'Like A Virgin' Lives On, A Winking Anthem For Women Getting Married The unofficial anthem of bachelorette parties, Madonna's 1984 hit can be seen as a wink at virginity's ongoing place in the theater of weddings — even today, when most brides are sexually experienced.
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'Like A Virgin' Lives On, A Winking Anthem For Women Getting Married

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'Like A Virgin' Lives On, A Winking Anthem For Women Getting Married

'Like A Virgin' Lives On, A Winking Anthem For Women Getting Married

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

OK, quick - see if you can name this tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF MADONNA SONG, "LIKE A VIRGIN")

CHANG: The singer turned 60 just last week, and this was her first No. 1 hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A VIRGIN")

MADONNA: (Singing) I made it through the wilderness.

CHANG: Yes, Madonna. And that is "Like A Virgin" from 1984. Throughout this year, NPR is exploring the songs that have become American anthems. And we found certain songs like this one lend themselves to arguments.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RESERVOIR DOGS")

QUENTIN TARANTINO: (As Mr. Brown) Let me tell you what "Like A Virgin's" about.

CHANG: This is the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino's movie "Reservoir Dogs" where gangsters debate what "Like A Virgin" really means.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RESERVOIR DOGS")

TARANTINO: (As Mr. Brown) "Like A Virgin's" not about some sensitive girl who meets a nice fellow.

CHANG: And their conversation gets a little R-rated pretty quickly. This song has caused controversy for decades. And just a heads up here - our report about it may not be appropriate for everyone. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The song grabbed our attention from the moment in 1984 when Madonna danced in a wedding dress on the first MTV Video Music Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1ST ANNUAL MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS)

MADONNA: (Singing) I made it through the wilderness. Somehow I made it through.

ULABY: Back then, Matthew Rettenmund was just a teenager. But he remembers Madonna's dangling crosses, her silver belt buckle reading boy toy and of course her moves.

MATTHEW RETTENMUND: She rolled around on the stage, and the cameras went right up the wedding dress, and you got a glimpse. And you knew it was scandalous because they then showed the audience of all these seasoned rock 'n' roll veterans watching her with, like, blank expressions like, what is this?

(SOUNDBITE OF 1ST ANNUAL MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS)

MADONNA: (Singing) Like a virgin, hey, touched for the very first time.

ULABY: Rettenmund eventually authored the "Encyclopedia Madonnica." He says "Like A Virgin" made news again during the singer's 1990 world tour when she faked masturbating on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MADONNA: (Singing) Like a virgin, ooh, like a virgin.

ULABY: The movie "Truth Or Dare" from 1991 documented the time Madonna almost got arrested for lewdness at a concert in Toronto. Once again, "Like A Virgin" took over headlines, talk radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Who choreographed that "Like A Virgin" number?

ULABY: Of course it did, says Mary Lambert. She directed Madonna's original "Like A Virgin" video. She says Madonna pushed exactly the right buttons to work people up about the era's sexual conventions.

MARY LAMBERT: She was this roaring zeitgeist.

ULABY: (Laughter).

LAMBERT: And I'm just, like, pointing my camera at her.

ULABY: The "Like A Virgin" video was at the time staggeringly expensive. Filmed in Venice, it featured gondolas, a live lion and Madonna prancing around in virginal white.

LAMBERT: It just seemed really obvious that she should wear a wedding dress. Like, not just a wedding dress but, like, the grandest wedding dress that was ever created.

ULABY: Yeah. You know, there's this sort of theater (laughter) of a wedding.

LAMBERT: There's the theater of being a virgin. They still wear the white dress.

ULABY: And that's why the song's become an anthem for bachelorettes.

MARIA NARCISO: That's, like, the most requested song when we have bachelorette parties.

ULABY: New York City's Pyramid Club, home to bachelorette parties and a yearly Madonnathon where people dress up like the singer in cone bras and rubber bracelets and dance to her hits all night. Manager Maria Narciso says "Like A Virgin" is a perfect bachelorette anthem.

NARCISO: We're talking about a second chance, a second chance at a new beginning, learning to love and be loved once again like a virgin - brand-new, pure.

CARA AWILL-LYBA: Definitely dancing to "Like A Virgin" that night.

ULABY: Cara Awill-Lyba says she played the song at her bachelorette party because it's about reinvention.

AWILL-LYBA: Which I think every woman should do whenever she feels like it.

ULABY: Or every man, says fellow clubgoer Oscar de la Cruz.

OSCAR DE LA CRUZ: I will play it at my wedding. Someday, when I get married, I will play "Like A Virgin." And I fantasize wearing a white dress, rolling over a floor.

ULABY: University of Southern California professor Karen Tongson studies karaoke. On a recent evening outside with friends in Los Angeles, she says she sees bachelorettes singing "Like A Virgin" in clubs all the time.

KAREN TONGSON: Bachelorettes never show up looking chaste.

ULABY: Right.

TONGSON: They're wearing their sluttiest clothes...

ULABY: Yeah.

TONGSON: ...With a veil.

ULABY: Yeah.

TONGSON: And that's part of the fun. And then they get to ride around with their gal pals.

ULABY: About 5 percent of new brides today are virgins, according to one federal survey. Tongson thinks that's why this song resonates for brides now.

TONGSON: Fundamentally it allows you the fantasy to revisit being a virgin and appreciating the joy of that feeling even though you're someone with experience instead of innocence.

ULABY: But "Like A Virgin" was never intended to be a sexy song. Lyricist Billy Steinberg wrote it earnestly after ending a toxic relationship and starting a meaningful new one.

BILLY STEINBERG: It's actually quite a serious song really. The general public tend to see it as just titillating because Madonna was titillating. When I perform the song, I perform it as a ballad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEINBERG: (Singing) I was beat, incomplete. I'd been had. I was sad and blue. But you made me feel, you made me feel shiny and new.

The combination of Madonna's image and the title just pulled it totally into being this song that was sung almost with a wink. And the sincerity of the lyric got a little bit obscured.

ULABY: Maybe that's what made it work.

STEINBERG: You mean the fact that it got obscured or...

ULABY: No, that there was this almost...

STEINBERG: That there was more to it than that. I think so, really. I do think so because I just think if it was just a joke, it wouldn't have had the impact it did. It was a real song.

ULABY: You know, I read this quote a long time ago that's always stuck with me by the novelist Isabel Allende. It was saying we live in a world where virgin is an insult. And in your song, virgin is not an insult.

STEINBERG: No, not at all.

ULABY: That amuses Matthew Rettenmund of the "Encyclopedia Madonnica."

RETTENMUND: Because Madonna's the kind of cool chick in school who you would think would consider virginity (laughter) negative. You know, she just has that kind of - you know, oh, what are you, a virgin? Definitely especially at that time - you know, 1984, 1985 - she had that vibe. And yet she had that vulnerability to praise it and to be nostalgic about it.

ULABY: Virgin positivity - not something usually associated with Madonna. But that part of the song is real. A nun known as Sister Cristina sang it for the Italian version of the TV show "The Voice."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A VIRGIN")

SISTER CRISTINA: (Singing) I made it through the wilderness. Somehow I made it through.

ULABY: This cover is lyricist Billy Steinberg's favorite.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A VIRGIN")

SISTER CRISTINA: (Singing) Didn't know how lost I was until I found you.

STEINBERG: I didn't know how lost I was until I found you. You is God for Sister Cristina. So I think it's kind of nice that this song can even be reflected upon in that light.

ULABY: In interviews, Sister Cristina has said the song's for her a sort of lay prayer. In all its incarnations, "Like A Virgin" is not just an anthem but a hymn, not the condition of the hymen but the state of the human spirit. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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