The Meaning Behind “Borderline” by Madonna and the Writer/Producer Who Helped Her to Her First Massive Hit

We tend to think of Madonna as an unfailingly autonomous artist because of her decisiveness about the moves she’s made throughout her career. But she received some help on “Borderline,” her first Top-10 single and a song that proved crucial in introducing her to a widespread audience.

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What is the song about? Who wrote and produced it? And why was it such an important song in the trajectory of Madonna’s career? Let’s tiptoe out to the “Borderline” to find out all the answers.

Madonna on the Rise

It’s safe to say Madonna was bound for superstardom no matter what happened, considering the talent and drive inside her right from the get-go of her recording career. But it never hurts to have a springboard of sorts. “Borderline” took her music from dance clubs to pop radio, a necessary step for her to reach the heights she eventually attained.

To her credit, Madonna understood she needed to make that move and might need the help of someone who had navigated that scene in the past. On the strength of a pair of early singles, Sire Records made the decision to release an album by the artist. That’s when she was paired up with Reggie Lucas.

Reggie Lucas

Lucas played in a number of outfits in the early ’70s, including a stint with Miles Davis. Along the way, he shifted into a writer/producer role, and he proved immediately successful. His biggest success came on the smash single “I Never Knew Love Like This Before,” written with James Mtume and recorded by Stephanie Mills in 1980.

When Madonna met with Lucas, she already had some songs in the can and was furiously writing more for the album (one of which turned out to be the Top-5 hit “Lucky Star.”) As for Lucas, he explained in a 2007 interview that, at the time, he viewed the Madonna job as just another gig, and he went about writing for her in his usual fashion:

“I really have a simple process for songwriting for an artist that I’m producing, assuming it’s not going to be a collaborative process. Firstly, I’ll listen to the artist’s demo tape or previous records, just to get a feel for their voice and style. Then, if at all possible, I’ll attend a live performance of the artist. I was fortunate enough to be able to do both of these things with Madonna.

“Finally, I just pick up my guitar, and start to play and sing until something seems to click. Then, I’ll create a very, very rough demo for the artist. So ‘Borderline’ and ‘Physical Attraction’ were written specifically only for Madonna. They went very quickly from my head, to the studio, and to the radio and charts. This is something Madonna does very well, making records quickly and without excessive fanfare.”

Both “Borderline” and “Physical Attraction” ended up on Madonna’s self-titled debut album in 1983, with the former the obvious choice for a single. Equipped with a bittersweet melody couched in a chipper pop production, the song was ideal for introducing Madonna’s ability to project her personality on any type of material. On this track, she displayed touching vulnerability that was ideal for the topic.

What is the Meaning of “Borderline”?

“Borderline” is the story of a woman who’s both head over heels about her new relationship and tortured by it just the same. The simple reason is the guy just isn’t displaying the same kind of commitment on his part, instead seeming nonchalant about her concerns. Stop playing with my heart / Finish what you start, she complains.

The narrator is self-aware enough to understand she’s being played: Something in your eyes is making such a fool of me. She lays it all on the line for him in moving fashion: Just try to understand / I’ve given all I can / ‘Cause you got the best of me. All this, and yet he won’t change his ways: You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.

If you listen closely to “Borderline” these days, prepare to be amazed at just how effectively Madonna sinks into the emotion of the song as a vocalist, even on one of her first efforts. Put that together with the flawless framework provided by Reggie Lucas, and it’s no surprise this was her breakthrough.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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