Bad Girl: Erotica at Twenty-Six
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
A Pivotal Album from a Pop Icon
I know that yesterday was the official twenty-sixth anniversary…
IN THIS PHOTO: A publicity shot for the 1991 documentary, Madonna: Truth or Dare/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
of Madonna’s Erotica but it is an album that deserves to be marked. There are a lot more interesting albums coming up over the next few weeks that I need to be pay tribute to. You may ask why I’d mark Erotica and single it out. Madonna’s albums are always relevant and many others have passed me by without being commemorated in an article. We continuously talk about music and how it is evolving; whether there are any true icons and superstars out there. Madonna is someone who has always had her own team around her but I think, when you hear the music and how she speaks, this is nothing but her. I have been a fan of her since childhood and always marvel at how she managed to change and evolve without it seeming unnatural. Erotica, released in 1992, was released simultaneously with her first book publication, Sex – a book she alludes to on her follow-up album, Bedtime Stories. Erotica was her first release on Maverick, her own multimedia entertainment company. It was the Pop icon ascending from those earlier days of label control; breaking out and creating an album, if anything, defined who she was an still is. That is not to say she is sex-obsessed but the way she frankly and boldly talks about the subject through the album changed music.
She documented everything from the loss of two close friends to AIDS through to personal desires; something teasing and oblique to the out-right explicit and determined. Although the album was completed fairly quickly; this was Madonna in serious mode and not willing to play it safe. Erotica was much more commercially successful than previous albums and was largely well received by critics. The record saw a return after three years and revealed, as we know, a transformation from Madonna. She released the phenomenal compilation, The Immaculate Collection, in 1990 and that sort of signalled, in its title, that something more sexual and brash was coming. Maybe I am misreading but one can definitely sense that desire to be unleashed. Like a Prayer was released in 1989 and many see it as her most successful and acclaimed album. It is accomplished and introspective and, in terms of fashions, it was Madonna less in a fetish mode and more in transition from the boho chic of her early work; looking to incorporate more sensual and revealing looks in her rotation. The cover for the album sees her mix this blend: adorned in jeans and beads but cresting her thumbs inside her jeans that suggests something alluring and saucy! The Like a Prayer was a sensation and marked the first real time she was displaying a more vivacious, sexually liberated and herself! The three years between Like a Prayer storming the charts and Erotica coming into the world was not wasted. Madonna was involved in film and, obviously, ensuring she could take more control and say on her next record.
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in 1992/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Before getting into the studio; Shep Pettibone – her main collaborator on the record – built the basic music for the album and sent it to Madonna before she started filming A League of Their Own. Madonna wrote the melodies and the lyrics and it marked a harmonious and productive collaboration. Although there are some other writers in the mix; the most decisive and obvious blend is Pettibone and Madonna. Madonna liked what Pettibone has come up with and, after filming was completed, work began. The early stages were a bit fraught with some dissatisfaction. Madonna wanted a raw and vibrant edge on Erotica and the first group of songs recorded were met with a bit of a muted reception from the Popstar. This was a period of awakening and the Pop Queen riding high on her fame. She was appearing more on film and her celebrity was rising. Of course, each new album is a chance for revolution and development and, alongside her Sex book; Madonna was embracing something more provocative and intense. We think of Madonna’s career and there are various stages where sex came to the fore. Think about Like a Prayer’s video and songs released for that album. Every album in her career, in some manner, would embrace sex in a very open way but Like a Prayer was a very personal and introspective record. Erotica changed things and is a very overt and confessional record – the confessions on Erotica are more of the sensual, revealing and explicit.
Erotica is a concept album that looks at sex and romance where she adopted the alter ego, Mistress Dita. It was heavily inspired by the actress Dita Parlo and, in terms of music; there is a lot more Pop and Dance – some slight tonal shifts from Like a Prayer but no huge departures. Alongside that core came elements of Disco and House; some New Jack Swing and Soul. The concept sees Madonna ask her lover to beg and, right from the off, here is the world’s most-famous female Pop artist showing she is the boss! Although Madonna references safe-sex; there are references to oral sex and bondage. It is not an album for children and, for sure, it is a record we define with her transition to the apex of the music world. A lot of the lyrics are quite raw and this would continue on her follow-up, Bedtime Stories. In a way, we had a bookmark of Like a Prayer and Bedtime Stories. These albums have a maturity and sense of confession: in a way, Erotica is that middle child that broke out and took chances. I guess people were a little overloaded by sex by 1994 when Madonna had to follow Erotica! Rain, one of the album standouts, is the heroine waiting and hoping for love. One assumes Erotica is full of elicit and sexy songs that push the envelope but, like all of her albums, there is that balance of the mature and immediate.
A lot of the more negative and mixed reviews around the time of Erotica’s release were concerned about its explicitness and frank talk of AIDS. Many, around 1992, were being fed on something softer and tame. The album was ahead of its time and it is only in the years that followed critics fully got on board with it – there are some who still doubt its credentials and look inside the cracks. Renowned for Sound, in a 2014 review, provided their thoughts:
“Without this album, Madonna would simply have remained a provocative yet mainstream pop superstar who could do no wrong, no matter the controversy. The critics would not have slammed her so much that many believed that her career was finally over. Madonna would never have had her comebacks. Pop music observers would also not understand why female pop stars today tend to be naked (Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Rihanna) or in drag (Beyonce in Haunted) in their videos.
In short, Madonna would never have become the Queen of Pop.
Madonna’s weary, husky and rough vocals on Erotica are nothing like the polished, radio-friendly vocals on previous albums. However, they accentuate the rawness and stark reality of the album. Her uncharacteristically gentle purr is alluring on the chilled cover of Fever, but sounds downright creepy on the aggressive hip-hop of Bye Bye Baby. Waiting (whose follow up Did You Do It? is the only real dud on Erotica) has Madonna wandering in that same hotel hallway from the Justify My Love video after a few cigarettes, pleading for her lover in rap and song…
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Erotica highlights more of Madonna’s ‘bitchy’ side. Her falsely sweet vocals are disarming on Thief of Hearts, as they brutally dish out threats to backstabbers ice cold over sounds of police sirens and smashing glass. Words speaks the truth without being too preachy, over a backing track spiced up with a simmering anger and striking, Arabian-sounding synths.
Other confronting tracks include Where Life Begins (whose priceless lyrics promote safe sex and the woman’s right to be eaten out), Bad Girl (about a lonely woman succumbing to cigarettes, booze and meaningless flings) and In This Life (a funereal ode to Madonna’s friends who passed away from AIDS and a passionate plea against prejudice and ignorance)”.
It might not appear in the top-three Madonna albums among most fans – Like a Prayer, Ray of Light and Like a Virgin, I guess, would be the common choices – but Erotica is, perhaps, the most important and revelatory she ever produced. It is hard to compare it with a modern album because, in today’s climate, Erotica would be banned or muted somehow. There are sexually revealing and confident artists but nobody who has taken to sex in the same way Madonna did in the early-1990s! Billboard celebrated the album’s twenty-fifth anniversary last year and showed why it such an influential album:
“Erotica occupies a watershed place in the pop pantheon, setting the blueprint for singers to get raw while eschewing exploitation for decades to come. For its 25th anniversary, Billboard spoke to the players involved in Madonna's most creatively daring release. Here's what producer-writer Andre Betts, backup singer Donna De Lory, producer-writer Shep Pettibone, co-writer Tony Shimkin and Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish recall of the writing and recording of Erotica, the insane release party for the LP and book, and the collective societal pearl-clutching that followed.
Tony Shimkin: After doing The Immaculate Collection and "Rescue Me," she let us know she was working on a new album and wanted us to be involved in the writing. Seeing I was a musician and writer and Shep [Pettibone] was more of a DJ and remixer, we collaborated on the writing of the tracks for the Erotica album. We went up to meet with her in Chicago, post-"Vogue," when she was filming A League of Their Own. So we met with her and started to get to work on some music, and sent it to her as we were working our way through it. She would come into New York and have a book full of lyrics and melody ideas and we started working together in Shep's home studio. I believe the first time she was in New York for an extended period, we were working on "Deeper and Deeper" and "Erotica" and "Bye Bye Baby." She's very driven. There's was never a period of feeling it out -- it was diving in headfirst”…
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna performs in New York City (circa 1993)/PHOTO CREDIT: L. Busacca/WireImage
“Doug Wimbish: I remember Madonna when she used to go to the Roxy before she got really put on. I'd see her at the Roxy when Afrika Bambaataa was down there or [Grandmaster] Flash, and she was down there jamming out. And not just being a spectator, but being engaged in the scene. Madonna's association with the dance music and the gay scene and the hip-hop scene merging in the downtown clubs in New York City, and her coming from Michigan, she got it.... And she knew Dre had something special. A song like "Where Life Begins" is right up his alley. She had a relationship with Dre for his rawness and realness. You gotta be around someone in this business who tells you, "No, I'm not digging that, that's why." And also keep the window open to listen. I think that's what Dre did”.
Maybe her epic workrate and output in the early-1990s meant the music would suffer a little bit but you cannot deny the impact and inspiration of Erotica. Erotica, Rain and Secret Garden are among her finest tracks and the tour that followed the album’s release was a spectacle and feast for the senses. Bringing the music to life would always be risky but (on the tour) there were naked dancers and all manner of thrills!
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in 1992/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
This article looks at the album and how Madonna found people’s reaction to her career and how people were perceiving her:
“I think it’s boring,” an emboldened Madonna confided to Jonathan Ross in 1992, when asked about critics not taking her seriously as an artist. “But I think it’s a reflection of society. The subject matter I deal with, because it usually is about taboo subjects, people are so frightened of my ideas that they try to undermine my actual talent or any artistic value that may be in any of my work. And just say ‘oh she’s just doing that to shock people,’ or ‘oh, look, she’s changing her look again, she really knows how to manipulate the media.’ But the fact is if that’s all I was good at doing, I don’t think people would be paying attention to me for this long. I mean, I’m still here”…
“Far less shocking—or stimulating—to the senses by today’s more desensitized standards, to say that Erotica was controversial upon its release 25 years ago is an understatement. But the flip side of the coin is that it was an undeniably revolutionary record. The unabashed and forthright way that Madonna redefines sexual identity and power dynamics, deconstructs sexual taboos, and evangelizes sexual freedom was indeed groundbreaking for its time, serving as a much-needed wake-up call for the sexually repressed and repressive, particularly here in the notoriously puritanical United States of America…
Across Erotica’s fourteen compositions (thirteen on the LP’s edited version), Madonna successfully subverts the antiquated, straight-male dominated dialogue about sex by taking full command of the conversation and delivering a clinic in sexual liberation. With confidence and charisma in droves, she flips traditional gender-driven roles and ethics on their head, blurs the socially-constructed lines between the multitude of sexual identities that exist, and gives mainstream voice and validation to those traditionally marginalized toward the fringes of social acceptance”…
“The most painful and poignant moment appears with the somber “In This Life,” Madonna’s homage to two close confidantes who tragically lost their battles with AIDS—Martin Burgoyne, an artist and her first tour manager, and Christopher Flynn, her ballet teacher and mentor. Reminiscing about Flynn during a 2010 discussion with the film director Gus Van Sant for Interview magazine, Madonna reflected, “Growing up in Michigan, I didn’t really know what a gay man was. He was the first man—the first human being—who made me feel good about myself and special. He was the first person who told me that I was beautiful or that I had something to offer the world, and he encouraged me to believe in my dreams, to go to New York. He was such an important person in my life. He died of AIDS, but he went blind toward the end of his life. He was such a lover of art, classical music, literature, opera. You know, I grew up in the Midwest, and it was really because of him that I was exposed to so many of those things. He brought me to my first gay club—it was this club in 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. But when he took me to that club, he brought me to a place where I finally felt at home”.
“Just as refreshing and rewarding musically as it was for its brave social and cultural conscience, Erotica was, is, and will forever be a fearlessly fierce album that only Madonna could make. No one has ever come close to replicating it and no one ever will. In Vanity Fair’s October 1992 issue, Madonna proclaimed, “I’m out to open [people’s] minds and get them to see sexuality in another way. Their own and others.’” More than any other album in her prolific oeuvre, Erotica fulfilled her objective and struck a mighty blow to the plague of cultural and moral myopia, in America and beyond”.
There are other tributes and articles that celebrate and mark Erotica but it is amazing to see how fresh, brash and unique it sounds twenty-six years after its release. I have missed the exact release date by a day but I thought I’d let the hangover cure and the assorted bodies depart the party! I prefer Ray of Light, Bedtime Stories and other Madonna albums but I think Erotica is a hugely important and underrated collection. Perhaps the overt sexuality and frank talk would be censored and criticised if released today but one can look at Erotica and see how it has inspired so many modern artists. From the self-reflective and personal recordings on Like a Prayer; Madonna adopted this new, in-control persona that, whilst fictional, was mirroring her own rise. Madonna was more autonomous and confident than ever and was releasing music that not only shocked but showed there was nobody in music like her!
Erotica split critics but people are still taking about it and it was a pivotal and important period in Madonna’s career. There was yet another big shift between Erotica in 1992 and 1994’s Bedtime Stories – as Billboard investigate:
“While Madonna certainly didn't lack for fame in 1994, the button-pushing Eroticaalbum had soured many critics and fans. For the first time in a decade of superstardom, people weren't shocked by her antics anymore -- even worse, they often seemed exhausted by her.
Artistically speaking, she'd spent the last four years challenging and subverting America's sexual puritanism. But after releasing an entire book called Sex featuring nude pictures of herself and other celebrities, there didn't seem to be anywhere else to go in that realm.
Instead of Erotica's chilly, pounding dance pop, Bedtime puts Madonna in softer sonic territory. There's the singer-songwriter-y "Secret," the avant pop of "Bedtime Story" (co-written by Bjork), the new jack swing jam "I'd Rather Be Your Lover" (featuring Meshell Ndegeocello rapping), the Herbie Hancock-sampling ballad "Sanctuary" and the lush, orchestral R&B of "Take a Bow."
But softer sounds didn't necessarily mean muted lyrics. "Human Nature" finds Madonna taking on her critics more directly than ever with a logical, defiant attack on slut-shaming. And while album opener "Survival" is a cozy R&B-pop song, it was similarly unrepentant in attitude”.
IN THIS PHOTO: A promotional shot of Madonna for 1995’s Bedtime Story
With the Queen of Pop still active and, if rumours are to be believed, preparing material for a new album; I am fascinated looking back at her career and how she progressed. One can see jumps between every album but not more pronounced than the Like a Prayer-Erotica shift. Maybe there was dissent when Erotica was released and some found it too spicy for their tastes. The songs are incredible and Madonna sounds completely confident and fascinating throughout. I will look at Bedtime Stories when I look at 1994 but I was keen to mark Erotica and show how it impacted music and why it was an important release. Maybe other events around the album – including her book – soured the perception of Erotica and took away from the music but, strip all that away, and what you have is a huge achievement and a stunning album. Erotica helped assert the blueprint for modern-day Pop; it would inspire everyone from Beyoncé and Britney Spears to Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. Although none come close to matching Madonna’s iconic status; many artists today are still dipping in and out of Erotica and letting it fill their creative minds. If you have a moment spare – and have some headphones as not to offend sensitive ears – have a visit of Erotica and revisit a wonderful L.P. It is a stunning creation from a Pop megastar who was determined to rule the world and outgun her peers. Whilst her best work was a few years away; Erotica saw Madonna rise from the promising and rising Pop artist to a peerless and controversial…
IN THIS IMAGE: A shot from Madonna’s Sex book/PHOTO CREDIT: Steven Meisel