By 1983, disco had been officially declared dead. Pop hurriedly distanced itself from the genre’s glittery excess, and mainstream radio became segregated again. The Top 10 brimmed with slick corporate rock and cosmopolitan country hits, reflective of the conservatism sweeping the country’s sociopolitical scene.
But edgy dance music still thrived, especially in progressive nightclubs where marginalized people – blacks, Latinos, women, the LGBT community – were like blissful congregants in a funky secular sanctuary. Madonna Louise Ciccone, an aspiring dancer from Michigan who moved to New York City during disco’s peak in 1977, was a regular in the clubs. She was the proverbial sponge, soaking up the scene’s nuances and befriending or dating the movers and shakers there.
After performing in a few ill-fated disco groups, Madonna decided to fly solo, using just her first name professionally, and landed a recording contract with Sire Records in 1982. Her self-titled debut hit the streets in July of ’83. For the pop world, the album set a new precedent: It essentially repackaged disco for the masses, a funk-lite, pop-friendlier version of the kind of songs heard exclusively on black radio at the time. Innovative dance cuts by Evelyn “Champagne” King and Stephanie Mills, for instance, received regular spins on urban stations and in the New York City clubs Madonna frequented. But aggressive jams like “I’m in Love” by King or “Put Your Body in It” by Mills were seldom heard on pop radio.
On her debut album, Madonna gentrified that sound with the help of Reggie Lucas, who co-produced with James Mtume all of Mills’ big hits of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and Mark Kamins and Jellybean Benitez, respected New York City DJs and record producers. The album, which sold more than 10 million copies around the world, was a huge payoff for everyone involved.
It spawned several hits, all carrying an appealing effervescence. They included “Lucky Star,” “Holiday” and “Borderline,” songs with just enough palpable R&B in the sprightly, heavily synthesized pop mix to give Madonna an edge in the mainstream. Her sound wasn’t too “white” or too “black.” It was definitely urban, but her tinny yet charming vocals and suburban-girl-as-scrappy-fashion-plate image helped sell the music. With the concurrent rise of MTV, Madonna quickly became a darling of the channel with memorable videos that played up her dewy sex appeal.
She also, in a way, sonically extended what Michael Jackson had done the year before with “Thriller.” Madonna and her producers took shards of styles that had imploded by 1983 – punk and disco, specifically – and processed them into something sleek and contemporary. The music itself wasn’t threatening or too provocative, and neither was Madonna’s image at the time. But all of that would soon change as her larger-than-life, chameleonic personas would eventually overshadow the music but sell it by the truckloads nonetheless.
On the 1983 debut, however, the performer was still green but certainly ambitious, qualities captured in the album’s cover photo: a close-up shot of the 24-year-old Madonna, unsmiling with one hand holding the side of her face, the other clutching a chain around her neck. It’s a nervy pose, the look in her eyes focused and intense. But the music inside is pure irresistible ear candy that set the template for generations of envelope-pushing pop tarts, including Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé.
In January 1984, six months after the debut’s release, Madonna lip-synced “Holiday” on “American Bandstand.” It’s a spirited performance – the artist resplendent in ’80s club gear, black off-the-shoulder cropped top, studded belt and bangles. She dances and spins in her own universe, seemingly oblivious to the crowd around her but definitely aware of the camera. During the interview portion, legendary host Dick Clark asks her, “What are your dreams, what’s left?”
“To rule the world,” Madonna says, her coquettish smile softening the cockiness of the answer.
She obviously knew something we didn’t. Madonna would soon become one of the biggest-selling artists of all time, an icon who for years successfully repackaged elements of underground club music for the masses, until the advent of the Internet made that world accessible to anyone. But pop in 1983 was a very different place, and Madonna’s debut felt like a revelation.