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How famous was Madonna? And how did she make an impact in pop culture and music?

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Dear Young and Clueless,

Born in Bay City, Michigan, in 1958, Madonna Louise Ciccone entered a music industry with dozens of talented singers and groups for every popular music taste when she took off in 1983 with her first album and hit songs. She did so primarily by astute calculation, gauging mainstream musical tastes and getting out her “product” with a sexually outrageous chutzpah (for the time) that outstripped her talent.

This was nothing new. Ada Isaacs Menken used sexually outrageous costumes on stage (body suits and male clothing), as well as photographic publicity, to make her the first internationally recognized American sex symbol in the 1860s. Josephine Baker likewise used flamboyance as well as a radical change of venue to turn herself from just another moderately talented jazz singer in St. Louis into the hottest, most exotic ticket in Paris in the 1920s. At about that same time Mae West was using her sexual double-entendres to push the envelope on stage and later on screen.

Madonna’s great innovation was to apply that principle to the new medium of the music video, commandeering MTV and systematically promoting her way into a major influence in music, fashion and general attitude among young “material girls” of the 1980s and into the 1990s. During that time she was world famous, enough so to be forgiven her frequent missteps as an actress. Although not quite as influential as she once was (having spawned progeny such as Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus who are now her younger rivals), Madonna’s readiness to reinvent herself (a trait she also shares with her abovementioned predecessors) has sustained her career for the time being.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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