Albums: I’m Breathless - Music from and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy (1990), The Immaculate Collection (1990), I’m Going to Tell You a Secret (2005), Celebration (2009)
Songwriters/producers: Madonna/Shep Pettibone
1. Popular acceptance or favour; popularity:
March 20, 1990: Madonna releases Vogue; until Hung Up tops the charts of over 45 countries in 2005, it is her most successful single worldwide.
April 12-August 5, 1990: Madonna embarks on her Blond Ambition World Tour, playing 57 shows in Japan, North America and Europe. Widely considered one of the most iconic tours of all time, its combination of religious and sexual imagery also courts controversy when the Pope calls for a boycott of her performances in Rome.
May 22, 1990: I’m Breathless - Music from and Inspired by the film Dick Tracy is released, featuring Madonna originals alongside songs by famed musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim. It sells over five million copies worldwide, and Sondheim wins an Academy Award for Best Original Song for Sooner or Later.
June 30, 1990: Dick Tracy finally hits cinemas after years in development. Warren Beatty directs, produces and stars as the titular character; Madonna has a supporting role as nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney. Despite mixed reviews, the film wins three Oscars between seven nominations, and is a commercial success.
November 13, 1990: The Immaculate Collection, Madonna’s first greatest hits compilation, is released. It goes on to become one of the highest-selling albums in history, with over 30 million copies sold worldwide.
May 10, 1991: Truth or Dare (known outside the U.S. as In Bed with Madonna), a film documenting Madonna’s Blond Ambition World Tour, is released, becoming the sixth-highest earning documentary of all time.
Vogue is, amongst many, many things, the sound of a woman on top of the world. But there’s no sense of arrival, no self-congratulatory platitudes; in fact, not one “I” in the entire song. No, what makes Vogue her crowning glory is that it is entirely empowering - both her most refined, universal “express yourself” call to her audience, and a true tribute to her predecessors, yesterday’s icons. Yet even without a single mention of Madonna herself, it’s still very much about her - for the true measure of her achievements in seven years of fame is that no one else could have convincingly written, sung or performed Vogue whilst coming off as even more of an icon than the Hollywood giants mentioned.
The embodiment of “pop” in every sense of the word, Vogue is also a celebration of the entire concept of popular culture and its power to move people, both literally and figuratively. For what is the greater art - an epic that touches a few people profoundly, or a brief, fleeting moment that reaches the entire world? Madonna would answer with disregard - having proven over and over that complex artistic statements and zeitgeist -level popularity can go hand in hand.
“Look around, everywhere you turn is heartache
It’s everywhere that you go
You try everything you can to escape
The pain of life that you know…”
The cultural backdrop upon which Vogue (both song and dance) was built was not an especially happy time. The late ’80s was particularly devastating for many of Madonna’s most dedicated fans in the gay community, and the deaths of close friends, especially her dance teacher Christopher Flynn and artist Keith Haring, made AIDS a very personal tragedy. Her response was to include safe sex educational inserts with the Like a Prayer album, and to dedicate the first Blond Ambition date in New York to Haring’s memory, donating all proceeds to AIDS charities. But the most anyone could do to help would never have been enough.
“When all else fails and you long to be
Something better than you are today
I know a place where you can get away
It’s called a dance floor
And here’s what it’s for, so…”
Her artistic response, however, varied - though Spanish Eyes was a poignant, sympathetic prayer for the suffering, Vogue urges the listener not to dwell on it. LGBT magazine Advocate may have deemed “Madonna’s dance tracks… a necessary escape that was nearly transcendental during an era when our community was seeing more than its share of heartbreak and horror”, but while the archetypal modern depiction of dance may be that of clubbing in various levels of inebriation, dance to Madonna has never merely been about escapism. Stemming from her classical training, it represents first and foremost a form of self-improvement and artistic expression - confessions on a dance floor, not hedonistic partying. Madonna offers an empathy through dance, an emotional resolve that goes beyond mere escapist entertainment - leave that to other pop tarts. Great art exists to reflect upon, to empower the person experiencing it - and hence, Vogue cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering and hardships in life. If anything, they make the best of times even more glorious in contrast. She once sang “forget about the bad times” - but here, it’s “look around”. Don’t ignore them.
The utter perfection of Vogue’s title becomes even more apparent when considering its musical applications - though hardly the first house-influenced song to hit the mainstream, Shep Pettibone’s beats breathed new life into the drum machine after its omnipresence during the ’80s. Though that sound, itself a product of the trends of its time, imprinted itself irremovably on the pop of the next few years - heard everywhere from Saint Etienne to C + C Music Factory - the rest of Vogue is inimitably unique. Such minute-long, breathlessly anticipatory intros are virtually outlawed in pop - and with the out-of-nowhere rap and soaring final chorus, the song is peak after peak of the pure elation Madonna so consistently delivered in the ’80s. Vogue ushered in the ’90s with an unshakeable confidence that’s odd in hindsight, considering the fallout from the Erotica period that followed. But perhaps Madonna knew she’d by then taken dance-pop joy and her popularity to the limit. With her one musical consistency, the desire to never repeat herself, maybe it was best to close the first chapter of her career with a bang, and move on, whatever the cost.
2. Something in fashion, as at a particular time:
Having been originally written as a mere b-side to Keep It Together (but universally recognised by Warner executives as deserving more), Vogue is often cited as being out of place amongst Madonna’s Dick Tracy contributions on I’m Breathless. But as far removed as its house beats are from the authentically jazzy period pieces, their overall aims of glorifying pre-rock ‘n’roll-era imagery are similar. In fact, Dick Tracy is a film utterly obsessed with such style (perhaps to the detriment of its plot) - its unique visual presentation remains loyal to the original comics whilst at the same time being unlike anything else seen in cinema. Vogue aims for the same kind of retro; a tribute to the fashions of yesterday through a modern lens (courtesy of technological advances), with one major difference - Vogue doesn’t just imitate the 1930s. Revivalism without reinterpretation is inevitably inferior to the original - and Vogue was utterly current, a cultural high point of how retro should be done; not a recreation, but a celebration of the past.
“Greta Garbo, and Monroe
Dietrich and DiMaggio
Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean
On the cover of a magazine
Grace Kelly; Harlow, Jean
Picture of a beauty queen
Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire
Ginger Rogers, dance on air
They had style, they had grace
Rita Hayworth gave good face
Lauren, Katherine, Lana too
Bette Davis, we love you
Ladies with an attitude
Fellas that were in the mood
Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it
Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it
It’s populist. Superficial. Style over substance. A passing fad. Talentless. Artless. It promotes sexual promiscuity and moral deviance amongst today’s easily influenced youth.
Those are all criticisms that’ve at one point been made of Madonna, pop music in general and many of the above stars. In such a context of cultural superiority complexes, Vogue becomes a statement of defiance, a defence of the mainstream as a delivery for the farthest-reaching, most broadly affecting of art. The rap effectively canonises the greats of Hollywood’s golden age; proof in hindsight that fame justified by talent sticks, and gross critical underestimations do not. Only (ironically) the most superficial could fail to draw parallels - for who else had the stardom, the cultural influence to have such a generous tribute serve as their own coronation? Such names hardly towered over Madonna as early as 1990, let alone twenty years later. On the other hand, Madonna is still too divisive a figure to (perhaps ever) be viewed so fondly by all of popular culture, but it’s just possible that - with Lauren Bacall sadly the only one still living - she has surpassed their fame. But that’s beside the point - with the immeasurable contributions of so many greats to the cultural iconography, everyone wins.
“I think that at the end of the day, people remember authenticity. They remember what’s true, and the rest falls by the wayside. They’ll remember what comes from someone’s heart.”
- Madonna, Rolling Stone (2009)
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness”
- John Keats, from Endymion (1818)
To have incredible style is to have substance. For that and much more, Vogue suggests that they will be remembered.
To dance by striking a series of rigid, stylized poses, evocative of fashion models during photograph shoots.
Director: David Fincher
Though Madonna had well and truly mastered the art of storytelling in the music video by Like a Prayer’s release, Vogue is just as compelling without one. Watch it 20 times and you’ll still notice new details, facial expressions, shots that last only a handful of frames - watch it 50 times and you still won’t be able to recreate the choreography. The visual performance is, of course, where the dance truly comes to life - and Madonna is as generous with the video as with the song, allowing her future Blond Ambition dancers much of the screentime. Vogue is as much a showcase for their incredible talent as for the complex art of voguing itself; not just a dance, but a lifestyle for practitioners of ball culture, where the dance originated.
Best known via its depiction in the 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning, ball culture was practised by a scene populated by the marginalised - largely poor, black/Latino and gay. The ballroom competitions themselves involved “walking”, model-style and usually in drag, as a kind of performance art - with the aim to be as convincing as possible. Their status as social outcasts, survivors banded together as “houses” or “families” (often due to rejection by their actual, homophobic parents) led to voguing as a form of aspiration. Though a tribute to fashion and models, the most popular of figures, it aims to elevate the performer via those poses to something better than they are. Madonna’s video does exactly that - she, the very definition of popularity, puts complete unknowns performing a fundamentally weird-looking underground dance in the mainstream spotlight. Yet, dressed impeccably in timeless suits, their radiant star quality nearly approaches hers. As much as it should ideally fit the song’s everyone-is-a-star theme, they nonetheless got there due to their exceptional talent. Yet as (mostly) gay dancers performing a gay dance, their place in Vogue is also the heart of Madonna’s enduring appeal to the marginalised:
“At a time when other artists tried to distance themselves from the very audience that helped their stars to rise, Madonna only turned the light back on her gay fans and made it burn all the brighter… As long as she delivered what we came to expect—a soundtrack that gave us hope and allowed us, in our more somber moments, to believe that there was a place where we could be better than we were today—we continued our devotion.”
- Steve Gdula, of Advocate
Naturally, the other side to Vogue’s black and white is Madonna’s own presence. Whilst the dance was current, many of Madonna’s shots pay tribute to classic images - such as the Dietrich-esque close-ups, or her portrayal of Horst P Horst’s Mainbocher Corset, bringing the still photo to life. Significantly, the one section where she doesn’t share screentime is during the rap, which consists solely of close-ups of her embodying utterly total confidence, even as she invokes her predecessors’ names. It’s as if she dares you to think any less of her, with the monochrome ensuring a level playing field - viewed in the same way they once were, with the same sense of awe.
Madonna’s return to the MTV Video Music Awards in 1990 was perhaps her single greatest television performance. The incredibly complex choreography - done in authentic French period dress - is as far removed from the writhing Like a Virgin as humanly possible. It’s her equivalent to the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, or Michael Jackson at Motown 25 - a expression of such pure, unique talent it renders even the lipsyncing (as with MJ) irrelevant. But there may just be a message in there, too - her drawing of parallels to Marie Antoinette shows that Vogue is truly universal.
And yet the final word must be that in relation to Madonna’s overall career, Vogue is a single pose in a lifetime of choreography. It may be her legacy, but it cannot summarise her more than any other song; the only thing it represents is the extent of the highs a true cultural icon can scale. “Fame” and “celebrity” aren’t worth much anymore, but Madonna, arguably the most famous woman in the world, has truly earned hers.
Album: I’m Breathless - Music from and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy
Songwriters/producers: Madonna/Patrick Leonard
How do you follow a career watershed, let alone one of the greatest singles of all time? In the case of Vogue, by not changing your plans one bit. It would’ve been bleedingly obvious - to Madonna, to Warner, to everyone - that Hanky Panky is nowhere near Vogue’s league, but more importantly, it’s stylistically different enough that its inferiority is not the listener’s only impression. Either way, the song was successful enough to reach number 10 on the Billboard charts, and number 2 in the UK, even if it’s now been eclipsed by everything around it.
Hanky Panky has nothing to do with sexual innuendo. No, innuendo involves hinting at the sexual - Hanky Panky’s “I just want you to spank me” come-ons are just blatant. The rather detailed (yet like the film and ’30s society, somehow PG) fantasies pile irony upon irony to the point that no one could possibly mistake it for a literal statement by Madonna. Though it works as a depiction of Breathless Mahoney’s blonde-bombshell archetype, it’s also self-parody, ridiculing the public’s oft-exaggerated perception of Madonna as some hypersexual nymphomaniac - that is, if statements like Oh Father weren’t enough. The song’s still somewhat novelty - but it at least helps that the lyrics are set to a rollicking, energetic take on swing.
Overall, I’m Breathless does succeed as a character study - an extension of the Breathless Mahoney character’s nightclub repertoire, it’s a near-total immersion in pre-rock and roll period music few popstars (Christina Aguilera aside) would attempt, let alone pull off convincingly. But though it works as a recreation of ’30s style, there’s nothing especially compelling about the album. He’s a Man - effectively Dick Tracy’s own Bond theme - and the Breathless-on-her-deathbed Something to Remember are hugely underrated, but offset by the mind-numbing, unlistenable camp of I’m Going Bananas and Cry Baby. The rest - even Stephen Sondheim’s contributions - doesn’t really stick. Singing from Breathless Mahoney’s perspective holds the album together conceptually, but the problem is that Madonna herself is a more interesting character - playing a lesser archetype’s role, it comes off as mere posturing. Madonna’s jaw-dropping performance of Sooner or Later at the 1991 Oscars is proof - free of Breathless’ shadow, and armed with a far more dynamic arrangement and vocal delivery, she instead aims for the heights of Marilyn Monroe, and practically outdoes her. Its ambition is everything I’m Breathless wasn’t - though the album in itself is a huge step outside the comfort zone of pop, its strict adherence to period authenticity makes it, in the end, not ambitious enough for a Madonna album.
(Sooner or Later, live from the 63rd Academy Awards)
Hanky Panky didn’t have a music video - not that any treatment would’ve worked anyway - instead, the studio version of the song was apparently dubbed over not-on-YouTube live footage from Toronto. The Blond Ambition performance has strangely minimal choreography - though expanded upon slightly on the Re-Invention Tour, the song’s now lost whatever relevance it had. And sure, it’s performed surprisingly well by a 46-year-old Madonna, but the irony of using the song’s original arrangement on a tour named after her greatest ability was somehow lost on her.
(live from Yokohama on the Blond Ambition Tour)