Transcript 97–Like a Virgin

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and I, too, am a Material Girl.

Remember to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.

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Have I got some trivia for ye today.

What musical instrument do you play without touching it with any part of your body? I can tell you that it was invented around 1920 in Europe, and it was patented in America in 1928. And that’s all I’m going to say for now. A musical instrument that’s played without touching any part of it.

I’ll have the answer to that at the end of the show.

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You know, when I do the research for any given song, I usually do it in little snippets during the week, so that the song is never very far from the top of my mind. And, like any good earworm, I wind up humming the song all week, which really irritates my coworkers because they DON’T listen to this show, and so they have no idea why I’m humming thus-and-such song over and over again, only to switch to a different song the following week. And that happened to me this week, but the difference is that I wasn’t humming “Like a Virgin” but rather another Madonna song, go figure.

“Like a Virgin” is the title track and the lead single of Madonna’s second album and, about thirty-five years later, it’s kind of tough to describe the impact that it had on the music industry and the pop scene. But, I’m here to try, so let’s dive in.

Madonna Louise Ciccone—that’s her full name—released her first album in the summer of 1983, and it was huge, probably doing a re-set of the standards for dance-pop music for a long, long time. The album yielded three international Top Ten hits, and was certified five-time platinum. So naturally, the folks at Sire/Warner Brothers Records wanted a follow up. Madonna herself wanted to produce the second album, but the label wasn’t quite ready for that, so she got Nile Rodgers to produce it for her. This, in my head, is especially important because Rodgers also did some work with David Bowie, another artist who is known for reinventing himself with each new album. In fact, Rodgers had just come off of working on Let’s Dance with Bowie. Plus, he’d also worked with the band Chic in the 1970s, which was an act she really liked.

So let me move away from Madonna for a minute and on to the composers of this song. “Like a Virgin” was written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.

Steinberg and Kelly were no strangers to writing pop hits, having written “How Do I Make You?” for Linda Ronstadt, and both “Precious Time” and “Fire and Ice” for Pat Benatar. Now, although they’d written all of those songs individually, it was around then that they began writing together.

Steinberg had recently been through a bad relationship, but he’d also just found a new one that kind of reinvigorated him. That inspired him to write a new song, and when Kelly saw the words, he got immediately where Steinberg was going, but he committed a misstep at first when he wrote it as a ballad. The verses sounded OK that way, but Steinberg said in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly that every time it got to the chorus, it sounded ridiculous. In fact, Steinberg, who still performs some of the old hits he wrote or co-wrote, now performs that song as a ballad, and he admits that it usually draws some snickers from the crowd. You can find a video on YouTube of him performing the song. I’m not playing it here because the sound quality isn’t great, but he clearly takes it with good humor.

Anyway: It took several attempts, but Kelly said that just out of frustration he started goofing around with a bass line, and the whole thing came together very quickly.

[DEMO]

Kelly played it up-tempo and sang it with a falsetto, and it began to take on the shape we all know it by now. In fact, what you hear right now? That’s Steinberg and Kelly’s demo, with Kelly singing falsetto.

Now, at the time they were thinking about cutting an album comprised entirely of their own compositions, and they invited Michael Ostin from Warner Brothers over to listen to some of their demo songs. They were trying to cultivate a rock and roll image, so they were reluctant to play “Like a Virgin”. The problem, Kelly said, was that the Warner Brothers rep didn’t really view them as performers at all, so while he liked the songs, he wasn’t interested in offering them a record deal. So after about an hour, they broke out “Like a Virgin,” telling him specifically that it wasn’t for them, but maybe he’d like it for someone else. Ostin immediately said that it would be great for Madonna, who was still new enough that they didn’t really know who she was. Ostin was scheduled to meet with Madonna the next day to talk about her second album, and he brought the demo along. He said that she went crazy for it and knew instantly that she could make a great record out of it. Madonna herself told Rolling Stone that when she heard this song and “Material Girl”, she liked them because they were ironic and provocative at the same time, but also unlike her. She said, quote, “I’m not a materialistic person and I certainly wasn’t a virgin, and, by the way, how can you be like a virgin?” (unquote) In short, she thought the wordplay was clever.

Nile Rodgers, on the other hand, didn’t like it much at all. He didn’t think that the phrase “like a virgin” was a great lyrical hook, and that the song was kind of bubble gummy. But the song stuck with him after he listened to the demo, and to him that had to mean something. Rodgers said that it was four days later that he came back to Madonna and apologized to her, saying that it was, indeed, a catchy song and that they should do it.

Now, if you listen to the Kelly and Steinberg demo, you realize that Madonna followed it very, very closely. Even the little adlibs that Kelly does in the fade—“When your heart beats, and you hold me,” and so forth—were all in the demo. Steinberg said that they were kind of flattered at how closely it was followed, since that doesn’t happen very often.

Recording took place at the Power Station Studios in New York City, which is now called Avatar Studios. Jason Corsario, the engineer, persuaded Rodgers to record the song digitally, which was still in its infancy at the time. One of the reasons for this is because Corsario was impressed by the way test pressings always sounded consistent. Now, while synthetic drums were gaining in popularity, Rodgers insisted on using a live drummer named Tony Thompson, who also worked with Chic. According to an interview with Rodgers in Classic Pop Magazine, Madonna kept asking why they didn’t just use a drum machine instead, and he replied, “Because if you do that, then anybody can sound like you. But if we play it, then only we will sound like that.” And it definitely works, with Thompson putting in these little drum fills every now and again, just enough to enhance the record.

Madonna’s vocals were recorded in a small piano room, the one that Power Station usually referred to as the “R&B room.” Once that was recorded to everyone’s satisfaction, the keyboards were added in, including a bass synthesizer, an electric and an acoustic piano, and a Synclavier. Given that that was the sequence, it’s also possible that Madonna was using the demo as a guide track, and that’s the other reason she’s following it so closely.

What most people don’t realize is that the song debuted several weeks before it was released. Madonna performed the song on the MTV Video Music Awards show in mid-September of 1984, about six weeks before the record dropped. Madonna’s stylist Maripol recalls she was very worried about Madonna’s peekaboo bridal gown look, telling Yahoo Entertainment that she thought it might be career suicide. In fact, Maripol thinks that they genuinely took a crack at ruining her that day, trying to intimidate her with the camera getting the shot of her underwear while she’s on the floor, and so forth. And clearly the audience was a little stunned, since the applause is…I don’t know, polite? Maybe? Certainly there was a little bit of “who is this chick rolling around on the floor?” But instead it had the opposite effect, catapulting her to superstar levels and cementing her place in the pop music pantheon. Even MTV now considers it one of the most iconic pop performances ever, setting the bar for every performer who followed. And I think you could easily draw a line from this performance to Miley Cyrus in 2013. Sure, that performance shocked people too, but you can’t deny that Miley’s got some talent in her. Don’t believe me? Go look up her “Backyard Sesssions.” I’ll still be here when you come back so I can say, “I told you so.”

“Like a Virgin” was released to almost universally positive reviews at the end of October, and it became Madonna’s first Number One song on the Billboard Hot 100 during the week of November 17 and stayed there for six weeks. In fact it was the first of twelve Number Ones for Madonna.

[SISTER CRISTINA]

In the UK it peaked at Number Three, and it was Top Ten in sixteen other countries worldwide. Only Number Fifteen in Sweden? What’s up with the Swedes?

Now, I can’t say that there are a lot of notable covers, but this one in particular struck me as pretty good. This is from 2014, and it’s by Cristina Scuccia, a singing nun who released it as her debut single. And, in fact, it’s a cover that Madonna herself took a liking to..

[MOTLEY CRUE]

And in March of 2019, this version was released by metal band Motley Crue. It’s actually kind of faithful to the original, except for the tempo change at the chorus…

This was used in the Netflix film The Dirt, based on the band’s autobiography from 2001. Bass player Nikki Sixx told Billboard Magazine that the idea came to his head while he was walking his dogs and, even though he thought it was kind of a horrible idea, he cut a demo and shared it with Tommy Lee and band producer Bob Rock. And clearly, they liked it enough to do a full recording. Sixx said it was kind of weird to hear Vince Neil wailing “I’m like a virgin.”

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And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to identify the musical instrument that you play without touching it with any part of your body. You don’t pluck, or blow, or kick or step, or strum, or strike with a mallet.

I get the feeling that you either know this one or you don’t.

[THEREMIN MUSIC]

The story goes that the Soviet Union was sponsoring research into proximity sensors, and a young scientist working under that program came up with the instrument in 1920. His name was Lev Sergeyevich Termen. He went on a long tour of Europe with his instrument, after which he moved to the United States and in 1928, he patented his instrument, naming it after himself. Of course, by that time he identified himself as Leon Theremin, which is where we get the instrument’s name, the Theremin.

The Theremin lost popularity around World War Two, but interest in it came back when Hollywood realized that it could use a Theremin to bring on eerie sounds for science fiction movies. You can hear one in the films Spellbound, the Lost Weekend, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is where the music you’re hearing now comes from. But believe it or not, a Theremin was NOT used for Forbidden Planet, nor was it used in the original Star Trek series.

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