“LIKE A VIRGIN” upset a lot of repressed conservatives who were hasty in labeling Queen Madge a profligate sex raptor for her on-screen gyrating and re-appropriation of Catholic imagery. In retrospect, this is pretty funny. Aside from the implication in the chorus that Madonna wasn’t actually a virgin—she only felt like one—there isn’t necessarily any heretical content in “Like a Virgin” at all. It’s ultimately a sweet, peppy (i.e., not particularly sexy) song about Madonna finding someone who altered her perception of love, or who maybe restored some degree of innocence to her life that she assumed was permanently gone. This is poetry! She’s not literally singing about sex.
Which isn’t to say Madonna never literally sang about sex. In loose, ascending order of sexiness, here are five Madonna songs much sexier than “Like a Virgin,” compiled by someone who is hardly an authority on the topic.
5. “S.E.X.”[from Rebel Heart (Deluxe Edition), 2015]—Although this is probably the deep cut to end all deep cuts (it’s an outtake available only on the deluxe edition of Rebel Heart, Madonna’s otherwise totally passable new album), it would be irresponsible not to at least mention it. Characterized by a mechanized, stock mod-pop beat, “S.E.X.” is a song that straddles a delicate line between articulating the intensity of its namesake and reading like weird fan-fiction. “Wanna put my hands around your neck/Gonna take you to a place that you will not forget” is the Pop Empress at her most subtly sensual. And then lines like, “Oh my God, let me clean your wound/I can be your nurse” make it pretty clear why this was a B-side.
4) “Take a Bow” [from Bedtime Stories, 1994]—On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is “Take a Bow,” one of Maddie’s premier “sad-sexy” ballads. In it, Madonna levels a series of theater-related kiss-offs at a soon-to-be ex-lover who didn’t really care: His masquerade is getting old, he recites his lines without feeling them—but he deserves an award for the role he played. The breakup theme is belied by one of Madonna’s most impassioned performances, warranting the song’s inclusion on this list despite any explicit mention of intimacy.
3. “Erotica” [from Erotica, 1992]—“I’ll be your mistress tonight/I’d like to put you in a trance,” says Dita, Madonna’s alter-ego in “Erotica.” Madonna’s hushed, urgent vocals perfectly mirror the narrator’s role as a dominant, dutiful partner (a role deftly enforced by the song’s music video). “Erotica” is “scary-sexy” Madonna—when she says “I’m not gonna hurt you,” she really just means she’ll try her best.
2. “Where Life Begins” [from Erotica, 1992]—This one’s a pretty straightforward homage to oral sex, filled with some of Mo’s funniest and most explicit imagery. “A lot of people talk about dining in and eating out/I guess that’s what this song’s about,” talk-sings Madonna during the song’s meta introduction. “Where Life Begins” reaches its ridiculous apex with the most ambitious KFC reference ever committed to tape: “Colonel Sanders says it best/Finger lickin’ good.”
1. “Justify My Love” [from The Immaculate Collection, 1990]—Very few songs capture the exacerbating urgency of love as eerily well as “Justify My Love.” Every line in the song is eminently relatable, assuming you aren’t the fucking Tin Man. From the European vacation fantasies to its examination of the inexplicable, vulnerable desire for physical and emotional consumption, it’s Madonna’s sexiest song—and probably her most meaningful, as well.