Madonna’s 1992 visual album represents a landmark in queer and feminist pop music, argues News Editor Gregory Robinson
1992 was a pivotal year for pop music icon Madonna. Two years after the release of her international smash hit ‘Vogue’, which bought underground gay ballroom culture from the streets of New York to the rest of the world; and a year after the release of the The Immaculate Collection, the highest selling compilation by a solo artist, Madonna’s career was on a constant upswing both creatively and commercially.
As the world’s favourite provocateur entered the second phase of her career, her fame grew, her artistry matured and the themes of sexuality and religion, which have deep roots within Madonna’s career tracing all the way back to 1984’s ‘Like A Virgin’, pushed ‘Deeper and Deeper’ into territory never before explored by a mainstream pop star. As you can imagine, the world was very different in 1992. Even I, who was not even alive during one of music’s most pivotal eras, can understand that a female artist breaching the boundaries of sex and religion would be unthinkable for many people.
Leading up to the release of Madonna’s fifth studio album Erotica, signs of her incessant need to rebel were laid bare. From ‘Like A Prayer’s’ burning crosses and black Jesus starring in the video, to the theatrical Blond Ambition Tour of 1990, and the accompanying documentary film Truth or Dare, the world should have forecast Madonna’s next creative adventure to make seismic waves in the world of pop culture. They did not.
On 20th October 1992, Madonna released her visual-concept album Erotica simultaneously with Sex, a coffee table book containing explicit images of the singer shot by fashion photographers Steven Meisel and Fabien Baron. The visual album was met with stagnant reviews from critics whilst contemporary fans, many of whom identified as part of the LGBT community, celebrated the project.
The year 1992 not only marked a year of animosity from Madonna’s critics but also an era of suffering for the LGBT community as a result of the AIDS epidemic. Madonna has always been an outspoken advocate for the LGBT community, especially during the height of the epidemic. In a similar fashion to the safe sex pamphlet inserted into copies of her Like A Prayer album in 1989, Madonna used Erotica as a platform to discuss safe sex to the point of the Sex book being packaged in a condom-inspired wrapper. The album’s final ballad ‘In This Life’ pays tribute to two of Madonna’s close friends who died of AIDS: ‘He was only twenty three / Gone before he had his time / It came without a warning / Didn’t want his friends to see him cry / He knew the day was dawning / And I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye,’ she croons on the sorrowful eulogy. ‘In This Life’, much like the chart topping single ‘This Used To Be My Playground’, released three months before Erotica, shows Madonna’s emotional fragility.
It may come as a surprise to discover that Erotica is not the grossly carnal sex album you may expect. The album’s tracks range from deeply personal anecdotes: ‘In This Life’, ‘Rain’, ‘Secret Garden’, to disco bops: ‘Deeper and Deeper’, ‘Fever’, and gritty New Jack Swing confessions: ‘Bye Bye Baby’, ‘Where Life Begins’, ‘Thief of Hearts’ – to a dancehall-tinged call for world peace: ‘Why’s It So Hard?’.
Madonna crafted the album’s unique combinations of sounds with her co-producer and co-writer Shep Pettibone, who had previously remixed several of Madonna’s 1980s hits by turning them into modern 1990s house anthems, as well as producing ‘Vogue’. Pettibone kept a diary detailing his studio sessions with Madonna, with the first entry dated November 1991. According to him, Madonna wanted the album to sound raw ‘as if it were recorded in an alley at 123rd Street in Harlem.’ As a result, the album’s blend of hip-hop, jazz, New Jack Swing, funk, disco and house are sprinkled throughout the record and give it an authentic, cinematic quality which could overlay a picturesque scene of New York’s bourgeoisie and the rebels of the clubs and ballrooms.
The title track, lead single and album opener ‘Erotica’ is narrated by Madonna’s alter ego Dita. ‘If I take you from behind / push myself into your mind / when you least expect it… / will you try to reject it?’ is a playful reference to Madonna’s relationship with her critics. The song is somewhat of a companion to ‘Justify My Love’ which, like ‘Erotica’, has spoken word verses which are also utilised on the album’s jazzy closing track ‘Secret Garden’.
The rest of the album unfolds much like a journal, in which Madonna reflects on her past relationships and lovers in the hip-hop tinged ‘Bye Bye Baby’, ‘Waiting’ and ‘Words’. ‘Bad Girl’ tells the fateful story of a drunken, chain smoking woman whose bingeing cannot stop her feel dissatisfied with her relationship with an unknown male. The high concept music video, directed by David Fincher, stars Christopher Walken as Madonna’s character’s guardian angel.
Not only is Erotica filled with sorrow, it also explores sensuality. ‘Where Life Begins’ is a hip-hop slow jam in which Madonna cheekily celebrates cunnilingus. Though she has never been regarded as a powerhouse vocalist, Madonna’s crystal clear vocals carry ‘Rain’s’ trip-hop melody to extraordinary highs and at some moments evoke Karen Carpenter. The song’s turbocharged middle-eight section seamlessly leads into Madonna’s dual recital of lines through both right and left channels, further showing Pettibone’s exquisite production and Madonna’s keen ear for a catchy melody. The ‘Vogue’-sampling ‘Deeper and Deeper’ is the album’s most gleeful song, taking listeners back to the disco era as Madonna takes on the persona of a young man coming out. She declares ‘This feeling inside, I can’t explain / But my love is alive, and I’m never gonna hide it again’ over a nineties house beat before leading into a flamenco guitar breakdown. The surrealistic visual pays tribute to the work of Andy Warhol and 1970s disco culture.
Despite the lyrical and musical strength of Erotica’s songs, the album and its singles were considered flops in comparison to blockbuster eighties hits ‘Material Girl’ and ‘Papa Don’t Preach’. Erotica was Madonna’s first album not to top the Billboard 200 albums chart and sold ‘only’ 6 million copies worldwide. For contemporary critics, the hits were not big enough and in their eyes, the world’s biggest pop star was unable to back up her ‘gimmicks’ with sales receipts. The Erotica era became the perfect time for the society, both men and women, to crucify the woman who had defied everything in the unwritten rule book of pop.
When I first became a Madonna fan around six years ago, it became clear that Erotica and the Sex book were seen as blemishes in her otherwise smash hit-filled career. And yet, even from a modern perspective, in which every female pop star has used elements of the Madonna blueprint, the album and its visuals maintained their astonishing impact. Erotica is an essential album because it is incredibly bold – both for 1992 and a quarter of a century later. Madonna’s fight for the free expression of sex, religion and romance for all is interwoven throughout her work and is most prominent during the Erotica era. The record’s legacy has birthed Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade, and has inspired today’s biggest pop divas: Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Pink, Christina Aguilera, Nicki Minaj… all owe a great deal to the woman who did it all first.
Erotica is an unconventional ode to feminism and homosexuality before these concepts became popular trending topics. This is one of the many reasons why the album was listed by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in August 2017 as one of the most revolutionary albums of all time. In their words, ‘…few women artists, before or since Erotica, have been so outspoken about their fantasies and desires. Madonna made it clear that shame and sexuality are mutually exclusive. In the end, Erotica embraced and espoused pleasure, and kept Madonna at the forefront of pop’s sexual revolution.’ It is safe to say that, in this respect, no one will ever be able to top Erotica.