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The songwriting team of Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg wrote this. Other songs they have written include "Eternal Flame
" by the Bangles, "So Emotional
" by Whitney Houston, "True Colors
" by Cyndi Lauper, and "Alone
" by Heart. All were #1 hits in the US featuring female vocalists. Steinberg considers this their most famous song.
In our interview with Billy Steinberg
he told the story of this song: "My father was a farmer. He was a grape grower in the Coachella Valley and our vineyards were in a little town called Thermal, California. I had a Rock band called Billy Thermal and we were signed to Planet Records, Richard Perry's label. That band had just split up, so I was working out in the vineyards with my dad. I remember writing the lyrics to 'Like a Virgin' while driving in a red pickup truck that I owned around our dusty desert vineyards. I had been involved in a very emotionally difficult relationship that had finally ended and I had met somebody new. I remember writing that lyric about feeling shiny and new - I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through - I made it through this very difficult time. I took that lyric to Tom, he knew what I had gone through. He read those first lyrics and he sat down at the piano and tried to write a sensitive ballad to them. He'd come up with a few interesting things, but every time we got to the chorus lyric where it said, 'Like a virgin,' it just hit a brick wall - how can you write a tender ballad called 'Like a Virgin'? It just sounded ridiculous. Whereas it was him prodding me with 'True Colors' to finish the lyric, with 'Like a Virgin' I was the one prodding him, saying, 'No, no, no, let's not put this one aside because this is a very special lyric.' I didn't want to let it fall by the wayside. At that time Tom and I were writing Rock songs. Tom had this voice that was not unlike Lou Gramm
(from Foreigner). Tom had that kind of voice - very high, very powerful range. Out of nothing more than utter frustration, Tom started to play the bass line to 'Like a Virgin' and sing the lyric falsetto to this bass line he was playing. I said, 'That's it!' He stopped and went, 'What?' and I said, 'That's it, that's the song.' He couldn't imagine because he had this style of singing that was usually based on that male Rock thing. I think he was trying to imagine doing a falsetto, almost Motown inspired vocal and I said, 'Yeah, that's it.' He went along with it and agreed that that's how the song was working. We did a demo where Tom sang the song falsetto and I added a few background vocal parts. Tom didn't like me to sing because he never liked my singing. He sort of indulged me and I added a few little parts that ended up being used on the Madonna record."
The song's writers, Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, were a recording duo called I-Ten when they wrote this song. They released one album, Taking a Cold Look, which came out in 1983. Steinberg told us how he and Kelly got together: "When we were writing songs like 'Like a Virgin' and 'True Colors,' Tom lived in Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley and he made a living primarily as a background singer, he was a session singer. He had been in a Rock band called Fool's Gold. There were a couple of guys in LA - Richard Page, who later formed the group Mr. Mister, and Bill Champlin from The Sons of Champlin. Tom, Bill and Richard were sort of the guys that producers called when they needed background vocals. We met at a party at producer Keith Olsen's house. Keith Olsen had already proved to be a successful matchmaker. If I'm not mistaken, he introduced Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to Fleetwood Mac. He produced the first Fleetwood Mac record that included Stevie and Lindsey. It was August of 1981 that we met at a party at Keith Olsen's house."
Nile Rodgers produced this and recorded it using real musicians instead of relying on synthesized tracks that were characteristic of Madonna's first album. Rodgers had several hits in the '70s with his Disco group Chic, and used many of the same musicians on this album. Rodgers has also worked with Peter Gabriel, Al Jarreau, David Bowie, and Sister Sledge.
Madonna's vocal performance was remarkably true to the original demo, which Tom Kelly sang on in a falsetto. Says Steinberg: "Our demo, if you were to hear it, you'd notice it's influenced by a sort of Smokey Robinson style of singing. A song that would come to mind would be 'I Can't Help Myself' by the Four Tops. When Madonna recorded it, even as our demo faded out, on the fade you could hear Tom saying, 'When your heart beats, and you hold me, and you love me...' That was the last thing you heard as our demo faded. Madonna must have listened to it very, very carefully because her record ends with the exact same little ad-libs that our demo did. That rarely happens that someone studies your demo so carefully that they use all that stuff. We were sort of flattered how carefully she followed our demo on that. I remember once reading a comment that Nile Rodgers made, I was amused when he said that he took this sort of unimpressive demo and made this great record because in fact, they just copied our demo. The main difference was it was Madonna singing instead of Tom and there was a great drummer on the record, Tony Thompson. I've seen Nile Rodgers being interviewed about 'Like a Virgin' on several occasions and I always think he takes too much credit because everything was in our demo."
The title and lyrics were very racy for a Pop song, which made it more difficult to find someone to record it. Madonna had released only one album and was known as a dance singer, so her record company didn't mind having her record a song that would generate some controversy. It became a huge hit and created a new image for Madonna that set her apart from other singers. The media has been fascinated with her ever since.
Madonna performed this for the first time on September 18, 1984 at the first MTV Video Music awards. Wearing a wedding dress and a belt buckle that said "Boy Toy," she sang a sultry version, ending with a simulated orgasm. The show was live, and Madonna later said she was convinced she missed a note while performing this on the show, but if she did, no one seemed to care.
When she performed the song, it hadn't been released yet (the single came out November 6, the album November 12), so this performance was the first airing of the song. Her rendition became one of the seminal moments in the history of MTV, but the audience was clearly befuddled and had a very tepid reaction (MTV made the mistake of putting humorless executives and other VIPs in the good seats). The songwriters were also concerned. Billy Steinberg told us: "She recorded the song and it was set to be the first single off her next album, but her first album kept yielding these hits: 'Borderline,' 'Holiday,' 'Lucky Star' - so they kept pushing back the release of 'Like a Virgin.' But then, when she was asked to sing at the MTV video awards, she chose to sing 'Like a Virgin' even though the song hadn't been released yet. She went on TV and sang this song with this provocative title that no one had ever heard before and she rolled around the stage. Tom and I were watching it on television and we thought, oh, we're doomed now. This is an embarrassment. This is never going to succeed."
This was Madonna's first #1 hit in the US. It stayed there for 6 weeks.
This was a topic of discussion in the Quentin Tarantino movie Reservoir Dogs. The character Mr. Pink starts the debate by saying, "'Like a Virgin' is all about a girl who digs a guy with a big d--k. The whole song is a metaphor for big d--ks." Mr. Blue responds, "No it's not. It's about a girl who is very vulnerable."
In 2003, MTV wanted to open the 20th Video Music Awards by recreating a classic moment from the first show. To start the show, Britney Spears came out of a wedding cake singing this. She was followed out of the cake by Christina Aguilera and then Madonna, who was a surprise performer. Madonna sang a song called "Hollywood," and kissed both Spears and Aguilera on the lips before joining Missy Elliott for a short version of her song "Work It."
The video was directed by Mary Lambert, who did many of Madonna's early clips, starting with "Borderline
." They wanted to do something outrageous, so they shot it in Venice (budgets for videos had ballooned by then). Lambert explained in the book I Want My MTV
: "Madonna dug it, because she has the whole thing with the Catholic Church and her Italian heritage. It turned into a huge party. Madonna stayed at the Hotel Cipriani. The rest of us stayed at a sleazebag hotel on Lido, a little island just outside Venice."
Young directors often got the brilliant idea to bring wild animals into the shoot around this time (see "Maneater
" by Hall & Oates), and Lambert brought in a lion. The idea was that Madonna's love interest - wearing a lion mask a per the locals during the Carnival of Venice - would turn into the beast. Simon Fields, who was a producer on the shoot, recalls: "The lion started to get crazy around Madonna. No one else. And then we found out that you can't have a lion around a woman when she's on her period."
On December 12, 2007, 130 employees of Virgin Airlines sang this to travelers at Heathrow airport in London to raise money for the Rainbow Trust Children's Charity. The singers were all dressed like their boss, Richard Branson.
In a concert held in Rome in September during her "Sticky & Sweet" world tour Madonna dedicated this song to Pope Benedict XVI. Madonna told the 60,000 fans: "I dedicate this song to the pope, because I'm a child of God. All of you are also children of God." The "Queen of Pop" comes from a devout Italian Catholic family but throughout her career, she has upset the church with her sexually charged antics.
In a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone
, Madonna spoke about hearing the demos for this song and "Material Girl
." She said, "I liked them both because they were ironic and provocative at the same time but also unlike me. I'm not a materialistic person, and I certainly wasn't a virgin, and, by the way, how can you be like
a virgin? I liked the play on words, I thought they were clever."
When an artist has a breakout hit, she usually goes back for more of where it came from, but Madonna never recorded another Steinberg/Kelly song, and rejected their offer to write a song with her. In our They're Playing My Song
feature, Steinberg said, "I've always thought she was perhaps a bit resentful that her signature song was written by somebody else and she had no part of it. If I'm not mistaken, her people tried to get her on the song as a cowriter or to get a piece of the publishing and we just said out of the question. We boldly stood our ground and we didn't give it, because we felt, there's no way they're going to drop it from the album, it's too good of a song."
Madonna didn't meet Steinberg and Kelly until about 5 years after the song was released, and it was their only encounter. Here's how Billy described it to us: "Madonna's manager was turning 50 and Tom and I were invited to his birthday party. He and his wife lived in a mansion in Bel Air. So Tom and I were standing on a terrace outside the house chatting with a guy named Steve Bray. Steve had dated Madonna and had also written a couple of songs with her, including "Into The Groove
." So when she started walking toward us I thought, this is perfect because Steve Bray will make the introduction and we'll finally get acquainted with her. She was dating Warren Beatty at that time. So she's walking across this terrace with Warren Beatty and they walk up to us and Steve Bray says, Madonna, I want you to meet Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly. They wrote 'Like a Virgin.' And the first thing I remember is that Warren Beatty started to chuckle because I guess he thought that it was a pretend introduction, because she must know the guys who wrote that song.
Anyway, I sort of gushingly said, "Oh Madonna, I've wanted to meet you for so long." And she said, "Well, now you did." And she grabbed Warren Beatty and walked away. And that was the end of it. Tom Kelly started laughing, cause he saw that I was kind of crestfallen and I'd set myself up for it. Part of the dynamic of our relationship was him laughing at some of my personality traits, but always in good fun.
So that was our great meeting with Madonna and I've never seen her since."
Weird Al Yankovich did a parody of this song called "Like a Surgeon." (thanks, Ricky - Los Angeles, CA)
John Doe of X
With his X-wife Exene, John fronts the band X and writes their songs.
When Judd Apatow needed under-appreciated rockers for his Knocked Up
sequel, he immediately thought of Parker, who just happened to be getting his band The Rumour back together.
Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Greg talks about writing songs of "universal truth" for King Crimson and ELP, and tells us about his most memorable stage moment (it involves fireworks).
Dan cracked the Top 40 with "Ritual," then went to India and spent 2 hours with the Dalai Lama.