IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Madonna – Vogue
THERE are so many periods of Madonna’s career one can explore...
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
but I wanted to look at a rather epic time for the Pop queen. It is impossible to look at Vogue and not explore the dance/video. I will come to that later but to me, Vogue arrived at the peak of her career. Many will know it from the David Fincher-directed video and, in many ways, it is one of those songs that could have easily been nestled and lost. It is from the 1990 film, Dick Tracy, and the film itself was not exactly a blockbuster! By 1990, when the track came out, Madonna was already the established Queen of Pop. That ‘moment’, to me, arrived around about the time Like a Prayer (album) arrived in 1989. She was on a steady incline but, in many ways, Like a Prayer shot her to the heavens and meant she ended the decade as the true Pop leader. Michael Jackson was two years away from releasing Dangerous and, to be honest, had probably peaked. Prince enjoyed various rises but many argue his best work was achieved by the middle of the 1980s. There were other 1980s Popstars but none that had the sustainability, reputation and gravitas as Madonna. It would have been hard to sustain the interest and manage the pressure after Like a Prayer. It was an album that truly announced Madonna’s intentions and showed what an incredible writer she was – she co-wrote every track on the record.
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in 1990/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Reaction at the time of Like a Prayer’s release was intense and fevered but there has been plenty of retrospective acclaim. This Pitchfork review raises interesting points regarding the album’s confidence and emotional blends:
“While Madonna was no shrinking violet during the first chunk of the ’80s—the decade of Madonna wannabes, MTV Video Music Awards-ready wedding dresses, and “controversial” her officially recognized prefix—Like a Prayer does showcase her growth as a pop artist, from the gnarled guitar that opens its title track all the way through its warped-tape closer “Act of Contrition.” She takes more chances lyrically and musically, and while they don’t always work, they do give a glimpse at her restlessness and increased willingness to take musical chances, whether she’s bringing in Prince or letting her voice’s imperfections into songs or taking on heavy, personal-life-adjacent topics.
The emotions on Like a Prayer aren’t all fraught. “Cherish” is a feather-light declaration of devotion that calls back to Cali-pop outfit the Association while updating Madonna’s earlier exercise in retroism “True Blue”; “Dear Jessie” engages in the reaching toward sounding “Beatles-esque” that was in vogue at the time, pairing fussy strings and tick-tock percussion with images of pink elephants and flying leprechauns. “Love Song,” meanwhile, is a synth-funk chiffon co-written by none other than Prince, one of Madonna’s few pop equals at the time. The two of them feel locked in an erotically charged session of truth or dare, each challenging the other to stretch their voices higher while the drum machines churn. Prince also played, initially uncredited, on “Like a Prayer,” the sauntering pop-funk track “Keep It Together,” and the album-closing “Act of Contrition,” a two-minute maelstrom that combines Prince’s guitar heroics, backward-masked bits from the title track, heavy beats, and its title inspiration, the Catholic prayer of… confession”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna shot in 1990/PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Demarchelier
There is no denying how much power Madonna wielded by the end of the 1980s. She started in the decade and started, in 1982, as this promising artist. By 1989, she was riding high and had no peers. The 1990s was a decade that evolved and developed from the 1980s and was different in many ways. Madonna would court controversy by 1992’s Erotica and come back with an exceptionally mature response (1994); she had a great rebirth on 1998’s Ray of Light and would continue to create fascination and huge reviews until the end of the decade – her first real creative misstep did not really occur until 2003’s American Life. Many artists would take a few years off after an album as biblical and lauded as Like a Prayer but Madonna’s next studio record would be along in three years – a year after Like a Prayer, the Queen of Pop would grace the screens alongside Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy. In terms of the musical content; the film was a mix of Swing, Pop and Jazz and saw Madonna embrace a showgirl personality (on the soundtrack, I'm Breathless: Music from and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy). The film was set in the Untouchables law enforcement days and Madonna sang accordingly – even smoking for the film so she could portray the vocals of her character, Breathless. Before moving on to look at the film’s starring song; here some background and details regarding the film and Madonna’s role:
“In 1990, Madonna was part of the film Dick Tracy starring as Breathless Mahoney, with Warren Beatty playing the titular character. Madonna told Premiere magazine that initially she had waited for Beatty to call her for the film. But when he did not, the singer decided to involve herself voluntarily. She pursued the part of Mahoney, but offered to work for minimum wages to avoid favoritism. Principal photography for Dick Tracy began on February 2, 1989 and ended three months later. The filmmakers considered shooting the film on-location in Chicago, Illinois, but production designer Richard Sylbert believed that Dick Tracy would work better using sound stages and backlots at Universal Studios in Universal City, California. Other filming took place at Warner Bros Studios in Burbank, California. Beatty often encouraged dozens of takes of every scene. The film was released in the United States on June 15, 1990, and was the third-highest opening weekend of 1990. Dick Tracy was the ninth-highest-grossing film in the US in 1990, and number twelve globally. The film also received positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times praised the matte paintings, art direction and prosthetic makeup design, stating: "Dick Tracy is one of the most original and visionary fantasies I've seen on a screen".
Beatty had realized several positive aspects of hiring Madonna as an actress for the film. She would be inclined to develop the soundtrack for Dick Tracy and the film studio would see this as a promotional opportunity before the release of their product, since Madonna was popular as a recording artist. This would also benefit Warner Bros. Records, who would get a reason to release a new Madonna record. According to J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of Madonna: An Intimate Biography, by the 1980s record labels started to release albums which were closely associated with a film, thereby gaining double promotion. These were mostly termed as soundtracks although many of them were not related to the film. After the shooting for Dick Tracy was over, Madonna started working on the soundtrack. She had begun recording three songs by Stephen Sondheim for the film—"Sooner or Later", "More" and "What Can You Lose"—which would be part of the album, but also had to write and develop new songs comparable in style to the previous. In her favor, she produced the entire album, including the Sondheim songs. "I want people to think of me as a musical comedy actress. That's what this album is about for me. It's a stretch. Not just pop music, but songs that have a different feel to them, a theatrical feel", she said at the time”
The twelve songs that feature on I’m Breathless (soundtrack) are a good representation of Madonna’s character and it is good to see her step away from the tones and themes of Like a Prayer. It is no shock to find the Pop queen transform so quickly and effortlessly but, in terms of quality, you cannot compare I’m Breathless with Like a Prayer. The film soundtrack did boast the odd good song – such as the cheeky Hanky Panky – but it is the finale, Vogue, that strikes a move and steals the show. One might think a song as iconic and unique as this would not fit into the film but it completely does. Warner Bros head, Craig Kostich, approached Shep Pettibone (who would co-write with Madonna on 1992’s Erotica) regarding a collaboration. The track was completed for only a few thousand dollars and was done very quickly. Pettibone wrote a Philly-inspired backdrop and sent it to Madonna who wrote the lyrics and came up with the title. Madonna flew to New York and recorded her vocals in a very small basement studio on West 56th St.; in a booth that was converted from a closet. The verses and chorus was recorded quickly with very few takes and Pettibone suggested the famous rap – where Madonna name-checks icons and style stars. Madonna flew back to L.A. whilst Pettibone tweaked the song slightly – including the addition of the House piano line and bassline part.
The musical direction of Vogue, unlike other songs on I’m Breathless, are inspired by House and have Disco influences. The deep House groove and throbbing beats captivated listeners and critics and many rank Vogue alongside Madonna’s finest tracks. The sleek and stylish song seems to define Madonna and who she was at the time. This Pop icon was at the top of the world and renowned for her incredible fashion choices. I feel Vogue is underrated as a song and often falls outside top-ten lists when we think of her finest moments. Listen to a lot of the House tracks that emerged in the 1990s and you can track it back to Madonna’s Vogue. The icon was always inspiring and changing music but Vogue not only cemented her reputation as the Queen of Pop but it took her to a new level. There is sheer confidence and panache that explodes from Vogue. This confidence would continue into Erotica and there was no stopping the pioneer. The sixteen celebrities mentioned in Vogue were either dead or nearing death. The last surviving icon, Lauren Bacall, died in 2014:
“The death of famed actress Lauren Bacall, the husky-voiced starlet known for her sultry sensuality, not only meant the loss of a true Hollywood legend, but also the end of a golden era of icons.
As first reported by Slate, all of the 16 Hollywood icons named in singer Madonna's pop song, "Vogue," have now died after the passing of Bacall on Tuesday...
The song, released in March 1990, was inspired by the New York City dance community. Voguing is a stylized dance that evolved from the Harlem ballroom scene in the 1980s.
One section of the song contains only spoken words in which Madonna quickly lists off 16 celebrities that are considered part of the golden era of Hollywood: "Greta Garbo, and Monroe / Dietrich and DiMaggio / Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean / On the cover of a magazine / Grace Kelly; Harlow, Jean / Picture of a beauty queen / Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers, dance on air / They had style, they had grace / Rita Hayworth gave good face / Lauren, Katharine, Lana too / Bette Davis, we love you".
The song itself is a fantastic thing but so much of Vogue’s legacy revolves around its video and dance choreography. The term ‘voguing’ has been a part of the lexicon for a while but many name Madonna as someone who managed to push it into the mainstream. Stephen Ursprung, in this piece, examined the term and Madonna’s role:
“Voguing has left its mark on the world largely due to the commercial success of the Madonna song of the same name. On the surface, voguing appears to be the dance of black gay men that has been appropriated by popular culture. However a close examination of the form reveals that voguing gives a voice to the oppressed: the gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual, black, latino, female, and otherwise marginalized subcultures of American society. Although characteristically American in its geographic roots, Voguing has evolved in a community that pays homage to global culture and celebrity. Furthermore, voguing continues to hold relevancy thanks to an ongoing reciprocating exchange of influences with commercial entertainment”...
By bringing voguing into the limelight, Madonna created a market for voguing in the commercial entertainment world. As interest in voguing spread, the popularity of the already critically-acclaimed Paris Is Burning skyrocketed. Other dancers outside of the the house of Xtravaganza also highlighted in the film catapulted to fame. One of those dancers, Willi Ninja, whom I have previously mentioned, became one of the most recognizable vogue dancers, choreographers, and modeling coaches in the world.
As the global obsession with voguing fell out of the limelight, the focus of the ballroom scene shifted. While still emphasizing community-based support and striving for innovative new dance steps, ball culture has devoted itself to rebuilding the community in the wake of AIDS. As chronicled in Paris Is Burning, many participants in ball culture make their livings in the sex industry and risk infection and violence. Even now, decades after the hight of the AIDS crisis, voguing legends continue to succumb to the disease. Most recently, Willi Ninja passed away at the age of 45 after a long battle with AIDS-related heart failure. By forging a long-standing relationship with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and various HIV/AIDS organizations, ballrooms have focused on providing sexual health and lifestyle education to newcomers too young to have experienced the outbreak of AIDS and the immediate loss of a generation of gay men. How Do I Look? documents this shift towards health education”.
PHOTO CREDIT: @peterhershey/Unsplash
I have tried to ‘master’ the Vogue dance and cannot get the hang it to save my life! It is a pretty cool thing to pull off and so many people were hooked on the video – the famous black-and-white promotion directed by David Fincher. The video was shot in Burbank, California in February of 1990 and was the result of a huge casting call – hundreds of dancers were auditioned in Los Angeles. The video matches the song’s themes and images of classic Hollywood and the lure of the screen icon. The video features many of the dancers who would appear on Madonna’s then-upcoming Blond Ambition Tour and is seen as one of the best music videos ever. The video has a rare and very eye-catching setting:
“The black-and-white video, set in Art Deco-themed 1920s and 1930s surroundings, starts off showing different sculptures, works of art, as well as Madonna's dancers posing. Along with this are images of a maid and a butler cleaning up inside what seems to be a grand house. When the dance section of the song starts, Madonna turns around, and, similarly to the lyrics, strikes a pose. The video progresses, and images of men with fedoras, Madonna wearing the controversial sheer lace dress and other outfits, follow. As the chorus begins, Madonna and her dancers start to perform a vogue dance routine, where she sings the chorus as her dancers mime the backing vocals. After this, other scenes of Madonna in different outfits and imitations of golden-era Hollywood stars progresses, after which there is a scene with Madonna's dancers voguing. Finally, after this scene, Madonna can be seen wearing her iconic "cone bra", after which she also performs a dance routine with a fellow dancer. As the rap section begins, different clips of Madonna posing in the style of famous photographs or portraits of Hollywood stars, begins, ultimately followed by a choreographed scene with her dancers and backup singers...
The legacy and impact of the video cannot be understated – even if it did court some controversy (which was not unusual for Madonna!):
“MTV placed the video at second on their list of "100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made" in 1999. In 1993, Rolling Stone magazine listed the video as the twenty-eighth best music video of all-time. Also, the same magazine listed "Vogue" as the #2 music video of all time in 1999 second only to Michael Jackson's Thriller. It was also ranked at number five on "The Top 100 Videos That Broke The Rules", issued by MTV on the channel's 25th anniversary in August 2006. It was the third time Fincher and Madonna collaborated on a video (the first being 1989's "Express Yourself" and the second being 1989's "Oh Father"). About.com listed as the best Madonna video.
There was some controversy surrounding the video due to a scene in which Madonna's breasts and, if the viewer looks closely, her nipples could be seen through her sheer lace blouse, as seen in the picture on the right. MTV wanted to remove this scene, but Madonna refused, and the video aired with the shot intact.
"Vogue" music video received a total of nine MTV Video Music Awards nominations, becoming her most-nominated video at the award show. It won Best Direction, Best Editing and Best Cinematography. The video was voted #2 on MTV's "100 Greatest Videos Ever Made"”
Vogue was included on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll and has often been voted as one of the best songs of the 1990s. Madonna helped bring ‘voguing’ into the mainstream and popularising it. Beforehand, it has been confined to bars and discos in New York’s underground gay scene. The popularity of Vogue not only married sounds like Disco and House but it helped shine a spotlight on gay culture and helping bring about greater inclusiveness. The song’s hedonism is about togetherness and everyone getting together. It is rare to hear a song like that today but not rare to hear it from Madonna. Some say the song was not inclusive enough regarding race whilst others say it was a commercial pitch to get Madonna noticed – rather than being concerned with bringing the underground gay scene into the forefront. Vogue not only helped confirm Madonna’s status as the Queen of Pop but it brought House music to the mainstream. Who knows how many great Dance tracks of the 1990s would have been lost were it not for Madonna! There are so many fascinating aspects to Vogue. Not only are there the name-checked celebrities but the dance itself; the idea of positivity and bringing people together and the momentum Madonna had at that stage. Her career would change and take on a new life when Erotica came along but, after the blockbuster Like a Prayer; it would have been easy to rest on her laurels or take a break from the limelight. Instead, she struck a pose, got her groove on and created...
THE monumental Vogue.