“‘Deeper and Deeper,’ from the same album, lowered some of the upturned noses caused by the ‘Erotica’ single. But they were soon raised again when they discovered that the track was about a miner coming to terms with his homosexuality, ‘I can’t help falling in love, I fall deeper and deeper the further I go,’ he sings as he disappears into the dark shaft.”
- Dan Cadan, only slightly joking, from the GHV2 liner notes
Miner metaphors aside, Deeper and Deeper may be Madonna’s single gayest track - or at the very least, her most unabashed attempt at recreating the string-heavy disco sound she was born half a decade too late for. And though it resembles Vogue, even quoting its euphoric final chorus to great effect, it’s not exactly a direct sequel. Instead of falling back on the era’s dominant house beats, Shep Pettibone’s production does what Stuart Price’s would fourteen years later: update disco for the (then-)present.
As perhaps the only overt pop song, and therefore the one truly commercial single on the Erotica album, Deeper and Deeper sounds like a contradiction on paper; what detractors would call a last-ditch sell-out to radio. And yet in classic Madonna fashion, it nails the sense of conflict at the heart of Erotica over one of her most danceable tracks ever, whilst maintaining her artistic vision - she notably insisted on including the flamenco guitar interlude, which, radio be damned, even gets a full, glorious airing on the single edits.
“I can’t help falling in love
I fall deeper and deeper the further I go
Kisses sent from heaven above
They get sweeter and sweeter the more that I know”
Though pop is filled with similarly lovestruck choruses, it’s not hard to see where Deeper and Deeper’s particular gay appeal stems from - it may be about a man she loves, but it deliberately reads like an argument for homosexuality as individual nature, not a choice. Whilst Celebration may have inadvertently summed up Madonna’s entire ethos with “If it feels good, then I say do it”, Deeper and Deeper - evoking Like a Prayer - even suggests God himself endorses homosexuality. Why resist what feels natural, and above all, right?
“Someone said that romance was dead
And I believed it instead of remembering
What my mama told me
Let my father mold me
Then you tried to hold me
You remind me what they said
This feeling inside
I can’t explain
But my love is alive
And I’m never gonna hide it again”
Furthermore, if your parents taught you the values of independence and intuition - “think with your heart, not with your head” - why not take that advice, even if they disapprove of homosexuality? As the song’s tension builds, it takes on an almost I Will Survive-like combination of celebration and determination (minus the camp), whether or not it’s directly about coming out. And though Madonna never quite had the vocal power to truly be one, her final, infinitely triumphant “never gonna hide it again” is one of her greatest diva moments on record.
So Deeper and Deeper was the obvious choice, the reassuringly danceable follow-up single to the controversial Erotica - yet it only peaked at #7 on the Hot 100. Why did such a predestined-sounding hit never quite make it big? Looking at the 1992/93 charts, R&B and ballads dominate - Whitney Houston’s cover of I Will Always Love You spent a mind-boggling 14 weeks at #1 - and the Erotica album was not so blatantly of its time, though it holds up far better than most of the time-stamped music of its era. With Madonna carving out her own, not-entirely-hip musical path, her star power alone was simply not enough (and never again would be), especially with the public backlash against her during the Sex era. It’s telling that in a time where Mariah Carey reigned, Madonna would have to conform to top the charts (albeit while producing excellent music) - the R&B-styled Take a Bow was her second-last ever #1 in 1995.
Director: Bobby Woods
The video for Deeper and Deeper is not so much deliberately uncommercial as totally unconcerned with MTV airplay. Perhaps the bigger problem is that although its treatment is a clear tribute to the ’60s and Andy Warhol, with Madonna as Edie Sedgwick (ironically, without eyebrows), it’s difficult to find any meaning in the visuals, or story in Madonna’s wanderings. There’s something impersonal about the whole affair - Madonna doesn’t lipsync, and barely looks at the camera bar a photoshoot scene - but for once, her makeover doesn’t feel like yet another extension of her personality. Nor is she reincarnating Edie Sedgwick like she did Marilyn Monroe in Material Girl; it feels like another person altogether, someone clearly enjoying herself, but hard to relate to. Seeing her under disco balls doesn’t make us feel like dancing. Nothing wrong with mildly baffling music video treatments that bear no resemblance to their songs (Madonna has many!), but this one just wasn’t compelling enough to work.
Albums: Erotica (1992), GHV2 - Greatest Hits Volume 2 (2001), The Confessions Tour (2007), Celebration (2009)
Songwriters: Madonna/Shep Pettibone/Tony Shimkin
Producers: Madonna/Shep Pettibone
Contains samples of “Jungle Boogie” by Kool & the Gang, and “El Yom ‘Ulliqa ‘Ala Khashaba” by Fairuz
“In a sense, Erotica was the biggest one of her career. It was the one that moulded her, that gave her the access code to what she’s doin’ now. True Blue etc. - it was good to get those numbers out the way first… Set up the template for what you wanna do when you get older. Fifty million plus records under your belt, you’re good. If the label can’t support what you’re trying to do, fuck ‘em. On one level she’s asking, how much do y’all really believe in me now?”
“She was bringin’ it from her point of view as a woman, bringing it to the forefront for real. That set the template now, for your Christina Aguileras, Britneys, Beyoncés. She paved the road for a lot of that. You can be nice and clean and then a freak. And there’ll be a lot of money for you in the end!”
- Doug Wimbish of Living Colour, bassist on the Erotica album
The majority of Madonna’s music is, simply, inseparable from its imagery and the cultural context in which it was originally heard. And rightly so; the full extent of her artistry cannot be appreciated via listening alone. But for the last eighteen years, fans have been trying to hear the Erotica album without the backlash Madonna experienced around its release. Seeing it for what it really is, the music - and by extension, the imagery - has a depth that belies the public opinion. And yet, it’s stylistically scattered, Madonna’s aims not quite clear; perhaps all too appropriately for an album as vaguely named as Erotica.
Though the title track did surprisingly well, peaking at #3 on the Billboard charts, the Erotica album has sold a mere five million worldwide - just more than a fifth of True Blue’s sales. But with Madonna just about excising the sense of ’80s pop euphoria from her music, that was to be expected.
On the surface, Erotica’s hip-hop beats and alternately whispered/distant vocals sound like a continuation of Justify My Love. But where Justify My Love was sincere - Ingrid Chavez’s deepest fantasies set to music - Erotica is ironically devoid of the romance Madonna, or more accurately, Dita, supposedly invokes from the outset.
Though Madonna dictates the terms - “I’ll be your mistress tonight”, “if I’m in charge” - her soft intonating uses the power of suggestion gently, taking the reins as if for your benefit. In a way, it’s the same dominant role she always had in her relationship with her audience, but instead of the Blond Ambition era’s take-me-or-leave-me boldness, she pillow-talks the listener into loving her back.
Unlike Justify My Love’s stripped-bare feel, Erotica casts a smoky backdrop, with Kool & the Gang’s horns and the uncredited, vaguely Arabic vocal sample emerging intermittently from the haze. Even with only one hook, a chorus just explicit enough to make singing along in public awkward, it’s an appealing enough production that maybe, when they drove it to #3 on the Billboard charts, the public were merely buying into a pop song, not Madonna’s sugar-coated idea of sexual liberation.
More than any other Madonna song, Erotica is masquerade, encapsulating the Sex book’s occasional tongue-in-cheek tone without all its aspirations of being transgressive art. Gently seducing the world into accepting her ideals of sexual openness - perhaps her final sex-positive feminist act - was likely the best way to go about attempting to remove the taboo from sex. But unfortunately for her, the not-so-forward rest of the world found the idea considerably harder to swallow when exposed to actual nudity.
“Give it up, do as I say
Give it up and let me have my way
I’ll give you love, I’ll hit you like a truck
I’ll give you love, I’ll teach you how to…”
(browse the Sex book above, or view the individual pages, or just download it in high quality - because we all know you’re going to buy a copy one day… yeah, right.
Just out of curiosity, does anyone actually own one?!)
The Sex book.
Unlike just about everything else Madonna (except her acting career as a whole, successes and all), it hasn’t been reevaluated. The consensus seems to be not to consider it a misstep, nor to forgive and forget - merely to forget about it entirely. And though Madonna has never once expressed regret over the project, with the book long out of print, she may as well have disowned it. Here’s a typical after-the-fact quote:
“Well, I didn’t write a book about sex. I wrote a book that — I mean I published a book that basically was sort of a — an ironic tongue-in-cheek, sticking-my-tongue-out-at-society photo essay…”
“Yes, well it worked, obviously. It sold and people reacted to it.”
“It pissed off a lot of people, too… I think that there were a lot of people that were freaked out about it, yes. “
- Madonna with Larry King, on Larry King Live in 1999
All entirely true, and yet she gives no insight whatsoever into why she had to create the book. She’d evoked both irony and social commentary in the past without having to literally bare herself (much), nor to stretch her public reputation for boldness to its breaking point. That her nature was never to do anything by halves simply doesn’t explain why she went as far as she did. Was she really trying to change people’s views on sex, or just challenge them, inevitably offending the usual suspects whilst destroying her last shred of self-consciousness at the same time?
“And by the way, any similarity between characters and events depicted in this book and real persons and events is not only purely coincidental, it’s ridiculous. Nothing in this book is true. I made it all up.”
The book itself is… well, interesting. That a celebrity would bare themself for more complex reasons than publicity, titillating the opposite sex or showing off their physique is, perhaps, a shocking concept. Maybe, even after Justify My Love, it was still jarring to see Madonna looking glamourous as ever whilst dressed in leather S&M gear, or writing occasionally sophomoric tributes to masturbation or her vagina. But the images are more confrontationally blush-inducing than shocking - except maybe those of her cavorting with Vanilla Ice, a metaphor for life’s abject unfairness.
There’s no question that it’s an erotic art book, not so much pornography; each image feels as if it is presented as art with a purpose. It’s just not always clear what that is - Madonna vying for the attention of a gay man may be a fascinating image, but her in a Big Daddy Kane/Naomi Campbell sandwich may just be self-indulgent.
Not quite celebratory, not quite shocking, the Sex book wants to provoke a reaction, but really just is - an odd state of being for something so difficult to produce. Songs such as Like a Prayer and Vogue inspire a vast number of interpretations and associations - all of which feel entirely intentional on Madonna’s part. But Sex is more postmodern - devoid of a strong sense of intent, little else remains but the subjective interpretations it provokes, even amongst those who never even read it. Perception becomes reality.
Doctor: “Have you ever been mistaken for a prostitute?”
Dita: “Every time anyone reviews anything I do, I’m mistaken for a prostitute.”
And that’s exactly it - without the surrounding controversy, perhaps only the most dedicated of fans would have gotten anything out of the book. Instead, with all 1.5 million copies worldwide of the first edition sold out in three days, it quickly became the highest-selling coffee table book of all time. The merely curious bought something they would never quite appreciate; the apathetic grew entirely sick of her overexposure, beginning the backlash against her. Madonna did everything with an awareness of how her audience would react, but in selling a decidedly un-mainstream erotic art book to the world, what did she overestimate - the wider public’s tolerance, or her own power?
“You’re supposed to stay popular, and do things that are popular, that’s what the word means. Once you cross that line there’s a lot of fury to reckon with. I think that because everybody did buy the Sex book in spite of the fury it caused, people made up their minds that they weren’t going to be duped, and they punished me… I’m proud of the way I acted because it set a precedent and gave women the freedom to be expressive. I’m proud to be a pioneer.”
Director: Fabien Baron
The Erotica video is more of the same, using footage from which many stills were taken for the Sex book itself. The concept is a little more powerful when visually brought to life - seeing Madonna dressed as Dita with the mask, single gold tooth and Freddy Krueger nails illustrates just how much of a character she was. Full of fleeting, grainy images, that overall sense of vagueness remains.
Perhaps the best ever version of Erotica was performed on the Confessions Tour; using lyrics from the original demo, it trades the erotic for a deep romantic longing, and is generally AMAZING.
Albums: Barcelona Gold (1992), Something to Remember (1995)
Songwriters/producers: Madonna/Shep Pettibone
The main reason why Madonna’s non-album tracks are so forgettable is, simply, because her instinct for self-editing is generally so spot-on. Naturally, there are plenty of examples from periods where she was overflowing with great material - but for each Into the Groove or Crazy for You, there are ten Supernaturals or It’s So Cools. Of course, good songwriting is more about an artist’s highs than the consistency of their every bootleg-recorded breath; no one is that good. So in retrospect, an offcut from Erotica - beloved by some, yet deeply inconsistent - from the soundtrack to a women’s baseball film doesn’t sound too promising. But at the time, as her first new material in over a year, This Used to Be My Playground became her tenth number one on the Billboard charts.
Despite being one of the last songs recorded during the Erotica sessions, This Used to Be My Playground stylistically had nothing to do with the then-upcoming album; its MOR balladry instead foreshadowed Madonna’s Something to Remember era three years later. Strangely, likely due to issues Warner had with Columbia/Sony distributing the film, its initial release was not on the soundtrack to A League of Their Own, but the entirely forgotten Olympic-inspired Barcelona Gold compilation.
Though Madonna’s previous musings on innocence in Live to Tell and Oh Father expressed a dark, yet incredibly complex range of emotions, This Used to Be My Playground simply wallows in the past. It’s not necessarily more sentimental than heartfelt, but there’s no sense of resolution, none of her trademark determination - just grey skies as far as the eye can see. As an artist who’s always steadfastly refused to look back or mythologise her own achievements, the self-indulgent nostalgia of “don’t hold on to the past/well that’s too much to ask” is thoroughly unconvincing. Shep Pettibone’s slightly plodding production - complete with stock pop-ballad strings and a synth-glockenspiel intro - only serves to push the song into borderline schmaltzy territory; something Madonna should always have been above. But she had much better songs up her sleeve - when literally half her singles that decade were to be ballads, she damn well needed them.
Director: Alek Keshishian
The video is nothing special - someone flips through a photo album as Madonna sings from the various pictures inside. Everyone involved is on autopilot; though the video obviously strives to depict snippets of memories, the scrapbook motif makes the budget look low, and Madonna static.
For once, Madonna’s cinematic ambitions here far outweigh her musical interpretation; A League of Their Own is, simply, a great film. Its solid, witty screenplay was exactly what Madonna’s last four major efforts lacked - and she held her own amongst the ensemble cast, her performance and the film her most critically acclaimed since Desperately Seeking Susan.
Given the prefeminist World War II setting, it’s easy to see why Madonna was eager for the part - with the men away and a female baseball league in demand, it was the perfect opportunity for women to express their talent in a traditionally male role whilst, most importantly, remaining themselves. Despite the patronising nature of making women’s baseball appealing, from etiquette classes to their impractical, skimpy uniforms, the players impress even where they don’t succeed. Dramatised or not, the film forces the audience to admit that the women of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League were, though not always intentionally, true pioneers - both athletic and feminist.
“What if at a key moment in the game, my uniform bursts open, and oops - my bosoms come flying out? That might draw a crowd, right?”
“You think there are men in this country who ain’t seen your bosoms?”
- Mae Mordabito (Madonna) and Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell), not entirely acting
Madonna is cast perfectly as “All the Way” Mae Mordabito, something of an exaggeratedly promiscuous, 1940s baseballer version of herself - alongside Rosie O’Donnell, their brash charisma is a highlight of the first half of the film. But just as importantly, she knows her place despite her top billing, downplaying her role to make way for a fierce Geena Davis and a wonderfully over-the-top, immediately pre-fame Tom Hanks as manager. Director Penny Marshall offsets the action by bookending it with scenes of a fifty-years-later Hall of Fame reunion - though often derided for their sentimentalism, there’s nonetheless a truth in athletes (or anyone, really) wanting to relive their glory years. But as a now-and-then team picture fades into the credits over the strains of This Used to Be My Playground, one can’t help but feel the film ends on the wrong note. As with most sports movies, the point should be the glory of being, triumphing in the moment - but without the nuance of the past two hours, the final impression portrays it as a nostalgic period piece; saddened in the present, hence not quite uplifting enough. You’d think there’d be no one better than the real-life Madonna Ciccone to teach the value of that lesson.
After eight months writing Iconography, I present to you the track-by-track review of the ENTIRE Immaculate Collection… I can only hope it’s as rewarding to read as it was to write.
See you soon in 1992!
Album: The Immaculate Collection (1990)
Songwriters/producers: Madonna/Shep Pettibone
Even if it was the final track on end-of-an-era the Immaculate Collection, Rescue Me remains one of Madonna’s more forgotten singles. Peaking at #9 on the Billboard charts due to a commercial release after much of its radio airplay, and with a post-Blond Ambition/Dick Tracy Madonna too overcommitted to shoot a video, it still performed better than half of Erotica. So what exactly does Rescue Me represent - if not, finally, a single mostly devoid of subtexts?
Partly because it’s simply not as good, Rescue Me is just as odd a new contribution to the Immaculate Collection as Justify My Love. Next to its ever-futuristic Public Enemy sample, Rescue Me is indelibly time-stamped with the early ’90s via Shep Pettibone’s trademark synth piano, bass and machine gun-snare house beats. But unlike Vogue, Rescue Me sounds a little cheap, the production suffocating Madonna’s vocals. Give her credit for the uncharacteristic soul influence in the chorus - she even spells out “R.E.S.C.U.E. me” Aretha Franklin-style in the throes of her passion - yet on the other hand, the half-spoken, half-rapped flow of her vocals in the verses give off their own kind of ’90s cliché. Though Madonna, ever the symbol of independence, finally admitting she needs another’s love to be truly empowered is a welcome sentiment, the self-evaluating lyrics are almost uncomfortably comprehensive. She’s never been quite as convincing singing unsubtle exposition like “I am hungry for a life of understanding” as simply exuding it; projecting feeling rather than explaining it. Rescue Me is no exception.
As arguably the sole inferior track amongst 16 genuinely iconic classics (and a few sorely-missed exclusions), it’s also an odd conclusion to the Immaculate Collection, too. Nonetheless, with all its faults - namely the limitations of CD lengths, the QSound mixes’ exaggerated panning and the Like a Prayer remix - it remains a perfectly, chronologically sequenced concentration of the height of Madonna’s fame. Few records have ever been so brilliantly named (who else has ever capitalised on their birth name so well?), or so deserving of sales of over 30 million worldwide - in fact, the Immaculate Collection is the highest-selling compilation ever released by a solo artist, and is at least in the top 30 best-selling albums of all time. Though it should have gone out on a high with Vogue, it ends predicting both the controversy, with Justify My Love, and the commercial inconsistency - ironically, the appropriately-named Rescue Me - of the start of the next era. Forward-thinking as always?…
So allow me a cliché for once while I can get away with it: long live the queen.