Madonna’s career was already on an upward trajectory. But with the late-1984 release of her second album, a record completed then delayed by the slow-building success of her first, things went bananas. Produced by Nile Rodgers on the heels of helming David Bowie’s mega-smash Let’s Dance, Like a Virgin offers a poppier variant on the Bowie/Rodgers rock-funk alliance, and is far more provocative and polished than her 1983 debut. Its indelible hits, the title track and “Material Girl,” still largely define the singer as a shrewd cultural commentator that many still willfully distort into a gold-digger, completely ignoring that her coy/theatrical/robotic/girlie delivery suggests irony and role-playing. Rodgers contributes his trademark guitar scratching throughout and fellow former Chic members Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson join in on bass and drums for the most R&B-leaning cuts. The rest tilts to New Wave lite with mixed results: The quality drop-off from inspired baubles like “Dress You Up” to filler on the level of “Stay” will rarely be this steep again. Paradoxically, her film career got off to a strong start right after this album with Desperately Seeking Susan before turning decidedly motley.
Recorded digitally, with bottom end doubled on bass guitar and synths, Like a Virgin‘s blockbuster status re-emphasized after Michael Jackson’s Thriller that ’80s dance music would be even bigger than ’70s disco, especially when delivered by a videogenic superstar capable of crossing gender and color lines. Madonna’s vocals may be overdubbed here far more than on her debut, but she’s also more mischievous, and the resulting ambiguity allowed scholars, feminists, moral custodians, and countless Madonna wannabes both professional and fan-sized to pick up from the singer radically different signals. Like Bowie, Madonna discovered that pop music became more fun the more it could be mutable. Here she starts twisting.