Madonna is the most media-savvy American pop star since Bob Dylan and, until she toned down her press-baiting behavior in the Nineties, she was the most consistently controversial one since Elvis Presley. Her pleasure-celebrating dance music and outr é videos gave feminism a much-needed makeover throughout the Eighties, smashing sexual boundaries, making eroticism a crucial pop-song element, and challenging social and religious mores. Madonna later positioned herself as a doting mother and charitable international citizen, but to her detractors, she merely reinforced the notion of "woman as plaything," turning the clock back on conventional feminism two decades. One thing, however, is rarely disputed: At nearly every turn, she has maintained firm control over her career and image.
Born in Bay City, Michigan, Madonna Ciccone was one of six children. Her mother died when Madonna was six, leaving her father, a Chrysler/General Dynamics engineer, to raise the family. She began studying dance at 14 and, after graduating from high school in 1976, continued her dance studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She moved to New York in 1978, where she studied briefly with the Alvin Ailey dance troupe.
Her first crack at pop music came when a boyfriend let her sing and play drums in his band, the Breakfast Club. While in the band, she landed a brief job as backup singer and dancer with disco star Patrick ("Born to Be Alive") Hernandez.
In 1981 she quit the Breakfast Club and started writing songs with a former boyfriend from her college years, Steven Bray. The two gained attention in the trendy New York club Danceteria, where the DJ, Mark Kamins, played her tapes; it was Kamins who took Madonna's demo to Sire Records and produced her first club hit, 1982's "Everybody."
After a 12-inch single, "Burning Up"/"Physical Attraction," hit Number Three on the dance chart in early 1983, she began recording her first album with the high-profile DJ John "Jellybean" Benitez, with whom she became romantically involved. A few months later Sire released her self-titled debut, which peaked at Number Eight. It spawned "Holiday," a single that crossed over from nightclubs to radio, eventually topping out at Number 16 on the pop charts by the following year.
Madonna enlisted manager Freddie DeMann, who had guided Michael Jackson from the Jacksons' late-1970s slump through Thriller. DeMann soon had Madonna making history with a couple of titillating videos. In March 1984 "Borderline" (Number 10), with its video celebrating interracial love, was released; it was followed by "Lucky Star" (Number Four), whose video offered provocative glimpses of the star's navel. Public opinion was — and would remain — split. Most critics initially dismissed Madonna as a prefab disco prima donna offering style over substance; a few, however, saw something different and hailed her as a strong new female voice, BOY TOY belt and all. Madonna (Number Eight, 1983) sold more than 5 million copies.
In late 1984, the Nile Rodgers-produced Like a Virgin (Number One, 1984), with its chart-topping title song, shot to the Top 10 upon its release; it eventually sold more than 10 million copies. Doubtless inspired by her indisputable videogenic presence, DeMann had negotiated movie deals for Madonna (before her stardom, she had already acted in the low-budget indie film A Certain Sacrifice, landing her a small part as a nightclub singer in Vision Quest and the title role in Desperately Seeking Susan.
Throughout 1985 Madonna was ubiquitous, appearing in both movies, with hit songs on three albums. By March, "Crazy for You (Number One), from the Vision Quest soundtrack, and "Material Girls" (Number Two), from Like a Virgin, were in the Top Five simultaneously. Her other hits were Virgin's "Angel" (Number Five) and "Dress You Up" (Number Five), and the club smash "Into the Groove," from the Susan soundtrack. Her Virgin Tour was the hot ticket during the first half of the year.
Also in 1985 Madonna married actor Sean Penn, with whom she appeared in the critical and commercial flop Shanghai Surprise (a film produced by ex-Beatle George Harrison). Then she hit the pop world with a musical left hook: "Papa Don't Preach" (Number One, 1986). The initial single from the 7-million seller True Blue (Number One, 1986) drew criticism for its message that young unwed women should keep their babies. As the lyrical content of Madonna's songs deepened, critical acceptance of her began to grow. Her subsequent 1986 hits were "True Blue" (Number Three) and "Open Your Heart" (Number One), followed in 1987 by "La Isla Bonita" (Number Four).
Another ill-advised acting venture, 1987's Who's That Girl, was tied into a Number One, platinum album of the same name, which included the hit title song (Number One) and "Causing a Commotion" (Number Two). In 1988 she appeared in David Mamet's Broadway production Speed the Plow. The next year she and Penn divorced.
She returned to music in 1989 with Like a Prayer (Number One), and the title song's video — complete with burning crosses and an eroticized black Jesus — launched Madonna's biggest and costliest controversy thus far. Released in March, it was censured by the Vatican, and the public response prompted Pepsi-Cola to cancel the singer's lucrative endorsement deal. Despite that, "Like a Prayer" debuted at Number One. The international controversy only raised the singer's profile. Like a Prayer spawned four other Top 20 hits: "Express Yourself" (Number Two), "Cherish" (Number Two), "Oh Father" (Number 20), and "Keep It Together" (Number Eight).
Madonna hit her megastar stride in 1990, when she appeared as Breathless Mahoney with then-boyfriend Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy; its soundtrack, I'm Breathless (Number Two, 1990), bore hits in "Hanky Panky" (Number 10) and the non-movie double-platinum single "Vogue" (Number One), which honored and revived the popular gay dance craze.
In 1991 she scored hits with "Rescue Me" (Number Nine) and "Justify My Love' (Number One); the video for the latter fanned the flames of controversy yet again with its explicit depiction of various forms of sexual expression. She then oversaw the film Truth of Dare, a documentary of her Blond Ambition Tour dressed up to look like D.A. Pennebaker's Dylan movie, Don't Look Back. Madonna also became one of the first pop stars to speak out about AIDS and help raise money for research.
The singer affirmed her business acumen in 1992 when she signed a seven-year, $60-million deal with Time Warner, guaranteeing release of all albums, films, and books under her Maverick production corporation. Her first Maverick project was a highly controversial 128-page coffee-table photo book, Sex, which had Madonna posing nude and wearing S&M gear. Sex was followed by the mostly panned erotic film thriller Body of Evidence and the album Erotica, which peaked at Number Two and produced Top Five hits in 1992: the tile track (Number Three, 1992) and "Deeper and Deeper" (Number Seven). "Bad Girl" (Number 36) and "Rain" (Number 14) were both Top 40 hits in 1993.
By then, Maverick was releasing work by other artists, including hip-hop chanteuse Meshell Ndegéocello, and Madonna embarked on her worldwide Girlie Show Tour, which drew a mixed critical reaction. An appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman returned Madonna to the headlines in spring 1994, when, using an abundance of profanities, she engaged in a verbal sparring match with the comedian.
She also returned to the pop chart that year with the Number Two single "I'll Remember," from the 1994 film With Honors. Her late-1994 album, Bedtime Stories (Number Three), presented a fairly traditional R&B sound and yielded the hit singles "Secret" (Number Four, 1994) and "Take a Bow" (Number One, 1995). The title track (Number 42) was cowritten by Björk. Madonna then released the compilation Something to Remember (Number Six, 1995), which gathered the singer's ballads with three new songs. She soon won the lead role in a film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita, a musical based on the life of Argentina's Evita Per ón. Evita gave Madonna her first real dose of vocal training and earned her favorable reviews; it spawned the hit singles "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" (Number Eight) and "You Must Love Me" (Number 18).
Despite her chameleon inclinations, Madonna stayed consistently within the dance world during the 1990s. Her only foray into rock came in a duet with brother-in-law Joe Henry on 1996's Sweet Relief II: Gravity of a Situation benefit album. She gave birth to daughter Lourdes in October 1996; the father was personal trainer Carlos Leon.
Madonna assumed an active role at the increasingly successful Maverick, personally approving every act signed, including the chart-topping Alanis Morissette. In 1998 Madonna released the soul-searching Ray of Light (Number Two, 1998), an album produced by William Orbit that explored the new sounds of drum and bass, trip-hop, and other forms of electronic dance music as well as Madonna's new interest in the Jewish mysticism called Kabbalah. It spawned the hit singles "Frozen" (Number Two), "Ray of Light" (Number Five), and "The Power of Good-Bye" (Number 11). Madonna then recorded "Beautiful Stranger" for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and a dance version of Don McLean's "American Pie" for the soundtrack of her film The Next Best Thing. Her collaboration with Orbit continued on 2000's Music, which debuted at Number One and generated the singles "Music" (Number One, 2000) and "Don't Tell Me" (Number Four, 2000); the majority of Music was coproduced by Mirwais Ahmadzaï.
Madonna gave birth to a son, Rocco, in 2000, and in 2001 she married Rocco's father, British director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Snatch). She also debuted her first major stage show since 1993, the Drowned World Tour, which mined her entire career in acts exploring punk, geisha, Western, Latin and urban motifs. The tightly choreographed show also featured the debut of Madonna's onstage guitar playing. Though the trek was hailed as an artistic and commercial triumph, Madonna weathered harsh reviews for her starring role in 2002's Swept Away, which was directed by Ritchie.
Her next album American Life (Number One, 2003), another collaboration with Mirwais, was a darker, stark critique of modern consumerism that garnered less enthusiastic reviews. Its first single "Die Another Day" was penned as a James Bond theme, and "Hollywood" became most famous for its performance at the 2003 VMAs, where Madonna kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
After demonstrating she still had the power to titillate, Madonna began work on becoming a concerned citizen of the world. She emphasized her seriousness about parenting by authoring a series of children's books called The English Roses and took to the stage at two prominent charity concerts, for victims of the 2004 tsunami and Live 8. (She also went on another trek called the Re-Invention Tour, which was chronicled in the concert film I'm Going to Tell You a Secret). She cofounded a non-profit organization called Raising Malawi to address the growing problem of orphans in the African nation, and ultimately adopted two children herself, David Banda and Mercy James (both proceedings were fraught with legal wrangling).
In 2006, Madonna returned to the club for the future-disco album Confessions on a Dance Floor, which was largely coproduced by Stuart Price. The album opened at Number One on the strength of lead track "Hung Up," which reworked an Abba sample, though none of its singles ("Sorry," "Get Together" and "Jump") topped the Hot 100 in the U.S. However Madonna's Confessions Tour supporting the disc became the highest-grossing tour in history by a female artist (Madonna later beat her previous best with the record-breaking Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2009).
As the accolades for Madonna's Confessions tour piled up, she signed a 360-degree deal with concert giant Live Nation worth a reported $120 million for future albums, tours, merchandise and film projects.
Madonna was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Justin Timberlake in March 2008; fellow Michigan-natives and punk forefathers the Stooges performed "Burning Up" and "Ray of Light" in her honor. Just a month later, Madonna unveiled an album that paired her with Timberlake, Timbaland and the Neptunes: Hard Candy. The disc debuted at Number One; its most successful single was "4 Minutes" (Number Three, 2008), which featured Timberlake. Some of the album's lyrics seemed to describe a relationship in distress, and Madonna and Ritchie announced their split in October 2008 while she was still on the road for her Sticky & Sweet Tour. Madonna returned to the tabloids over rumored romances with New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez and Brazilian model Jesus Luz.
For her final album on her Warner Bros. contract, Madonna looked back at her career once again in the 2009 retrospective Celebration, which boasted two brand-new songs: the title track, produced by dance-floor guru Paul Oakenfold, and "Revolver," which features Lil Wayne. In September 2009, she opened the MTV Video Music Awards with a lengthy speech examining the Michael Jackson's legacy and the parallels between their lives and careers.
Madonna started off 2010 by reportedly beginning work on her follow up to Hard Candy and performing "Like a Prayer" during the international telethon Hope for Haiti Now. The song appeared on the download-only Haiti charity album, which debuted at Number One.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Caryn Ganz contributed to this story.