Maybe it was because the mustaches were bigger. Maybe it was the shoulder pads. Maybe it was because we didn’t know how bad coke was for us yet. Whatever the reason, the club hits of 1984 were mostly dominated by male artists belting out cheese like Hall and Oates’ “Say It Isn’t So” or Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
America was still washing off the disco from the night before, and everyone at da club was ready for something new to test their boundaries (and their genitals). That atmosphere—mixed with the 1981 introduction of MTV—set a ripe stage for Madonna to revolutionize the sexually charged music previously heard only in the dance club. Madonna injected dance music into the mainstream, and didn’t just infuse the pop charts with the notions of sex, but made them more female-dominated than ever.
Without Madonna, would we ever have known the tenderness of Britney? The robust vocal stylings of Xtina? What about Kelis’ milkshake or Mariah’s melisma? The world would be a much darker, much less sexy place had we never heard “Borderline” or “Lucky Star” or, most importantly, “Like a Virgin.”
“Like a Virgin” was Madonna’s first number one, and became one of the best-selling singles of 1984 and 1985. Granted, the video seems pretty tame by today’s standards set by “Blurred Lines,” “Anaconda,” and, well, every music video imaginable; “Virgin” looks like footage from your niece’s elaborate christening (had she been christened in the canals of Venice by a lion). But the lyrics’ sexually suggestive content—not to mention Madonna’s scandalous performance at the MTV Video Music Awards—upped the ante for pop music, introducing it to its new business partner: sex.
Madonna’s hits kept rolling in for the years that followed, turning increasingly sensual and subversive. By 1989, Madonna was provocatively writhing in a slip in front of burning crosses in “Like a Prayer,” pissing off the pope, Pepsi, and housewives alike.
With the release of 1990’s greatest hits album The Immaculate Collection, Madonna had scored 21 hits in the top 10 (and had landed 12 number ones on the dance chart). She continues to be the most successful female pop star of all time, in large part due to her various marketing tactics, all of which she coordinated herself. Madonna became a lot more than the girl twisting around in fishnet stockings on TV; she showed it was possible to become successful by making a brand and a name for yourself, without having to rely on a man to sell you.
2014 marked the first time in Billboard Top 100 history that female artists dominated the top five spots for six straight weeks. Hits may be more about booties and “goodies” than ever before, but women are also dominating club sound systems—and none of this could have started without Madonna, her virgin, or her prayer.