Beyond the Controversy: Celebrating a Truly Underrated Album
WHEN one considers Madonna the Artist…
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in 1992/PHOTO CREDIT: Steven Meisel
her name is never far away from some form of controversy or disagreement. Practically since her debut album in 1983, the media have been lining up to have a shot at her. From Like a Virgin in 1984 to Like a Prayer in 1989, Madonna was never too far away from criticism and detractors. Whilst many of her male peers were discussing sex in a very open and explicit way on records and at concerts, there seemed to be a very different set of rules when it came to female artists. Madonna, to be fair, was bolder than a lot of her peers, but she was hardly going out of her way to offend! I know I have covered Erotica before but, as it turns twenty-seven on Sunday (20th October), I want to look at an album from the Queen of Pop that is pretty underrated. The same could be said of Erotica’s follow-up, Bedtime Stories, which is twenty-five on 25th October. There is no doubt Madonna was on a career high after the success of Like a Prayer. Although the album courted controversy from some – religious groups unhappy about a lot of what was in the title track’s video -, it marked her as a true superstar. 1990’s Vogue (from the Dick Tracy soundtrack, I’m Breathless), put her on a new level and confirmed her place as the leader of modern Pop. Whilst not as positive and instantly commercial as Like a Prayer, 1992’s Erotica was a big move from an artist without constraints and limitations.
Recorded in New York City with Shep Pettibone and André Betts, whilst working on other projects, Erotica is an underrated masterpiece. I shall briefly mention her Sex book (which was released at the same time as Erotica); the direction of Madonna’s music shifted and, with it, there was some coldness and condemnation. Erotica is much more personal and deeper than a lot of her previous work. It is a loose concept album about sex, from the perspective of her alter ego, Mistress Dita (her latest album, Madame X, features the titular heroine; a spy-cum-dancer-cum-all-rounder that is sort of a development of her Mistress Dita figure). In terms of sound, there is more sweat and deeper grooves; genres like New Jack Swing and House are fused – I think Erotica is more varied and eclectic than anything she had produced until that point. From the off, Madonna/Mistress Dita is in control and teasing her lover; blending pain and pleasure and opening. I think a lot of the furore and criticism that greeted Erotica concerned the hang-ups of society. Very few female artists were talking about sex in such a refreshing and confident way and, as such, many felt Madonna was a bad influence – this was a period when the AIDS crisis was in the news too. From the steam and purr of Erotica to a brilliant cover of Fever; the Disco cool of Deeper and Deeper and the beautiful Rain, there is so much at work; so many different styles but, at heart, stories of longing, desire and reflection.
Even though, when we talk of Madonna’s best, Erotica is viewed as a little underwhelming and not as hits-packed, many consider the album to be one of the most revolutionary of all time. At the forefront of music’s sexual revolution, Madonna was bringing the rush of lust and the pain of shame together in an album like nobody else. Few female artists had taken this approach to music and so, when it arrived in 1992, there was a huge shockwave. Everyone can debate which Madonna album is her crowning glory – I maintain it is 1998’s Ray of Light -, though few can deny the power and influence of Erotica. You get lists that rank Madonna and, when we hear discussions about her defining releases, everyone discusses her debut and Like a Prayer; the reinvention on Ray of Light and the brilliant Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005) – few bring Erotica into the debate. By 1992, Madonna was untouchable and had released an album whose impact and importance would be fully felt years down the line. Madonna, on Erotica, talked about sex, desire and death in such a frank and fearless way. Those who wrote off Erotica as being too explicit and lurid missed the point. It was easy for certain sources to judge Madonna as being too provocative when, in actuality, she was spearheading a movement of sexual re-examination and confrontation. Gay rights issues were at the forefront, in addition to greater awareness regarding AIDS.
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna shot for Truth or Dare (1991)
Madonna shone a spotlight on kinkiness and querness; she put difference and diversity at the forefront at a time when it was largely marginalised. I will end with a look at the ways in which Erotica changed the scene and the artists who were inspired by it. This article from Rolling Stone talks about Erotica as a masterpiece and the importance of the Sex book regarding a change in the conversation and greater openness:
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
Maybe the double-header of Erotica and Sex was a lot to take for those who were not used to works so challenging and brave. In 1992, Pop music was fairly safe; Erotica sort of blew open the doors and liberated so many artists and fans. I agree that the songs on the album are not as chart-friendly and light as a lot of her best work, yet Erotica is a more nuanced album that is sophisticated, confident and incredibly powerful.
Look at artists today such as Lana Del Rey, Beyoncé and Frank Ocean and you can hear shades and aspects of Erotica in their work. Many would argue Madonna was the result of artists before her like Debbie Harry, but Madonna’s Erotica led us to artists like Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga: a new generation of artists who were empowered and free from restraints. One other reason why I wanted to revisit Erotica is because of Pop today. One can say that modern acts like Ariana Grande have been inspired by 1992-era Madonna, but I do think the album could help create a revival of Pop. I think the modern Pop sound is largely flat and lacking in anything that interesting. Erotica is not, as many claimed back then and do now, cold and soulless. It is an album that has warmth, vulnerability and incredible range. There is not a lot in today’s market that reaches the same heights and blows the mind – maybe Pop has become too safe or there is a fear of being too expressive. In any case, some of the best Pop artists of the past couple of decades are so revered and popular because of Madonna. Although Erotica is an enormously influential album I feel, twenty-seven years after its birth, Pop has sort of stepped back and become safer. There are plenty who felt Erotica was a career-ending album, but maybe that was just an overreaction of the time. As a result, there was not quite the level of appreciation and respect aimed at the album as there should be. Listen back now and it still sounds incredible and like nothing else. Madonna would go on to create a finer album in Ray of Light; nobody can deny the fact that Erotica remains…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
ONE of her greatest achievements.