Tue. Oct 20th, 2020

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 5 – ‘EROTICA’ (1992)

Bad Girl, drunk by six…

Welcome to episode 5 of Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi where we get tied up and tied down with Erotica, a revolutionary point in the career of the Queen of Pop.

Is this possibly Madonna’s most underrated album ever? Cultivating the persona of Dita, Madonna transformed herself into a disco dominatrix for the title track (and controversial video) and explored levels of sexuality and S&M she began with 1990’s “Justify My Love.”

So much happened in the three years between the releases of Like a Prayer and Erotica that it’s almost as if two different people made these albums. Up to Like a Prayer, Madonna’s take on sexuality was largely playful and come hither. Thinking back to her MTV Video Music Awards performance of ‘Like a Virgin,’ rolling around on the floor in that wedding dress, it certainly seems tame when you stack it up against the banned video for ‘Justify My Love,’ the release of her concert tour movie Truth or Dare (a massive hit) in 1990 and her extraordinarily controversial NSFW coffee table book, “Sex,” released as a simultaneous orgasm along with the album, Erotica. After finally wrestling control of her work and becoming a full-fledged producer of it, Madonna created her own multimedia company, Maverick, and released the album under its banner.

Track after track you’ll find thumping disco beats in “Deeper and Deeper,” one of her best dance songs ever, gorgeous melancholy and remorse in “Bad Girl,” the sadness of friends she’d lost to AIDS in “In This Life,” the cunningly clever coyness about the art of female oral pleasure in “Where Life Begins” and the revenge piece “Thief of Hearts.”

EROTICA

EA: What a difference three years makes. Between Like a Prayer and Erotica, Madonna landed three #1 songs (all of which we’ll be getting to on a separate episode), starred in Dick Tracy and A League of Their Own and in the process came out with another revolutionary album. It’s angrier, sadder, more sexually driven and pushed away at the same time. With the single “Erotica” she created an entirely new persona, Dita, something she would do as a part of her reinventions all the way up to Madame X. I love “Erotica.” I think it’s often misrepresented as a song about sex and S&M but what it’s really exploring is that AIDS had become such a pandemic that the idea of sex, of dying from sex as so many of her friends had, that you create and explore ways of intimacy – like S&M – as a way of human contact.

AN: The Erotica album means a lot to me. I was in high school when it came out. I was figuring out that I was gay, and still deeply in the closet. AIDS was always on my mind. I was dealing with so much shame and fear around my sexuality. And then Madonna, my queen, released an album that was both about celebrating sexuality without shame, and also about coping with the grief of AIDS. It was a life-changing album for me and so many others. It brought sex back out into the open, made it less scary to talk about. My friend and I performed this song in our high school ice skating class (we mashed it up with the Mickey Mouse Club theme song and Harry Connick Jr’s “It Had To Be You,” don’t ask). Also, I did a summer program in high school at Lee Strasberg. In addition to being the summer I discovered I did NOT want to be an actor (don’t get  me started on plumbing teen trauma for a fucking scene), it was also the summer of Erotica. There was a group of artistic friends I held tight to that summer, and we dubbed ourselves The Ditas. We were just a bunch of kids, figuring out that this rebellious persona Madonna adopted was a big part of who we were. We were different, we were artists, we were queer, we were Ditas. This album was deeply misunderstood at the time and still is, but its influence is huge. I completely agree with you about this song / album being misunderstood in terms of how it explored intimacy in the face of AIDS. But I also love that M is a dominatrix in this song, because I’ve always felt her relationship to her fans is a consensual dom-sub relationship. She doesn’t pander to her fans the way many stars do. She just hits us like a truck, and we ask for more.

EA: This was really the beginning of her pushback against critics and even fans. She’s never paid blatant fan service in that way and it’s served her well.

FEVER

AN: During that same summer at Strasberg, we had a singing class and I have the worst voice. I sang this song in a wig, distracting from my terrible singing with shock value. I started to learn from Madonna. I always loved the Peggy Lee version and I think this is a really brilliant reimagining. There’s an icy pulsating quality to it that I love. It’s so different than the original. Madonna has covered so few songs in her career, but when she has (“I Want You,” “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “American Pie”), she’s absolutely nailed it. Given that she’s taken to singing bits of covers on Instagram lately (Elvis! Leonard Cohen!) I’ve started dreaming of a Madonna covers album. Imagine Madonna covering Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Bowie. Until then, we have Fever. Oh, and the video serves looks for days. I love it. This album gave us stunning visuals.

EA: I am LIVING for that story and demand pics and video asap. This is a fun cover and musically fits really well in this era of hers as it’s completely horn-y. We keep talking about this dream Madonna covers album and we simply must will it into existence. I also love the fact that they got the rights to cover within an hour after Madonna called Sire Records. Queen shit.

AN: I wish I had more videos and photos of those days. I had a fucking Madonna ROOM for years and don’t have a single photo of it.

EA: Then memories and imagination will have to suffice. Then again, reenactments…anyway, digressing!

BYE BYE BABY

EA: “This is not a love song…” a familiar refrain! I love the vocal effect on this song so much. It feels a bit like a Dick Tracy tune (like “Now I’m Following You”) with its old-fashioned feel but still peppered with hip-hop and dance. It’s salty and sassy and that ending! “You f****ed it up” is, I think, the first time in her career of rebellion and revolution that she actually started using curse words as a part of her record vocabulary. Yet she holds back with that bleep. Such a tease!

AN: I remember getting the album, seeing this title, and expecting a version of “Bye Bye Baby” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, given her Marilyn obsession. I was so wrong. Anyway, I love this song. I love the speak-singing she does, and the bridge of the song is just genius. It’s also one of the songs that brings me right back to The Girlie Show, which is my runner-up favorite Madonna tour after Blond Ambition (probably Madame X in third place). I attended with our mutual friend Jeni and it was an epic night. We were so excited when the show ended that we lingered outside until we saw some crew members throw out their VIP badges in the trash. We swiped the badges and found our way to the after party. Madonna wasn’t there, but all the dancers were. Truly unforgettable.

EA: WERK. Never underestimate a resourceful queen. The Girlie Show was amazing and I agree, the speak-singing she does here (and on so much of this album) is so good.

DEEPER AND DEEPER

AN: Should’ve been a no. 1 hit, honestly. One of her best dance tracks, perfectly merging personal lyrics and a disco beat. Anytime Madonna mentions her parents in her music, I want to cry. The flamenco bridge is stunning. Quoting Vogue is so bold, and would be the start of her often quoting herself in subsequent albums. The music video is one of my favorites. Udo Kier! Sofia Coppola! Debi Mazar! Joey Stefano! Holly Woodlawn! I can’t deal. Madonna is the greatest pop artist of all time, so this ode to the Warhol era really moves me. Also, it’s obvious Madonna likes this song as much as her fans do because she’s performed it live so many times.

EA: VERY best. I have almost died dancing in the shower to this because it’s impossible not to immediately break out when it comes on. I love how hard she pushed for that flamenco bridge in this because IT WORKS. Combined with the pure disco beat it transports us to Studio 54 and the Warhol and Visconti-inspired video just solidifies that. Should have been a #1!!

WHERE LIFE BEGINS

EA: Horny on the main! We’ve talked about how we love when she speak-sings but this song takes it to a new level. All the verses are sexual directives in demand of oral pleasure and who is anyone to deny her? This is the first foray into Madonna talking about her vagina (but not the last, not even the last on this album!) and it manages to be insanely erotic with only innuendo.

AN: I mean, has any pop star ever released an album as unashamed to explore sexuality? These songs still sound so bold and so fresh. What I love about these songs, and about the Sex book that accompanied the album (my mom bought it for me, probably not knowing what was inside, and it made me very popular in high school) is that they presented a frank view of sexuality from the point of view of a woman. There are enough think pieces out there about Madonna and the female gaze for me not to add to them, but I’ll just say that at the time, it felt revolutionary. And for queer people who had never felt able to speak this openly about sex, it was liberating. Of all the songs on the album, this is one of the most sexually frank and the one that has the most fun with double entendres. The lyrics are just brilliant. I mean, the title alone!

EA: With this song and this album she held so much power. It was her first with Maverick, her own label. She was 100% in charge for the first time and everything about this song, about sex and sexuality, is unapologetic and something she’d have to fight about on her very next record. But this is one of her songs that gives voice to subjects deemed too taboo and is as strong a feminist anthem as “Express Yourself.”

AN: Maverick! What a moment. What a way to take your cultural capital and use it to push society forward in terms of gender and sexuality.

BAD GIRL

AN: Probably one of my favorite Madonna songs of all time. You know I love a Madonna ballad, and this one just aches with emotion. Who can’t identify with those lyrics? And the music video is one of her best. Once again, she works with David Fincher in creating a mini-movie that stuns. I may be wrong, but I think the only time she performed this live was on SNL, and I managed to get into the studio audience for that taping. It was wild to see her perform in such a small room, singing a ballad. It’s a gorgeous performance, and I wish more people would see it and revisit songs like this one.

EA: YOU SAW THIS?! My envy is immeasurable right now. I rewatched the performance yesterday in anticipation of this conversation and because it’s the ONLY time she ever performed it live. I have to wonder if it’s because it was one of the few songs she didn’t want to tinker with on a tour. She’s reinvented virtually all of her classics over the years but what would you do with this? “Bad Girl” is all-time top 5 Madonna for me. My love for it knows no bounds. I know that the vocals were recorded using an older microphone so that it didn’t sound quite as “produced” but I find her voice so polished and rich. The melancholy and regret pour out and it’s one of the earliest times that she begins to pontificate on stardom and what it’s done for her and to her. It’s also her best video of all time. Legendary and iconic don’t even cover it. Aesthetically gorgeous, a wry and dark sense of humor turn by Christopher Walken and another great example of Madonna pulling from a cinephile background with inspiration from Wings of Desire and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Flawless.

AN: I love that this is Top 5 for both of us. BAD GIRL FOREVER.

WAITING

EA: This is a great ‘not putting up with your bullshit’ record. I love the weird tempo, the thumpy horns. It feels like the response to the guy who didn’t go where life begins. But it’s not all push back and bravado. There’s still vulnerability here with lines like “only love can hurt like this,” a theme she would revisit again and again. But that closer! The sickest burn of her career after her response to Kevin Costner in Truth or Dare. Savage.

AN: Along with “Bad Girl” and “Deeper and Deeper,” this is my favorite on the album. It’s dark, it brings you into some underground world. That’s another thing about this album. At the time, so many of our lives existed in the mainstream. I was a teenager who had yet to go to nightclubs, yet to discover queer culture. This album’s sound felt like an invitation into a world that would soon become an escape, a refuge, a community. And I agree, there is no better closing for a song than “The next time you want pussy, just look in the mirror baby. Here kitty, kitty.” Did she do it? Yes, she did it!

THIEF OF HEARTS

AN: Someone please arrest anyone who doesn’t love this song. This is Madonna giving us a drag queen anthem as filtered through hip-hop culture. I wish she would perform it live. She could do a Bitch segment on her next tour where she does this, “Human Nature,” “Bitch I’m Madonna,” and “Bitch I’m Loca.”

EA: Don’t fuck with Madonna, bitch. I love this little revenge anthem. I keep thinking of her 1993 movie Body of Evidence, which would come out a year later but she was shooting during the recording of this album. There’s a bit of symmetry to them (in a good way) and the late 80s and early 90s sex thrillers that were so huge. Watch out, Susie ho-maker!

WORDS

EA: The precursor to “Human Nature” and “Joan of Arc” in some way. I love that it starts out soft, quite a bit like “Live to Tell,” actually, before storming in to tell you to fuck off. You think you’re so smart, so shrewd, so sly.

AN: Oh, those are interesting connections. I’m obsessed with this song too. One of the things that fascinates me about this album is the mix of iciness and warmth. Songs like this one achieve this very tricky balance of sounding both cold and full of emotion and hurt. It’s such a departure from the more accessible emotional landscape of Like a Prayer. Also, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate Madonna the spoken word poet. I live for the spoken parts of her songs, and this has one of her best spoken segments.

RAIN

AN: Of course Madonna waits until almost the end of the album to drop the most commercial song. That’s so her. And this is so lush. I love that it’s inspired by Wuthering Heights, especially since I’m obsessed with Kate Bush and don’t think we’ve looked closely enough at the Kate / Madonna links. The fact that they both wrote songs inspired by that book feels right. Also, how fun was it that the song was featured so prominently in Uncut Gems, one of my favorite movies of last year. Someone on Twitter asked if the character was listening to the whole Erotica album, or to “Rain” on repeat, and the Safdie brothers responded that it was “Rain” on repeat. The taste. And again, one of her visually arresting videos. Actually, here’s a question for you: which Madonna studio album do you think gave us the best music videos overall? I think it’d be between this one and Bedtime Stories for me.

EA: Yes! The Wuthering Heights connection is fabulous. Is it just me or is this one of her most lushly produced songs ever? Almost 30 years later and it feels fresh and still a stunner. I don’t mind the simplicity of the metaphor of rain and washing over because the vocals are so rich and so luxuriant. I still can’t get over its inclusion in Uncut Gems. Amazing. To your question, that’s tough. I agree that both Erotica and Bedtime Stories probably produced her best music videos. Although, Ray of Light gives them a run for their money if for “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” which is top 3 for me. With “Rain,” it manage to evoke a much softer image than most of this record and a bit of a respite, honestly. But, at the same time, you can’t ignore a faucet shooting water all over her an album that goes into cunnilingus not once, but twice.

WHY’S IT SO HARD

EA: It’s interesting that this comes so soon after “Words” because it’s kind of the other side. It’s a plea for kindness, it’s solemn, not demanding. There’s a sadness but the beat isn’t dour; it’s like “Keep It Together,” almost a sister song, a reminder that we’re all in this together.

AN: Why’s this song still relevant? Get it together, world. Bring your love and sing your love and wear your love and share your love. This is an anthem. The Girlie Show live version is really moving too.

EA: Extremely relevant!

IN THIS LIFE

AN: I obviously have a very deep relationship to Madonna speaking out during the worst of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. I wrote a whole novel that explores what it was like to be a teen during that time, and Madonna’s presence ended up being a huge part of the novel. Hearing Madonna sound so raw, and addressing the friends she lost so directly, is just very emotional and also very healing. I love her for including this song on the album. It’s long. It’s not especially catchy. It really forces you to sit down and listen to the words. That she performed it in The Girlie Show with no distractions just shows how much it meant to her at the time to honor those she lost.

EA: Such a gut punch. Every time. Keith Haring had died just two years prior and permeates this track even though it’s about her friend Martin Burgoyne years earlier. No pop stars were talking about AIDS and invoking it into their artistic work like Madonna did in this era and it’s not just a eulogy but again, a plea. She used her position to try and create tolerance and understanding and basic human kindness. It’s interesting too that this album’s songs are long, really long. At 6:23 it’s the longest on the album.

SECRET GARDEN

EA: We talked about song placement last time and this definitely qualifies as smart and clever. After sitting with two sadder songs, she closes with her vagina, as one does. So much sultry sing-speaking. After her covers album she needs to do a spoken word album! I love, love the opening of this track so much. It almost feels like a Rent-style Broadway number then finds its jazzy, R&B score that we’ll here so much of on her next album, Bedtime Stories.

AN: It’s another one of my favorites on the album, and a stunning album closer (track placement, yes!). We’re back to talking about where life begins, but this time expanding the exploration into a song that looks forward to motherhood. For me, this feels like a sister song to “Mer Girl.” Both poetic closing tracks. Both stunning. Both exploring Madonna’s complicated relationship to motherhood. Bring on the spoken word album. Maybe Madonna and Lana Del Rey can do a poetry tour together?

EA: Yes! The amount of songs that allude to future motherhood are fantastic to look at in retrospect. Madonna Del Rey – coming soon to a stage near you.

EROTICA by the numbers

  • Released October 20, 1992
  • Peaked at #2 on Billboard 200
  • Length: 75:24
  • 2M US / 6M worldwide
  • Billboard Hot 100 hits: “Erotica” (#3), “Deeper and Deeper” (#7), “Rain” (#14), “Bad Girl,” (#36)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 1 – ‘MADONNA’ (1983)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 2 – ‘LIKE A VIRGIN’ (1984)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 3 – ‘TRUE BLUE’ (1986)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 4 – ‘LIKE A PRAYER’ (1989)

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