How Madonna Defined Pop Culture

How Madonna Defined Pop Culture Newsweek

Singing about abortion. Writhing on a cross. Publishing her sexual fantasies. Even those cone bras. Madonna seems to have done so much in her life that it's hard to grasp that she's a real person, instead of the lofty icon her name suggests.

As the singer turns 60, the desire to take stock of her enormous cultural impact seems Herculean. That's because her body of work is so vast, spanning four decades and countless changes in sound, style and creative direction.

Yet despite her chameleon instincts, she's always remained resolutely herself—a willfully provocative presence in an industry which can so easily smother its stars into blandness. As Madonna herself said: "A lot of people are afraid to say what they want. That's why they don't get what they want."

Her unapologetic, in-control attitude has been a source of inspiration for women and LGBTQ fans, who watched her carve her own space out in popular culture, and play with gender conventions in a way that was both witty and provocative.

Her influence is still felt in contemporary pop culture: Think Beyonce's highly-controlled personas, Miley Cyrus's sexual shock tactics, Cardi B's uncensored New York brashness.

This toughness has allowed her to continue through moments which might have wiped out lesser popstars. She's certainly had a few missteps, such as her disastrous starring role in the 2002 rom-com Swept Away and some dodgy forays into culture-as-costume.

But her refusal to either slow down or tone down, even in the face of sneers that she's too old to be leaping around in revealing outfits, proves she's still taking on taboos—this time, it's the assumption that women should fade into the background as they age.

We've charted Madonna's career, picking out the moments she truly defined the zeitgeist. From pissing off the Pope to kissing Britney, these are the Queen of Pop's most groundbreaking moments.

Bringing the underground into the pop world Before she was famous, Madonna lived in New York, playing in rock bands, hobnobbing in the club scene and dating painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. By 1982, she was putting this underground sensibility into her music, promoting her album, Madonna (pictured), accompanied by a team of avant garde dancers. Sire/Warner Bros.
Inventing 80s style Madonna, and the music videos it spawned (such as for “Lucky Star”, pictured), established her decade-defining style of heavy makeup, junk shop jewellery and eclectic clothes. The look established her as a tough but magnetically alluring new breed of pop star. Warner Bros.
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Popularising dance music According to AllMusic, Madonna “began her career as a disco diva in an era that didn't have disco divas.” She bridged the gap between the world of pop and the world of the clubs by mixing “great pop songs with stylish, state-of-the-art beats… it shrewdly walked a line between being a rush of sound and a showcase for a dynamic lead singer.” Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images
Taking creative control Since her debut album, for which she wrote hit “Lucky Star,” Madonna has written a number of her own songs. Rolling Stone called her "an exemplary songwriter with a gift for hooks and indelible lyrics." Reuters/Pierre Schwartz
Owning her sexuality... With her second studio album, 1984’s Like a Virgin, Madonna played with the ancient madonna/whore trope, posing on the cover in a wedding dress, but with a knowingly seductive look. Reuters/Shunsuke Akatsuka
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...despite negative attention The album’s hit song “Like a Virgin” sparked protests from conservative groups who saw the song’s themes to be corrupting traditional family values. STR/AFP/Getty Images
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Exploiting her good taste Madonna enlisted Nile Rodgers to work with her on Like a Virgin. "I am always amazed by Madonna's incredible judgement when it comes to making pop records,” he later said. “I've never seen anyone do it better, and that's the truth.” Since then, Madonna has displayed a canny sense of the zeitgeist, enlisting of-the-moment talents who spur each new phase of her career. Brenda Chase/Online USA, Inc. via Getty Images
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Harnessing the power of the music video Music television and Madonna emerged around the same time, and she pioneered the use of music videos as a powerful tool for stating her vision while also provoking controversy. In 2003, MTV named Madonna “The Greatest Music Video Star” ever. Warner Bros/Reprise Records via Getty Images