The music-video age definitely brought sharp focus to such pop awakenings – and one pivotal scene came at the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards show in September 1984, courtesy of 26-year-old rising star Madonna, clad in bridal attire and a ‘BOY TOY’ belt buckle as she performed her new single Like a Virgin. Within three minutes of slinky synth pop splendour, Madonna had discarded her veil, lost a stiletto, writhed beneath a 17ft wedding cake, and sealed her place in mainstream consciousness.

Nearly 40 years on, Like a Virgin retains a curious allure within Madonna’s formidable catalogue; it outraged the Vatican upon release, and it recurs throughout pop culture, across movie references including the ‘mansplaining’ intro to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), academic studies (Camille Paglia described its “coruscating polarities of evil and innocence”), and cover versions – including one by singing nun Sister Cristina, who won the 2013 TV competition The Voice Of Italy. Madonna always appeared breezy amid the furore: “I was singing about how something made me feel a certain way – brand new and fresh – and everyone else interpreted it as, ‘I don’t want to be a virgin anymore.’” she told Rolling Stone in 1987. “That’s not what I sang at all.”

As a pop fan raised in the ‘80s, I was too young to originally understand what Like a Virgin was about, but I was enthralled by the music, and aware of some scandalous energy. It was a brash era and also a weirdly priggish one; female bodies were used to sell everything from cars to snacks, but sexual assertiveness was not ‘ladylike’. These conflicts have persisted; as British music journalist Lucy O’Brien writes in her excellent Madonna biography Like an icon (2018): “Many saw a continuum between advertising, music videos and soft porn, with women constantly depicted as submissive beings, there for the pleasure of men. This was why Madonna’s exploration of the virgin/whore stereotype was so incendiary – not just to the Christian right wing of the ‘moral majority’, but also to feminists, who saw it as disempowering.”

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