Madonna is more than 60 years old, but she still continues to leave a mark on every facet of culture – from music to film, to fashion and beauty. While her controversial nature made her more vulnerable to attacks than appreciation, it’s undeniable that she has been quite influential. Her trendsetting is usually confined to her music and style, but she has also shaped culture at large – probably in ways you won’t recognize as bearing her mark. Without her, the pop culture landscape won’t exist as it is now, and the world will look so different.
To celebrate Madonna as a pop culture icon, here are a few ways in which she has made an impact around the world:
1. She is the first female icon to have complete control of her music and image
Long before Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, Madonna was the first female pop star to project an image of control and fierce independence. She was also the first female artist to have complete control of her image and music. Before Madonna came to the scene, record labels dictated every step of the artists, but she decided to introduce her own style and conceptually direct every part of her career. Her good track record enabled her to increase the level of creative control over her own music. In a way, Madonna fought for freedom of expression for female artists. She also revolutionized dance music the same way Elvis Presley invented rock and roll.
2. She introduced age inclusivity in pop
Before Madonna, pop artists had a shelf life. But she raised the cut-off with every new decade she enters. The thing is, Madonna had her first hit when she was 25, so she came to the scene a bit older – compared to the likes of Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, who were teenagers when they become famous. It was the same thing when compared with her fellow ‘80s icons like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince, and George Michael – who were all younger than her when they first enjoyed fame and success. However, among all of them, Madonna is the only one who have survived. Back in 2016, she told an audience of music-industry peers that “People say I’m controversial, but I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.”
3. She’s a role model for female sex positivity
In 1984, Madonna’s humping, writhing and rolling pose clad in a wedding dress has been cemented to the memories of MTV Awards audiences. That Like a Virgin performance was her defining moment. She used her sexuality to draw attention to her music and herself, and she didn’t stop. She was never afraid to express her sexuality. One of the bravest expression of her sexuality came in her “Blond Ambition” tour, where she paraded the stage in Jean Paul Gaultier corset that reveals the iconic cone bra.
Miley Cyrus was criticized for her overtly sexual antics, but clearly, Madonna was an innovator in that regard. Unlike Miley, though, it was clear that Madonna was the one in charge. If she was being objectified, it was at her own hand.
4. She was subject to a lot of controversy because she didn’t care what people think
Madonna is daring, to say the least. Her visual and lyrical content set a successful pattern that she followed throughout career: a mix of blatantly sexual content, religious symbolism, and devil-may-care girl-power rebellion. From her first performance of Like a Virgin at the 1984 MTV Music Awards, which saw her writhing around the stage wearing a low-cut lace corset wedding dress to her concept album that showed explicit photographs that explore her wildest sexual fantasies – doesn’t have a filter. Many fans adored her because of her refusal to play by anyone’s rules but her own. She does what she wants and doesn’t care what people think, and that’s a big part of her appeal to the feminist and gay community.
When she got older, Madonna was often told to “act your age,” and give up the “pointless provocations and trashy outfits of her prolonged midlife crisis.” But she didn’t give up her sexual nature just to fit into society’s standards for women her age. She became an example for many people – regardless of gender – to be who they really are, without being trapped by what other people expects of them.
5. She broke down social barriers in the entertainment industry
Diversity is often pursued in the entertainment industry today, but Madonna has always produced work that exposed marginalized groups to the mainstream. She surrounded herself with multicultural collaborators and featured black and Latino people in her videos. Also, gay and lesbian people appeared in her videos as early as 1986. She also never missed an opportunity to proudly parade her gay dancers, collaborators, and friends.
7. She made the whole world dance
Madonna has always been a modern dancer. While her music is her main artistic channel, she has always been a dancer who sings, not a singer who dances. She never abandoned her devotion to the dance floor and her disco roots, reversing the idea that disco sucks. She is blessed with a natural rhythm and a highly coordinated body that allowed her to get inside any groove. And because of her natural talent, she gave us back our bodies and made us dance, too.
8. She popularized reinvention
The art of pop reinvention was pioneered by David Bowie, but it was Madonna who took it to the next level and made it a part of the strategic repertoire of every artist ever since. She became a total style influencer and a fashion chameleon who had the ability to transform herself for albums, photo shoots, tours, movies, and videos. She can roll from one aesthetic to the next, so you can’t box Madonna in a single image or style. She can switch up her look from punky gal to material girl, Marilyn-esque Hollywood star, bustier babe, to Vogue vixen. Since the start of her career, we saw everything from Earth mother to cowgirl Madonna.
9. She was a master of cultural appropriation
Madonna has a knack for combining counter-normative and iconic imagery in a way that’s both familiar and provocative at times. In her “Like a Prayer” video, she was shown running into a church after seeing a group of white men assaulting a white woman, having a spiritual and sexual orgasm in the pulpit of the church, and testifying on behalf of an African-American man who was wrongfully arrested for the crime. This video ignited criticisms and protests over its religious imagery. Some applauded her for breaking racial and religious taboos, but it also initiated a criticism that heralded public debates about the misuse and abuse of African-American identities by white artists.
10. She helped shape the modern music video, and gave MTV VMA’s its defining tone
Music videos of Madonna has given MTV more media headlines than any other artist. No other performer had music videos that seriously elaborate their personas with an elegant mix of creativity, edge, and beauty. She knew that her videos were a great way to reach a lot of people who can’t come to see her live, and that idea was revolutionary in an industry that was still adjusting to the advent of MTV. She made exquisite videos that were all memorable.
And when she performed “Like a Virgin” on the first ever MTV’s Video Music Awards in 1984, jaws dropped around the world and made the event relevant. Since then, artists performing each year in that event was compelled to make a bombastic performance.
11. She made collabs between pop stars and fashion designers a commonplace
David Bowie had Kansai Yamamoto jumpsuits, while Elton John had Tommy Nutter suits. It’s a thing for every celebrity to famously collaborate with a designer, but it was Madonna who made collabs between pop artists and designers a routine practice. She made it with Jean Paul Gaultier, who famously designed Madonna’s iconic cone bra. Before pop stars like Rihanna and Beyoncé were fixtures at fashion shows, fashion magazines and runways, Madonna forged that frontier.
12. She made hiring of stylists an SOP for artists
Back then, stars worked with fashion designers and couturiers, but the concept of a stylist didn’t really exist. She started working with a stylist in her “Like a Virgin” album cover, and continued to do so after. Since then, new generation of singers, artists and actresses borrowed from her playbook and hired stylists of their own.
13. She set the bar and tone for pop mega tours
Before Madonna, Michael Jackson and Donna Summer had already fused pop music and theater to improve live performance. But the 1990 Blond Ambition tour made the concert tour bigger, bolder, and more imaginative. Back then, concert tours are typically dull visually, and Madonna’s was far more theatrical than anything seen in a concert stage before. Her show was made up of four themed sections that comprised multiple set and costume changes, screen projections, revolutionary dance routines, and extravagant dance routines made possible by a microphone that can be worn like a headset. Madonna became the main architect of the contemporary pop spectacle, a person that Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus have turned to for inspiration.
14. She was a great identity artist
It’s not just her provocation that kept the Queen of Pop in the limelight for three decades. It’s her chameleon-like ability to constantly reinvent himself for every album she comes up with. When many artists fail to keep their relevance after changing images, Madonna was able to maintain her pop notoriety even with her constant change. She also treated people’s identities and genders as fashion, so she was able to make those identities seem fashionable.
15. She brought health consciousness to the masses
Madonna is one of those stars whose lifestyle was also imitated by fans. One of the reasons she aged so gracefully is that she has been a proponent of health awareness. Madonna was an early adopter of Ashtanga yoga and a macrobiotic, vegetarian diet. Though yoga was an ancient activity, if you paid close attention, no one famous was doing yoga until somewhere between 1998 to the early 2000s. One plausible reason for the mainstream infiltration of yoga is Madonna. Some yoga became widely-known due to the Internet or public’s open-mindedness to alternative healing, but it’s most likely Madonna who made it popular after her interview with Oprah, saying she’s gym-free and only practicing yoga.
16. She paved the way for reality TV
Every celebrity needs a moment when the camera stops, but not Madonna. She lived every moment in camera, even if she was a global superstar, in a documentary film she was executively producing: “Madonna: Truth or Dare.” While this didn’t invent reality TV or the concert film, it offered something of both. She gave glimpses of the life that led her to success and featured her talented brood of backup-dancer “children.” This documentary was an instant hit, as it featured the superstar’s most emotionally vulnerable confessional-style interviews. This project laid the groundwork for modern reality TV and made tour films a norm.
Also, Madonna’s 1991 documentary tour In Bed With Madonna can be seen as the precursor to the modern manipulated and structured reality TV. While the documentary did present Madonna’s self-revelation, it has become apparent that much of the action was set up for the cameras.
17. She had writing credits on every one of her hits
If it wasn’t for Madonna, artists like Charli XCX won’t be popular, and artists like Taylor Swift can’t go mainstream. Madonna normalized the idea that pop stars could and should write their own songs. If you’ll take a look at the liner notes on each of her album since her third LP, you will notice her name showing up a lot, because she had a writing or production credit on all songs on her records since 1986. She pushed back in an industry where pop stars were once only cogs in a machine.
18. She popularized personal branding
Madonna did not invent personal branding, but she sure did put in the guiding principle behind it – that we are the curators of our own lives. With her 1992 Sex book, she presented the idea of self-branding by showing a unified aesthetic of herself through photos as her personal brand. That’s what a lot of Instagram influencers and users are doing today, and it’s no surprise that Madonna also excels at the photo sharing platform.
19. She raised the bar for celebrity skincare lines
Madonna isn’t the first celebrity to release a skincare line, but she raised the bar for quality with MDNA. Her long-time dermatologist, who collaborated with Madonna in creating the makeup line, made the products represent the most advanced and different skincare experience. MDNA featured luxurious formulas that leave your skin feeling and smelling great, plus it used cutting edge technologies to help deliver the ingredients.
20. She is an ally to the LGBT people
These days, there’s barely a female pop star still active who doesn’t loudly express their support for LGBT rights. But it was Madonna who showed more understanding of queer identity and issues than any pop star before her, and most who came after her. In a two-part sit-down in a 1991 interview to The Advocate, Madonna revealed the roots of her gay identification through her early mentors. She wasn’t just expressing empathy, but identification, caused by her early, defining experiences in gay clubs. The interview’s timing was perfect as well, because it was released during the peak era of HIV infections and deaths that caused public flak against gay people. That time, many celebs spoke about the LGBT people only in the most nervously chaste ways.
21. She spoke frankly about having abortions
Madonna was one of the first major stars to admit to having had abortions unapologetically. In a 1994 interview with The Face, she said she had an abortion in a matter-of-factly manner, without explanation. At that time, only a handful of big stars talked openly about abortions, and it took several more years before other celebrities like Stevie Nicks, Whoopi Goldberg, and Chelsea Handler did the same.