Like most effective mothers, mine had a familiar collection of references she called upon regularly throughout my childhood when she wanted to make a point. One anecdote we heard over and over: how uncanny and somewhat unsettling it was that Madonna was able to continually transform and shock her audiences over a span of so many decades.
As I’ve gotten older, this characterization stuck. But what’s proven even more impressive to me is how that trajectory has enabled her to redefine what it means to be a pop culture icon. She’s not just a mole, a glove, or a specific dance move. She’s red lips and lip gloss, corsets and capes, fish nets and silk.
Her ability to be so many things and yet still be one thing is exactly why its so fun to unpack the Cult of Madonna. So in honor of her birthday, we did just that.
Happy Birthday to every Madonna and one Madonna. Which one are you?
When your hair stylist asks you, “What color this time?” You say: “The blackest hair dye on the planet. Then gel it, baby. And please extend the courtesy to my eyebrows. But no plucking.” You’re just bold like that. And you like a high hair-to-skin contrast. It’s the perfect dramatic backdrop for your floral accoutrement.
Sandra Bernhard optional, devil-may-care ‘tude required.
[Photographs by Ron Galella via Getty Images.]
You like your lace and fur and silk layered in various shades of white because ANGELS. Catholic crosses adorn your every limb and lobe — but sloppily, so as to communicate you don’t give a F. Faded bottle blond pulled off of your face, ready to dance or sneer at any moment.
No makeup optional, dark lips required.
[Photographs by Bettmann and Ron Galella, Ltd. via Getty Images.]
You’re a sunglasses-at-night kind of woman. You love silk and lace and leather but only in black and always layered. Modesty is boring; black fishnetting is more your speed. If you’re bra isn’t visible does it even exist?
Combat boots optional, nocturnal lifestyle required.
[Photographs by Ron Galella and Dave Hogan via Getty Images.]
Your energy is channeled primarily through your boobs, which are protected by way of cone bra and cone bra only. Tights and leotards make you feel secure in the chaos that results from paving the way in music. Hair stays curled and lips stay red because they make you feel like a woman.
Inhibitions optional, peroxide blond required.
[Photographs by Michel Linssen and Ebet Roberts via Getty Images.]
You take your acting seriously which is why you keep your lace or velvet (but not both) cut close (but not too close): you’re a woman with something to say, after all. Your body doesn’t need the stage. Only your face, framed by fur or feathers.
Headpiece optional, lip gloss required.
[Photographs by S. Granitz and AFP/Stringer via Getty Images.]
You keep your hair long and parted down the middle. Your spirit is also long and parted in the middle; feathers and glitter are tied and sprinkled into both. You stay swaddled in colorful coats and dark gothic robes reflect the transient nature of your soul.
Face paint optional, hair crimping required.
[Photographs by Dave Hogan and Kevin Mazur via Getty Images.]
You are a serious author and serious authors wear tweed and plaid blazers. You’re not mad about a pin nor a beret, in fact you feel most put together when you wear them both at once. Knee-length skirts pair well with your knee-high boots and British lilt.
Heart necklace optional, Kabbalah bracelet required.
[Photographs by Kevin Mazur and James Devaney via Getty Images.]
Lace and thigh-highs communicate that you’ve still got it. You like things that are black, tight and leather. You wear your hair in loose, blond waves to counterbalance the emotional severity of what’s happening below your neck. People consistently ask you if you know what cultural appropriation is.
Face injections optional, tooth grill required.
Photographs by Taylor Hill and Kevin Mazur via Getty Images.