It’s Madonna’s birthday! Let’s take a trip back to 1984 and rediscover the music video that launched her career, Mary Lambert’s sublime BORDERLINE.
Though Madonna has referred to BORDERLINE as her “first video,” this is not strictly true. The first music video she made was the Steve Barron-directed BURNING UP in March of 1983, almost a full year before BORDERLINE was shot in February of ‘84. But Madonna can be forgiven for this slip-up because in a sense it’s a fact: BORDERLINE was the first video that showcased Madonna in her true element, as she was meant to be seen.
While Barron has proven himself a master at creating iconic clips such as Michael Jackson’s BILLIE JEAN, his efforts failed to capture Madonna in her best light. Sure she’s her sultry, tousled self in BURNING UP, but it feels as if Barron, unsure what to do with this newcomer, played it safe by filling the clip with visual distractions. Madonna spends most of the video either trapped in a darkened room behind a locked door, tugging at a tight chain around her neck, or hidden behind a wall on which a laser light show is projected. She spins frantically in place and writhes in the street like a caged animal, burning to be set free.
Enter director Mary Lambert, who would unlock the doors and break the chains by casting Madonna in a more natural setting – the street. Though Madonna’s real-life climb to the top began in Manhattan’s lower east side, Lambert places her in downtown Los Angeles, where she and her urchin pals (including a young John Leguizamo) dance their days away beneath the 4th Street bridge on the outskirts of the city.
In strolls a smooth-talking British photographer who hands Madonna his card and offers to make her a model. Her boyfriend (played by dancer Louie Cordova) shouts and pouts, but M still allows the interloper to whisk her away in his sporty Nissan 280ZX. (What woman could resist?!)
Her boy toy may take her to the top of a downtown building, where they’re all alone above the grimy city at sunset, but he can’t offer her the artsy life of a fashion photographer – a sunlit studio, champagne and nude Roman statues.
Madonna poses for and flirts with the Brit, but the next day she’s back on Sixth Street with her girlfriends, laughing it off. Louie doesn’t see the humor in the situation, though, and he rejects her right in front of everyone at the neighborhood pool hall. She may look like a fool, but at least she does it in style with a custom-designed Keith Haring skirt, chartreuse socks and neon orange stiletto pumps.
So she keeps posing for Mr. Nikon until her picture lands smack on a magazine cover… and who should see it but Louie? All of a sudden, he starts to rethink his hasty brush-off and wonders if she’s really out of his reach for good.
But Madonna’s had time to think too, and seems ambivalent about leaving behind all that’s familiar to embark on a life of glamour. So she does what any rebellious model would do – she petulantly refuses to put on the hat she’s supposed to wear and defaces her Svengali’s sweet ride with spray paint.
Back in the pool hall, Madonna is her colorful self once again. She and her boy toy both realize they belong together, so they make up and shoot a killer game of billiards before living happily ever after in MTV history.
BORDERLINE has been subjected to in-depth analysis over the years by experts who seem mainly to excel in pointing out phallic symbols in the video. (Apparently there are at least three.) Some analysts have even claimed that the ethnicity of the men competing for Madonna’s attention (Latino vs. British) symbolizes the invasion of the barrio by the colonists and can be traced back to the 16th century Spanish Conquest!
Under critical analysis, much is always made of Madonna’s boyfriend being Latino (yes, he’s half Puerto Rican) and of the immersion of a white woman into Hispanic subculture. But if you watch the clip closely you see that only about half of the ‘street kids’ are Latinas. Critics who focus on the ethnic backgrounds of Madonna’s two suitors stray too far from the point: the contrast of the gritty and the polished, the real and the fake. It’s not about race, it’s about a girl struggling to acquire the gloss of sophistication while keeping true to her roots. Fittingly, the magazine cover that enrages her barrio beau is called Gloss.
The contrast at the heart of BORDERLINE is the dueling desires within Madonna’s character not just for these men but the worlds they represent. Her L.A. street life is filmed in color, the photographer’s studio in black and white. At the moment the paint hits his car, the photographer’s reaction convinces her that this lifestyle is one she may admire but never belong in. The film changes to color at this instant, and she goes back to her free urban existence and the boy she left behind; the one who loves her just as she is. But she keeps the hat.
Twenty-six years and 50 amazing music videos later, BORDERLINE may still be the best Madonna clip of all. It captures the megastar on the brink of her stardom, before Sean Penn, before Pepsi, before Evita, England, movies and motherhood, in the full glory of her cheap bangles, crucifix earrings and fingerless gloves. Before the strict workout regimen, when endearing traces of baby fat could still be spotted on her lithe frame.
Although she’s acting a role in the video, there is a strong sense that we are glimpsing a parallel universe Madonna, a what-might-have-been if she had chosen not to shoot for the stars, not to evolve into an icon but to stay as she was in early 1984.
The ‘borderline’ of the song may have been about a pushy lover, but the ‘borderline’ of Lambert’s video is about crossing that slippery threshold between being happy as you are and reaching for something more. Anyone who saw her vow to “rule the world” on American Bandstand in 1983 knows Madonna Ciccone would never have been satisfied with settling for anything less than what she achieved. But I sometimes wonder if she wonders what would have happened if she had. She crossed that borderline so long ago she’s passed the point of no return.