Madonna's 'Erotica' is all about power [October 25, 1992]
Plus: Felix, Bjorn Again, Therapy?, and The Sundays
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of October 25, 1992.
📰 George Michael takes Sony to court. We’ve covered this in a previous newsletter but the short version is: he lost.
📽️Buffy The Vampire Slayer hits the cinemas. Joss Whedon was unhappy with the direction of the movie, which starred Kirsty Swanson, Luke Perry and Donald Sutherland.
📺On TV, Last of the Summer Wine returns for its 14th season since 1973. It won’t end until 2010 on Season 31.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘End Of The Road’ by Boyz II Men but this week we’re looking at…
This week’s Number 3: ‘Erotica’ — Madonna
People on Twitter have started using the phrase “slut era” a lot recently, often as the punchline to a joke about how little sex they’re having:
In general, Gen Z twentysomethings have less sex than their Millennial predecessors, and both generations look like nuns compared to those of us who were of age in the 90s. Gen X, by all accounts, just couldn’t keep it in their pants.
Back then, we didn’t say “slut era”, but we did say, “hey, it’s the 90s!” a lot to indicate the laissez-faire, fin-de-siècle spirit of the age. We’d survived AIDS; we were probably going to die of the Y2K bug. Why not just get drunk and bang?
The Divine Comedy’s 1998 single ‘Generation Sex’ opens with a woman talking about having sex with as many people as possible, which she justifies by saying, “hey, it’s the 90s!”
However, ‘Generation Sex’ is not a celebration of free love. Instead, it says:
Generation Sex respects the rights of girls
Who want to take their clothes off
As long as we can all watch, that's okay
Here, there is a hint that something is not quite right in sexual politics.
The 90s were the age of the Ladette, the empowered woman who slammed pints and shagged strangers. But ‘Generation Sex’ asks some important questions about the true balance of sexual power. Who is performing? Who is watching? And who is really in control?
Throughout the 90s, Madonna was asking those same questions.
Will you let yourself go wild?
1992 saw two landmark events in the history of sex.
The first was Basic Instinct, a neo-Hitchcockian movie about a sexually confident woman who may or may not be a serial killer. It’s famous for a moment where Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs, giving the world a very brief flash of her vagina.
Now, these days you can’t turn on Channel 4 or HBO without seeing genitals, but things were different in 1992. Movies showed a lot of T&A, but anything south of the border meant that you were watching pornography (or, worse, European art cinema.)
Basic Instinct was one of the first mainstream Hollywood movies to show a vagina, and the world went absolutely bananas over it.
Some voices argued that the film was empowering because Stone’s character uses her sexuality to control gullible men. In this sense, she’s just carrying on the tradition of classic femmes fatale in film noir.
Elsewhere in 1992, Madonna was just coming off her insanely successful Blonde Ambition tour, during which she had caused outrage by doing things like pretending to masturbate onstage. She inked a new megadeal with Time Warner to launch a new company, Maverick, through which she could produce records, movies, TV shows, and books.
No one quite expected that a book would be among the first of her new projects. But her fifth album, Erotica, appeared on the same day as her first book, simply titled Sex.
The book came in a foil wrapper, like a condom, and it was bound in aluminium, because the contents were so hot that they would burn through paper.
Sex contained some poetry and prose, and a title page that simply said “I’LL TEACH YOU HOW TO FUCK”. There were also dozens of explicit photographs, and I’ll let Wikipedia describe the contents:
…nudity, simulations of sexual acts, bondage, homosexuality and analingus, with accessories such as knives, whips, masks and chains;however, intercourse is never shown. Actress Isabella Rossellini, rappers Big Daddy Kane and Madonna's then-boyfriend Vanilla Ice, model Naomi Campbell, gay porn star Joey Stefano, actor Udo Kier, socialite Princess Tatiana von Fürstenberg, and nightclub owner Ingrid Casares and unknown models are featured in the book. Its heterosexual photos involve only Madonna and Vanilla Ice.
If you didn’t have $50 to spend on a copy, you could get the gist from the 'Erotica’ video, which is essentially a Behind The Scenes tour of the book:
The reaction to Sex was almost universally negative, with feminists decrying it as pornography and Penthouse editor Bob Guccione Jr saying:
Madonna has overstayed her welcome. She's becoming the human equivalent of the Energizer Bunny, flashing us her breasts in every magazine that'll let her.
But Madonna did not repent; if anything, she doubled down, appearing in a Basic Instinct clone called Body Of Evidence, in which she has quite graphic sadomasochistic sex with Willem Dafoe.
Few people in the media took Madonna’s side. The world mostly agreed with Bob Guccione, that this was a tragic plea for attention from a fading star who would be soon forgotten.
I'd like to put you in a trance
Basic Instinct is a homage to Alfred Hitchcock. In that scene, Sharon Stone is dressed up to look like Kim Novak in Vertigo.
Hitchcock’s films are all about looking—Norman Bates peering through the peephole before Psycho’s shower scene, or James Stewart as a peeing tom in Rear Window. All of Hitchcock’s movies ask questions like: what are you really seeing? What are you not seeing? Who is controlling what you see?
In recent years, we’ve had lots of revelations about what was really going on in the 90s. Miki Birenyi of Lush recently published a memoir about how the happy-go-lucky Britpop scene was brutal behind the scenes, and how Ladette culture was not liberating but in fact regressively sexist.
We’ve also discovered that Sharon Stone was tricked into doing the leg-crossing scene in Basic Instinct. In her recent memoir, she wrote:
After we shot Basic Instinct, I got called in to see it. Not on my own with the director, as one would anticipate, given the situation that has given us all pause, so to speak, but with a room full of agents and lawyers, most of whom had nothing to do with the project. That was how I saw my vagina-shot for the first time, long after I’d been told, “We can’t see anything—I just need you to remove your panties, as the white is reflecting the light, so we know you have panties on.” Yes, there have been many points of view on this topic, but since I’m the one with the vagina in question, let me say: The other points of view are bullshit.
Sex and Erotica are Madonna’s personal vision. She had collaborators (Steven Meisel took the photos) but she controls what we see. Madonna understood that it doesn’t matter what you do in front of the camera because all the real power lies behind the camera. She figured this out long before Sex, and she’s always made sure that she controlled how she was presented to the world.
And that is, perhaps, her greatest achievement.
What did you think of Erotica, Sex or even Body of Evidence? Drop a comment!
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 10 (New Entry): ‘Run To You’ — Rage
These hits are becoming mechanical now. All you need is a classic song and a house beat, and you’re pretty much guaranteed a place on the next Now! compilation.
‘Run To You’ isn’t bad, but it is interchangeable with a dozen other songs of the era.
Number 11 (↑ from 23): ‘It Will Make Me Crazy’ — Felix
Felix himself tweeted us to say that this video (which looks great) was filmed inside an abandoned mental hospital.
The lead vocalist is Steele, also known as Sam Brown, who seems to have left music to work as a filmmaker. It’s a shame, because she’s a real pop star—great voice and an amazing look. Come back to us, Steele.
Number 14 (New Entry): ‘Supermarioland’ — Ambassadors of Funk feat. MC Mario
Once again, well-known tune + house beats = hit record. The difference between this and ‘Run To You’ is, well, that this is the kind of irredeemable dogshit that makes you pine for Smart-Es.
Amazingly, this is a licensed Nintendo product. Simon Harris, the brains behind it, approached the Japanese giants for permission to clear the sample, but they liked it so much that they commissioned him to do a whole album. They even provided the Mario costume in this video (but I’m not sure if they paid for everyone to go to Chessington World of Adventure.)
The guy debasing himself as MC Mario is better known as Einstein, who saw better days as the guest rapper on Dannii’s ‘Jump To The Beat’.
Number 27 (↓ from 25): ‘Erasure-ish’ — Bjorn Again
Yet another opportunistic novelty song, but this one is actually pretty good.
Erasure had released the ABBA-esque EP back in June, which was great news for Britain’s premier ABBA tribute, Bjorn Again. The band saw this opportunity and grabbed it by recording a selection of Erasure classics in the style of Agnetha and Anni-Frid.
The version of ‘Stop’ is also good, but ‘A Little Respect’ has the better video.
Number 30 (New Entry): ‘Teethgrinder’ — Therapy?
Andy Cairns was on the excellent To Here Knows When podcast recently to discuss the 30th anniversary of Nurse. In 1992, the band stood accused of selling out because they had moved to a major label (A&M), and fans feared that Therapy? would be repackaged as a grunge band.
Fortunately, the fears were unfounded. ‘Teethgrinder’—their first release on A&M—is distinctly un-grunge and doesn’t compromise on the band’s spiky, scuzzy sound. We’ll talk more about this when we review Nurse in a few weeks.
Album of the Week
Blind — The Sundays
The most badass thing that any artist can do is make something wonderful, and then disappear. Think of the mystique around people like Harper Lee and JD Salinger, and how their absence makes their writings all the more tantalizing.
Bristol’s The Sundays have something of that mystique about them. They released over a seven-year period—1990’s Reading, Writing & Arithmetic, 1992’s Blind, and 1997’s Static & Silence—always keeping a low profile between releases. After the third, they went on hiatus so that Harriet Wheeler and David Gavurin could focus on raising their kids.
And we never heard from them again. Rumour has it that they’re fine and still making music, but have no desire to return to the spotlight. There will probably never be another Sundays record.
All of which is to say: Blind is the weakest Sundays album, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Harriet’s voice isn’t quite as prominent on Blind, which is probably why I like it least. On ‘Life and Soul’, her voice is used as an instrument, floating between the guitar sounds. It’s one of several reminders that The Sundays are a band, and not a one-woman show.
Such a reminder is required because Wheeler’s voice is like nothing else on earth. It swoops and soars, it is light as a feather and hard as a battering ram. On a song like ‘Goodbye’, she sounds like a dreampop Freddie Mercury singing a jangly ‘I Want To Break Free’.
Wheeler herself is no longer the ingenue she was on Reading Writing & Arithmetic. That album opened with an image of drunken, fumbling first love (‘You’ve seen me in a cardigan/And the dress that I was sick on’), while Blind’s lyrics often talk about what comes next (‘Waiting for the next time with a bottle in my hand…The face that you had is becoming a blur’.)
Blind isn’t as surprising as the first record or as assured as the third one, but it still has a charm and intelligence that you can get lost in. And anyway, it’s better than only having two Sundays records.
Incidentally, this American version of Blind includes a bonus track, their cover of ‘Wild Horses’ by The Rolling Stones. This track ended up soundtracking one of the most memorable moments in 90s TV history: Buffy and Angel’s dance at the prom.
Is Blind actually your favourite of the three? Did you cry at the prom scene? Leave a comment and let me know!
The end of the road turns out to be the start of something big.