I was eight, and I wore a black tulle petticoat from Marks and Spencer. Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour came to London’s Wembley Stadium for three nights in July 1990, after Tokyo, Los Angeles, Paris, and Rome. My mother took me after having spent hours on the phone to get tickets, which had a silvery seal when they came. I still have the stub, as well as the Like a Virgin cassette that was pretty much the only thing I played in my brown Fisher-Price tape recorder. The BBC broadcast the second show live to the nation, and asked Madonna not to swear—so she did, fourteen times in one minute. What I remember from the concert I went to the next evening was the bubbly joy of dancing to “Holiday” and the liberating joy of watching her gyrate to “Like a Virgin.” That night I—a shy, bookish suburban girl—got to sing and dance and pretend I was free.

One of Madonna’s greatest talents as a performer has been to understand, and play with, the contradictions of womanhood. The bride is always shadowed by the whore, and so many of her performances say, This isn’t tragic; joy is almost always possible. In a 1994 article and interview for Esquire, Norman Mailer predicted that the video for “Like a Virgin,” which shows Madonna writhing on the tip of a gondola and being carried over the threshold of a palazzo, was going to get “richer” the more it was looked at—that it was a sort of poem made of juxtaposed images that would open up with time. “I’ve come to the conclusion,” Mailer added, directly addressing Madonna—who by this point had sold millions of records, produced three blockbuster world tours, starred in mainstream and art house movies, and sold out the first print run of a photo book of her sexual fantasies—“that you are a great artist. It’s on record now.”

Simply by the numbers, Madonna is the best-selling female recording artist of all time, and the only woman of the five all-time best-selling recording artists—a category that includes the Beatles, Elvis, Queen, and Michael Jackson. It could be said that Beyoncé is a better singer, Shakira a better dancer, Taylor Swift a better lyricist, or Britney Spears a better confessional autobiographer, but Madonna is mother. To others, Madonna is better understood as a performance artist than as a pop star. I can see it: Carolee Schneemann, Ana Mendieta, Yoko Ono, and others used their art to force people to think about violence, racism, and feminism years before Madonna arrived in New York, but there is nevertheless something of the same unabashed body confidence of Schneeman’s Meat Joy in Madonna’s navel-baring video for “Lucky Star.”

Mary Gabriel’s Madonna: A Rebel Life is the most comprehensive biography of the singer to date, and aims to make the case for her importance. Gabriel—whose previous book, Ninth Street Women, was a joint biography of the painters Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, and Joan Mitchell—has corralled an unimaginable amount of material and spoken to many of Madonna’s closest friends, though not to Madonna herself. She argues that Madonna’s greatest significance is social—her support of people of color, gay rights, and women’s liberation in a hidebound industry—rather than artistic. The singer is a “lightning rod,” Gabriel says in her prologue, “an irritant, sometimes even to her fans.” But, apart from maybe the Dreyfus Affair, do controversies last?

Madonna’s genius, rather, is not just for controversy, or for pressing on the fissures in femininity, or for her bold support of once-unpopular causes, or for the video-playlets she brought to MTV. It is for doing it all with no apology, in the service of a particular sort of female strength. From this perspective, certain aspects of her career make more sense: her outspokenness, her rebellion, her thirst for change, her conical bra, her references to the female performers before her, the many times she’s come close to sabotaging her career.

I cringe a little at Gabriel’s argument. I don’t think that Madonna necessarily needs to be socially important; trying to push her into a higher cultural category does everyone a disservice, and fails to see the obvious glory in being a pop star. I value her now for the same things I valued her for when I was eight: she makes me dance, and she is always willing to smash a shibboleth. As I watched her sing “I Will Survive” when her Celebration Tour came to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center this past December, I realized that my favorite of her qualities might be her defiance.

Madonna was born of Madonna. Her mother, Madonna Fortin, was the daughter of a timber merchant in Bay City, Michigan; her father, Tony Ciccone, was an engineer at Chrysler whose parents had arrived in Pennsylvania from Abruzzo, Italy. Do I need to tell you her religion? (Her paternal grandmother’s bedroom was decorated with rosaries.)


Born in 1958, the first daughter of the family, baby Madonna became Nonni, a little grandmother, to her daddy. She once said that when, as a small child, she sought comfort in the night, the feeling of her mother’s silk nightdress, and a kiss on her forehead, was “heaven.” When Madonna senior was twenty-eight years old and pregnant with her sixth child, she discovered that she had breast cancer, most likely from exposure to radiation during her work as an X-ray technician. In 1963, a few months after her eldest daughter’s fifth birthday, she died, and the young Madonna’s heart was “ripped out” of her chest. The casket was open at the funeral; her mother’s lips were sewn shut.

Her father’s reaction was to remarry quickly and impose discipline on his children. Madonna’s was to rebel: “I was just one angry, abandoned little girl.” In junior high, she appeared onstage with fluorescent green-and-pink hearts and flowers painted onto her clothes and body; her father lowered his camera and decided against recording the moment. In high school, she discovered Joni Mitchell (Court and Spark was “my bible for a whole year”), Anne Sexton (“Her ideas and her imagery were so bold”), and dance, taking classes with the first person who saw something in her—Christopher Flynn, who had been Robert Joffrey’s assistant in New York and now ran his own studio in Rochester, Michigan, about twenty-five miles north of Detroit.

Flynn demanded a “thinking dancer” and took Madonna to her first gay club. “Until that point, I kept seeing myself through macho heterosexual eyes,” Madonna said later. “I suddenly thought, ‘That’s not the only way that I have to be.’” As a girl in her hometown of Pontiac, she’d danced to 45s in driveways with the Black girls in her neighborhood. Now she’d found another community that allowed her to understand herself, one that would look out for her, and that she has continued to give back to in various ways: printing PSAs about AIDS in the liner notes of Like a Prayer, promoting condom use, coming to many of her dying friends’ bedsides.

Madonna went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1976, having won a four-year dance scholarship. There she began dating Stephen Bray, a Black musician who went on to train at the Berklee College of Music; they later wrote “Into the Groove” and “Express Yourself” together. Although sex with him was good, she didn’t want to “do it all the time,” her Michigan roommate reported Madonna saying in a memoir.* In fact, she seems to have been much less concerned with sex in her late teens and early twenties than you might imagine. Instead, she was falling for the films of Resnais and Pasolini, and enamored of the idea of making it in New York City.

Her legend goes like this: in 1978 a nineteen-year-old Madonna, having dropped out of college, gets in a cab at LaGuardia and tells the driver to take her to the “middle of everything.” After cab fare, she has $35 and a plan to audition for the Alvin Ailey company; she carries a small suitcase in one hand and a large doll in the other. The driver drops her off in Times Square, and within four years of that moment, she hears a song of her own on the radio for the very first time.

But as Madonna herself told the Los Angeles Times in 1984, during those early days she cried with loneliness at the Lincoln Center fountain, not knowing that there was dancing happening outside of plush auditoria. She lived among cockroaches in Hell’s Kitchen and spent her days at the Martha Graham School once she learned that it was where to master Ailey’s style. That first year in New York, she was raped at knifepoint after asking a stranger for a coin to make a phone call. She didn’t tell her father, “because he would have said, ‘What were you wearing?’” and she didn’t speak about the assault in public until 1995. When she addressed the rape in a post–Me Too interview with Vogue, it didn’t seem like a buried trauma; it didn’t even seem like the origin of her feminism. “I’d rather not be a victim,” she said. “It’s there like all the other experiences—the good, the bad and the ugly.”

By the spring of 1979 she was auditioning, learning drums and guitar, writing songs, performing in no-budget movies. She fired her first manager and worked on demos with Bray instead, passing her tapes to the DJs at the Roxy and Danceteria, where she became a regular. “She was never some dingy white chick who slept around with the guys,” Fab 5 Freddy remembered—rather, she toyed with them, earning her the tag “Boy Toy.”


One tape made its way to Seymour Stein of Sire Records, who was laid up in the hospital at the time after “blowtorching the candle at both ends” in order to find talent for his label. In Madonna, he thought he had found his Florence Nightingale—“I liked the hook, I liked Madonna’s voice, I liked the feel, and I liked the name Madonna. I liked it all”—and invited her to the cardiac ward to meet him. “What I saw there was even more important than the one song I heard,” Stein said. “I saw a young woman who was so determined to be a star.” Her first single, “Everybody,” was released in October 1982 without her face on the sleeve because the label didn’t know whether to promote her music as white or Black. Within a month it was playing on the radio. She’d made it.

Sort of. She’d become popular, but that wasn’t the same as becoming an artist. Her friendship with Martin Burgoyne, who lived in her apartment building, gave her admission to the New York scene proper. He introduced her to Maripol, the art director at Fiorucci, who loaded her with rubber bracelets and dropped her waistlines below her belly button. She met, and started dating, Jean-Michel Basquiat; she partied with Andy Warhol; she learned to make a record from Reggie Lucas, who wrote “Borderline” for her; she hired Michael Jackson’s manager, Freddy DeMann; she also dated John “Jellybean” Benitez, who had a song in his pocket with lyrics—“Just one day out of life/It would be-ee, it would be so NICE”—that were an escapist response to the humiliations of Reagan’s America. Her first album, Madonna, was released in 1983, just before her twenty-fifth birthday. After performing on American Bandstand, all sinuous hips and bouncy skips, she was asked what her dreams were. “To rule the world,” she said, and laughed.

It was with the downtown scene in mind that she pushed her performances further. She first sang “Like a Virgin” at Keith Haring’s inaugural Party of Life in 1984, with lengths of white lace in hand—a performance that morphed into the palazzo scenes in the video, and then into her notorious appearance at the first MTV Video Music Awards in September 1984. Madonna didn’t win anything, but she had a giant three-layer wedding cake constructed on the Radio City Music Hall stage. As she sang, she slid down the swagged and rosetted gâteau layer by layer, leaving her plastic husband behind, as if moving from the fantasy of marriage to its reality. By the end of the performance, her tulle skirt was around her waist and her suspender-belted thighs were showing: the bride stripped bare and the notion of marriage as a woman’s best destiny destroyed.

The image of the virgin was perfected by the fashion photographer Steven Meisel, who shot her at the St. Regis hotel, reclining on satin pillows with a bouquet in her hand for the front cover of the Like a Virgin album. On the back, Madonna is fastening her shoe from the edge of the hotel bed, looking fleshy and sated from the momentous night before. The image of the whore was crystallized in Susan Seidelman’s 1985 movie Desperately Seeking Susan: Madonna played the eponymous Susan, strolling East Seventh Street and eating cheese puffs like an “indolent, trampy goddess,” as Pauline Kael put it in The New Yorker. That movie argued with remarkable ease that wifedom in Fort Lee, New Jersey, with a microwave oven and a jet-black Ford convertible, was nothing compared to life with a Bleecker Street Cinema projectionist whose ex-girlfriend has just taken the refrigerator.

Madonna’s performances of “Like a Virgin” have formed a chain of associations over her career. After 1984’s rebellious bride, in 1987 she performed the song like a screwball heroine in winged glasses with eyeballs sprouting on springs from her nipples, then in 1990 as a girl in a harem discovering that she can give herself pleasure, then in 1993 as a Marlene Dietrich–style cabaret singer turning her v’s into w’s (Gene Kelly’s suggestion), then in 2006 as an equestrian back in the saddle after being thrown, then in 2012 as a sweaty showgirl seducing her pianist at an upright. In 2023 she returned to that first live performance, mixing the song with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and letting two performers dressed as a young Michael and Madonna dance in silhouette together, as if Jackson’s death had not intervened. With each idea the song is returned to us, its message about the unlikely wonder of falling in love shiny and new.

It is regularly said that Madonna can’t sing, and it’s true that she doesn’t have the instrument of, say, Celine Dion (her father’s favorite singer). But as Patrick Leonard—with whom she wrote “Like a Prayer,” “Cherish,” “La Isla Bonita,” and “Frozen”—noticed, she “puts across a vulnerable quality that you can’t copy.” It’s the voice of a performer rather than a singer, telling the story with squeaks, sighs, and exclamations as much as with melody. The “hey!” in “Like a Virgin,” you have to admit, is doing a lot of work (not to mention the swallowing “ah”). Her dancing, too, has come in for criticism, but you can find ballerinas with long extensions who would not think to angle their chins the way Madonna does. Performance is about style. It is a particular curl of the hand that makes a Margot Fonteyn, and it is a certain type of courage that makes a Marina Abramović. Madonna has both.

Because Madonna has changed so much—all those virgins, some hardly innocent—one could say that she is authentic only in her desire for attention. (Warren Beatty, a former lover, said in Truth or Dare, the concert movie she made with Alek Keshishian of the Blond Ambition Tour, that she didn’t want to live “off camera,” a comment whose jealous ring might not make it entirely untrue.) But like a drag show, she often seems to be simply showing femininity up. If it’s this easy to put on a dress, then might it be just as easy to put on a suit? It is all performance: being filthy in bed and sweet to your dad, shouting orders at the workers and lapping milk like a pussycat (as she does in the David Fincher–directed video for “Express Yourself”). With “and” instead of “or” you access the optimism of resilience. If the choice is change or die, Madonna never says die.

In 1985 Madonna went on her first tour. Legions turned up for the Virgin Tour in red lipstick and fingerless gloves: the look of a bad girl applied with the discipline of a good girl. Madonna worked hard; she told Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune that she ended the evening of each date of her tour by reading—Joyce, Fitzgerald, Salinger—and eating sorbet. She didn’t smoke or drink or do drugs, and she got up earlier than everyone else to work out. At her hometown show in Detroit that May, she cried while singing “Crazy for You” to Sean Penn, whom she married that August on her twenty-seventh birthday. She wore her wedding veil over a bowler hat: “I don’t know what that was supposed to mean,” Warhol, one of the guests, wrote in his diary. She later often said that Penn was the love of her life, but their marriage ended definitively when the police were called to their home in 1988. (Penn successfully sued the film director Lee Daniels for $10 million in 2016 for repeating the long-standing rumor that he had been abusive to Madonna, which they both deny.)

Like a Prayer, released in 1989, is the “divorce album” she made as the relationship broke down, capturing its intensity in gospel and funk, with Prince occasionally on guitar. “Cherish” is the result of an attempted reconciliation; “Till Death Do Us Part” is the glass-smashing bitter end. Seven years into her career, she was so valuable to the music industry that when she asked that the liner notes be perfumed with patchouli, to recall the incense in a Catholic church, the record company said yes. I remember catching the scent of the pale blue paper as I learned the lyrics, not knowing why my tape smelled so good.

The lyrics to “Like a Prayer” were written in an hour, and channel the voice, Madonna said, of a girl passionately in love with God. Around that time, Madonna’s father shared with his children letters their mother had written to him before they were married, which Madonna’s brother Christopher described as “loving and sweet…God this and God that.” In “Like a Prayer” Madonna sings, “I hear your voice,” and in the video, directed by Mary Lambert, that voice tells her not to let white men get away with framing a Black bystander for attempted rape and murder. She shelters in a church, where she prays to a statue of a Black saint who looks very much like the accused. The saint comes alive to whisper something in her ear and kiss her once on the forehead, then make out with her on a pew, giving her the strength to report what she’s seen to the police (though not before dancing in front of burning crosses in a chocolate-brown slip once worn by Natalie Wood). The Black man is freed on her testimony. Part of the album cover photo shoot, by Herb Ritts, took place at a Los Angeles graveyard. The dark-haired, thirty-year-old Madonna is revealed as a beauty, momentarily contradicting Hilary Mantel’s description of her as the “plain girl’s revenge made flesh.” In one image she leans on a cross like she is waiting to be kissed; in another she prays as if she knows that she looks best down on her knees.

Madonna appears in a cemetery again in Truth or Dare, when she and her brother take lilies to their mother’s grave in Bay County, Michigan. The gravestone is gray and low like an open book. Madonna lays down her tribute and then lies down herself, her ear to the granite like a pillow. It occurred to me, watching her do this, that it might have been difficult for Madonna to remember what her mother’s voice sounded like. She had been five when her mother died, nearly thirty years before. But you can hear the voice better if you press your ear to the ground.

One of the minor disappointments of my thirties was that the owner of the club my friends liked to go to after the London pubs closed would refuse to play Madonna songs, no matter how much we begged. Dancing with my girlfriends to “Like a Prayer” is one of my great pleasures. At a roof party in Bethnal Green, a noise curfew threatening, my boldest friend commandeered the Spotify account and used our last ten minutes to play it. In sisterly solidarity, we shouted the lyrics into the air.

Every time this happens I am surprised how deeply “Like a Prayer” has burrowed into the feminine imagination. The fantasy the song offers is one of being understood without having to explain yourself, of being together while affirming our aloneness. I have sung it so many times in my bedroom that singing it with other women, even with my eyes closed, feels ecstatic. They feel it too—and isn’t that one of the reasons we listen at all?

And yet: Madonna attempted to monetize the song’s controversies (a deal with Pepsi fell through when they saw the burning crosses). The gospel choir is borrowed from a culture that isn’t her own, one example of a pattern of appropriation that has been somewhat less than reciprocal. Yet that carelessness can be the origin of some of her best work, as epitomized by a project that dates from 1990, when Judith Regan of Simon and Schuster proposed that Madonna write a book of women’s sexual fantasies in the mold of Nancy Friday. The following summer Madonna took charge of the project herself, deciding that it would be a book of photographs called Sex, and published it in October 1992.

I’d never seen a copy of Sex until last August, when I sat among the scholars at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s library to look at it. The museum copy has a custom-made cardboard modesty sleeve, which screeches open, thanks to Velcro dots. The book itself is big, two hands high, with metal covers that remained cool even as I handled them. The pages are rough, the sort of paper that’s hungry for ink, and the images crisp, mostly black-and-white but with washes of process magenta, blue, and cyan. The Velcro, size, and binding meant I couldn’t conceal that I was looking at Madonna naked, Madonna having a threesome, Madonna posing à la Courbet’s L’Origine du monde—which the Musée d’Orsay tucks in a side room. Reader, I blushed.

The book is hardly The Second Sex—what words there are, written in a persona called Dita, don’t rise above the level of a Harlequin novel—but it does argue for the importance of women’s sexual pleasure. I knew that I would find a stylized depiction of a rape in the book, and here it was: two men tugging at Madonna in a high school gym, textbooks spilled on the waxed wooden floor and her sweater pulled above her breasts. I saw a provocation, yes, but also an image of rape made by a survivor, and I wondered what posing for that photograph had meant to her. Was it an attempt to reinterpret what happened in 1978? By contrast, the year after Sex came out, in Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game you could see Madonna’s character, Sarah, an actress, be raped for a film within the film, then get up and scream at the actor for not having acted at all. In Sex she decides to pull her rape into her own erotic fantasies, and in the film she tears apart the male artists who harm women in the name of art. Both seem, in my view, to be not unfeminist strategies.

Halfway through Sex there is a beautifully composed, and hot, picture of her leaning over a full-length mirror masturbating, watching her own cheeks bloom pink with orgasm. Another page shows thirty-eight images of her kissing a male partner in bed, her smitten eyes on his, a laugh on her lips. The book is gorgeous and daring. What’s so terribly wrong with enjoying sex anyway, she’s saying, and will not stop saying. So much of what Madonna still stands for was established during the first third of her career: her initial themes have variations, like the reinterpretations of her own songs, that bring us ever back. You can’t keep going if there is no pleasure, though God knows women have tried.

When Sex was published, Martin Amis called it the “desperate confection of an aging scandal addict” (Madonna was thirty-four)—which was, as they say, the least of it. “I lost confidence in humanity,” she said of the ad feminam attacks of the time. “I lost confidence in…being able to feel there was a certain level of behavior that I could depend on in other people.” Even Mailer, who was sent not to bury but to praise her, asked her whether she could conceive of “ending up a porny queen” in a different life. “That’s so hard to say,” she responded, diplomatically.

Is Sex art or attention seeking? Does it rise above titillation? The book is in the collection of the Met; a thirtieth-anniversary edition is available from Saint Laurent for $2,200. It has a political use: in the foreword Madonna says Sex takes place in “a perfect world, a place without AIDS,” but that here on Earth “condoms are not only necessary but mandatory,” a message she had been repeating for years by the time it first came out, as she had watched many of the people who were important to her early in life, such as Christopher Flynn and Martin Burgoyne, die of AIDS. The book also has something to say about sexual etiquette: no sex before the fifth date, she writes, which isn’t bad advice (I’ve tried it).

I think there is an answer to the book’s conundrum to be found in the spirit in which it was made: its creation was a “rush,” Madonna said. She had “the best time.” She is often grinning in the book when you think she should be open-mouthed and moaning. “The whole thing,” she said, “was like performance art.”

And maybe it’s the “like” that’s truly clinching. “She’s a performance artist who had a genius to take it mainstream,” Jeffrey Deitch, Madonna’s gallerist, once said. At its worst, her work can feel like it should be more meaningful, and sometimes it doesn’t land well. A recent example is her 2019 video for “God Control,” which depicts a nightclub massacre in order to make a plea for firearms legislation. Instead of being welcomed, the video was in fact condemned by the teenage campaigners who inspired it, who did not want their experiences used as entertainment. In 2006 she performed “Live to Tell” strapped to a mirror-ball crucifix, and one can only imagine weariness in Cardinal Ersilio Tonini’s call for her excommunication, not the Church’s first. In Brooklyn in December, she sang “Like a Prayer” surrounded by male dancers making out in Jesus loincloths, and I found myself laughing. But when it lands—as in “Like a Virgin”—no one does it better.

If the political strand of the performance sometimes falters, the autobiographical strand is steadier. This category of song documents either her attempts to deal with her fame, such as “Keep It Together,” or the way the birth of her daughter Lourdes in 1996 fulfilled her as no crowd can, such as “Drowned World/Substitute for Love.” (She has since had more children, including four adopted from Malawi, where she has built schools and a pediatric wing of a hospital.) During the Madame X Tour in 2019, Lourdes, who also studied dance at the University of Michigan, appeared as a giant prerecorded projection in triplicate dancing to “Frozen” while her mother sang, tiny and real, at the center of the stage. No longer the lover’s complaint it had been in 1998—“You’re frozen,” Madonna sings, “your heart’s not open”—the song became a maternal lament. Her daughter’s heart, this time, isn’t open. The dynamics of love, whether the object is a withholding lover or an adventurous daughter, remain the same.

Madonna will not be with us forever: she dances much less vigorously onstage, she needs ever-longer periods of rest even to be able to perform, and she nearly died last June from a bacterial infection. Both Prince and Michael Jackson, her collaborators and rivals from the era before streaming, died from overdoses of pain medication to treat injuries from decades of performance. She has resolved, in one of the most conventional decisions in an unconventional career, that her face will no longer age. But we are lucky to have grown up in the age of Madonna. She has stood not for tradition but for freedom: to love who we love, to change at will, to say what we want, to earn money, to court fame, to desire more than we’re given. We should want our heroines to be bad girls like her. It leaves us, in the real world, freer.