The Meaning Behind Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”

Set inside Power Station studio in New York City, Madonna wanted to have more creative control over her second album Like a Virgin as a producer. Working with co-producers Nile Rodgers and Stephen Bray, the young artist had a vision for her 1984 album, one that would take her from a struggling artist living in New York City to a household name and ultimately a pop legend. On the album, the title track and her subsequent performance of it at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, cemented “Like a Virgin” in pop music history.

Videos by American Songwriter

Madonna Never Wrote the Song

Written by the songwriting duo of Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly—the duo also behind Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” Heart’s “Alone,” and The Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You”—“Like a Virgin” initially came from a male perspective. Steinberg revealed that the idea for the song came from his own personal experience. “I was saying that I might not really be a virgin,” shared Steinberg. “I’ve been battered romantically and emotionally like many people, but I’m starting a new relationship, and … it’s healing all the wounds and making me feel like I’ve never done this before.”

I made it through the wilderness
Somehow I made it through
Didn’t know how lost I was
Until I found you

I was beat
I’d been had, I was sad and blue

At the time, Kelly didn’t know Madonna, but Steinberg knew her since his girlfriend taught aerobics and often used her 1983 song “Burning Up” in her class. Kelly knew of Steinberg’s personal woes and when he read the words to the song, he connected with them and initially started singing the song as a ballad.

Billy Steinberg (l) and Thomas Kelly (Photo: Sony Music Publishing)

“But when it got to the chorus and the line like a virgin came up, it always sounded ridiculous,” said Steinberg. “I knew instinctively that it was a special lyric and could be something if we really got it right. He started playing the piano and trying to write a top-line melody for it, and out of sheer frustration, he started playing the bass line and singing falsetto. And I was like ‘that’s it.’”

Like a virgin
Touched for the very first time
Like a virgin
When your heart beats
Next to mine

Madonna Loved It

Once Madonna heard “Like a Virgin,” she instantly loved the song and wanted to record it with Nile Rodgers in New York City.

The White Dress, The Stage, and MTV

On Sept. 14, 1984, Madonna opened the MTV Video Music Awards on top of a giant wedding cake. Dressed in a lacey white bustier, veil, see-through skirt, and “Boy Toy” belt, Madonna walked down from the cake holding her bouquet. A master of improvisation, when one of her shoes fell off, Madonna kicked off the other into the air and dropped to the floor, rolling around the stage floor and exposing her white undergarments. “Well, now that the burning question of Madonna’s virginity has been answered,” Bette Midler quipped following the performance.

When in Venice… 

The music video for “Like a Virgin” received seven MTV nominations. Directed by Mary Lambert, who previously worked with Madonna on her 1983 video for “Borderline,” the video was shot partially in Venice with scenes in New York City. In Venice, the camera followed Madonna dancing on a gondola through the waters of Venice then cut to scenes of her dressed in a white gown in an empty museum-like room and a roaming lion in the city streets.

The Songwriter: Madonna

Madonna wrote six songs on Like A Virgin, five of which were co-written with co-producer Bray. Writing “Shoo-Bee-Do” on her own, Madonna worked with Bray on “Material Girl,” “Angel,” “Over and Over,” “Pretender” and “Stay.” The two also wrote “Into the Groove” together, which later appeared on a 1985 reissue of Like a Virgin and in the film Desperately Seeking Susan, starring Madonna and Rosanna Arquette that same year. 

Like a Virgin, The Album

The album became one of the best-selling albums of all time and sold more than 21 million copies and reached No. 1 on several international charts and the Billboard Top 200.

Quentin Tarrantino Explains “Like a Virgin”

In the opening scene of Quentin Tarrantino’s 1992 film Reservoir Dogs, bank robbers Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Brown (Tarantino) discuss the meaning behind the lyrics of “Like a Virgin.” White says the song is about a woman who has been wronged and finally finds a good guy, while Brown has a more explicit interpretation of the song. “‘No, it’s about love, it’s about a girl who’s been messed over and she finally meets this one man who loves her,” Madonna later explained to Tarantino, which he shared in a 1993 interview. 

She Likes an Innuendo

Despite Madonna’s overt sexuality around the song (the video, that MTV performance), she has always defended the racier interpretations of the song. “When I did the song, to me, I was singing about how something made me feel a certain way—brand-new and fresh—and everyone else interpreted it as ‘I don’t want to be a virgin anymore,” said Madonna. “That’s not what I sang at all.”

Though, Madonna added that she liked the way a song could have different meanings for different people. “I like innuendo,” she said in the 2004 book “Madonna: The Complete Guide To Her Music.”

“I like irony,” she added. “I like the way things can be taken on different levels.” 

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