In 1990, Madonna was as astronomically popular as a boundary-bulldozing, unapologetically bacchanalian performance artist could get. Drawing from Harlem drag balls, “Vogue” went Number One nearly worldwide. The tour showcasing it, Blond Ambition, mixed spectacle with social commentary so sharply that it reinvented the pop concert and yielded the smash documentary Truth or Dare. And that year’s The Immaculate Collection, her first greatest-hits set, would eventually rank among the world’s biggest-ever albums, despite MTV banning its gender-blurring and cinematically exquisite “Justify My Love” video.
Some loathed this classically trained dancer/DIY provocateur – a megastar peer of Prince and Michael Jackson since her 1984 blockbuster Like a Virgin – with a venom reserved for successful women forging their own path. But for her vast audience, she was nothing less than liberating, and her uninterrupted string of hits defined pop for a decade. What some considered violations of taste made her more commanding: Even the way she toyed with ordinarily unflappable talk show hosts like David Letterman was more rock & roll than actual rock stars.
Nearly everything changed two years later with Erotica and Sex. Released respectively on October 20th and 21st, 1992, the first fruits of her multimedia Maverick entertainment company weren’t flops; her fifth studio album, Erotica racked up six million sales worldwide and yielded several hits, while Sex – an elaborate coffee table book created with fashion photographer Steven Meisel and Fabien Baron of Harper’s Bazaar – sold out its limited 1.5 million printing in a few days, an unparalleled success for a $50 photography folio bound in metal and sealed in a Mylar bag to evoke condoms. It remains one of the most in-demand out-of-print publications of all time.
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But both record and book, despite a few positive reviews, inspired widespread vitriol. “There’s nothing erotic about it, unless one finds the idea of a singing death mask sexy.” That was Entertainment Weekly‘s take on Erotica‘s rendition of “Fever,” but it summed up many assessments of the entire album. Others appreciated Sex‘s forthright presentation of LGBTQ sexuality and S&M even less. “Of course, some of us actually like the opposite sex; some of us believe it is possible to have great sex without whips, third parties or domestic pets,” groused not some reactionary macho windbag, but a female film critic for The New York Times.
Why did projects Madonna intended to open minds shut so many down?
As her stardom snowballed through the Eighties and early Nineties, AIDS decimated the scene that helped birth Madonna. Taking music and fashion cues from lower Manhattan’s punk rebelliousness and midtown’s disco hedonism, pre-stardom Madonna was a fixture in the bohemian underground chronicled by photographer Nan Goldin in her autobiographical The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a likely Sex influence, along with the severe stylization of Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Robert Mapplethorpe. By 1992, AIDS claimed Goldin’s subjects, Mapplethorpe himself, much of the art world (including Madonna’s friend Keith Haring), and a growing chunk of Madonna’s audience. It also killed and would go on to kill her cohorts, including Blond Ambition dancer Gabriel Trupin. Just as racism and the Black Lives Matter movement shaped Beyoncé’s Lemonade, AIDS and ACT UP – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, the direct action advocacy and educational group whose motto was “Silence = Death” – yielded Erotica and Sex.
Madonna previewed both works with the lead single and video for “Erotica,” which boldly picked up where “Justify My Love” left off, and is narrated by Mistress Dita, her Sex dominatrix alter ego. “Give it up, do as I say,” she growls over gritty funk that combines the clatter of R&B’s New Jack Swing with house music’s heavy bottom. “Give it up and let me have my way.”
But in much of what follows on the LP, the woman behind the vixen doesn’t get what she wants: Her relationships fall apart as she awakens from spells cast by deceptive lovers (“Bye Bye Baby,” “Waiting,” “Words”). Booze, chain–smoking, and anonymous sex can’t numb the pain (“Bad Girl”), and a friend steals her man (“Thief of Hearts”). Meanwhile, comrades die (“In This Life”) while kindred outcasts struggle (“Why’s It So Hard”). “I’m not happy this way,” she sings in “Bad Girl.” Sensuality was merely part of the picture: Erotica is Madonna’s concept album about love and intimacy under the shadow of plague.
In excerpts from his studio diary, Erotica‘s co-producer/songwriter Shep Pettibone – a skilled remixer who helped Eighties dance grooves evolve from disco to house music – archived the singer’s feedback on the album’s early slick mixes. “I hate them,” she said. “If I had wanted the album to sound like that, I’d have worked with [earlier collaborator] Patrick Leonard in L.A.” Instead, Madonna demanded rawness, “as if it were recorded in an alley at 123rd Street in Harlem.”
And so her “Vogue” collaborator reverted to the rhythm-intensive immediacy of his remixes as he reworked much of the album until it boomed, banged and sizzled like his increasingly popular remixes: Pettibone’s version of “Express Yourself” was the one heard in Madonna’s massive video. Instead of composing a radio-targeted album later reshaped for the clubs, Pettibone, together with Madonna, and André Betts – a newcomer who co–produced “Justify My Love” with Lenny Kravitz – made Erotica resemble an alternately party-minded and private collection of 12-inch singles. Even ballads like “Bad Girl” take arrangement cues from club music; in this case, a somber, slo-mo slant on Black Box’s piano-pounding house anthems.
Unlike Erotica, which contrasts moods and tempos but maintains a deep and yearning sonic continuity, Sex is varied in style and content. Some shots are straightforward, such as the introductory snaps of Madonna cavorting with two tattooed and pierced lesbian skinheads. The authenticity of her playmates accentuates the fastidiousness of her makeup and the newness of her fetish-wear, which makes Madonna look like a tourist. There’s little less sexy than that.
Other photos are open to interpretation: One features four masculine figures standing at urinals with Madonna superimposed in pink. The clash of iconography and grain of the image means it takes some staring to notice one has a hand on another’s ass – and even more scrutiny to realize these two apparent dudes are actually women; probably the same butches in the earlier tableau. Here Madonna looks like she’s visited that same seedy men’s room, and the double exposure insinuates it’s on her mind. She’s not alone: When bigots obsess over transgender folk in public restrooms, this is what they’re imagining. They’d deny the compositional beauty of the image, but there it plainly is, contrasted and highlighted by the sleaze.
Clearly she intended to instigate more than that era’s version of the far right: One of the most realistic photos depicts her in a gymnasium under a basketball hoop with books tossed about and a school uniform half off. One guy holds her between his legs, and another guy’s hand is poised to explore her naked crotch. There’s more than a suggestion of struggle: Only her strained smile signifies consent.
Penned by Madonna, the text also varies in tone. Sometimes she’s acting out scenarios likely avoided in real life. Elsewhere she’s clearly speaking her own mind, yet with the disclaimer, “Nothing in this book is true,” which, to follow her logic, might be a lie. So when she wrote, “The women who are doing [porn] want to do it: No one is holding a gun to their head,” critics lambasted the musician. Given that Madonna posed nude in 1978 when she was broke and couldn’t stop Penthouse and Playboy from publishing the results in 1985, this statement comes across as atypically naïve.
Because Sex and Erotica launched Maverick and her renegotiated $60 million contract with Time Warner, speculation over the Material Girl’s earnings framed nearly every critical analysis. But Madonna’s moxie has never been just about profit and fame. As her charities and donations have attested for decades, she also aims to make the world a better place: She just opened a pediatric hospital in Malawi. Back then, she taught soft-core sex ed.
“I think the problem is that everybody’s so uptight about [sex] that they make it into something bad when it isn’t, and if people could talk about it freely, we would have people practicing more safe sex,” she told Vanity Fair at the time. “We wouldn’t have people sexually abusing each other, because they wouldn’t be so uptight to say what they really want, what they really feel.” Maybe that’s a little simplistic, but it’s genuinely humanitarian. At a time when the straight media essentially characterized all sex as dangerous, Madonna tried to illustrate that it could be safe and stimulating, particularly if we open our minds, free our bodies, and try something besides standard intercourse.
Nowadays, S&M and explicit LGBTQ imagery is never more than a few clicks away, but the internet was in its infancy in 1992: Photos of sexual activity were exclusive to specialty bookstores until Robert Mapplethorpe’s headline–grabbing 1989 retrospective The Perfect Moment, which placed S&M and interracial gay sexuality onto museum walls. The resulting controversy – inflamed by North Carolina’s obstructionist Senator Jesse Helms and his attempt to prevent the National Endowment for the Arts from funding “obscenity” – engaged viewers in a moral debate. Accordingly, Sex was never about pretty pictures.
Twenty-five years after publication, it’s easier to differentiate between Sex‘s weaknesses and strengths. The sequence with pop rapper Vanilla Ice – Madonna’s then-boyfriend – was always tacky, and the section in which she sandwiches herself between hip-hop’s Big Daddy Kane and supermodel Naomi Campbell is more stilted than ever. Actress Isabella Rossellini – who appears in a man’s suit caressing Madonna and her female friends with an emotional intimacy missing from those celebrity shots – nailed the book’s major limitation when she told The Huffington Post in 2014, “Madonna was almost too beautiful, too perfect … to have that vulnerability or the sense of shock that a regular, more normal, not-so-professional fitted body could convey.” No matter how many personas the icon tries on like a pop-art Cindy Sherman, Madonna is Madonna when she takes off her clothes – maybe even more so.
And yet I recognize her intentions. Madonna and I are of the same generation, and before she was a star, we’d party at the same NYC clubs like Danceteria, where her career began. I lost my dad to cancer when I was young just as she lost her mom at age five, and so I know all too well how grieving reactivates that original deprivation, like when my very first lover died of AIDS 30 years ago. After that went co-workers, mentors and friends until the mid-Nineties, when combinations of antiviral medicines slowed and then ultimately stopped HIV’s progression for many patients who followed their medication regimen with military precision.
But until then, if you lived in a major city and were gay or an intravenous drug user, sex worker or among their intimates, you were an endangered species. There was no cure, and our government was indifferent. Breaking their silence was essential to our survival and sanity. So when Madonna launched her business with Sex and Erotica, LGBTQ people knew she wasn’t exploitative: She was trying to save our lives by politicizing her anger. The frustration of Erotica that critics of the era bemoaned, we applauded because it was our own. Sure, she borrowed some of our fabulousness, but she also gave back plenty.
Accordingly, Erotica is also filled with love. The album’s steamiest – and funniest – cut, “Where Life Begins,” celebrates cunnilingus with cheeky wordplay, but also sweetness and warmth: Crooning over Andre Betts’ hip-hop ballad beats, she beckons the listener, “Go down where I cannot hide,” as if to suggest her womanhood is this chameleon’s constant truth.
The album’s most driving dance track, the hit “Deeper and Deeper,” revels in romantic surrender. But LGBTQ people interpret it more specifically about embracing same-sex attraction. “This feeling inside, I can’t explain/But my love is alive, and I’m never gonna hide it again,” Madonna belts in the concluding verse, hitting that declaration harder than anything in her catalog. Set in a pansexual nightclub much like Danceteria, its video pays tribute to Andy Warhol, here represented by actor Udo Kier – a Warhol graduate who also plays Sex‘s dungeon master. But it also tips a hat to Madonna’s late mentor Christopher Flynn, who introduced the straight-A student and cheerleader to the gay discos of Detroit.
“I always felt like I was a freak when I was growing up and that there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t fit in anywhere,” she told director Gus Van Zant in Interview in 2010. “But when he took me to that club, he brought me to a place where I finally felt at home.”
Her elegiac “In This Life” offers gratitude to Flynn and her late roommate Martin Burgoyne while addressing AIDS head-on. “He was only 23/Gone before he had his time,” she sings of Burgoyne; “He was like a father to me … taught me to respect myself,” she croons about Flynn. Like “This Used to Be My Playground,” the similarly mournful League of Their Own chart-topper released four months before Erotica but written and recorded midway through the album, this lament reveals the wounded child concealed behind her workaholism. Her fragility makes the singing stronger.
This sincerity spills into “Rain,” the sunny single that revived sales eight months after the album’s release, and the final track, “Secret Garden.” Madonna ponders her feminine essence as a hidden paradise of pleasure, a Garden of Eden, and she reveals insecurities ordinarily concealed, hoping they’ll blossom into self-knowledge. “I wonder if I’ll ever know/where my place is, where my face is/I know it’s in here somewhere,” she whispers over a thrusting bass line, a gyrating breakbeat and breezy jazz piano that wanders with her thoughts. When she does sing on the chorus, she’s not the ballsy belter of her hits, but an aching, affectation-free spirit waiting for “a place that I can be born,” as if the true Madonna hadn’t yet arrived.
A quarter century after Sex and Erotica, the era’s lingering image of the superstar is the shot of her fully naked – tresses teased and face painted like a Fifties starlet, a cigarette in her lips, and her feet in stilettos – thumbing a ride on a bucolic Florida street. Her nude femininity is perfectly sculpted, yet she exudes the assurance of a suited male bureaucrat. It’s the book’s most transgressive image, for it presents a woman self-objectifying, calling the shots instead of following them, sharing her amorous dreams with the pluck usually reserved for straight white men. There’s no submissiveness; instead, its carnal opposite, flaunted while politicians and religious leaders preached abstinence as the only civilized response to a virus spreading throughout the world and claiming millions of lives. Instead, Madonna cast herself as Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Bunny.
This defiance flipped out men and women alike.
“I divide my career from before and after the Sex book,” she told Spin four years later. “Sex was my fantasy, and I made money off of it. That is a no-no.”
Her bravado lingered through Body of Evidence, a BDSM-charged thriller, and the Maverick-produced, straight-to-video drama Dangerous Game. Both were widely panned, as well as her 1994 Late Show appearance in which she asked David Letterman to smell her panties, smoked a cigar and said, “fuck” 14 times. In between, she staged her Erotica-centric Girlie Show World Tour, which furthered Blond Ambition’s fearless exuberance, but only played three U.S. cities.
Madonna’s sound and image then softened substantially with Evita, motherhood and wistful serenades like “Take a Bow” (her longest-running U.S. Number One) before she regained her audacity via 1998’s soul-searching Ray of Light and 2000’s experimental Music. And although some of her subsequent output has followed trends rather than setting them, she still puts on a rarely rivaled live show by foregrounding her body as the primary site of her art. That was daring in her Erotica/Sex period. Doing that today, as a 59-year-old woman, makes Madonna even more radical. Watch her fiery acceptance speech last December at Billboard‘s Women in Music shindig if you think she’s lost her edge.
“I was called a whore and a witch,” she recalled of that epoch. “One headline compared me to Satan. I said, ‘Wait a minute, isn’t Prince running around with fishnets and high heels and lipstick with his butt hanging out?’ Yes, he was. But he was a man. This was the first time I truly understood women do not have the same freedom as men. …I [felt] like the most hated woman in the world.”
Today, Erotica‘s melancholy desire is all over the boldest substantial pop from Lana Del Rey and Father John Misty to Frank Ocean and Beyoncé, and its dirty house grooves animate chart divas from Katy Perry on “Swish Swish” to underground rappers such as Zebra Katz on “Ima Read.” Let’s not forget that Grace Jones and Debbie Harry made Madonna possible. But there’s an even more direct line between Madonna’s unrepentant and emphatically female sensuality – particularly in this incendiary phase – and what followed from Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Pink, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Tove Lo and now Cardi B. Without Madonna, modern pop as we know it would be unimaginable. Meanwhile, Sex‘s provocations have permeated advertising, which was hardly the point. (Meisel’s wood-paneled 1995 campaign for Calvin Klein evoked teen porn so brazenly that the Justice Department got involved and CK pulled the ads.)
However, popular music and art are no longer thoroughly defined by a straight white masculine perspective. Nearly everything is more sexualized, and that’s not entirely positive, but alpha male artists and submissive female subjects don’t dominate as much as they’ve done for centuries. We’ve finally hit a tipping point when popular culture is offering more viewpoints and voices: That’s why there’s a rise in fascism to suppress them. Sex and Erotica‘s greatest contribution remains their embrace of the Other, which in this case means queerness, blackness, third-wave feminism, exhibitionism and kink. Madonna took what was marginalized at the worst of the AIDS epidemic, placed it in an emancipated context, and shoved it into the mainstream for all to see and hear.