“Material Girl” is a song recorded by American singer Madonna for her 2nd studio album Like a Virgin (1984). It was released on November 30, 1984, by the Sire label as the second single from Like a Virgin. Despite the song being written by Peter Brown and Robert Rans, while Nile Rodgers produced the track, Madonna stated that the meaning of the song coincided with her life at that time, and she liked it because of how provocative it felt.
“Material Girl” consists of synth arrangements with a robotic-sounding male voice chant repeating the hook, “living in a material world”. The lyrics identify with materialism, with Madonna asking for a rich and affluent life, and only wanting to date men who can offer her a luxurious lifestyle. Contemporary critics have frequently identified “Material Girl” along with “Like a Virgin” as the songs that established Madonna as an icon. “Material Girl” was a commercial success, reaching the top-5 in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Japan and UK. It reached the #2 position on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, as her 3rd top-5 US single.
The music video was a mimicry of Marilyn Monroe‘s performance of the song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The mimicked scenes are interspersed with scenes of a Hollywood director trying to win the heart of an actress, played by Madonna herself. Discovering that, contrary to her song, the young woman was not impressed by money and expensive gifts, he pretended to be penniless and succeeded in taking her out on a date. She has performed the song in 5 of her world tours; most of her performances of the song on tour are mimicries of the song’s music video.
“Material Girl” has been covered by a number of artists, including Britney Spears and Hilary and Haylie Duff. It has appeared in the films Moulin Rouge! (2001), Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004), Material Girls (2006), and Crazy Rich Asians (2018), also the Netflix show Stranger Things 3 (2019). Idina Menzel performed the song in Cinderella (2021). An orchestral version was made for the 2nd season of the series Bridgerton (2022). It also became a viral hit on TikTok. Madonna has often remarked that she regrets recording “Material Girl” as its title became a nickname for her in the mainstream media.
“Material Girl” was written by Peter Brown and Robert Rans, while Nile Rodgers produced the track. In 1986, Madonna told Company magazine, that although she did not write or create the song, the lyrical meaning and concept did apply to her situation at that point of time. She elaborated, “I’m very career-oriented. You are attracted to people who are ambitious that way, too, like in the song ‘Material Girl’. You are attracted to men who have material things because that’s what pays the rents and buys you furs. That’s the security. That lasts longer than emotions.” During a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone, Madonna was asked by interviewer Austin Scaggs, regarding her 1st feelings, after listening to the demos of “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl”. Madonna responded by saying, “I liked them both because they were ironic and provocative at the same time but also unlike me. I am not a materialistic person, and I certainly wasn’t a virgin, and, by the way, how can you be like a virgin? I liked the play on words, I thought they were clever. They’re so geeky, they’re cool.”
“Material Girl” consists of synth arrangements, with a strong backbeat supporting it. A robotic-sounding male voice, sung by Frank Simms, repeats the hook “Living in a material world” robotically. According to the sheet music published at Musicnotes.com by Alfred Publishing, the song is set in the time signature of common time, with a tempo of 120 beats per minute with a hip, swing-like mood.
The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 during the week of February 9, 1985, at position 43, when “Like a Virgin” was descending out of the top 10. The single climbed the Hot 100 quickly, jumping 13 spots to #5 the week of March 9, 1985, and eventually spent 2 weeks at # 2, held off by REO Speedwagon‘s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and Phil Collins‘ “One More Night“. The week when the song slipped to #3, her upcoming single “Crazy for You” reached #4, giving Madonna 2 simultaneous top-5 hits. “Material Girl” reached the top of the Hot Dance Club Songs but was less successful on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, failing to enter the top 40 and peaking at #49. It was placed at #58 on the year-end chart for 1985, with Madonna becoming the top pop artist for the year. In Canada, the song debuted on the RPM Singles Chart at #76, on the issue dated February 16, 1985. After 5 weeks, it reached a peak position of 4 on the chart and was present on the chart for a total of 21 weeks. It was ranked at #46 on the RPM Year-End chart for 1985.
In the UK, “Material Girl” debuted on the UK Singles Chart at #24 on March 2, 1985 and reached a peak position of #3. It was present for a total of 10 weeks on the chart. The song was certified gold by the British Phonographic Industry, for sales and streams exceeding 400,000 units. According to the Official Charts Company, the song has sold 405,000 copies there. Across Europe, the song reached the top-10 in Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Netherlands, Spain and the Eurochart Hot 100 Singles, while reaching the top 40 of Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
In Australia, the single debuted at #25 on 17 March 1985 and peaked at #4 3 weeks later. It also reached the Top 5 in New Zealand and Japan.
The music video was inspired by Madonna’s admiration of Marilyn Monroe and mimicked the latter’s performance of the song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The video was developed to simultaneously be an exegesis and a critique of the lyrics and Madonna herself. It was the first time Madonna was able to showcase her acting ability to the public, combining the dance routines of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” with the storyline of a man who impresses Madonna with daisies, rather than diamonds. In a 1987 interview with New York Daily News, Madonna said:
Well, my favorite scene in all of Monroe’s movies is when she does that dance sequence for ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’. And when it came time to do the video for the song [Material Girl], I said, I can just redo that whole scene and it will be perfect. […] Marilyn was made into something not human in a way, and I can relate to that. Her sexuality was something everyone was obsessed with and that I can relate to. And there were certain things about her vulnerability that I’m curious about and attracted to.
The music video was shot January 10 and 11, 1985, at Ren-Mar Studios in Hollywood, California, and was directed by Mary Lambert; Lambert had previously directed the videos for “Borderline” and “Like a Virgin“. It was produced by Simon Fields with principal photography by Peter Sinclair, editing by Glenn Morgan and choreography by Kenny Ortega. Much of the jewelry is from the collection of Connie Parente, a popular Hollywood jewelry collector.
The video featured actor Keith Carradine as Madonna’s wealthy love interest. According to Carradine, Madonna had asked for him to appear in the video. Actor Robert Wuhl appeared in the video’s opening sequence as George, an employee of Carradine’s character. It was on the set of the video that Madonna met actor Sean Penn, whom she began a relationship with and married eight months later.
The video opens with two men (Carradine) watching a rush in the screening rooms of a Hollywood studio. On the screen, an actress played by Madonna sings and dances to “Material Girl”, dressed like Monroe from “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. One of the men, played by Carradine, is a director or a producer and is immensely rich. He falls in love with the actress and wants to express his passion for her. He tells his employee, played by Wuhl: “She’s [Madonna] fantastic. She could become a star.” The employee answered: “She could be. She could be great. She could be a major star.” The former then concludes by saying: “She is a star, George.” Madonna is in a pink strapless gown and has her hair in blond locks ala Monroe. The background is a reconstruction of the Monroe video, complete with staircase, chandeliers and a number of tuxedo clad chorus boys. Madonna dances and sings the song, while she is showered with cash, expensive jewelry, furs and is carried by the men over the stairs. At one time, she eludes herself from the men, by dismissing them with her fan. As the producer tries to impress Madonna, he comes to learn she is not impressed by material items, rather preferring simple romance. He pretends to be penniless, and brings her hand-cut flowers while paying a poor man a large amount to borrow (or possibly buy) his dirty truck to take her on a date. His plan seems to work, because the final scene shows him and Madonna kissing in an intimate position.
It was in the video of “Material Girl” that Madonna began to accept and utilize herself being compared to Monroe. However, she established a safe distance from those comparisons and developed inside the same pastiche. Details like the usage of different gloves or different fans in the video brought forth the connections between these women, but Madonna alluded to herself in subtle ways. The fan in Monroe’s hand for the original video was an iconography of the Sudarshana Chakra (wheel) held by the Indian idol Vishnu. Scholar Georges-Claude Guilbert, who wrote Madonna as postmodern myth: how one star’s self-construction rewrites sex, said that the fan symbolized fiery desire aroused by Monroe as well as ritual sacrifice, eerily foreshadowing her untimely death in 1962. Madonna’s fan, which appeared at the end of the video, signified that Madonna – while paying her tribute to Monroe – was signaling that she had no intention of being a victim like her, and that she was on the path of becoming a feminist post-modern myth. Author Nicholas Cook commented that the video promoted Madonna’s identity as the song suggested, with the purpose of shifting “Madonna’s image from that of a disco-bimbo to authentic star.” Lisa A. Lewis, author of Gender, Politics and MTV said that with the video, Madonna achieved the rare distinction of being accepted as a literature medium by the music authors. “Material Girl” was nominated for best female video at the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards, but lost to Tina Turner‘s “What’s Love Got to Do with It“. The video was ranked at #54 on VH1‘s 100 Greatest Videos. On YouTube, the video became her 9th video to surpass 100 million views.
After the song’s release, the phrase “material girl” became another nickname for Madonna. She often remarked that “Material Girl” is the song she most regrets recording, as it became a label that has been attached to her for decades. She also said if she had known this, she probably would never have recorded it. After making the video, Madonna said she never wanted to be compared to Monroe, despite posing as the Hollywood icon and recreating many of Marilyn’s signature poses for various photos shoots, most notably a 1991 issue of Vanity Fair. Reflecting on the song, Madonna told author J. Randy Taraborrelli:
I can’t completely disdain the song and the video, because they certainly were important to my career. But talk about the media hanging on a phrase and misinterpreting the damn thing as well. I didn’t write that song, you know, and the video was about how the girl rejected diamonds and money. But God forbid irony should be understood. So when I’m ninety, I’ll still be the Material Girl. I guess it’s not so bad. Lana Turner was the Sweater Girl until the day she died.
Academics analyzed the usage of the term material as odd because, according to them, materialistic is the correct word. However, that would have posed problems of versification for Madonna and songwriter Brown. Guilbert commented that “material girl” designated a certain type of liberated women, thus deviating from its original coinage which meant a girl who is tangible and accessible. Cook said that the meaning and impact of “material girl” was no longer circumscribed by the video, rather by its lyrics. Its influence was seen later among such diverse groups such as female versus male, gay versus straight, and academic versus teenage.
In 1993, a conference was held at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with the subject as Madonna: Feminist Icon or Material Girl?. The conference pondered on the duality of Madonna as both of them and deduced that the question of Madonna’s feminism is not easy to decide. Some of the feminists left the conference, citing that they had not been able to make up their minds. As New Age spirituality became popular in the U.S. in the late 1990s, Madonna tried to shun the “material girl” tag, and embarked on a spiritual quest of her own. Journals like The Times and The Advocate declared her as “the Ethereal Girl” and “Spiritual Girl” respectively.