|"Like a Virgin"|
Cover art for most 12-inch vinyl and later CD editions, including the 12" US maxi-single
|Single by Madonna|
|from the album Like a Virgin|
|Released||October 31, 1984|
|Studio||The Power Station|
(Manhattan, New York City)
|Madonna singles chronology|
"Like a Virgin" is a song recorded by American singer Madonna for her second studio album Like a Virgin (1984). It was released on October 31, 1984, by Sire Records as the album's lead single. The song was written by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, and produced by Nile Rodgers; Steinberg said that the song was inspired by his personal experiences of romance. "Like a Virgin" was chosen for Madonna by Michael Ostin of Warner Bros. Records after listening to a demo sung by Kelly. Rodgers initially felt that the song did not have a sufficient hook, but subsequently changed his opinion after the song was stuck in his head.
Musically, "Like a Virgin" is a dance-oriented song, composed of two hooks. Madonna's voice is heard in a high register while a continuous arrangement of synths are heard along the bassline. The song's lyrics are ambiguous, consisting of hidden innuendos and open to various interpretations. "Like a Virgin" received positive reviews from music critics, who frequently called it as one of the defining songs for Madonna. It became her first number-one single on the record charts in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, and the United States, while reaching the top ten elsewhere. "Like a Virgin" sold 5 million copies worldwide, becoming one of the best-selling singles.
The song's music video portrayed Madonna sailing down the canals of Venice in a gondola, as well as roaming around a palace wearing a white wedding dress. With the video, scholars noted Madonna's portrayal of a sexually independent and strong woman, similarity of a man wearing a lion's mask to that of Saint Mark and the link between the eroticism in the video and the vitality of Venice. Madonna has performed the song in seven of her concert tours. Most of the time, her performances of "Like a Virgin" were associated with strong reaction and uproar from the media.
"Like a Virgin" has been covered by a number of artists and has appeared in or been referenced in feature films such as Reservoir Dogs, Moulin Rouge! and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. On the other hand, Madonna's public persona of an indomitable, sexually unashamed, supremely confident woman was widely accepted by the younger generation who emulated her style and fashion. Scholars have credited "Like a Virgin" as the song which cemented her position as a pop culture icon.
"Like a Virgin" was written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly. The idea for the song originated when Steinberg was living at his father's vineyards in the Coachella Valley, and driving a red pickup truck one day. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Steinberg explained that the song was not written for Madonna or any female singer but was inspired by his personal experiences. At that time Steinberg had just come out of an emotionally challenging relationship, and he had met someone new. That inspired the lyrics for "Like a Virgin" about how he coped with the difficult situation. When he took the song to Kelly, they decided that it would be a sensitive ballad; however, they could not decide how the word "virgin" would fit in it. Steinberg elaborated: "I wasn't just trying to get that racy word virgin in a lyric. I was saying ... that I may not really be a virgin—I've been battered romantically and emotionally like many people—but I'm starting a new relationship and it just feels so good, it's healing all the wounds and making me feel like I've never done this before, because it's so much deeper and more profound than anything I've ever felt."
Kelly recorded the demo, and invited Michael Ostin of Warner Bros. Records' A&R department to his house to listen to it. Steinberg and Kelly played four or five tunes for Ostin, and further discussed "Like a Virgin" – they were not sure for which artist the song would be suitable. Due to meet with Madonna the next day to discuss her second album, Ostin intended on playing the demo to her, believing the lyrics and the groove of the song were perfect for Madonna. "When I played it for Madonna she went crazy, and knew instantly it was a song for her and that she could make a great record out of it," Ostin recalled. In 2009, Rolling Stone interviewer Austin Scaggs asked Madonna what her first impressions were after listening to the demos of "Like a Virgin" and "Material Girl". Madonna replied:
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. I never realized they would become my signature songs, especially the second one.
Recording and production
In mid-1984, Madonna met producer Nile Rodgers at the Power Station studios (now Avatar Studios) in New York. Rodgers initially did not want Madonna to record "Like a Virgin", as he felt that the lyric 'like a virgin' was not a terrific hook; according to him it was not an all-time catch phrase. Rodgers dismissed the song after hearing the demo, which he thought sounded "really stupid and retarded". Later, Rodgers had second thoughts: "It's weird because I couldn't get it out of my head after I played it, even though I didn't really like it. It sounded really bubble-gummy to me, but it grew on me. I really started to like it. [...] But, my first reaction to it was, 'This is really queer.'" Rodgers credits Madonna with recognizing the song's potential. He later said: "I handed my apology to Madonna and said, 'you know... if it's so catchy that it stayed in my head for four days, it must be something. So let's do it.'" Hence the song was finally recorded. Steinberg reflected on the recording process and commented that:
When Madonna recorded it, even as our demo faded out, on the fade you could hear Tom saying, "When your heart beats, and you hold me, and you love me..." That was the last thing you heard as our demo faded. Madonna must have listened to it very, very carefully because her record ends with the exact same little ad-libs that our demo did. That rarely happens that someone studies your demo so carefully that they use all that stuff. We were sort of flattered how carefully she followed our demo on that.
Jason Corsaro, the record's audio engineer, persuaded Rodgers to use digital recording, a new technique at the time which Corsaro believed was going to be the future of recording because test pressings always sounded consistent. To ensure this, Corsaro used a Sony 3324 24-track DASH recorder and a Sony F1 PCM adaptor for the stereo mix. Madonna recorded the lead parts in a small, wooden, high-ceilinged piano room at the back of Studio C, also known as Power Station's "R&B room". Corsaro then placed gobos around her while using the top capsule of a stereo AKG C24 tube microphone, with a Schoeps microphone preamplifier and a Pultec equalizer. Once the track met with everybody's approval, Robert Sabino added the keyboard parts, playing mostly a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, as well as some Rhodes piano and acoustic piano, while Rodgers also played a Synclavier. Madonna, although not required, was present every minute of the recording sessions and the mixing process, Corsaro commented: "Nile was there most of the time, but she was there all of the time. She never left."
Composed as a dance-oriented song, the intro of "Like a Virgin" consists of two hooks. According to the sheet music published at Musicnotes.com by Alfred Publishing, the song is set in common time, with a moderately dance-groove tempo of 118 beats per minute. It is composed in the key of F major with Madonna's voice ranging from the tonal nodes of low-tone G3 to high-tone C5. According to Rikky Rooksby, the bassline on the intro is a re-working of the three-note bass motif present in the Four Tops' 1965 song "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)", where Chuck Berry provided the chord arrangement. The bassline also has some similarity with Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" especially during the second verse. Madonna sings the song in her high register while drum arrangement by Tony Thompson is heard alongside the bassline, which is also supported by a synthesizer arrangement, giving it a circular progression through all the seven diatonic chords of I–IV–viio–iii–vi–ii–V–I.
Regarding the lyrics, Madonna had commented: "I like innuendo, I like irony, I like the way things can be taken on different levels." This statement highlighted the ambiguity of the lyrics of the song, which is hung on the word 'like'. Rooksby interpreted the meaning of the song in different ways to different people. He said that for girls who are really virgins, the song encouraged them to hold their compose before they engage in their very first sexual moment/act. For sexually experienced girls, the song meant that they would be able to re-live the feelings of their first sexual encounter all over again. For boys, the song presented a narcissistic image of them making the girl/boy forget her/his past encounters and enjoy their sexual moment/act as if for the very first time.
"Like a Virgin" is one of Madonna's most famous singles, and was met with predominantly positive critical reception. Stephen Thomas Erlewine from Allmusic said that "Like a Virgin" was a definitive statement. He added that the song, and "Material Girl" from the same album, made Madonna an icon. He added that both overshadowed the rest of the record, "because they are a perfect match of theme and sound." Debbie Miller from Rolling Stone commented that Madonna's voice "doesn't have the power or range of, say, Cyndi Lauper, but she knows what works on the dance floor." In 2014, Ryan Reed, also writing for Rolling Stone, called the song a "classic".
Dave Karger from Entertainment Weekly, while reviewing the album in 1995, felt that the song came off a bit repetitious and immature when compared to the present context. Jim Farber from Entertainment Weekly felt that the song raised the "madonna-whore" ante. Sal Cinquemani from Slant Magazine called the song a classic. Alfred Soto from Stylus Magazine felt that the song was chic in its style. Katie Henderson from The Guardian commented that the song was saucy in nature. Michael Paoletta from Billboard commented that the song sustained a "fevered dance-rock momentum."
In 2000, "Like a Virgin", was honored by Rolling Stone and MTV, as the fourth song on their list of the "100 Greatest Pop Songs". It was voted ten on VH1's 100 Best Songs of the Past 25 Years. The song was listed at ninety-five on Billboard Hot 100 All-Time Top Songs. In 2003, Madonna fans were asked to vote for their 'Top 20 Madonna singles of all-time', by Q magazine. "Like a Virgin" was allocated the fifth spot on the list.
"Like a Virgin" became Madonna's first of 12 number-one hits on the Billboard Hot 100, where it debuted at number 48 on the issue dated November 17, 1984. The song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart the week of December 22, 1984 and remained there for six weeks. "Like a Virgin" was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) on January 10, 1985, for shipping a million copies across United States—the requirement for a gold single prior to 1989. The song also reached number-one on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart, and was her first top-ten entry on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart at position nine. It placed at two 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 number 71 on the RPM issue dated November 24, 1984, and reached the top of the chart on January 19, 1985. It was present on the chart for a total of 23 weeks and ranked thirty-five on the RPM Year-end chart for 1985.
The song debuted on the UK Singles Chart on November 17, 1984 at number 51, and peaked at number three on January 12, 1985; it spent a total of 18 weeks in the chart, and was certified gold by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) for shipment of 500,000 copies across United Kingdom. According to Official Charts Company, the song has sold 892,000 copies there as of August 2018. Across Europe, the song peaked within the top ten of the charts of Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland. According to Music & Media magazine the song had sold around 1.5 million copies in Europe by September 1985.
"Like a Virgin" became Madonna's first number-one song on the Australian Kent Music Report chart and on the Japanese International Singles Chart. It peaked at number-two on the South African and New Zealand Singles Charts, number 15 on the Swedish charts and peaked the Eurochart Hot 100 Singles. "Like a Virgin" sold 5 million copies worldwide, becoming one of the best-selling singles.
The music video, directed by Mary Lambert, who worked with Madonna in her video for "Borderline", was shot in Venice and partly in New York City in July 1984. Madonna was portrayed as a knowing virgin, a figment of the pornographic mind, as she walked through marble rooms, wearing a wedding gown. It alternated with scenes of a provocative-looking Madonna on board a gondola. She commented, "[Lambert] wanted me to be the modern-day, worldly-wise girl that I am. But then we wanted to go back in time and use myself as an actual virgin." The video starts with Madonna boarding on a boat from the Brooklyn Bridge and travels to Venice. As she steps down into the city, she moves like a stripper and undulated sinuously. She wears a black dress and blue pants with a number of crucifixes around her neck. She sings the song at full volume as she watches a lion walking between the columns of the Punta della Dogana of Venice.
A number of game-playing involving carnival masks, men and lions are portrayed with allusions to eighteenth-century practices and Saint Mark. Sheila Whiteley, author of Women and popular music: sexuality, identity, and subjectivity, felt that Madonna's image signified a denial of sexual knowledge, but also portrayed her in simulated writhing on a gondola, thus underpinning the simulation of deceit. The intrusion of a male lion, confirmed the underlying bestial discourse of both mythological fairy tale and pornographic sex. Whiteley observed that in the video, Madonna's lover wears the lion's mask and while cavorting with him, Madonna sheds the veneer of innocence and shows her propensity for wild animal passions. Having instilled desire, metaphorically she turns her lover into a Beast. Madonna commented about shooting with the lion:
"The lion didn't do anything he was supposed to do, and I ended up leaning against this pillar with his head in my crotch... I thought he was going to take a bite out of me so I lifted the veil I was wearing and had a stare-down with him and he opened his mouth and let out this huge roar. I got so frightened my heart fell in my shoe. When he finally walked away, the director yelled 'Cut' and I had to take a long breather. But I could really relate to the lion. I feel like in a past life I was a lion or a cat or something."
Reception and analysis
—Director Mary Lambert on the filming of the video.
With the video, scholars noted the expression of Venetian vitality in it. Author Margaret Plant (2002) commented: "With the lion of Saint Mark and the virginal city to the forefront, old sacrosanct Venice was propelled into a pop world of high-energy gyration, and endless circulation." She also noted that Saint Mark was a symbol of a time when sexual crime was punished severely in Venice and acts of rape, homosexuality and fornication incurred the loss of a nose, a hand or sometimes life itself. Madonna appeared to challenge such brutality and stretch the boundaries of tolerance in the video. As the lion-man carried Madonna to the Venetian palace, it symbolized an instance of the Saint taking the simulated Virgin, where Madonna became a symbol for La Serenissima, the Republic itself.
Plant also noted that Madonna, in the video, restored the energy and eroticism of Venice, which had its name taken from Venus in familiar elision. As she exchanged her blue top for a black one during the video, Madonna demonstrated her mastery and bravery of the city, which had a reputation of turning out its visitors as victims. Carol Clerk (2002) commented that with the video, "Madonna's days as a cheap and cheerful video star were over. She was moving into serious spectacle."
In 1985, a live music video of "Like a Virgin" from The Virgin Tour filmed in Detroit, was used to promote Madonna Live: The Virgin Tour video release. This version was nominated for Best Choreography at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards. The live performance of "Like a Virgin" from the Blond Ambition World Tour in Paris, France was released as a music video on May 9, 1991 to promote the documentary film Truth or Dare. This version was nominated for two awards at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards in the categories of Best Female Video and Best Choreography. This video was ranked at position sixty-one on VH1's 100 Greatest Videos.
Madonna performed "Like a Virgin" at the first MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, where she appeared on stage atop a giant wedding cake dressed in a wedding dress, adorned with her "Boy Toy" belt buckle, and veil. The climax of her risqué performance found her "humping" and rolling around on the stage. It is considered by critics and academics as "one of the most important and most unforgettable VMA performances ever". The song was subsequently performed at The Virgin Tour in 1985. Madonna again donned a wedding attire and the performance featured a quotation from Michael Jackson's similar-sounding Motown-style single, "Billie Jean". Balloons floated out towards the audience as she rolled around the stage, carrying a wedding bouquet in her hand. The performance was included in the VHS release Madonna Live: The Virgin Tour recorded in Detroit, Michigan.
On the 1987 Who's That Girl World Tour, the song was given a lighthearted comedic theme and included quotations from The Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)". Madonna took off her outfit piece by piece, until she was standing in a black corset, and ended the performance while flirting with a young male dancer who played her bridegroom. Two different performances of the song on this tour can be found on the videos: Who's That Girl: Live in Japan, filmed in Tokyo, Japan, on June 22, 1987, and Ciao Italia: Live from Italy, filmed in Turin, Italy, on September 4, 1987.
For the 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour, the song was re-invented with a middle-eastern arrangement and risqué choreography which found Madonna wearing a gold corset, while simulating masturbation on a red silk bed, accompanied by two male dancers who wore the infamous cone bras designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Two different performances were taped and released on video, the Blond Ambition: Japan Tour 90, taped in Yokohama, Japan, on April 27, 1990, and the Blond Ambition World Tour Live, taped in Nice, France, on August 5, 1990. During The Girlie Show World Tour in 1993, Madonna wore a tuxedo and adopted a Marlene Dietrich-like persona, singing the song with a thick German accent. The overplayed accent and three-quarter time signature gave the performance a sense of parody. Dietrich's look in the 1930 film Morocco inspired the whole performance. The performance was included on The Girlie Show: Live Down Under home video release, recorded on November 19, 1993 at Sydney, Australia.
In April 2003, while promoting her ninth studio album American Life, an impromptu acoustic performance of the song was done by Madonna at New York's Tower Records. Madonna's performance of "Hollywood" at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards recreated the 1984 performance of "Like a Virgin". The performance started with Britney Spears emerging from a giant cake singing the first few lines. She was later joined by Christina Aguilera and both of them writhed on the stage while singing. Madonna appeared on the cake dressed as a groom and sang "Hollywood", and ultimately kissed both Spears and Aguilera on the mouth.
During the Confessions Tour in 2006, the song was given a horse riding theme. Madonna wore a tight, black body suit, and performed the song atop a studded leather S&M carousel horse, while X-rays of her broken bones, the result of a horse-riding accident on her 47th birthday, flashed on the screens behind her. The performance was included on The Confessions Tour live album, released in 2007. In 2008's Sticky & Sweet Tour, Madonna sang the song in Rome and dedicated it to Pope Benedict XVI, commenting "I'd like to dedicate this song to the Pope, I know he loves me" and asked the audience to sing along with her. The song was again performed on The MDNA Tour (2012), during the third section of the show. "Like a Virgin" was stripped down to a simple Burlesque-version played on the piano, featuring elements of the soundtrack "Evgeni's Waltz" from the 2011 film, W.E. On the Rebel Heart Tour (2015–2016), a bass-heavy version of "Like a Virgin" ended the second act of the show with Madonna dancing alone on the stage. The remix was created in 2008 by French music producer Denis Zabee, who was contacted by Madonna's representatives for selling the rights to the music. Jim Farber of Daily News described it as the show's "most stunning move". The performance was included in the live album Rebel Heart Tour recorded in Sydney, Australia, and released in September 2017.
Cover versions and usage
In 1985, The Lords of the New Church recorded "Like a Virgin" for their compilation album Killer Lords. Gary Hill from Allmusic called the composition as "very funny and obnoxious". The same year, "Weird Al" Yankovic parodied the song with his single "Like a Surgeon" from the album Dare to Be Stupid. Eugene Chadbourne from Allmusic commented: "Turning the tacky Madonna hit inside out and upside down, Yankovic comes up with a hilarious satire of the medical profession." In 1991, Scottish band Teenage Fanclub covered "Like a Virgin" on their second album, The King. In the opening scene of the 1992 film Reservoir Dogs, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Mr. Brown (played by Tarantino himself) insists that "Like a Virgin" is a "metaphor for big dicks". When Madonna met Tarantino at a party after the film was released, she gave him an autographed copy of her Erotica album, signing "Quentin: it's about love, not dick".
The song also appears on the soundtrack of the 2001 film Moulin Rouge! and is sung by the characters Harold Zidler, played by Jim Broadbent, and The Duke of Monroth, played by Richard Roxburgh. In 2004, The Meat Purveyors covered the song in a bluegrass medley, pairing it with Madonna's "Lucky Star" and "Burning Up." In the 2004 film Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the title character teaches the song to women in a Thai prison, after becoming annoyed that they are singing the song badly. She tells them, "Madonna is nothing if not a perfectionist!" In one of the episodes of the TV show Grey's Anatomy, the character of Cristina Yang hums the song during surgery to take the focus off herself. However, when her assisting surgery, Lexie Grey starts singing along, Christina looks venomously at her until she quiets down. Katy Perry, Travis Barker and DJ AM covered the song at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards. In 2009, the song was namechecked in the Train hit single "Hey, Soul Sister" with the lyric "I believe in you/Like a virgin you're Madonna/And I'm always gonna wanna blow your mind".
The song was covered in the 2010 Glee episode "The Power of Madonna" by the cast, including Jonathan Groff, Jayma Mays, Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Matthew Morrison, and Naya Rivera, during a dream sequence by their characters. The same year, Elton John performed a cover version of "Like a Virgin" at the Rainforest Fund Benefit Concert. On September 9, 2011, Vanessa Carlton posted a link to a snippet of her stripped-down cover of the song in her Twitter account. In 2012 Korean girl group 2NE1 released a cover of the song for their debut Japanese album Collection. In 2012, JoJo performed a cover version of "Like a Virgin" at the LACMA for the Harvard Westlake Charity. The same year, Peruvian singer Wendy Sulca recorded a spanglish version. In 2014, Cristina Scuccia, a singing nun who won that year's The Voice of Italy season, released a ballad version of the song as her debut single, a cover that Madonna herself praised. Romanian singer Alexandra Stan recorded a cover version of the song with a new orchestration done by Chris Trace in late January 2017, stating that she is a fan of the track. In 2019, Big & Rich released a cover of the song. In March 2019, Mötley Crüe released a cover of the song on the soundtrack to the film The Dirt.
"Like a Virgin" is listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of "500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll". Clerk noted the song attracted an unprecedented level of attention from social groups compared to any female singer's song. "The main problem was that most of them listened superficially to the lyric of the song, imagining that it detailed or called on an innocent's sexual initiation." While one section of the population were outraged at the scandal, others were taking joy at the very notion of a virginal Madonna, who retorted by saying,
I was surprised by how people reacted to "Like a Virgin" because when I did that song, to me, I was singing about how something made me feel a certain way – brand-new and fresh – and everyone interpreted it as I don't want to be a virgin anymore. Fuck my brains out! That's not what I sang at all. "Like a Virgin" was always absolutely ambiguous.
Biographer Andrew Morton noted that most of Madonna's admirers were females, who were born-and-brought-up with an image of old-fashioned stereotypes of women as virginal brides, or as whores, or with feminist values that rejected the use of a woman's looks for her self-advancement. Author William McKeen of Rock and roll is here to stay: an anthology commented that with the song, Madonna became the last word in attitude and fashion for young girls of that time. He compared that image of Madonna with that of Barbie. McKeen explained that Madonna intermixed middle-class ideas of femininity with examples of what femininity meant to her, which was having equal opportunity. She offered an aggressive sexuality that implied it was acceptable for women not only to initiate relationships, but also enjoy them. In addition, according to Morton, at a time when eighties fashions were promoting flat-chested, stick-thin women as ideals of beauty, the more curvaceous Madonna made average girls feel that it was fine to be in the shape they were. A new word called 'Madonna wannabe' was introduced to describe the thousands of girls who tried to emulate Madonna's style. University professors, gender-studies experts and feminists earnestly started discussing her role as a post-modernist style and cultural icon. According to author Debbi Voller, "Like a Virgin" gave rise to the icon Madonna.
The performance of "Like a Virgin" at the first MTV Video Music Awards is considered by MTV as "one of the most iconic pop performances of all time". Christina Garibaldi from the channel noted that the performance "helped make the Video Music Awards a household name... and simultaneously set the bar for every other performer to come after her. From that point forward, every artist, when they hit the VMA stage, wanted to have a performance you would forever be talking about." Billboard ranked it at number two of "The 100 Greatest Award Show Performances of All Time", explaining that "Before Madonna, the best award-show performances could hope for was to get people to buy the record, after her, they became the historical record; the way we remember stars at their most iconic, and the way they demonstrate their immortality, no matter whose names are on the night's envelopes. It's the veritable big bang for the format as pop art." According to Joe Lynch from the same magazine, the song's performance at the 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour "opened the gates for everyone from Marilyn Manson to Miley Cyrus to shock and awe on stage in the decades to come."
Track listing and formats
Credits and personnel
- Madonna – vocals
- Billy Steinberg – songwriter
- Tom Kelly – songwriter
- Nile Rodgers – producer, drum programming, guitar
- Bernard Edwards – bass
- Tony Thompson – drums
- Rob Sabino – bass synthesizer, assorted synthesizers
- Jellybean Benitez – 12" remixer
Credits adapted from the album liner notes.
|Japan (Oricon Charts)||—||121,780|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Gold||925,000|
|United States (RIAA)||Gold||1,900,000|
|United States (RIAA)||240,000|
*sales figures based on certification alone
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