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Countdown to the Celebration

Her influence on popular culture is four decades in the making and going strong, and as her “Celebration Tour” prepares to hit its North American leg, I reflect on Madonna’s impact early in her career.

Madonna in various incarnations through her career.

In four weeks the Queen of Pop Madonna will begin the North American leg of her current world tour when it hits our shores at New York’s Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The Celebration Tour is aptly named, as it marks four decades of an unprecedented career by an artist who has challenged every convention and outmatched any expectation. The effect was seismic from the moment she set foot on the pop-culture landscape! In 1984, making her North American television debut on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand performing “Holiday”, Madonna declared she wanted to rule the world — a premonition set in motion.

Even though a health issue prompted her to postpone the launch of “The Celebration Tour” by a couple of months, Madonna inevitably did what she always does, and championed through. Effectively beginning the tour in London at the O2, on October 14, and recalibrating for the dates on the itinerary that had to be pushed. The fandom that has surrounded her since her arrival on the pop scene has only sustained through the years, and I reflect on what the artist has meant to me, and how Madonna has influenced the way I’ve digested the cultural landscape and her evolutionary impact on art, music, and entertainment.

I have to start by narrowing the lens and looking back at where I was in the early 80s, I was coming into my adolescence. So much of who I was (or thought I was) was in a perpetual flux — I was for all intents an everyday, average pre-teen, but the world was changing around me dramatically. For this particular analysis, I don’t think it’s important to dive into what was happening in my family life, what is significant is everything around me (movies, music, politics, entertainment) that was suddenly firing my pistons — musically, the video was just beginning to surface changing the way we listened and looked at music. The music video penetrated my psyche — it altered the way we looked at pop stars.

Madonna’s video for “Borderline” was the first one that I remember in the highest circulation. That meant that without a doubt, the video would appear in the countdown line-up of every music video show, alongside hits from Culture Club, Fleetwood Mac, The Cars, and Michael Jackson. Somehow, especially for me, Madonna’s video always rose to the top of the crop. Even as we started getting additional glimpses of her in earlier performances like “Everybody” and “Burning Up”, the video for “Borderline” resonated. It captured my interest and engaged me, and I didn’t entirely know why — not yet.

It transcended the interpretation of the track itself. “Borderline” directed by Mary Lambert (who would direct several of Madonna’s earliest videos) had a uniqueness to it — it told a story — and 33 seconds in, that stunning black and white close-up of Madonna, hits you! It was like POW! Lambert directed in various scenarios: Madonna danced and sang to the camera, straight forward — to shooting her in off-kilter angles, hand-held, and chose slow pulls in and out with the action hitting at just the right moment to the beat to match lyrics. Madonna had a mastery of the media unlike any other artist of the 80s; her movements made sense, and everything was perfectly choreographed.

Madonna singles album covers.

From the moment, and thanks to my cousin, Lily, who had been gifted the self-titled debut album, Madonna dominated my summer. I recall staying up past midnight to watch the “world premiere” of the video for “Lucky Star” — yes, there was a time when music video premieres garnered much attention. Even the simplicity of it, Madonna accompanied by her two backup dancers, brother Christopher and Erika Belle, shot against a white scrim, with cuts to her lip-syncing to the track on the floor and in close-up. There wasn’t much to it. The intention is apparent, it was meant to capitalize on Madonna the “image” and everything you can wrap up into it — and it worked. The video went immediately into heavy rotation on MTV.

For much of the 80s, we all watched Madonna intently. There was a magnetism, a charismatic flair that rose above the rest — and undoubtedly inspired her contemporaries to step it up. If the music video was king, Madonna was queen. Several artists declared the music video the devil, while Madonna embraced it, seduced it, and made it her bitch, inevitably pushing the media to evolve along with her. By 1984, feeling her freshman oats, and surrounded by every order of controversy that could be piled on an emerging star, Madonna hit her stride with the release of “Like a Virgin”. That’s where it all turned, and the inevitability of Madonna was solidified.

The Material Girl had arrived, and her star and celebrity were heading upwards. She became something infectious, appearing across all mediums, music, photography, and moving images. Madonna was relentless and fearless, something everyone could hope to want to be. Her early music was just the tip of the iceberg; it was the “in” into the pop-culture lexicon. I was taken — hook, line, and sinker. I wanted to see, and hear more. It wouldn’t be long before the image and sound would change, and we found ourselves enthralled asking (again) who’s that girl?

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