In the summer of 1983, Thriller and the Flashdance soundtrack pumped from every radio, Return of the Jedi ruled the box office, and astronaut Sally Ride became the first American female in space. Somewhere in the then wilds of New York City’s Lower East Side, there was another woman with astronomical ambition waiting to emerge: Madonna Louise Ciccone, who released her self-titled debut on July 27, and the world…pretty much ignored it, actually. Her first two singles, ”Everybody” and ”Burning Up,” didn’t even break the Hot 100, and Rolling Stone described her voice as ”irritating as hell.” (Though it did concede, ”It helps that she writes good tunes — catchy and bare to the bone.”) It seemed that the career she’d been toiling away at since dropping out of the University of Michigan in 1977 to move to Manhattan, where she waitressed and found occasional gigs as a dancer, might be done before it ever really began.
But slowly the record started to gain attention (a fact even more remarkable when you consider how many other artists released watershed albums that year). ”Burning Up” managed to become a club hit, and the accompanying video — directed by Steve Barron, who’d helmed early MTV staples like Michael Jackson’s ”Billie Jean” and Toto’s ”Africa” — made its way into the channel’s rotation. Her raw charisma took over from there.
In her first appearance on American Bandstand, Madonna famously told Dick Clark she wanted to ”rule the world,” and one could argue that she achieved it: She’s spent three decades spinning various alter egos (wedding-dress co-opter, Dick Tracy moll, postmodern geisha, leotarded disco revivalist) into her title as the top-selling female of all time, with 300 million-plus albums sold. But for all the fame and influence that came later, Madonna is a surprisingly stripped-down snapshot of an artist before she became an icon. In just over 40 minutes, it paints the definitive portrait of Madonna at 24: a denizen of New York’s downtown scene caught between the punk ethos of CBGB (she idolized Debbie Harry), the post-disco chaos of Studio 54, and the druggy, Warhol-led high-art movement (she dated the late Jean-Michel Basquiat years before Jay Z rapped about him). She was a girl on the verge, throwing knockout punches with fingerless lace gloves.
Of Madonna‘s eight tracks, five were released as singles, and each one climbed greater heights. The propulsive ”Burning Up” and the bleep-bloopy ”Everybody” established Madonna’s disco bona fides on the dance charts, while the breezy ”Holiday” finally helped her crack the top 20. And ”Lucky Star” and ”Borderline,” with their Bubblicious-sticky melodies and kinetically sexy music videos, brought her straight into the top 10. (”I Know It,” ”Think of Me,” and ”Physical Attraction” round out the album.)
Madonna’s sound, and of course her look, would be heavily copied for years to come, but Madonna heralded something much bigger: the arrival of the pop diva as a singular force who put personality above all else. And its musical merits notwithstanding, the triumph of Madonna is less in the album itself than in the superstar it created. Like all visionary ideas, it just took a little while for the rest of us to catch up.