Back in 1982, a friend of mine was walking on Broadway near 108th Street, around where the Happy Donut Shop used to be, when she passed this girl. The girl wasn’t wearing anything special, just jeans and a white T-shirt, but she looked amazing, and my friend stopped dead in her tracks. Objectively, she didn’t have anything my friend didn’t have—what girl in 1982 didn’t own jeans and a white T-shirt? Nevertheless, as she watched this vision walk away, my friend found herself wondering if there was anything she could do to copy her look.
It was Madonna, of course. And that was the thing about her: Even when she was broke, unknown, and surviving on popcorn, she had mastered the art of creating wannabes. And in a matter of months, girls would be mobbing Macy’s for fingerless gloves and tying rags in their hair just like their new hero. Madonna created a demand for herself simply by existing.
At Danceteria, where she hung out constantly and worked part-time as a hat-check girl, Madonna’s power was already if not legendary, then palpable. Not just because she was a great dancer, which she was, or because she was hot, which she also was, but simply because no one had ever seen anyone like her. She was riveting and she knew it and she had something up her sleeve.
It was a demo tape, of course. And one night she sprang it on the club’s D.J., Mark Kamins (with whom, it turns out, she had become romantically involved). The party people danced. Kamins had invited his friend Michael Rosenblatt, an A&R guy from Sire Records, down to witness the spectacle, and he was duly impressed. Was she whisked off in a limo by Rosenblatt that very night? Reports vary—but she was signed by Sire in very short order.
It was the beginning of a career in which people’s hunger for Madonna very neatly matched her hunger for them. Now that she quite literally has to pose with her foot behind her head to get our attention, this seems almost quaint. But at the time, she was the perfect human version of the very best pop music: You want to hear it again and again and then see what comes next.