I can remember the very first time I saw Madonna. I was sitting on the Number 68 bus in Liverpool en route to see my very first boyfriend, Jamie. I would make that journey every Saturday, accompanied by my beloved copy of Smash Hits. It was only a small article tucked into a corner, with a tiny accompanying photograph, but it certainly made an impression. Before the internet and global social networking ever existed if you were a pop addict then Smash Hits and Radio One were the only ways of finding out what you needed to know. After making a small ripple with Borderline, still my favourite ever Madonna song, the dawning of Holiday brought into my life a woman who for myself, and many others, would simply change everything. When the only other female power merchant on the planet was Margaret Thatcher – and I won’t repeat what I thought of her – and the world was in super-recession, Madonna simply became a style and personal icon to young women everywhere, me included. The fact that she is still here, at the top of her game, with the release of MDNA, still a top seller and still the most talked about woman in pop, is down to the fact that Madonna simply has it. She has enjoyed triumph and adversity both in her career and in her personal life but she as always done it in style. Sometimes the style has been impeccable, sometimes a little questionable, but she always left us wanting more.
So this is how we first got to see Madonna. In retrospect, both her look and her music owed more than a sartorial nod to Debbie Harry, but by 1984 the original Blondie’s career was in freefall and the soon-to-be material girl was about to take off like a rocket. While our mothers were bemoaning the fact that she was showing off her bra straps and belly button on Top Of The Pops, we were running around Chelsea Girl looking for fishnet tights to turn into gloves and legwarmers, and slapping on the Rimmel Heater Shimmer lipstick. The fact is, Madonna was well into her 20’s and a decent size 10 – both of which would not go down well today – but to us teenage girls she was just what we needed – a change from Princess Di’s pie frill collars, much as we adored her, too.
By the time Like A Virgin turned Madonna into a global superstar there was starting to emerge a more glossy look on the disco punk princess. There were still elements of her original style, but the videos and the imagery started to attract more investment – just right for the newly emerging MTV age. To a fourteen year old Catholic schoolgirl like myself, the mention of virgins thrown into a mix of wearing a bustier and a corset at the same time was heady stuff indeed. And the boys? Well, they lapped it up. I still think that this was Madonna at her very, very best. There may have been record men behind the scenes but this girl was taking control of her destiny, courting controversy, and giving my religious studies teacher a coronary all at the same time.
The best thing about Madonna’s look, before she went all Jean Paul Gaultier, is that it was cheap as chips to follow. She literally invented leggings by cutting off the feet of her dance rights – we all copied – and everything else was just lycra and plastic. The hair was home highlighted – with roots showing, of course – and the make-up was slathered on, with a good old dose of black kohl as lip liner. As I was a brunette and with no curves to speak of it was harder for me to emulate, but I still remember getting a piece of net and turning it into huge bow, slashing up a t-shirt and backcombing as if my life depended on it. I think today’s teenagers are kind of missing out on the fun. But that’s the point of getting older – we all think that our teenage years were the best! I remember the summer of 1985, falling madly in love, and playing Crazy For You over and over again on my newly acquired Walkman. There’s not enough money in the world to buy back those memories.
As the media world changed and music, videos and fashion became intertwined it wasn’t long beofore the fashion designers came a-calling. Jean Paul Gaultier, whose architectural tailoring mixed with mayhem and madness had made him a 1980’s favourite, knew that Madonna was all that encapsulated the late 1980’s woman – this was Madonna in her own version of the power suit for the Express Yourself video. In just five short years Madonna had moved on in leaps and bounds both in her music and in her style – the rough edges had been thoroughly smoothed out. Still,this suit was all I wanted to wear as soon as I saw it. I wasn’t that keen on the monocle, but the trouser suit was, and still is, fashion royalty.
After flirting with being a brunette and getting everyone talking with her much maligned Like A Prayer video, Madonna took stock and told us all that we had to Vogue. As we leapt into the 1990’s, and left all those shoulder pads behind, Madonna really hit her career peak, and was at the height of her commercial success. Never out of the papers and in the news, her marriage to Sean Penn was over, her movie career had hit the skids, but in terms of music there was simply no-one to beat her. She was selling to huge, sell-out crowds all over the world and her retro movie star look was magical. Her body was beginning to seriously change, as she upped her fitness routine and refined her diet. She still had curves but they were seriously toned curves, and we all headed off to the gym to keep up. As the early 1990’s moved on she made some great tunes, as always, but as grunge took over everywhere, she didn’t get involved. She made a few unwise moves (the Sex book wasn’t the best) but she sat it out and rode out the Nirvana storm.
Madonna became a multi-media star in every way, and Gianni Versace, who paid the supermodels thousands of dollars to walk for his couture collections, signed Madonna up for a huge, global advertising campaign. It sealed her name not just as a singer but as a brand. Always experimental with fashion, she has worn every look on the planet, her hair has been every colour (I know she has been brunette many times but I am leaving that out as to me she will always be a platinum bombshell), but her power to sell has never diminished. By 1995 she had also become the new darling of Tom Ford, whose first collection for Gucci removed grunge from the style map and put glamour back where it belonged.
To me, Madonna’s most stylish moment came during her Take A Bow phase in 1995. Dressesd by John Galliano in what had to be his best all-time collection, she literally broke hearts as the matador’s lover and she showed a grace and elegance that we had never really seen before. Madonna can still rock a ballad when she wants to and this was her best by far. Now in her mid-30’s, she was also at the very height of her beauty and the song, and the video, will always remain simply magnificent.
As we headed towards a new century, Madonna re0invented herself again and released her most critically acclaimed album to date, Ray of Light. Mario Testino showed Madonna at her prettiest and most natural – the Hollywood starlet looked more like a super-glam hippie and those tousled waves created a style that has not left the style radar since. Her music became even more vulnerable, telling us about the pressures of fame, broken hearts and unrequited love. It took our opinion of her in a new direction and where she went, we followed. She told us that we could be powerful and have a heart at the same time, and after years of trying to have it all it was a message that sang out to us in every way.
Ah, Madonna the film star. She started off so well with Desperately Seeking Susan and then it kind of all went wrong. To be fair lots of people were making terrible films in the late 1980’s, but that charisma just never seemed to find a part that fitted her on screen. Until, of course, Evita. Madonna, who could do no wrong in music, literally had to beg for the part as she was seen as such a risk but once on screen, she literally became Eva Peron. She has made a few film appearances since (don’t mention Swept Away) but perhaps her greatest film achievement is her directorial presence in W.E., her own take on the Edward and Mrs. Simpson love story.
Madonna entered the new Millenium with a new energy and a real feeling of love for her homeland, via American Pie and good old dose of country inspiration. It was at this time she seemed to be most settled in her private life – she took on the role of Mrs. Ritchie with zest, but little did we know that it was quite a lonely time playing lady of the manor. Madonna has since said that she likes men who say no to her, but I do wonder if she will ever find a man who has the strength to make a stand in the long run whilst enduring the eyes and ears of the world upon him. Perhaps the one outfit I long to see will always remain elusive – the legendary Stella McCartney dress that she wore to her second wedding. It is one of the few secrets she has kept.
After wearing some tacky outfits (and they were thoughtfully tacky!) for Music Madonna turned her hand to writing children’s books and I adored her in her elegant garb. It is always done with a hint of irony, tongue firmly placed in cheek, but it is a look that the public have never really accepted from her. It was all part of her Home Counties phase, going down the local with Guy and drinking English tea. Like all of her phases, it didn’t last too long and before we knew it she was back in her leotard, Hung Up, getting down with the kids and generally taking on dance moves women half of her age wouldn’t bother attempting.
Of couse there have been many pretenders to her crown as the Queen of Pop. Britney Spears mounted a great attack in 1999 but her complete lack of style offstage and an inability to cope with that tremendous fame has reduced her to gossip fodder for the tabloids. Kylie Minogue, our adopted Princess of Pop, has been around nearly as long as Madonna and while popular she never really made it in the States – we are very protective of our Kylie, though, and in a way I think we are glad we got to keep her! It is, perhaps, Lady Gaga who is the biggest pretender and for good reason. The songs, and that voice, are unquestionably timeless and modern at the same time. She has the shock factor, for sure, but it is to the extreme. I wonder if she will keep up her pace for thirty years and I doubt it – I think she will be a perenially successful songwriter, though. Talent like hers is never extinguished.
And Madonna as she is now? Seeing her on the red carpet, dressed in elegant Vionnet but the sunglasses and stance letting us know we are in the presence of a superstar. For a woman in her early 50’s she is still pretty remarkable. Yes, I know she possibly has had some work done but still, the sheer discipline she plays in keeping herself in shape still inspires me. The fact that she continues to be creative and wants to stay ahead of the pack should make her laughable but every young pop and rap star are still lining up to work with her. She’s still sprinkled with stardust even though she’s not long off her bus pass application.
So thank you Madonna, for nearly thirty years of mayhem. You have provided a soundtrack for my generation, you told me about Girl Power before the Spice Girls were invented, and you have kept me thoroughly entertained over the years. Singing Holiday along with you, and thousands of others, at Earls Court, was a memory to be cherished. You have made lots of mistakes but here you are, MDNA a smash hit, and though I worried that your hot pants and fishnets might prove to be too much, I wondered what would happen if I turned up to a concert and you came out in an evening gown, with a chignon, and piped up a load of ballads. I would be in the queue asking for my money back. You will always be a blonde bombshell and for the record, I have never, ever called you Madge!
MADONNA LOUISE CICCONE – THE QUEEN OF POP!