A Pop Music Feature
It is without a doubt Madonna’s most controversial project, a photo essay exploring erotic fantasies and gender roles, SEX a collaboration with celebrity fashion photographer Steven Miesel had a seismic impact on the Queen of Pop’s ascension as well as pop culture!
In the early 90s, Madonna had nothing to prove! She had crafted herself into arguably the single most popular celebrity on the planet! Controversies appeared to follow her with every new release or move she made, as everyone sought to grab a piece of her at every stop. She had achieved musical success with the critically acclaimed full-length album Like A Prayer. Released in 1989, her fourth album was unlike any the artist had crafted before. Each track appeared to be incredibly introspective and revealed an artist with a depth and creativity that too many were quick to dismiss. Like A Prayer remains on every list of the most influential pop albums of any era!
The video for the title track raised serious eyebrows with its religiously sexualized imagery (burning crosses, too) and found Madonna on the receiving of one of her biggest battles when soft drink titan Pepsi Cola backed out of a deal to support and promote her upcoming world tour. Madonna walked away pocketing much of the money (citing breach of contract) and turned the attention to her advantage, as an even more provocative statement followed with the release of the album’s second single. “Express Yourself” with its iconic look, was reported as costing in the millions to produce, the most expensive music video of its time.
Madonna continued to innovate as she exited the 80s and entered the 90s with a thunderous hit. “Vogue” is a track that might have been lost to the ages if it had landed as the B-side of Madonna’s single “Cherish”. Produced and co-written by Shep Pettibone the track immediately resonated with audiences, becoming a top-charting radio hit and inciting a cultural club revolution with its call to “Strike a pose!”. The video inspired a sea of copycats and elevated the medium, as it ushered in a dance renaissance heralded as one of the artist’s greatest career anthems. While the iron was hot, Madonna embarked on a world tour and shared her “Blond Ambition” with the world.
The world was literally her oyster, Madonna outshined every other pop act on the scene, overshadowing many of her contemporaries, including the biggest pop artist of all, Michael Jackson. She reigned over every form of media and released her very first greatest hits collection. Marking her first decade as a recording artist, The Immaculate Collection encompassed 17 tracks, chronicling Madonna’s early years and landing on her foray into the future with “Vogue” and 2 all-new tracks wrapping up the experience. One of those new tracks blazed the trail for what was certainly to come, as “Justify My Love” delivered on just how racy Madonna was willing to go to push buttons.
I’ll Teach You How To…
The heat around “Justify My Love” a track that Madonna had inherited from and worked on with fellow provocateur Lenny Kravitz, was hardly expected. The track itself was one of two all-new that was included on The Immaculate Collection greatest hits compilation. It inadvertently set in motion a series of events that would put Madonna in the crosshairs of public scrutiny for the next several years. The video was banned from MTV due to its sexually charged content and the inclusion of a bare-breasted model. The artfully crafted black and white video also featured same-sex kissing and cross-dressing, which may have also drawn the ire of audiences concerned about younger viewership.
Madonna would go on to market the full-length, unedited video single available on VHS, breaking sales records and becoming a very rare collectible item. The second single released from the compilation, “Rescue Me” featured another collaboration with Shep Pettibone., who had co-produced “Vogue”. The track played brilliantly to the delight of the dance club house devotees, as club culture and the nightlife scene began to enjoy a new vitality as dance music entered the mainstream. With Pettibone on her side, Madonna was headed back into the studio equally charged by the popular rise in dance music and with a desire to break all expectations.
Following the blockbuster success of her revealing documentary concert film Truth or Dare and her part in the ensemble comedy hit A League of Their Own Madonna presented the artist as a chameleon, willing to take risks all in the name of her artistic journey. With the relentless amount of media attention heading into the 90s, with critics dissecting her every movement, and perhaps a desire to shake the puritanical confines of her latest onscreen role, Madonna focused deliberately on finishing her fifth studio album, but there was something else she was working on simultaneously that would often distract and ultimately influence the overall tone of the album.
Collaborating with Shep Pettibone and André Betts, the tracks for the concept album were taking shape and were leaning towards reflections on love, sex, and deeply confessional heart-baring as Madonna revealed the loss of friends to the AIDS epidemic. The intense nature of her lyrical drive would often go counter to Pettibone’s dance-enhanced/remix direction, but the duo found equal ground. Madonna’s other project, running tangent to the album, was a photo essay she was developing with celebrated fashion photographer Steven Meisel. It would prove one of the most jaw-dropping and hotly controversial artistic endeavors the Material Girl would embark on.
I Can Bring You So Much…
SEX was unlike anything that Madonna had worked on before in her career, and the publication of a coffee table book of this kind wasn’t entirely received immediately by Madonna’s marketing and management team. There are conflicting stories as to where the inspiration for SEX came from (originally entitled “X”). Some reports have that Madonna had always wanted to write a book of erotica and was inspired to push the limits of provocation after feeling so chaste during the filming of A League of Their Own. There are still other stories that Madonna lifted the idea from another writer/editor who had approached her with the concept and Madonna ran with it as her own.
In any event, the 128 pages were released in a spiral-bound oversized format, between a pair of thin, silver slabs of aluminum with the word “SEX” stamped into the very center. It was available to the public, on October 21, 1992 (a day after the release of Madonna’s full-length fifth studio album Erotica) and the mylar wrapping bore a warning on it: Adults Only! The item could not be sold to minors. Even with that stipulation, it sold over 150,000 copies on its first day and would top the New York Times Best Selling List for the next three weeks. It remains to this day, one of the most in-demand, out-of-print publications of all time.
Meisel and Madonna (and the rest of the creative team, including art director Fabien Baron) chose to shoot at locations close to her homes in New York City and Miami, and at sites that featured a certain allure and mystique that would be appropriate to further the book’s narrative. They chose locations like the historic Chelsea Hotel, for its edgy punk vibe, and the now lost-to-the-ages decadences of Times Square’s all-male burlesque house, The Gaiety Theatre, while Madonna struck shock-and-awe poses in public in Miami’s Coconut Grove and South Beach areas. Several famous faces also dared to drop draw for the lens, including Naomi Campell, Isabella Rossellini, and rapper Vanilla Ice.
Put Your Hands All Over My Body
Using her alter ego, the aptly named Mistress Dita (who is loosely inspired by actress Dita Parlo), is fully embellished in the video for the album Erotica’s first single. While Madonna struts in her elegant dominatrix attire brandishing a riding crop, the video incorporates what amounts to Super 8 “found footage” that appears to be projected and cobbled together haphazardly but is actually moving images and behind-the-scenes from the book itself. Directed by Fabien Baron, who is the book’s own art director, he is able to keep the look and tone consistent, exquisitely complementing the entire experience.
The video, in essence, becomes a brilliant marketing tool for both the album’s release and the photo essay SEX, both released a day apart in October, maximize Madonna’s relevance and exposure. It’s no surprise that after premiering on MTV the video was almost immediately relegated to only “late-night” airplay, which is better than getting banned entirely like its predecessor “Justify My Love” (Madonna capitalized on the controversy by releasing, “Justify My Love” on VHS home video). A promo VHS of “Erotica” is made available to various outlets and becomes a popular collectible bootleg years later. Its recent release in HD intensifies its uniqueness among the artist’s collection of music videos.
Whether considered a trivial novelty, a whim of Madonna’s at the time to further incite her critics, or tantalize her audience, SEX reasonably stands the test of time as one of her most curious artistic achievements. Overlooked mostly because of the controversy that surrounded it, the photo essay in conjunction with the album, Erotica are among the clearest signals of the relevant talent of Madonna as a provocateur and marketeer. At a moment in the zeitgeist when “sex” was something that many thought to fear, Madonna forced the culture to examine it from every possible perception. Her intention is to create a dialogue between individuals, whether casual or intense about love, lovemaking, and collaboration in the most intimate ways and pull back the divide.
Through this dialogue, Madonna opened the doors to taboo and invited everyone into her space. In her unabashed honesty, she made sex less something to fear, and more something to discover, to question, and hopefully make more pleasurable. It’s likely the reason why fans have often referred to Erotica as one of her most underrated works, and on second listening considered one of her most daring. Coupled with SEX it laid the groundwork for an era of reinvention and exploration, which we all happily followed.
Get your “FansEyeView of Madonna’s “Erotica” video in HD here (word of caution: the video is racy and intended for Mature Audiences):
EROTICA | by Madonna | is available on most Digital Download stores including iTunes. Download from iTunes here.
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