Music Box: Erotica by Madonna

While video games are a major hobby in my life, that’s not all I spend my time on. Music has been an important part of my life and I adore all kinds of music. Rock, pop, country, classical, hip-hop, folk, the list goes on. Whether its popular or underground, I am constantly looking and listening to different kinds of music. So in this new blog series, I’ll nerd out on different music that I like or dislike. Topics will vary from artists to albums to genres to anything I can think of. As long as it’s music related I’ll discuss it in this series.

In an episode of PixlTalk, I discussed my love of music in video games and one album I kept making comparisons to is Madonna’s Erotica album. For that reason I’ve decided to make this album my first topic of discussion, as it’s probably one not too many who enjoy video games have probably heard. So without further ado, let’s talk about Madonna’s Erotica.

Madonna is widely known for reinventing herself. Many music aficionados claim that’s why she managed to stay successful and relevant for a long time. Up until Madonna released 2003’s American Life, many agreed that this tactic has worked in her favor. However, this is not entirely true. At the start of her career, she was billed and presented as the girl next door who was into dance music and, presumably from how she dressed, ran with an artsy crowd. Her first single Everybody was basically a low cut disco song. However, that didn’t last long and she soon became the virginal sex starlet, the most desired woman on earth by both men and women. This fully came to be in her third album, 1986’s True Blue, and was fully presented for all eyes to see in the Open Your Heart video where she literally has a group of men bidding to have her.

However, in 1989, Madonna released the Like a Prayer album and its accompanying video for the title track showed a new Madonna, her first reinvention. In it, we got crosses burning, a church choir in the song, a black Jesus, and Madonna with brown hair. Controversy followed and after a dropped Pepsi endorsement and various other protests, the album sold extremely well and critics praised her new direction. Little did they know that it wouldn’t last. After the album, a greatest hits collection called The Immaculate Collection was released and one of the new songs on the album showed the direction Madonna was really going. 1990’s Justify My Love was banned by MTV, who’s video had nudity and depictions of homosexual relations and BDSM. The controversy around the video was only the precursor to Madonna’s next album, the now infamous Erotica.

While Justify My Love hinted at sex only in tone and is essentially just a song about wanting to connect with someone on an emotional level, many of the songs on Erotica are inspired by the act of love with the emotional being only a byproduct and many of the songs state this outright. However, caution is also one of the main themes of the album. While this is a dance album, the production of all the songs is very cold. Not dark but cold. Never are the songs about sex given a thrust indicating beat or a sultry groove. There’s always a sense of dread and sadness in the songs. Given that this album was released in the early 90s and AIDS was a serious threat to everyone, it’s safe to say that this was a sign of the times. To paraphrase a review I once read of the album, Erotica is a love album for the AIDS generation.

The title track is a song I describe as a session with a dominatrix if she were also your psychologist. The lyrics depict anal sex, sadomasochism, and dominant and submissive roles. The overarching theme however is trust. Trust in the one you love to not only pleasure you but to hurt you. Madonna doesn’t sing these lyrics so much as she growls them out. She not only enjoys her depravity but it has become routine for her. The music is used to infer a sense of fear, with the backbeat resembling a heartbeat if it skipped a few. It’s danceable, sure, but it would be better used as background music for a torture scene.

FYI, I posted the censored version of this music video because I don’t want to get flagged for pornography. You can find the uncensored version pretty easily though.

Fever is actually a cover of the song originally made famous by Peggy Lee but it fits in the album’s theme very well. The lyrics depict the romances of Romeo and Juliet and Captain Smith and Pocahontas, two romances that ended up not to be. The song focuses on the lustful side of things and given the examples it presents, follows the caution theme. Deeper and Deeper is a song that is actually about a boy coming out as homosexual and is easily the most single worthy song of the album. In it, the boy laments over his new found identity, once again serving as a warning about who you have sex with.

The Deeper and Deeper music video was inspired by Andy Warhol and his films.

Where Life Begins is a song about cunnilingus. That’s it. The entire song is a metaphor for performing oral sex on a woman. However, the way it’s presented is it should be something everyone should experience and something that should be as casual as eating dinner. Literally. All of this is behind music that brings to mind not dance music but lounge music from the 1950s. Soft, alluring, it’s literally music you could listen to over a candlelight dinner. It’s one of the most well done songs on the album and it’s the most inviting song on the album because it depicts the act and its subject as such.

I could post a blog on the next song alone but here’s the short version. Women are attracted to men they can fix. They like projects. Men also like to do this in the form of “saving” prostitutes. In this scenario, the man is greater than the woman from a social standpoint. The song Bad Girl switches this idea in that the man is actually below the woman socially but he still wants to save her. However, to do so he needs to bring her down. You could say she needs saving as she is depicted as a women in power who chain smokes and picks up men at bars every night in order to release stress. The narrator in this is supposed to be an ex-lover of hers and going back to the idea of the Erotica song, one lyric says “I wonder how I’m ever going to hurt you.” Trust the one you love to hurt you. The song uses a similar lounge music aesthetic, albeit with more of a pop sensibility and its one of the better songs on the album.

Yes, that is Christopher Walken in the video.

Quick rundown: as this is an album about relationships, you have several songs about breakups. Bye Bye Baby, Waiting, Thief of Hearts and Words all fall into this grouping. They are not heartbreak songs though. They’re more vindictive and crude. Each song though has a cold production style like the rest of the album, inspired by house and new jack swing music as well as the lounge stuff I mentioned earlier. While these songs aren’t as involved as the others I’ve mentioned, they’re still good with Waiting being the best from this list.

Rain, Why’s It So Hard, and In This Life are a trilogy of songs I call The Awareness Trilogy. Up to this point, while there as sense of caution to all of the songs, they still glorified the act of sex to a degree. Despite pain it may inflict, feelings it may hurt, epiphanies it may enact, it is still all worth it. Don’t you want someone to give you Fever, don’t you want to go down Where Life Begins, save the Bad Girl?

Rain is really the first and only love song on the album. Madonna is now asking for more in this song and sex is no longer enough. A relationship is no longer enough. She now wants a connection on a more spiritual level, ethereal even. Consistent with the cold sound of the album, she is asking that very same coldness to take away her earthly shortcomings for better experiences in the form of rain. However, Why’s It So Hard shows that didn’t happen. This song is more about fighting against war and loving one another. However, in the context of the album, the war in question is physical desires, their enlightening properties be damned. However, like in all wars, there are going to be casualties and In This Life is literally about one of Madonna’s friends who died of AIDS. She mourns his passing and questions the futility of sexual desires and what she’s been promoting. Erotica isn’t a concept album per se but it does have a unifying theme around the whole thing that progresses as the album goes on.

This video was the most successful from Erotica and by this point, Madonna was already backtracking from the heavily sexual image this album presented.

Erotica is not a perfect album. Like many albums in the early 90s, with the format changing from vinyl to CDs, many artist tried to fill up all 80 minutes that were possible on the format and as such, this album runs too long. Songs could’ve been cut down and the last two songs in particular are complete throwaways. Nevertheless, this is the most challenging album Madonna ever recorded. It doesn’t try to shock you with unconventional sexual themes, it tries to make you understand more about the sexual themes you think you already know. To quote Rolling Stone, “it doesn’t so much evoke sex as provide a fetishistic abstraction of it.”

Erotica isn’t one of Madonna’s better known albums because when it was released along with the music video for the title track and the coffee book she released of pornographic images entitled SEX, the backlash proved too powerful. The music video for Bad Girl was intended to be X rated as well as the second single but was pushed back and changed due to the negative reception of Erotica. The singles Erotica, Fever, Deeper and Deeper and Rain managed to be modest hits but Bad Girl and Bye Bye Baby were flops and although the album went on to sell five million copies, it was a fraction of anything she had done before. Madonna in response made a more safe record in 1994, Bedtime Stories, and started recording ballads for movie soundtracks like 1992’s This Used To Be My PlayGround and 1994’s I’ll Remember in an attempt to undo the damage Erotica had done to her image. The Material Girl was not infallible.

Madonna hasn’t tried anything as risky ever since. Her switch to Techno music in the late 90s was a risk, as was her cowboy image in the early 2000s but never would she attempt to be so provocative again. Erotica was an album that could’ve only been made at the time it was. It’s a diamond in the rough and if the public could’ve accepted it, there’s no telling what the next album would’ve entailed. Given that Madonna has contributed so much to a woman’s right to sexual expression, more taboo doors may have been open. At least some were with this album. Every time I listen to it, I find more and more in its production, its lyrics, its delivery and its context. Not for the prudish yet meant for them, Erotica is a landmark in pop music and it changed what was acceptable and what wasn’t in popular media.

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