When Madonna released her album Erotica over 30 years ago, it caused a firestorm of controversy due to its sexually explicit lyrics and the salacious promotional imagery that accompanied its release. Countless albums by any number of artists in subsequent years have pushed the boundaries substantially further, yet her most loyal fans still consider Erotica some of Madonna’s finest work.
360°Sound spoke with Michael Dango, author of the recent 33 1/3 book Madonna’s Erotica, about the album and its enduring influence. It’s an insightful look not just into Madonna, but into the larger conversation that surrounded, and continues to surround, her as a cultural figure.
While Madonna has certainly had more memorable albums, Erotica is one that her most ardent fans constantly return to and love to discuss. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a couple of reasons. One is just the kind of cultural period that it’s coming out of. There are a lot of similarities between the early ’90s and now in terms of just really live discussions around gender, sexuality, and race. Then, it was centered around HIV AIDS and Rodney King, and now, it’s because of COVID, monkey pox, and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter. Madonna really seemed to be intentional about wanting to be at the center of a lot of those kinds of cultural conversations and styling herself after somebody like Robert Mapplethorpe, a controversial figure because of his censorship. So, it’s really just kind of being a part of that vibe.
But another reason – for Madonna fans, in particular – is a bit of a maturation on her part. Erotica is her fifth studio album. It’s the first one after “Vogue” comes out as a single. It’s a period in which Madonna is really leaning into kind of a multimedia presence. She has multiple tours releasing on television and home media. There’s obviously her book Sex, which takes the world by storm. It’s an exciting period of her career.
Cultural appropriation is something you reference a few times in your analysis of this period. Madonna is notorious for borrowing from other cultures in her songs and music videos. Did revisiting this album years later make you see her or this period of her career in a different light?
One of the things that’s exciting about the album is how eclectic it is. That also can be a bit of a euphemism for how much she’s borrowing and, in some instances, literally taking musical samples – not only from other cultures, but from other artists. In the lead single Erotica, she uses an Easter chant from Feruz who’s like one of the most influential singers in the Arab world and as a result, the song was banned in Lebanon.
I think for me, what was important as a fan and as an academic is really being comfortable with some of the ambivalence that emerges because of that kind of situation. These days, we so often think of those we idolized as either being heroes pure in everything, or monsters for messing things up. It’s important, I think, to be able to figure out what are the ways in which Madonna is opening up space for other artists and other communities and what are the ways in which she’s clearly profiting off of that as a businesswoman. The reality is, in the case of Madonna, it’s a bit of both.
With a title like Erotica, you would expect this to be a sexy, modern pop album for its time, but as you point out in the book, that’s actually not the case. Some tracks are sad in nature, while others are downright comedic. What stuck out most to you in your many relistens?
With an opening track like “Erotica,” you would expect a really steamy album, in line with something like “Justify My Love.” The release of her book Sex around the same time made many assume this was going to be deeply sexual, and it’s a bit of shock to see how it sidesteps those expectations.
There’s a lot of humor here that surprised me. In “Where Life Begins,” she’s making jokes on oral sex, and some of the lyrics sound more out of a comedy record than anything else. She’s being more camp at times than sexy, and while that may be a turn off to some, I think it actually makes the album more interesting. There’s something to be discovered that’s more than the sexually explicit music you’d expect.
Today, this album is known as one of the deepest of her career – one that takes on cultural assumptions on sex and gender at a time when both were heavily in focus. However, we know Madonna is also guilty of pushing the envelope to get more commercial attention. Do you think she intended it to be as deep as the reputation it would eventually develop?
It’s certainly much deeper than the reputation it gained at the time of release. That’s really Madonna’s fault. She was trying to be scandalous with multiple projects, like the Sex coffee table book and the film Body of Evidence. It was a manufactured scandal, and unfortunately, the album got grouped in with all these other things. She’s a businesswoman and understands the calculated risk she’s taking with it, so leaning into the sexual is not a shock.
At the same point, it’s really interesting from a music angle. It’s not hit-heavy; there aren’t any of her most popular songs on this album, and in many ways, it works best as a collective. In that sense, and given the topics she’s covering, it does feel more like a piece of art than many of her earlier albums.
Today, celebrities speaking out in support of the LGBTQ community is mostly commonplace, but in the early 1990s, it was a rarity, especially with the HIV AIDS epidemic firing on all cylinders at the time. Why was Madonna’s public stance in support of the community so profound both at the time and historically?
That was something in my research I was so pleased to learn. She spoke out about HIV AIDS in the early 1980s and put some of her money where her mouth was in terms of having fundraisers. The press stigmatized HIV AIDS, including deciding that it wasn’t relevant for her to come out that she was HIV negative, even though there was a lot of questioning about that. It’s like, why would you care so much about HIV AIDS if you don’t have it? And so that’s really interesting. The same year Erotica came out, Rolling Stone had an article comparing Madonna and Freddie Mercury, somebody who did have HIV AIDS, but was not as vocal. One of the reasons might be the difference in genre – rock vs. pop and the kind of macho perception of what’s expected of rock stars.
But part of it is that Madonna was personally impacted by HIV AIDS because she really did have a foot in the in the gay community. What I think makes Erotica special is that she has tributes to, these people that she had lost. And that’s what makes it a more mournful album at times, as opposed to a sexy album and what might be really compelling that is how the album in its range of sounds and moods is able to celebrate gay life, but also mourn a form of life that is slipping away at a time in which the gay community is being devastated by HIV AIDS.
Despite all the criticism this period of her career received, she still sold over six million albums of Erotica. The Sex book reportedly did more than $50 million in revenue. And we still see this today – even though we hear so often in the press and in comment sections Madonna is a has-been, people still can’t stop talking about her. Is she America’s greatest guilty pleasure?
I think that’s true. Hating something is a really intense emotion, as is love. One thing we can say for sure is there isn’t a lot of indifference toward Madonna; people seem to love her or hate her. It’s always been fascinating to me how many cross-sections of American life, those that claim to love her or hate her, know her music. People in the most conservative Christian homes can likely recite for you some of her lyrics, while many from queer homes can, as well. She just covers so much ground.
Unfortunately, I think most of the conversations on Madonna are not really about her. They’re proxies on other things – society’s views on sex, religion, gender, age, and many other topics. She’s the image of so many discussions. Like the album, Madonna the cultural figure is deeper than most people will ever give her credit for being.
One of the latest in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, Madonna’s Erotica by Michael Dango is now available. Purchase it direct from the publisher here.