Madonna - Erotica
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
If someone had referred to 1992 as Madonna’s tipping point, you’d have been forgiven if you thought it meant something Vanilla Ice was doing to her ass. The reception of Sex—a funny-in-a-ninth-grade-cafeteria-joke compendium of doity pictures and nasty captions—forever changed public perception of la fille materiele. Until Sex we thought Madonna was playing at being a slattern; that the wedding dress writhing at the MTV Video Music Awards was really a bad itch; that the friendship with Sandra Bernhardt was merely an act of charity to a fellow bigmouth. But no: Madonna did want her pussy eaten out.
In the fall of 1992 she may not have known shit about Simone de Beauvoir but she understood how the layers of suggestiveness that an audience extrapolates from a piece of pop iconography—like Marilyn Monroe standing over the air vent in The Seven Year Itch—are in effect projections, and she made damn sure she controlled our projections too. She flung her fantasies at the public, wanting them accepted as any young woman’s normal desires. The trouble is, Madonna is a better musician than a theorist, a better provocateuse than a streetwalker. With Erotica and Sex she tried to have it both ways—the book commercialized her sexual brazenness, the album, two tracks excepted, played coy—and failed. To make matters worse, she plucked her eyebrow hair.
Where Erotica sits in the Madonna canon I’m not sure; her albums are always downgraded after the cultural forces which compel critics to overrate them recede (listened to Music lately?). Better than Bedtime Stories and True Blue for sure; almost as consistent as Like A Prayer, her most tuneful Important Album; without Madonna’s ingénue lust. In fact, only Confessions on a Dance Floor matches Erotica’s relentlessness. It’s still very much of its time: 1992 was the last year that AIDS, in scaring the crap out of gay dance culture, turned club tracks into headier and sleazier versions of themselves. Madonna ordered her producers to siphon this vibe: Shep Pettibone, following his work on the forgotten 1991 hit “Rescue Me,” uses clattering programs and icy synth block-chords (most notably on “Words”); Andre Bettes flaunts pseudo-jazz filigrees on “Waiting” and the cunnilingus ode “Where Life Begins.” Finally, Erotica is the last record unsullied by Maddie’s delusions of vocal grandeur. She didn’t need opera lessons to project empathy, an achievement all the more impressive when you remind yourself that it’s quite difficult to step away from the mirror when you’re a piece of pop iconography.
How did she do it? By relying on her lower register: her secret weapon, employed with casual dexterity on “Live to Tell” and “Open Your Heart,” on Erotica used for emotional ballast on “Deeper and Deeper” and “In This Life.” The former, her greatest second single (the new “Sorry” comes close), evokes falling in love on the dance floor as your drunk ass remembers what your father warned you about—a subject I wish the Strokes or somebody would develop. Since Erotica is Madonna’s 120 Days of Sodom as written by a woman with a bathetic Catholic streak, she had to slow the pace with a Moment of Rue; here it’s the ominously titled “In This Life.” Although I recall that horrible-but-true story of solo George Harrison changing the lyrics of “In My Life” to “in my life I loved GOD more,” this is no “My Sweet Lord”: a parched memorial to two friends who succumbed to AIDS, chronicled in Madonna’s most matter-of-fact lyrics (“Is there a lesson I’m supposed to learn? / In this case ignorance is not bliss”), captured flatteringly in Pettibone’s baroque but muted production: a French horn, atonal keyboard, Madonna doubletracking herself on the line “What for?” (The other ballad, “Rain,” is a slushy rewrite of that year’s “This Used To Be My Playground,” itself a slushy rewrite of Like A Prayer’s “Promise to Try.”)
Each dance track emits its own idiosyncratic energy; there are more unexpected textures on Erotica than on any other Madonna album. The Kool & The Gang-quoting title track and biggest hit despite no airplay; the love-is-all-we-need shuffle of “Why’s It So Hard”; the Joni-Mitchell-Blue of her ”Fever” cover. “Words” is the greatest non-hit, relentless and sad, anticipating the after hours desperation of late ‘90s Everything But The Girl hits. But no one’s copied “Bad Girl.” This third single, a flop on release, switches from major to minor chords (signaled by the transition from verse to chorus) with a sophistication that puts the lie to those fools who (still) think Madonna has no input on her records (certainly no Shep Pettibone production attempts anything comparable). It remains Maddie’s most cogent response to a venal subject: the wages of fame, as experienced by a woman who’s cheated too often, smoked too many cigarettes, and is unable to meet expectations she had a large hand in shaping. When she insists that she doesn’t want to cause you any pain, you believe it; the Italian-American proletarian ardor of “Crazy For You,” for the last time in her career, moves us beyond measure. You deserve an award for the role that you play, Ms. Ciccone.
Alas, Erotica proved too sophisticated for a mainstream besotted with The Bodyguard and a college-radio claque eager to praise R.E.M.’s opaque dirges for the wisdom that Madonna’s club fodder showed with less fuss and with a better rhythm section. The fascist pining of Evita was enough to make you despair: it turned out that the Bad Girl was always a Material Girl at heart, if she ever had one. Not that it mattered, since the Oprah-approved wisdom of Ray of Light, with child in tow, awaited. The change was enough to make you hate God.