By Sean Maunier on August 16, 2018
On August 16, the original, unimpeachable Queen of Pop celebrates 60 years. Madonna has been a superstar for the better part of those six decades, and her influence on the modern pop landscape is by now unmistakable and inescapable.
A true diva, her different eras, and the looks that have accompanied them, are every bit as iconic as her music — but even these are only a sideshow to her politics, activism, and consistent, unapologetic sex positivity. In honour of her 60th, we pay tribute to the Material Girl with a countdown of her most iconic and essential songs.
Given the explosive success of Like a Virgin, we can probably forgive Madonna for brushing off her debut album. But for the rest of us, her self-titled album is well worth revisiting for its sincerity and confidence, not to mention the catchiness of early hits like “Borderline.” This Madonna was not yet the headline-grabbing provocateur that would be a household name by the end of the decade, but the simplicity and instant relatability of “Borderline” did much to define the rest of her career, not to mention an entire generation of dance music.
Evita notwithstanding, Madonna’s short-lived acting career is mostly notable for the material she produced for her films’ soundtracks. It’s hard to recall much about 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan, other than that it gave us “Into the Groove,” easily one of Madonna’s most memorable and enduringly popular songs.
Among Madonna’s many turning points and personal reinventions, Ray of Light was the most pronounced. The album was heavily influenced by her experience of motherhood and her newfound spirituality. Madonna had been leaning heavily on religious themes and imagery for over a decade by this point, but the uncharacteristically intimate, introspective single “Frozen” conveyed a sense of spiritual forces bigger than her.
While it’s hard to imagine Madonna needing a self-empowering pick me up, “Sorry” is about as close as she gets. Addressed to a man who has finally gone too far, the song has an appropriately fierce energy about it. Like the rest of Confessions on a Dance Floor, it hearkens back to the hits of her early career, lending another layer to its self-congratulatory sense of hindsight.
Cowboy hats can be deceiving. Although Madonna may have dressed up in western garb and copped selectively from folk and country for Music, its title track is all cascading synths and futuristic dance beats. Just two years after Ray of Light, her gleefully campy, Americana-inflected eighth album marked another abrupt turn, this time delivering her most club-friendly track since “Vogue.”
One of Madonna’s most iconic and instantly recognizable tracks, “Like a Virgin” was the first single to truly play with and upend the religious implications of her stage name. From the very beginning it was clear the Madonna was an artist who was out to provoke and unsettle just as much as she was to dominate the charts.
Brash and unflinching, widely panned yet underrated in hindsight, Erotica was Madonna at her most blunt and cerebral. Thoughtful and nuanced from beginning to end, Erotica was aloof and inaccessible by design even on “Deeper and Deeper,” a dance track that is as cold and ambiguous as it is catchy. The album more than earned its parental advisory label, although in retrospect it is easier to appreciate that there is much more to it than shock value alone.
“Express yourself, don’t repress yourself.” So opens “Human Nature,” one of the most overlooked tracks of one of Madonna’s most overlooked albums. Her voice drips with defiant sarcasm as she repeats the line, “Oops, I didn’t know we couldn’t talk about sex.” Bedtime Stories was her first album since Sex and Erotica, and “Human Nature” reads as a timely downtempo rebuke to her critics, delivered with a pointed tone and an unexpectedly infectious rhythm.
Madonna’s early career owed much to New York’s flourishing queer underground, most notably to the Harlem ball scene of the 1980s, famously immortalized in Paris is Burning. She was obviously far from the first to vogue, but she brought it into the popular consciousness, acting for many as the first point of access to a rich culture to which she was heavily indebted.
Although Madonna has been many different things to different people, few would disagree that “Like a Prayer” remains her most iconic, most quintessentially “Madonna” song, bringing together the sacred and profane and blurring the line between the two. Upon its release, it earned her sweeping condemnation from the Vatican to Pepsi, who famously canceled a $5 million ad campaign, inadvertently helping to cement her reputation for artistic integrity.
Check out our dedicated Spotify Playlist: