Born into a large Italian American family, Madonna studied dance at the University of Michigan and with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City in the late 1970s before relocating briefly to Paris as a member of Patrick Hernandez’s disco revue. Returning to New York City, she performed with a number of rock groups before signing with Sire Records. Her first hit, “Holiday,” in 1983, provided the blueprint for her later material—an upbeat dance club sound with sharp production and an immediate appeal. Madonna’s melodic pop incorporated catchy choruses, and her lyrics concerned love, sex, and relationships—ranging from the breezy innocence of “True Blue” (1986) to the erotic fantasies of “Justify My Love” (1990) to the spirituality of later songs such as “Ray of Light” (1998). Criticized by some as being limited in range, her sweet girlish voice nonetheless was well suited to pop music.
Madonna was the first female artist to exploit fully the potential of the music video. She collaborated with top designers (Jean-Paul Gaultier), photographers (Steven Meisel and Herb Ritts), and directors (Mary Lambert and David Fincher), drawing inspiration from underground club culture or the avant-garde to create distinctive sexual and satirical images—from the knowing ingenue of “Like a Virgin” (1984) to the controversial red-dressed “sinner” who kisses a black saint in “Like a Prayer” (1989). By 1991 she had scored 21 top ten hits in the United States and sold some 70 million albums internationally, generating $1.2 billion in sales. Committed to controlling her image and career herself, Madonna became the head of Maverick, a subsidiary of Time Warner created by the entertainment giant as part of a $60 million deal with the performer. Her success signaled a clear message of financial control to other women in the industry, but in terms of image she was a more ambivalent role model.