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Borderline: The Story Behind Madonna’s Breakout Hit Song
In Depth

Borderline: The Story Behind Madonna’s Breakout Hit Song

Revealing Madonna as a premier-league mainstream star and a compelling dance act, Borderline was a landmark song for the “Queen Of Pop”.

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Borderline was the breakout hit that established Madonna as a pop sensation in the US, but while this 80s classic introduced one of the “Queen Of Pop”’s most enduring personae, it has rarely been performed live… Here’s the story behind one of the most important songs in the Madonna’s career.

Listen to the best of Madonna here.

Who wrote Borderline?

The single that established Madonna as a bona fide pop sensation was written by the primary producer of her self-titled debut album. Reggie Lucas had started out as an R&B and jazz guitarist and, along with percussionist James Mtume, successfully relaunched himself in the 70s as a writer and producer. The pair worked with Stephanie Mills and Roberta Flack, before going their separate ways at the start of the next decade; Mtume would lead a band under his own name and enjoy a UK Top 40 hit with Juicy Fruit in 1983 while, that same year, Lucas was drafted in to produce Madonna’s debut album for Sire Records. He would also write one of the other tracks for the record, Physical Attraction, which was a sizeable club success for the rising star.

Was Borderline Madonna’s first hit?

Released on 15 February 1984, Borderline was the fourth US single lifted from Madonna’s debut album. Issued after Holiday, it recached No.10 in June 1984, thanks to MTV’s decision to embrace the promo video and put it into heavy rotation. Giving her the first of a record-breaking run of US Billboard Top 10 hits, the song also made Billboard’s dance and adult contemporary listings – evidence of its dynamic cross-market appeal.

In the UK, where Borderline was issued as a single in the wake of a re-released Lucky Star, it initially fell shy of the Top 5, but it was later reissued in January 1986, when it would peak at No.2 and bridge the gap between the final singles from the Like A Virgin album and the launch single from True Blue, Live To Tell. In Ireland, Borderline went one further, becoming Madonna’s second chart-topper there after the previous summer’s Into The Groove. That would be the only chart peak this shoo-in among the best Madonna songs would reach on any chart, but Borderline scored further success in a number of European markets on reissue in 1986, and had also made No.12 in Australia and No.25 in Canada in 1984.

Why was Borderline so successful?

Despite marking the end of her collaboration with Reggie Lucas, Borderline was the first crossover track the “Queen Of Pop” released, and it showcased her potential as both a premiere-league mainstream star and a compelling dance act. The song is a pop-soul confection with an urgent vocal that pierces through the warmer orchestration that sounded great on Top 40 radio. When her then boyfriend John “Jellybean” Benitez was drafted in to remix the track for its 12” release, he teased out the pop hooks even further.

Ultimately, Borderline’s power is perhaps best illustrated by a range of covers across the years, including a terrific 2006 soul interpretation by former Shalamar member Jody Watley. No one keeping any eye on the rising star could ignore the impact of Borderline’s video, either, which saw Madonna playing a character part that further mythologised her wider image.

Who made the Borderline video?

Director Mary Lambert first worked with Madonna on the Borderline promo video, shooting the clip in New York City across January and February 1984. Louie Louie, later to have minor success as a singer in the late 80s and early 90s, was cast as Madonna’s romantic interest in the clip, and the plot, described by Lambert to Rolling Stone magazine as “boy and girl enjoy simple pleasures of barrio love”, also focused on the attentions of a fashion photographer captivated by Madonna’s enigmatic street appeal.

In many ways, the clip further fuelled the explosive impact of Madonna’s first 18 months of fame. At the time of her breakthrough, it was proving hard to separate fact from fiction, with Madonna’s Borderline character being echoed in similar roles in the film Desperately Seeking Susan, and the promo videos for Like A Virgin and Material Girl, which were the next two clips Lambert shot with the star. Lambert would also go on to direct Madonna in 1987’s La Isla Bonita and the iconic Like A Prayer, from 1989 – the latter quickly earning its place among the best 80s music videos.

Has Madonna ever performed Borderline live?

There were almost no promotional performances of Borderline during its two distinct chart runs, but Madonna did once mime to the track on the US TV programme The Dance Show, at the start of 1984. It made an appearance on the stateside The Virgin Tour the following year, but the song was cut from the domestic VHS release of the shows, Madonna Live: The Virgin Tour.

Overseas fans finally got to see her play Borderline live on the first leg of 2008’s Sticky And Sweet Tour, staged in support of the Hard Candy album, and for which Madonna chose to reinterpret the cut in a guitar-led rock treatment. She reinvented it again for a 2016 appearance on Live On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, in a downbeat arrangement delivered with gospel-infused support from a trio of backing singers, proving that, over three decades on from its original release, Borderline could still inspire Madonna to redraw her creative boundaries.

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