Illustration by Creak Shi, University of Michigan

On August 16, 1958, Silvio Anthony and Madonna Louise Ciccone of Bay City, Michigan welcomed a baby girl into their family. Named after her mother, Madonna Louise Ciccone was a rambunctious middle child eager to steal the spotlight whenever she could. When she turned 21, she moved to New York to make a name for herself, and by 25 she accomplished more than that. This year, the “Queen of Pop” turns 65, and has spent the last 40 years building a career most can only dream of — creating controversy, being a cultural tastemaker, and achieving icon status all along the way. To celebrate and honor 65 years of Madonna, it’s only right to take a trip down memory lane and revisit some of the moments that defined her incredible career.

Photo by Gary Heery

‘Madonna,’ 1983
From the very beginning, Madonna possessed an unabashed confidence in herself that’s just as signature as her iconic early-1980s style. Her debut self-titled album reflects that carefree spirit in its eight songs that urge listeners to get out of their seats and onto the nearest dancefloor. Aside from the quintessential ‘80s synth and drums, the sound remains miraculously fresh. Perhaps even more impressive is the sustained relevance of the music. Now more than ever, we could all use a ‘Holiday’ to “bring back all of those happy days.”

Courtesy Everett Collection

‘Like A Virgin’ at the 1984 VMAs 
As Madonna was emerging onto the music scene, MTV was aiming to make a name for itself as well. On September 14, 1984, MTV hosted the very first Video Music Awards (VMAs) at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. In one of the most iconic VMA moments in history, Madonna performed her latest single ‘Like A Virgin,’ sporting a wedding dress cinched at the waist with a belt that read “Boy Toy.” Descending from a giant wedding cake, she rolled around onstage and accidentally flashed her rear to the camera. Although the performance is hardly provocative by today’s standards, Madonna recalls being told her career was “over” by her then-manager. In reality, the performance had just about the opposite effect, and launched her as a mainstay in popular music. It was after this performance that Madonna learned just how far a little controversy can go. 

Photo Credit Sire/Warner Bros.

‘Vogue,’ 1990
After nearly a decade of churning out hit after hit, Madonna released a 17-song compilation of her very best ‘80s material. ‘The Immaculate Collection’ included the single ‘Vogue’ from her 1990 soundtrack ‘I’m Breathless: Music from and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy.’ Initially just a track on the film’s soundtrack, ‘Vogue’ went on to become one of the biggest hits of her career. “Voguing” is a form of freestyle dance that originated in Harlem during the 1980’s, created by the Black and Latino queer communities. From very early on in her career, Madonna spoke out against the injustices that marginalized communities faced and embraced queer creatives as her chosen family. It’s clear that the culture created by the LGBTQIA+ community inspired the empowering anthem. 

Similar to ‘Holiday,’ the song calls for a break from the heartache of the world, and urges listeners to “let your body groove to the music.” The song landed the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for a total of three weeks, and remains one of Madonna’s greatest singles ever. The message of the song remains timeless: “It makes no difference if you’re black or white/If you’re a boy or a girl/If the music’s pumping it will give you new life/You’re a superstar/Yes, that’s what you are, you know it.”

Photo by John Roca/Rex

The ‘Blond Ambition World Tour,’ 1990
In support of her 1989 album ‘Like A Prayer,’ Madonna hit the road in 1990 for her third concert tour, the 'Blond Ambition World Tour.' The tour made 57 stops around the world and, of course, caused several controversies along the way. The show depicted themes of both Catholicism and sex which led to several European countries calling for a boycott of the tour. In Toronto, local police threatened to arrest her for “lewd and indecent display,” particularly because of the simulated masturbation during her ‘Like A Virgin’ performance. The Toronto show proceeded unchanged and no arrests were made after Madonna told police she was willing to be arrested if it meant protecting her artistic agency. 

On the final night of the tour in New Jersey, Madonna dedicated the show to her friend Keith Haring, who died of AIDS earlier that year. She also donated the proceeds from the same show to the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) in honor of her late friend and the countless others who have been impacted by the disease. Not only was the ‘Blond Ambition World Tour’ groundbreaking for its show-stopping theatrics and for the birth of the iconic cone bra, but it was also a vessel for Madonna to expand the conversation around sex, religion, disease and politics. 

Photo By Griffin Lotz, (Spread Steven Meisel)

‘Erotica’ and ‘Sex,’ 1992
After the massive success of ‘Vogue’ and her ‘Blond Ambition World Tour,’ Madonna was determined to reinvent herself once again and push the public’s buttons further than ever before. In October 1992, Madonna released her fifth studio album ‘Erotica,’ and an accompanying coffee table book titled ‘Sex.’ With its R&B and House-influenced sound, ‘Erotica’ was a diversion from the polished pop music she defined the ‘80s with, exploring themes of sex, adultery, death and more. The 128-page ‘Sex’ book featured photos taken by Steven Meisel, showing Madonna posing nude, acting out her sexual fantasies. 

Both critics and the general population were convinced that Madonna had gone “too far” and crossed a line, particularly with ‘Sex.’ Despite the intense criticism, Madonna stood unwavering and defended both the book and album, explaining that sex was not something the public should be afraid of, but rather acknowledge as an important part of life. Though the album received great backlash, ‘Erotica’ remains an esteemed example of Madonna using new sounds and genres to further political and social conversations, regardless of public acceptance. 

Photo by David LaChapelle

‘Ray of Light,’ 1998
Two years after giving birth to her first child, Madonna conceived another masterpiece — ‘Ray of Light.’ While pregnant, she began practicing yoga, became interested in Hinduism and Buddhism, and adopted Kabbalah (a type of Jewish mysticism) into her belief system. All of this led to a more enlightened and seemingly “at peace” Madonna. This rebirth of sorts was directly explored across her seventh studio album, and the public took to the “new Madonna” quite well. In the aftermath of ‘Erotica,’ she spent much of the ‘90s unable to captivate the general public the way she did throughout the 1980s.‘Ray of Light’ marked a “comeback” into the good graces of Americans with her more refined approach to music. 

Teaming up with producer William Orbit, the sonic makeup of the album differed vastly from her previous works. Toying with techno and ambient influences, ‘Ray of Light’ was a hit for its easy-listening danceability and stripped-down vulnerability. 

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‘Like A Virgin/Hollywood’ at the 2003 VMAs
It was the kiss seen around the world. In 2003 Madonna returned to the VMAs stage, this time alongside Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliott. Spears and Aguilera began the performance singing ‘Like A Virgin; together, both dressed in reimaginings of Madonna’s “Boy Toy” bridal gown from the 1984 VMAs. Madonna then joined the pair, once again emerging from the top of a giant wedding cake — this time dressed as the groom to Spears and Aguilera. The three danced together as Madonna performed ‘Hollywood,’ but something else stuck with audiences more.

In a split second, Madonna turned to Spears and locked lips before turning to Aguilera and doing the same. Despite both Spears and Aguilera sharing a kiss with Madonna, the Spears kiss was undoubtedly the bigger headline. The split-second kiss generated plenty of controversy among viewers for openly showing women kissing. However, this performance was a symbolic christening of Spears as pop’s princess by the Queen of pop herself. Not to mention, it was a genius homage to Madonna’s very first time at the VMAs. 

Photo Credit Warner Bros.

‘Confessions on a Dance Floor,’ 2005
After garnering much criticism for her 2003 folktronica album, ‘American Life,’ Madonna returned to her dancefloor roots with her 10th studio album. ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor.’took great inspiration from 1970s disco, both sonically and aesthetically. Fans and critics alike lauded the album for its forward-thinking approach to classic disco, and recognized it as yet another successful “comeback” in Madonna’s career. The album’s lead single, ‘Hung Up,’ brilliantly samples ABBA’s 1979 hit ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ and gave new life to disco in the mid-2000’s. 

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Super Bowl XLVI, 2012
Nearly 30 years after her debut, Madonna headlined the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Emerging on a golden throne carried by a sea of male dancers dressed as Trojan soldiers, she opened her performance with ‘Vogue.’ In her action-packed presentation, she ran through a slew of hits complete with plenty of flips, an LED stage, special guests and a full choir. The 13-minute long performance only featured a total of four songs from her catalogWith a discography as big as Madonna’s, it’s impossible to include every single hit. Not only did the performance celebrate her incredible career; it set a new precedent for the many large-scale production halftime shows to follow. 

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Billboard Woman of the Year Award, 2016
In 2016, Billboard named Madonna “Woman of the Year” and presented her with the award at the annual Women In Music event. In her acceptance speech, she reflected on the perils of life as a woman in an industry and world that mistreats them so often. Speaking on the criticism she received for her ‘Erotica’ album and ‘Sex’ book, she expressed that “this was the first time I truly understood that women truly did not have the same freedom as men.” Throughout her speech, she was swept with emotion and closed with a powerful sentiment that encapsulates her unparalleled drive and determination to keep going: “To the doubters, the naysayers, to everyone who gave me hell and said I could not, that I would not, that I must not, your resistance made me stronger, made me push harder, made me the fighter that I am today–made me the woman that I am today.” 

Even 40 years later, Madonna remains a force for change and a “ray of light” to so many. 

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