'Like A Virgin' Lives On, A Winking Anthem For Women Getting Married

9 hours ago
Originally published on August 20, 2018 7:30 pm

Editor's note: The following story may not be appropriate for all ages.

Some pop culture just lends itself to being argued over — and when it's the type that pokes fun at purity, sexual norms or religion, controversy is almost guaranteed. Debates over Madonna's "Like a Virgin" have raged everywhere, from the opinion pages of the Chicago Tribune to the opening scene of Quentin Tarentino's Reservoir Dogs.

The furor really began during the first MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, two months before the song's actual release. Madonna shimmied through the number in an abbreviated wedding dress accessorized with dangling crucifixes and a silver belt emblazoned with the words "Boy Toy." But it was her provocative moves that sent American eyebrows soaring.

At the time, Matthew Rettenmund was glued to the screen. Then a teenager, he would eventually write the exhaustive, 600-page Encyclopedia Madonnica.

"She rolled around on the stage and the cameras went right up the wedding dress," Rettenmund remembers, diplomatically passing over the moment when Madonna rapturously humped her wedding veil on the floor. "And you knew it was scandalous because they then showed the audience of all these seasoned rock and roll veterans watching her with blank expressions — like, 'What is this?' "

"Like a Virgin" became Madonna's first No. 1 single, topping the charts for six weeks. But beyond that, the singer expertly revived the song every few years as a flashpoint for outrage. Take the time in 2008 when she dedicated its performance to the Pope. Or how she made headlines in 1990 during her Blonde Ambition World Tour, when she simulated masturbating while singing "Like a Virgin" onstage. The documentary Truth or Dare, which came out the following year, chronicles the brouhaha when Toronto police threatened to arrest Madonna unless she censored the song. (She refused.)

"She's just this roaring zeitgeist," director Mary Lambert says affectionately. Lambert directed Madonna's original "Like a Virgin" video — at the time, the most expensive in MTV's short history. Filmed in lavish Italian palazzos and on the canals in Venice, the video featured gondolas, a live lion (requiring an armed trainer on set the entire time), and Madonna prancing around in virginal white.

"It just seemed really obvious that she should wear a wedding dress — and not just a wedding dress, but like, the grandest wedding dress that was ever created," Lambert says, recalling Madonna's interest in juxtaposing the sacred and profane. She points out that even at today's weddings, "There's the theater of being a virgin. They still wear the white dress."

And that's perhaps why the song's become an especially beloved anthem — for bachelorettes.

"That's like, the most requested song when we have bachelorette parties," says Maria Narciso, who manages The Pyramid Club in New York, a nightspot where Madonna used to dance — and the site of a yearly "Maddonnathon," where diehard fans dress up in cone bras and rubber bracelets and dance to her hits all night. "We're talking about a second chance at a new beginning. Learning to love — and be loved once again. Like a virgin, brand new, pure."

Cara Awill-Lyba, a clubgoer at the Pyramid, told me she played "Like a Virgin" at her own bachelorette party, precisely because it's an anthem about reinvention: "Which I think every woman should do whenever she feels like it." Or every man, suggested attendee Oscar de la Cruz: "Someday, when I get married, I will play 'Like a Virgin.' And I fantasize about wearing a white dress and rolling on the floor."

Understanding "Like a Virgin" as an anthem for bachelorettes makes sense to Karen Tongson, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies, among other things, karaoke. She sees bachelorettes singing "Like A Virgin" in clubs all the time.

"Bachelorettes never show up looking chaste," she observes. "They're wearing their sluttiest clothes – with a veil—and that's part of the fun. And then they get to writhe around with their gal pals."

According to the National Survey of Family Growth, the vast majority of today's brides are not virgins — in fact, only about 5 percent are. Tongson says that's exactly what makes the song meaningful for bachelorettes. "Fundamentally, it allows you the fantasy to revisit being a virgin and appreciating the joy of that feeling, even though you're someone with experience instead of innocence," she says.

Despite its provocative history, "Like a Virgin" wasn't conceived as a sexy song. Lyricist Billy Steinberg says he wrote it earnestly, having just ended a toxic relationship and embarked on a meaningful new one.

"It's quite a serious song, really," he reflects. "The general public tends to see it as just titillating, because Madonna was titillating. When I perform the song, I perform it as a ballad. The combination of Madonna's image and the title just pulled it, totally, into being this song that was sung almost with a wink. And the sincerity of the lyric got a little bit obscured."

But perhaps that's what makes it work: The arch sensuality of Madonna's interpretation wards off its baked-in sentimentality. During my conversation with Steinberg, I mentioned once seeing the novelist Isabel Allende say that we live in a world where "virgin is an insult."

"It's not," he said. "Not at all."

That amuses Madonna chronicler Matthew Rettenmund. "Because Madonna's the kind of cool chick who in school would consider virginity a negative, you know?" he says. "Oh, what are you — a virgin? Especially at that time, 1984, 1985, she had that vibe. And yet, she had that vulnerability to praise it and to be nostalgic about it."

If virgin positivity is a trait not exactly associated with Madonna, it didn't stop a nun known as Sister Cristina from singing "Like a Virgin" on TV, for the Italian version of the The Voice. In interviews, she has said the song functions for her as a sort of lay prayer.

"When she sings 'I didn't know how lost I was until I found you,' the 'you' she's referring to is God," explains Billy Steinberg, who says Sister Cristina's version is his favorite cover. "I think it's kind of nice that this song can even be reflected upon in that light."

In all its incarnations, "Like a Virgin" can be considered not only an anthem, but a hymn — which speaks not to the condition of the hymen, but the state of the human spirit.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

OK, quick - see if you can name this tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF MADONNA SONG, "LIKE A VIRGIN")

CHANG: The singer turned 60 just last week, and this was her first No. 1 hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A VIRGIN")

MADONNA: (Singing) I made it through the wilderness.

CHANG: Yes, Madonna. And that is "Like A Virgin" from 1984. Throughout this year, NPR is exploring the songs that have become American anthems. And we found certain songs like this one lend themselves to arguments.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RESERVOIR DOGS")

QUENTIN TARANTINO: (As Mr. Brown) Let me tell you what "Like A Virgin's" about.

CHANG: This is the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino's movie "Reservoir Dogs" where gangsters debate what "Like A Virgin" really means.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RESERVOIR DOGS")

TARANTINO: (As Mr. Brown) "Like A Virgin's" not about some sensitive girl who meets a nice fellow.

CHANG: And their conversation gets a little R-rated pretty quickly. This song has caused controversy for decades. And just a heads up here - our report about it may not be appropriate for everyone. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The song grabbed our attention from the moment in 1984 when Madonna danced in a wedding dress on the first MTV Video Music Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1ST ANNUAL MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS)

MADONNA: (Singing) I made it through the wilderness. Somehow I made it through.

ULABY: Back then, Matthew Rettenmund was just a teenager. But he remembers Madonna's dangling crosses, her silver belt buckle reading boy toy and of course her moves.

MATTHEW RETTENMUND: She rolled around on the stage, and the cameras went right up the wedding dress, and you got a glimpse. And you knew it was scandalous because they then showed the audience of all these seasoned rock 'n' roll veterans watching her with, like, blank expressions like, what is this?

(SOUNDBITE OF 1ST ANNUAL MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS)

MADONNA: (Singing) Like a virgin, hey, touched for the very first time.

ULABY: Rettenmund eventually authored the "Encyclopedia Madonnica." He says "Like A Virgin" made news again during the singer's 1990 world tour when she faked masturbating on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MADONNA: (Singing) Like a virgin, ooh, like a virgin.

ULABY: The movie "Truth Or Dare" from 1991 documented the time Madonna almost got arrested for lewdness at a concert in Toronto. Once again, "Like A Virgin" took over headlines, talk radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Who choreographed that "Like A Virgin" number?

ULABY: Of course it did, says Mary Lambert. She directed Madonna's original "Like A Virgin" video. She says Madonna pushed exactly the right buttons to work people up about the era's sexual conventions.

MARY LAMBERT: She was this roaring zeitgeist.

ULABY: (Laughter).

LAMBERT: And I'm just, like, pointing my camera at her.

ULABY: The "Like A Virgin" video was at the time staggeringly expensive. Filmed in Venice, it featured gondolas, a live lion and Madonna prancing around in virginal white.

LAMBERT: It just seemed really obvious that she should wear a wedding dress. Like, not just a wedding dress but, like, the grandest wedding dress that was ever created.

ULABY: Yeah. You know, there's this sort of theater (laughter) of a wedding.

LAMBERT: There's the theater of being a virgin. They still wear the white dress.

ULABY: And that's why the song's become an anthem for bachelorettes.

MARIA NARCISO: That's, like, the most requested song when we have bachelorette parties.

ULABY: New York City's Pyramid Club, home to bachelorette parties and a yearly Madonnathon where people dress up like the singer in cone bras and rubber bracelets and dance to her hits all night. Manager Maria Narciso says "Like A Virgin" is a perfect bachelorette anthem.

NARCISO: We're talking about a second chance, a second chance at a new beginning, learning to love and be loved once again like a virgin - brand-new, pure.

CARA AWILL-LYBA: Definitely dancing to "Like A Virgin" that night.

ULABY: Cara Awill-Lyba says she played the song at her bachelorette party because it's about reinvention.

AWILL-LYBA: Which I think every woman should do whenever she feels like it.

ULABY: Or every man, says fellow clubgoer Oscar de la Cruz.

OSCAR DE LA CRUZ: I will play it at my wedding. Someday, when I get married, I will play "Like A Virgin." And I fantasize wearing a white dress, rolling over a floor.

ULABY: University of Southern California professor Karen Tongson studies karaoke. On a recent evening outside with friends in Los Angeles, she says she sees bachelorettes singing "Like A Virgin" in clubs all the time.

KAREN TONGSON: Bachelorettes never show up looking chaste.

ULABY: Right.

TONGSON: They're wearing their sluttiest clothes...

ULABY: Yeah.

TONGSON: ...With a veil.

ULABY: Yeah.

TONGSON: And that's part of the fun. And then they get to ride around with their gal pals.

ULABY: About 5 percent of new brides today are virgins, according to one federal survey. Tongson thinks that's why this song resonates for brides now.

TONGSON: Fundamentally it allows you the fantasy to revisit being a virgin and appreciating the joy of that feeling even though you're someone with experience instead of innocence.

ULABY: But "Like A Virgin" was never intended to be a sexy song. Lyricist Billy Steinberg wrote it earnestly after ending a toxic relationship and starting a meaningful new one.

BILLY STEINBERG: It's actually quite a serious song really. The general public tend to see it as just titillating because Madonna was titillating. When I perform the song, I perform it as a ballad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEINBERG: (Singing) I was beat, incomplete. I'd been had. I was sad and blue. But you made me feel, you made me feel shiny and new.

The combination of Madonna's image and the title just pulled it totally into being this song that was sung almost with a wink. And the sincerity of the lyric got a little bit obscured.

ULABY: Maybe that's what made it work.

STEINBERG: You mean the fact that it got obscured or...

ULABY: No, that there was this almost...

STEINBERG: That there was more to it than that. I think so, really. I do think so because I just think if it was just a joke, it wouldn't have had the impact it did. It was a real song.

ULABY: You know, I read this quote a long time ago that's always stuck with me by the novelist Isabel Allende. It was saying we live in a world where virgin is an insult. And in your song, virgin is not an insult.

STEINBERG: No, not at all.

ULABY: That amuses Matthew Rettenmund of the "Encyclopedia Madonnica."

RETTENMUND: Because Madonna's the kind of cool chick in school who you would think would consider virginity (laughter) negative. You know, she just has that kind of - you know, oh, what are you, a virgin? Definitely especially at that time - you know, 1984, 1985 - she had that vibe. And yet she had that vulnerability to praise it and to be nostalgic about it.

ULABY: Virgin positivity - not something usually associated with Madonna. But that part of the song is real. A nun known as Sister Cristina sang it for the Italian version of the TV show "The Voice."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A VIRGIN")

SISTER CRISTINA: (Singing) I made it through the wilderness. Somehow I made it through.

ULABY: This cover is lyricist Billy Steinberg's favorite.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A VIRGIN")

SISTER CRISTINA: (Singing) Didn't know how lost I was until I found you.

STEINBERG: I didn't know how lost I was until I found you. You is God for Sister Cristina. So I think it's kind of nice that this song can even be reflected upon in that light.

ULABY: In interviews, Sister Cristina has said the song's for her a sort of lay prayer. In all its incarnations, "Like A Virgin" is not just an anthem but a hymn, not the condition of the hymen but the state of the human spirit. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.