The truth about 'Material Girl'
As she announces a new world tour, I delve into Madonna's iconic ode to capitalism.
The Madonna diaries is a series of personal essays about Madonna’s back catalogue (hence the name I guess). It’s part of The truth about everything*, a newsletter with a different feature every week – not always Madonna. This edition: ‘Material Girl’ and the music video that made the world sit up and beg.
For paid subscribers, there’s bonus content – analysis of every tour performance of ‘Material Girl’ (so far) – but the main part of the post is still free.
Love at first sight has its merits but there’s no lesser value in love slowly growing on you. I’d been aware of Madonna before ‘Material Girl’ hit the radio in early 1985. That peppy introduction ‘Holiday’, ‘Lucky Star’ leaving traces of stardust in my consciousness; ‘Like A Virgin’ was, an iconic moment in itself, but, as a nine-year-old, ‘Material Girl’ captured my imagination. If ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ was the song that made me a Madonna fan, ‘Material Girl’ was the breaking news alert, the early warning system, the first hook.
It helped that ‘Material Girl’ didn’t sound like anything else. It has elements of new wave and, thanks to Nile Rodgers’ production, is reminiscent of the single that came before it, but the charts were not full of ‘Material Girl’ clones, nor, really, did many songs attempt to replicate it. It was already clear Madonna considered visuals to be just as important as her music, but was ‘Material Girl’ the first song Madonna toyed so deliberately with her audience? I first heard ‘Material Girl’ on the kitchen radio and the video got its first outing on Top of the Pops – when you’re nine, and it’s the 1980s, that’s where all your music knowledge comes from, aside from your parents’ own record collections. I was beginning to develop my own taste, be drawn to artists that pushed my buttons. Madonna may not have purposefully marketed herself at effeminate nine-year-olds in West Yorkshire but it wasn’t long before she had us by the throat. It would be a couple of years before I owned the song myself. True Blue was my first album, receiving it for Christmas in 1986, and Like A Virgin was second – bought on tape, from the old HMV in Bradford near Forster Square, and played on my new Saisho ‘personal stereo’. I remember playing it for the first time, blasting it into my ears, overjoyed (and quite surprised how high-pitched she sounded).
Lyrically, the song has the clipped, know-it-all tone of a teenager rolling their eyes and telling you to get out of their room. ‘No way!’ ‘That’s right!’ ‘Material Girl’ barks at you, talks over you, it’s broadcasting, this is not a conversation. I was barely nine but I already, definitely understood that women traditionally didn't get the space to talk about men this way, like disposable, vacuous dummies only there to provide financial sustenance and… well, even by that age I realised she was supposed to be shagging these men. I reckon I’d first heard the details of what went where in the school playground a few months earlier. The way Madonna sings about men in this song is how men had, for decades, centuries, untold millennia, spoken about women – vessels for their pleasure, or servants. I didn't know much but I knew I didn't want to be that kind of man and I was looking for an escape. Madonna offered it, ‘Material Girl’ the musical equivalent of a rope ladder slowly unfurling down to you from a waiting helicopter.
In 1985, the press was still working out its relationship with her – we were a good six months before nude photos she’d posed for as a dance student hit the headlines – but they were threatened by a sexually liberated young woman who didn't seem to care what anyone thought. I was mesmerised, naturally, especially when I saw that video. It wasn’t just that Madonna was beautiful, though she was; it was her energy, her mischievous eyes, her wry smile, her petulant grab for the jewels. She meant business. She was the business.
This is perhaps ‘Material Girl’s – and Madonna’s – greatest millstone. The video. Iconic in the true sense of the word, yes, but often perceived as a blueprint for Madonna’s career, and her personality. The calculated siren, out for all she can get, by any means. The song’s place in her mythology is assured, not least for the fact she met Sean Penn in the studio while filming, marrying him barely seven months later. Sean hasn’t done too badly for himself, has he, considering he looks like he’s permanently pressed against the window at Currys trying to see the score of the Liverpool-Everton match on an LG 4K telly. If there’s one thing Madonna fans will never understand, it’s her taste in husbands. But I digress.
The ‘Material Girl’ video is most famous for its reverent pastiche of the infamous and iconic (that word AGAIN, but valid) performance by Marilyn Monroe of ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Although Marilyn sang and pranced alongside women as well as men in her set piece – including some women tied to chandeliers, the ’50s, eh? – Madonna preferred a one-woman show. Almost everything, from Madonna’s pink dress to the baboon’s bottom deep-red of the set and the striped sashes of her benevolent admirers, is a replica of Marilyn’s performance, which isn’t to say Madonna doesn’t make it her own, but she’s purposely inviting comparison, perhaps to stay slightly ahead of the game. We all know how the press, and fans alike, love to pit artists against each other and Madonna here seems to comment on her meteoric rise to fame and the desperate search for someone to fill the role of the ‘next Monroe’. Madonna said she felt an affinity with the star in being misjudged as a sex object with zero intelligence and no agency.
The video opens with a scene no doubt familiar to Madonna and many women in the entertainment industry – her face, body and talent being picked apart by two older men in a darkened room she isn’t actually in. I’ve never been a fan of music videos that feature dialogue – especially when it plays over the music, as it does here, ugh – but this is Madonna stating her intent as a multi-hyphenate. She sings! She acts! She pays someone to write extremely aggrandising dialogue! She isn’t just a popstar, this isn’t just a music video, this is a moment. One of the men, who I’m assuming is some kind of powerful producer – do we ever find out, or is he just some creep who work in the studios and loves to wear beige? – wants to meet our star, and lurks outside her dressing room in Crocodile Dundee’s hat with a jewellery box, only to overhear Madonna on the phone to a gal pal rejecting the expensive diamonds some leather-jacketed hunk just gave her.
‘It’s nice though. You want it?’ she says, evoking the street urchin who (allegedly) moved to New York with $35 in her pocket. You believe this is exactly how Madonna and her artistic coterie in the grimy tenements of old New York might have redistributed their good fortune. This is also Madonna cramming in an early annotation to the song’s message, one she’d repeat for decades – I’m not a Material Girl, okay?!
The ‘Material Girl’ video was the first peek at Madonna acting skills for many of us. Gawd love her, while she bosses the snarky ‘that’s right’ at her dullard boyfriend as he drops her off in his red sports car – this is the EIGHTIES did I say – she is less effective at pretending she didn't notice the lovelorn/creepy producer standing in the doorway. You can practically hear her chanting ‘react, react, react’ as she heaves past him. At 2:08, though, her facial expression is Oscar-worthy as she snaps ‘No way!’ at a brawny blond during a backstage game of cards, contradicting the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes pastiche that she must wait for men to bring her jewels and carry her around a set that looks like open heart surgery; she can win everything she wants playing cards against a pouting himbo. What game do we think she’s playing? Poker? Rummy? Sh•thead? Scabby Queen? The men performing alongside her are all very eighties handsome – hairspray, clean-shaven, bland eye candy with Californian tans (in fact, only one of them is not white, which seems odd even for back then).
Finally, at 3:43, our bearded admirer plucks up the courage to ask Madonna out, clutching wilting daisies as he gingerly steps into her dressing room which, for some reason, looks like a bunch of Disney princesses exploded in here. Why so many frilly pink gowns everywhere? Is Madonna a children’s entertainer? After this gig is she zipping off to Runcorn community centre and doing two hours of Elsa for a group of sugar-wasted six-year-olds?
‘Material Girl’ was perhaps Madonna’s first foray into ‘irony’ – her catch-all excuse when she’s (often genuinely) misunderstood or involved in a misfire. The markedly different message of the video from the song – she doesn’t like grand gestures, is not materialistic – is delivered with the subtlety of the dome of St Paul’s tumbling down onto you while you peruse the menu in the window of ASK, opposite. Madonna has spent much of her career dragging this song, but in the video at least, she’s having the time of her life, especially toward the end where she heads a diamond formation of adoring lunks, revelling as they gaze up at her in awe.
At the end, the producer/perv hires a beat-up truck to take Madge out on a date. She’s dressed like herself, in her ‘Like a Virgin’ drag, and the producer – Keith Carradine, handpicked by Madonna – looks like a UPS driver on his lunch break. The trouble is, as much as the video may align with Madonna’s real values, the video can’t be played on the radio, and beyond diehard fans, very few can remember much about it that isn’t the (excellent) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes homage, so you can forgive us mere mortals for the ‘true’ message getting lost in translation.
Perhaps the reason Madonna baulks so much at the song’s message now is because, in a way, it did partly represent her aspirations. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be rich and successful – society promotes them as an expressway to happiness and fulfilment (although often mitigates this with the ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ cliché) – it’s how you get there that counts. A fairly common theme of Madonna’s later work is telling us being rich isn’t everything – truly, millionaires adore espousing this like it’s their very own eleventh commandment – and that her success has come at a cost. That’s definitely true, but it doesn’t negate the potential authenticity of the brazen, hungry ambition of ‘Material Girl’.
Madonna treats the ‘Material Girl’ moniker as something she endured in girlhood but would rather lay to rest – understandably, it’s no fun for a childhood nickname to follow you round for ever – but if anything, Madonna was THE success story of the 1980s, capitalism’s horniest era. She is, like the rest of us, a product of her environment. Madonna’s quest for money wasn’t just driven by collecting every canvas Frida Kahlo so much as breathed on, but also to give her space to control her artistry, to collaborate with the most exciting producers, put on the best shows, curate her image. It’s why everything she does is such a huge production and, until she signed up for Instagram, very little came for free – those high ticket prices speak for themselves. Being Madonna is even more expensive than loving her.
As for what attracted Madonna to record ‘Material Girl’ (she didn't write it – it was composed by two men, obviously), she said at the time she liked how provocative both it and ‘Like a Virgin’ were, even though they didn't represent her as a person. Such is the power of ‘Material Girl’, its spirit can live on through Madonna in completely different songs. A Madonna-enhanced remix of Saucy Santana’s 2019 song of the same name became ‘Material Gworrllllllll!’ (The exclamation mark is part of the title and not an indicator of any excitement on my part.) Once again Madonna sang of the virtues of being materialistic, but this time embraced it – no sanctimonious get-out clause. She has, perhaps, started to take herself less seriously. This new song – which doesn’t feature anything of the original other than Madonna herself – is just one of a clutch of Madonna tracks that have found favour among the so-called TikTok generation, leading to a Madonna renaissance of sorts, or at the very least a renewed appreciation by youngsters who saw her only as a heritage act.
Some urgent questions before I close:
How long after recording it do you reckon Madonna regretted ‘Material Girl’? Ten minutes? Twenty?
Is it the best song in her back catalogue that she hates?
Why are all the men in the video pretty much old enough to be her dad? Unless… that’s the point, and they’re all sugar daddies?
Why are all the men Marilyn dances with much, much hotter than Madonna’s slew of suitors?
The fur wasn’t supposed to fall off her left shoulder, right? And one of the guys definitely tries to hoist it back on, yes? Did they have no time for retakes?
Does producer/stalker/delivery guy actually buy the man’s rusty old truck? Or just rent it? And why is this man on the studio lot in his moth-eaten straw hat? How is he getting home? What is going on?
Should Madonna have this hair colour again? It suits her, doesn’t it?
Will she sing this on The Celebration Tour and just get over herself for once?
Whatever you think of the old-school ‘Material Girl’ or the new version, or any of her reswizzlings of it on tour (paid subscribers see below for more), whether Madonna likes it or not, the song has enduring appeal. And with good reason, it’s a banger, with a chorus many a Top 10 hit would kill for. As an artist, you do not get to pick your successes, only your favourites – your hits are chosen for you, by the public you created them for.
Life lesson for us all there, maybe. Be careful what you put out into the world if you do not wished to be judged by it.
Next time on The Madonna diaries: Shall we… get a little bit ‘Hung Up’ on one another?
In the next edition of The truth about everything*: We’re back in the Ejector seat, where I watch a pilot episode of a show and decide whether it’s worth carrying on. Next week, I’m trying to get past episode one of dystopian screwball comedy The Last of Us.
Exclusively for paid subscribers, below I relive her live performances of ‘Material Girl’ every time it’s appeared on one of her tours, including a very concerning, and very stupid, Hitler moment. Upgrade to paid to get the full post. Otherwise, I’ll see you next week.
It’s official! Madonna is going on tour! And this time, she’s explicitly said that The Celebration Tour, which kicks off in July 2023, is focusing on her greatest hits. Four decades of music, but will ‘Material Girl’ be among the old favourites given an airing? Let’s have a look at the song’s tour history so far…
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