Carin Goldberg — the art director behind Madonna’s debut album cover — spoke to the Cut about her first experience with the then-unknown pop star.
It’s the first question that anybody asks me, even today: What was it like to work with Madonna? People think that maybe something dramatic or interesting or kind of wild might have happened, based on, you know, Madonna’s persona. But I would say that Madonna was probably the easiest job I ever had — the most cooperation from a recording artist I think I ever had. She was a true professional, even at that young age.
It was ’83, and at that point I had my own small design firm. Warner Bros. called and asked me to do her cover as a freelance designer. When I got the call, I rolled my eyes, because it was another [musician with a] one-word name. At that time it had become cliché to have a one-word name, because of Cher, so I remember thinking, God, it’s going to be one of those. So I really went into it with very little expectation. The fact of the matter is that nobody knew who she was. As far as I was concerned, she could have been a one-trick pony and we might never have heard of her again.
Because she wasn’t famous, the budget was not huge at all. I asked her to come dressed in the kind of clothes she would normally wear. I said, “You’ve got your thing, just do it.” There was nothing particularly shocking about what she was wearing at the time. I think she just had a unique style. A lot of people did — Betsey Johnson, Cyndi Lauper, Diane Keaton. There was a lot going on then that was all about women wearing all kinds of weird combinations. We were all doing that kind of eclectic look, but Madonna did it with a much more audacious, sexual edge. It wasn’t so much about trying to be a rock star — it was more just making something from something you had around. Taking some piece of fabric and wrapping it around your head, for example. Over the years her style has changed, given her independence and wealth and ability to have designers design for her, but there’s still a kind of eclecticism to some degree.
My memory was that she wore some kind of cut shirt — there was definitely a lot of belly hanging out. And a balloon-y pant with the waist and legs rolled up. A lot of artists really didn’t have very much taste — they don’t always know who they are, and they need to be told — especially these days. Madonna walked in ready-made. She knew who she was. We didn’t have to worry about styling her.
She came with a lot of bracelets on, and so I said, “I think we ought to focus on the bracelets, let’s really try to get that in the picture.” That was the one iconic thing about her outfit, besides the rag in her hair. I thought she needed even more, so the girlfriend of the photographer went into her jewelry box and took as many bracelets as she could find, to give it a bit more boom.
We put on her music and I asked her to dance. There was not much else we needed to do, because she was a performer. It was short, it was sweet. She was prompt, she did everything we asked her to do, she said thank you. It could not have been more easy. I would not call her in any way warm and cuddly, but she was not unfriendly. She was just all business.
And who knew? In my wildest dreams, could I have ever imagined? I mean, I knew she had a little talent. She got there and danced, and sang “Holiday,” I think. I liked it, we could dance to it. But who the hell could have predicted after that? It totally exploded. That album was the moment.
I’m really glad we did a full-face portrait for the cover. I think it helped — even just incrementally. But it’s hard to know. I did my job, it went out there, and life when on. And I will be forever the art director who did Madonna’s first cover, which I suppose is not a bad thing.