With ‘Erotica’ Madonna offered an F-U to an overly hostile public

EroticaIn 1992 Madonna was arguably the most famous woman in the world. She had some tough competition: Oprah, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, but the pop diva seemed omnipresent in every form of media. And because this was pre-Internet, pre-YouTube, pre-social media, popular culture was much more narrow –  Touré referred to it as a monoculture, when one cultural product – a movie, a CD, a book – was able to dominate. Record sales were still in the millions, and Madonna seemed to be everywhere.

With that kind of exposure, came the inevitable backlash. People said that Madonna was a slut. She wasn’t talented. She used sex and shock to sell records. This period of her career, roughly spanning from 1992 to 1994, was paradoxically one of her most high profile periods, yet it also represented an encroaching nadir. She came out with five major projects during this time: Erotica, her fifth studio album; Body of Evidence, an erotic thriller directed by Dino De Laurentiis; Dangerous Game, a drama directed by Abel Ferrara, Sex, a near-pornographic coffee table book; and her The Girlie Show tour. The work she did was informed greatly by her use and exploration of sexuality as well as examining of taboos in our society. Unfortunately, the noise that surrounds Madonna as an entity drowned out any virtue of any of the work at the time.

And that’s a shame because stripped of its baggage, Erotica is a fantastic record, easily one of the best in her oeuvre. The album feels like a defiant fuck you to all of the naysayers who seem to find pleasure in denigrating her career and her choices. It’s as if she internalized all of the slams thrown at her, and excorsized them on Erotica. She seemed to say, “You think I use shock value and sex in my music to sell records and get attention? Well buckle up, fuckers, ’cause you ain’t see nothin’ yet.”

Erotica starts off with the title track. Over a thumping bass, we get tinny record scatches  and cold industrial beats. Madonna’s voice is a monotone drone, as she portrays Dita, her dominatrix alter-ego. Throughout the song there are swishy record scratches and lonely, melancholy pianos, along with the iconic horn sample from “Jungle Boogie.” The song’s lyrics – penned by Madonna, Shep Pettibone, and Shimkin, explore the various sexual fantasies that Dita would fulfill. It’s a departure from Madonna’s other music – it’s darker and less commercial, signaling that the album itself would also be more challenging for her fans. During the song we hear the clanging of chains and the haunting chants, while Madonna herself alternates between her croaky mumbling and simulating orgasms.

Quickly, the record jumps to trancey house with Madonna’s cover of “Fever.” It’s an appropriate song to ape, as its original artist, Peggy Lee, like Madonna, combined the cool, calculated blonde image with simmering sensuality. Like “Erotica” and most of the album, the song’s production is precise and chilly. Her vocals are distant and sound bored, despite the fiery image of the title, as well as the lyrics’s preoccupation with passion.

As it’s 1993, and Madonna is nothing if not an astute cultural observer, New Jack Swing finds its way into Erotica with “Bye Bye Baby.” Madonna’s sound and image has always skirted around the edges of black pop culture. From her swiping of black and Latino gay culture (particularly drag culture) to flirting with race in her imagery and in her music videos, Madonna’s career has always had a messy relationship with cultural appropriation. “Bye Bye Baby” is complete with Old Skool record scratches and samples of soulful shouts that recall Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It).” To fit into the theme of emotional distance, Madonna’s voice is processed through record filters that tweak her already-thin voice to squeaky, Betty Boop-like levels.

If Madonna fans were confused and slightly disappointed at this moment, it’s understandable, because though Erotica is opened with a trio of dance songs, they’re hardly the dance floor thumpers her wannabes are used to. As if to assuage and anxiety about Madonna’s status as a disco diva, we come up on “Deeper and Deeper,” a self-referential, autobiographical song that is a logical sequel to “Vogue.” Just like “Vogue” Madonna extols the virtue of clubbing as a form of escape. One of her queerest songs, “Deeper and Deeper” feels a touch out of place on Erotica, which up until now, felt like an exercise in perfunctory sensuality. “Deeper and Deeper” is the kind of Madonna song that fans love: humane, poignant, and celebratory. It’s the first song on Erotica to remind listeners of her club roots, her fascination with Latin music (there’s a brief bit with Spanish guitars and castanets), as well as with her allegiance to queer culture with the self-referential sample of “Vogue.”

“Where Life Begins” is the first song that isn’t a single, and it’s easy to guess why. It’s about cunnilingus. Produced and co-written by Andre Betts, celebrates a “different kind of kiss” in which she urges her listeners to “go down, where it’s warm inside.” On any other album, the tune would feel like filler: it’s not sonically all that innovative. But its lyrical content forces listeners and Madonna’s public to confront a woman who not only is comfortable singing about sexuality and sexual desires, but is comfortable in being demanding and assertive in her desires.

“Bad Girl,” a song that broke Madonna’s stretch of 27 consecutive top 20 hits, is the albums first ballad (and features one of her best videos, in which she gives a moving performance, confirming that Madonna is a gifted actress in brief spurts). The song is a pop ballad that tells the story of a woman who turns to vice – alcohol and smoking – when her love life falls apart. It’s a strange topic and point of view for a singer who a few years before roared that women should express themselves and kick scrubs to the curb. In what feels like strange moralizing, Madonna’s narrator seemingly condemns the titular bad girl who goes through her life making seemingly bad choices. While initially it seems like a scolding song, after a few listens, it takes on some resonance, as it fits neatly into the theme of Madonna’s career of doing the unexpected. Just as soon as we think we’ve got her figured, she swerves, offering contrition and regret for anti-social behavior.

Betts gently guides Madonna back to hip-hop with “Waiting” which is yet another New Jack Swing number that yet again includes Madonna’s ever-present spoken verses. The song as a companion piece “Did You Do It.”Both songs share the same backing tape – a thumbing pass and a floating horn, but in “Did You Do It” two men are sharing tales of bedding a conquest. Betts admitted that when Madonna was out of the studio, he added the rap over the track, and the song was greeted with good humor and enthusiasm. “Did You Do It” is a self-aware mocking of the sexually-explicit hip-hop that became popular in mainstream radio. But as the song progresses, we’re made to understand that the rapper’s braggadocio is all an act, as his companions dismissively sniff, “you didn’t do it…she’s still waiting.”

“Thief of Hearts” is the closest thing to actual filler for Erotica. It’s a snippy number in which Madonna adopts a bitchy persona, warning her listeners of the thief of hearts, a maneater that is cause for alarm. Like “Bad Girl,” “Thief of Hearts” can feel a bit regressive and anti-woman. It’s unclear if like the misogyny of “Did You Do It,” is the female-on-female crime is merely a joke. The production – courtesy of Shep Pettibone is a capsule of early 90s pop house with thick beats and muted pianos.

Moving away from the snide “Thief of Hearts” comes “Words” a brisk dance song that has Madonna sing about the power of language and its potential for emotional violence. Though the song could be about a lover, it could also work as Madonna working out her frustration with a nasty press, who use words to denigrate her work and her career. As with the other Pettibone songs, “Words” is a song that feels claustrophobic and crowded as sounds, instruments, elements, and vocals seem to compete with each other. Like “Erotica” there are Middle Eastern influences as well as listless spoken verses (again, raspy, as if Madonna needs to clear her throat bad). As the song reaches its crescendo, the sounds start to pile on top of each other, cleverly conveying the paranoia and frustration Madonna feels when words are used against her.

If Erotica as a whole seems like a rather uncommercial work from an aggressively-commercial artist, then “Rain” would be the one concession to pop radio. As such it’s probably the least interesting song on the record. An elegant pop ballad with Madonna harmonizing with background vocals, it’s very pretty, with a simple message of love and romance, but little else. From any other artist, “Rain” would be a career high, but given the complexity of Erotica and the experimentation that she does, “Rain” feels like a safe retread. It’s the sole moment when Erotica reaches A/C territory.

But as soon as “Rain” is over, Madonna returns to the shakier arena of experimentation with the reggae-pop of “Why It’s So Hard” a socially conscious song about tolerance and peace. It’s a song of good intentions, but like Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, it just misses the mark ever so slightly because instead of addressing an actual ill or issue, Madonna sings about love and peace and chants “brother, sister” over soupy beats.

Far better is “In This Life” a dirge-like ballad about the scourge of AIDS. Madonna’s history with AIDS is well-documented. As a dancer and struggling singer in the late 70s, early 80s, Madonna was a first-hand witness to the disease’s destruction. It’s a surprisingly complex tune, given the simplicity of “Why It’s So Hard,” with Madonna switching from recounting a personal story of a friend who died of AIDS, to asking larger questions about the disease and its accompanying stigma. This song reminds viewers that Madonna is nothing if not sensitive – beneath the bluster of her sexually-charged image, beats the heart of a sensitive singer-songwriter. In 1992, homophobia was largely accepted by mainstream pop culture, and the AIDS epidemic only further bolstered that fear and hatred. For a pop star of Madonna’s mainstream acceptance and cred, speaking to the anti-queer stigma that hampers any advances in the fight against AIDS is pretty bracing and brave. Just like “Deeper and Deeper” and the aforementioned “Vogue,” “In This Life” is an explicit call to Madonna’s large queer fan base.

After the sadness of “In This Life,” the tone shifts to the humorous “Did You Do It,” before ending on the trippy “Secret Garden” which sounds influenced by Deee-Lite. Madonna’s flirtation with trip-hop and acid jazz is a bit prophetic because she would later show an affinity for the sound when she scored a major critical success by working with Massive Attack covering Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You.” “Secret Garden” further argues the case that Erotica is arguably Madonna’s most adventurous and interesting record (if not her most consistent). The jittery, dancey drum, a twinkling piano, a lumbering bass, and an airy vocal performance by Madonna makes the song a standout among a collection of songs that all vie to push Madonna’s sound into different directions.

When it was released, Erotica was met with a muted critical and commercial response. Its reputation was further damaged when it was dragged into the scandal of her other sexually-charged work of the period, thereby ensuring that it would be quickly forgotten. None of the singles are particularly well-remembered, and her follow up, 1994’s Bedtime Stories, a collection of pillowy lush tunes and luxury pop ballads seemlike an apology for her hell raising. But Erotica deserves multiple listens because even more so than her genre-defining pop classic, Like a Prayer (1989), it shows that Madonna wasn’t merely a dance-pop singer, but an artist who was looking to grow creatively.

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