How Madonna's 'Like A Virgin' Has Changed Over 30 Years

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 14:  Photo of MADONNA; Madonna after the 1st MTV Music Awards  (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 14: Photo of MADONNA; Madonna after the 1st MTV Music Awards (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Thirty years ago, a blithe little song about fresh romance made pop music feel so shiny and new. Madonna was already something of a household name when "Like a Virgin" was released, on Nov. 6, 1984 (two months after we heard it for the first time at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards), but the song made her pop's impending queen. It gave Madonna her first No. 1 single, sitting atop the Billboard chart for six weeks.

Arguably still her most famous song, "Like a Virgin" is now a staple at wedding receptions, on the airwaves and on lists of controversial moments in popular culture. But you're much less likely to see Madonna perform a standard rendition of the classic today. Most of her tours have featured a remastered version, which means we've heard several wildly different iterations of the pop standard. Here's how "Like a Virgin" has evolved in the 30 years since it was released:

  • MTV Video Music Awards (1984)
    Back when MTV was an infant, and the inaugural Video Music Awards favored acts like Herbie Hancock and The Police, seeing a 26-year-old burgeoning pop star writhe around in a wedding dress and "BOY TOY" belt buckle was enough to redefine an entire era of music. This infamous September 1984 performance was the first time most people heard "Like a Virgin." Madonna reportedly wanted to perform alongside a full-grown white Bengal tiger. When that idea was nixed, she chose to emerge from a 17-foot wedding cake. The floor action was pure improv. On her descent, a stiletto slipped off, and Madonna decided to pretend it was intentional by rolling around on the floor to retrieve it. After the performance, some said her career was DOA. Somehow she made it through the wilderness anyway -- all thanks to a wardrobe malfunction.
  • TV appearances (1984-1985)
    Madonna made the TV rounds in late 1984 and early 1985 to promote the "Like a Virgin" album, which dropped a week after the title single was released.
  • The Virgin Tour (1985)
    Madonna met Michael Jackson in the early '80s, and a volatile relationship between the two pop champs ensued. Madonna has expressed her affinity for Jackson many times, including while performing "Like a Virgin," which, on her inaugural tour, was mashed up with a bit of Jackson's 1982 smash, "Billie Jean."
  • Who's That Girl Tour (1987)
    The last time one of Madonna's tours featured "Like a Virgin" in its original form is also probably the last time the song's stylistic accoutrements didn't make headlines. Madonna slowly dismantled a showy Carmen Miranda ensemble that doubled as a sendup to Cyndi Lauper, who'd landed seven Top 10 hits by the time the Who's That Girl Tour launched. Mixed with a sample of the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)," this rendition ended a medley of hits that also featured "Dress You Up" and "Material Girl."
  • Blond Ambition Tour (1990)
    Here's where everything changed. Not just with "Like a Virgin," but arguably with Madonna's career at large. It would be another several months before "Justify My Love" blew up her image, but the Blonde Ambition Tour was the bridge toward her most, ahem, adult years. Cue the cone bra and a sultry, Middle Eastern-inspired rendition of "Like a Virgin," performed while "stroking herself and heatedly writhing against the pillows" on a red satin bed. That segued into the religious appropriation of "Like a Prayer," and together the songs sparked outrage among Catholic groups. After weeks of protests and a strengthened condemnation from the Vatican, Madonna canceled her second stop in Rome due to low ticket sales.
  • The Girlie Show (1993)
    Despite the bawdy sensuality of the Blonde Ambition Tour and the backlash that accompanied "Erotica" and the "Sex" book, Madonna's was only mildly tamer for The Girlie Show. She slotted "Like a Virgin" during the setlist's Weimar Cabaret portion, channeling Marlene Dietrich by dressing in a tuxedo and adopting the actress' thick German accent. "It wasn't just that she affected Marlene Dietrich's 'Blue Angel' attire of top hat, white tie and tails; she dropped her voice down to a smoky, Dietrichian contralto and affected an accent that turned the chorus phrase into 'Like a wirgin / Touched fur der wery furst time,'" The Baltimore Sun wrote in a review of the show.
  • American Life Promo Tour (April-May 2003)
    Thanks to commenter Oscar Alcivar for pointing out that we left this version off our original list. It's a sweet acoustic update that Madonna introduced for the nine low-keys gigs she played in conjunction with the "American Life" album.
  • MTV Video Music Awards (August 2003)
    Everyone remembers where they were when they first saw Madonna smooch Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, right? If you don't recall your own reaction, surely you have Justin Timberlake's and/or Mary J. Blige's forever implanted in your mind. Technically it was Spears and Aguilera who performed "Like a Virgin" (Madonna joined them for "Hollywood"), but it was Madonna who snagged most of the attention for the performance. "Madonna, Spears, Aguilera shock at MTV Awards," USA Today's headline read the following day. "Madonna sexes up MTV awards," The Guardian's announced. Spears told People a few days later that she "didn't know [the kiss] was going to be that long and everything." Eleven years later, we're still talking about it: Spears' manager recently told Billboard how "very, very rigid" Madonna was about rehearsing, and the performance has become almost as much of a classic as the first time she sang "Like a Virgin" on the VMA stage.
  • The Confessions Tour (2006)
    After omitting "Like a Virgin" from 2001's Drowned World Tour and 2004's Re-Invention Tour, Madonna performed a disco version of the song for her next outing -- the same tour that prompted outrage for a crucifixion simulation. BBC called the rendition "spectacular." Shortly after the tour, Madonna said she didn't think she'd ever want to perform "Like a Virgin" again. That sentiment didn't last long.
  • Sticky & Sweet Tour (2008-09)
    "I dedicate this song to the pope, because I'm a child of God," Madonna announced in Rome in September 2008 -- 18 years after her most famous tour generated so much Catholic controversy it couldn't even sell out in the Italian capital. "All of you are also children of God. And you know what else?" The "what else" was the opening line of "Like a Virgin," recalibrated as an a capella call-and-response singalong.
  • The MDNA Tour (2012)
    Madonna used the final bars of "Human Nature" to strip down to a black bra, reveal the words "NO FEAR" imprinted on her backside (or "OBAMA," depending which concert you attended). "Human Nature" segued into a ballad rendition of "Like a Virgin" set to "Evgeni's Waltz" from the "W.E." soundtrack. As the song ended, a shirtless dancer covered Madonna's torso with a corset that he tightened until she feigned breathlessness, once again ironically reverting the patent sexuality she'd drawn from years earlier. "The concert’s most startling moment was its new take on 'Like a Virgin,' a hit from 1984," The New York Times wrote in a review of the show. "Backed by a piano player wearing a top hat, it became a waltz in a minor key, with Madonna singing in an uncharacteristically low, slightly scratchy register -- her Lotte Lenya voice, unassisted."


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