WHEN MADONNA released her self-titled debut on July 27, 1983, the chameleon-like quality that would become her career trademark had yet to manifest itself—she was simply Madonna Louise Ciccone, a sassy, single-minded 24-year-old who hung out in New York clubs, wrote catchy songs, and dressed like a punker.
Despite the disco influence, Madonna is punk rock in attitude and even, to an extent, style—no doubt influenced by late nights running in New York's post-punk and art circles, surrounded by members of Sonic Youth and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and dancing to punk, new wave, and hip-hop at the four-story Danceteria on W 21st. The synthesizers on her debut are just as dark and bracing as those found on Devo and Gary Numan records, and Madonna had a confidence and sexuality that hadn't been captured since Donna Summer. It was just what pop music needed, too, as the charts at the time were cluttered with male artists; not only that, but there was also a stale whiff of the old-guard, with Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Lionel Richie, and even David Bowie riding the AOR wave.
Madonna would alter the course, but it didn't happen overnight. The record entered the Billboard chart at 190, and didn't hit the Top 10 until more than a year later, right before she released her follow-up, Like a Virgin. Madonna's first two singles, "Everybody" and "Burning Up"—both released prior to the album's release—barely even registered outside of the dance clubs. But those two songs are the true gems, the gritty New York anthems that have been overshadowed by the sparkly classics "Borderline" and "Holiday."
Madonna's label, Sire—which had released albums by punk and new-wave bands like the Ramones, Talking Heads, and the Pretenders—didn't quite know quite what to do with her. "What they did was send her to the black radio stations when her first record came out, and that's how they promoted her at first," Madonna producer Reggie Lucas told the Atlantic in 2013.
A year later, Madonna Mania hit, and artists and labels were looking to her. By the time Like a Virgin was released in November of 1984, we were all living in a material world. But some of Madonna's best material still lies in the dark corners of that first record.
The Madonna Issue