

Even though the song, bouncy and sweet, didn’t bear any of the earmarks of the future Madonna, Stein saw the kernel of that larger-than-life character deep inside. He told Schaefer “When I met her in the hospital room, that I knew that young woman would be the Madonna that she became. And of course I didn’t. I knew she was great. I knew that she had drive and great talent. But it was ‘Borderline,’ that song, the fourth single, that I knew there was no looking back. Just clear the decks.” 


VIDEO: Madonna “Borderline”

Madonna was still singing to track in places like Danceteria, where she was sharing the stage with underground legends like John Sex. But Stein, who had to fend off objections from fellow execs like Mo Ostin, still found a way to get her a contract, albeit one that only gave her $5,000 up front. Proving she knew the ropes even at her first rodeo, she took the pittance but demanded a higher than usual royalty rate and a guarantee of a rare degree of control for a new act. 

She made the most of that in recording her self-titled debut album, which launched with something of a whimper, but ended up changing the face of the pop charts and all-but-single-handedly creating the genre that came to be known as dance-pop. Madonna bowed at number-190 in its first week of release, but moved inexorably onward, ultimately going multi-platinum and shaping the still-new medium of MTV in her image. 

Unlike many female singers of her era, however, that image was completely self-generated – she was the pop version of Robert Fripp’s “Small Mobile intelligent Unit,” only in fishnets. She seized control of the music on Madonna just as quickly, writing or co-writing five of its eight songs and frequently clashing with Reggie Lucas, the former Miles Davis sideman who produced the bulk of the set. The 25-year-old novice’s songs proved to be the most compelling and immediate songs on the release, starting with “Holiday,” a shimmery slice of sunshine that leans heavily on the very of-the-time, but irresistible synth washes of John “Jellybean” Benitez, as well as some cowbell played by the singer herself. 

Her vocals, pushed well to the fore, however, are the real calling card here. Largely delivered in a higher register that less-charitable observers compared to Minnie Mouse, they made every line, every phrase relatable. The dance music scene was long on performers who could reach out and touch New Yorkers familiar with poppers and sweaty, shirtless after-hours dancefloors. But it was short on entertainers who could bridge the gap and connect with the kid dancing in a gym or rec room in Omaha. Madonna managed that with just about every song on the album, especially “Burnin’ Up,” the most guitar-driventrack, and the one best suited to blasting out of a Camaro at high speed.


VIDEO: Madonna “Lucky Star”

Things didn’t really take off until the release of the fourth single, “Lucky Star.” Ironically, one of the most innocent sounding of the eight tracks, it garnered attention because Madonna finally learned to work the camera, gyrating – albeit in a hard PG-13 fashion – in front of a white screen in the video’s opening shot. As her choreographer/dancer brother Christopher looked on from behind, no less. How important was that look? 

So much so that in 1985, Macy’s department store in New York – which dedicated an entire floor to the singer called “Madonnaland” — held a lookalike contest judged by Andy Warhol, himself a Madonna fan. 

Interestingly, in a 1983 interview with Record Mirror, she dismissed the sex-sells notion, insisting “I look good on stage, very good. But I don’t wear costumes that I’m going to fall out of. That would be rather cheap.” 

She doubled down on that notion in a concurrent interview with Flexipop, in which she said, “I think it’s really important to exude sexuality on stage, but I don’t think I have to entice men. I don’t think people have to be aroused sexually by what you wear. I get over that by way of being sexy just by the way I sing and move on stage. The way we dress is sort of playful-innocent: Bermuda shorts, ankle socks and shoes, crazy hats. I don’t wanna wear something that I’m going to fall out of.” 

There’s no denying the sexuality that wafts from Madoona’s grooves, though. While not nearly as explicit as she’d get just a few years later, she showed her come-hither side very enticingly on pelvis-directed tracks like “Physical Attraction” (one of Lucas’s writing contributions) and “Burnin’ Up.” 

But she was after more than just a one-on-one connection with these songs. With “Everybody,” the first song she presented to the hospitalized Stein, she all but demanded the world join the party she was throwing, a message that took on a deeper meaning in the gay clubs of New York, which embraced her early on. In those grooves, she and producer Mark Kamins (a Danceteria staple) conjured a hypnotic, embracing vibe – one that could last for ages when tweaked on the dancefloor. It became an anthem, a defiant call to arms of sorts, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when the outside world was largely unaware of the tragedy to come. 

The album isn’t entirely free of clunkers, of course: “I Know It,” tucked away at the end of the original vinyl version’s first side, is agreeable enough, but Madonna unwisely dips into her lower register, adding a downbeat top note to a song that’s already a little too melancholy for its own good. “Think of Me,” on the other hand, suffers because the budding star relegates herself to the background, ceding the spotlight to an array of synths and saxes. 

But even though some off the instrumentation – Linndrums, ARP synths – mark the album as an album very much of its time, the spirit and rhythms remain timeless.

Madonna Madonna, Sire Records 1983

I’ll admit it, I’ve held a low-grade grudge against Madonna for over 35 years. The woman made my life hell when I lived on what most people would call one of the worst blocks of the East Village back in the summer of 1984– largely because our little “brownstone” was the only standing structure on our side of the block. 

That made it the perfect place for the budding superstar to seek “earthy” atmosphere for some of the most voyeuristic scenes in Madonna’s first big-screen star turn, Desperately Seeking Susan, which did a fair bit of filming of our rubble from a few hundred yards away.  That might’ve been a nice diversion, other than the fact that Madge – okay, it was production assistants, but it’s easier to have a scapegoat with a name – kept me from getting to my home for days on end during a horrible heat wave. 

How? Well, as soon as I approached my corner, a NYC cop would stop me and inform me I was allowed no further, even when I pleaded the case that my home was (gestures forward) right there. Every time, the officer would insist on escorting me to our stoop and watch as I put my key in the door before shaking his head and muttering. 

So that, in many ways, was the atmosphere that birthed Madonna. For all its sheen and gloss, there’s a layer of grit and reality – the key to why it matters as much in 2023 as in 1983. 













Deborah Sprague

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Deborah Sprague

Deborah Sprague is a former editor of Creem magazine and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such outlets as Variety, Billboard, Rolling Stone, New York Daily News and Newsday. She’s contributed to books including Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, Kill Your Idols and Carpenters: The Musical Legacy. She lives in Queens, New York with her partner.

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