19th March 2023

Erotica: A concept that wouldn’t survive today

Just over 30 years since the release of Madonna’s Erotica, yet we’re still working through the same issues. Pop culture in the 90s has a lot to answer for. 

Pornography, political controversy, shock and awe are never more than a few clicks away these days, but the internet was in its infancy in 1992. 

It’s the beginning of the Nineties

Pioneer provocator Madonna has just had the video for single ‘Like A Prayer’ banned on MTV after a massive decade as a queen of pop in the 80s. 

But she finishes her Blond Ambition world tour on the back of her fourth album of the same title.

While setting a standard for touring for pop artists, the tour was shrouded in controversy over its sexual and Catholic imagery.  

“The tour in no way hurts anybody’s sentiments. It’s for open minds and gets them to see sexuality in a different way. Their own and others […] Like theater, [Blond Ambition] asks questions, provokes thought and takes you on an emotional journey, portraying good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow, redemption and salvation,” Madonna said at the Rome international airport. 

Following this up, she released the first of her great hits albums, The Immaculate Collection at the end of 1990, to once again mixed criticism. 

Culture Wars were raging over issues including abortion, AIDs, drugs, sex education of teenagers, homosexuality, separation of church and state as well as free speech in this Clinton era of US pop culture. 

Madonna’s friends were dying of AIDs and living with homophobia, misogyny and queer hate. 

Then her fifth studio album Erotica landed in 1992 aligned with the release of coffee table-type book Sex. The album racked up 6 million sales, with Sex selling out the 1.5 million copies in just a few days. She demanded rawness, she demanded freedom, she demanded a person to look deeper. However, there was widespread vitriol. 

This is my chat with culture and music critic Peter Piatkowski comes to the fore. 

In his 2021 piece for Pop Matters, ‘Blond Contrition: Madonna’s Musical Response To The 1990s Culture Wars’ he writes: “Erotica was a direct and outraged challenge to her critics – taking in the criticisms and responding to them via pop music.”

The releases add her two cents to societal issues up for debate; but also present a woman self-objectifying and calling the shots. 

On the surface it’s simply filthy, disgusting and pornographic. But do you understand the journey? How Madonna is in a post-feminist way, using her gender to challenge sexism.

Erotica wasn’t meant to be disco euphoria; instead, it’s a deliberately heavy, cold record that addresses difficult and unpleasant themes,” he said.

“Madonna has always used pop music to forge her one-woman sexual revolution.”

— Peter Piatkowski

Once again MTV banned her single video, this time for ‘Erotica’. 

“I think the problem is that everybody’s so uptight about [sex] that they make it into something bad when it isn’t, and if people could talk about it freely, we would have people practising more safe sex,” she told Vanity Fair at the time. 

While vilified for it, Madonna stood up for her art. She questioned why her message wasn’t being understood while embracing the spotlight even if it was for the wrong reasons. 

In her appearance on The David Letterman Show in 1994 she said the word ‘fuck’ 14 times. 

Expansion of the conversation

In 1993 she headed off on another world tour called, The Girlie Show. It was once again a theatrical performance; ranging from topless backup dancers and gender-bending to descending from the ceiling on a disco ball. 

The tour took in 39 dates, kicking off at London’s Wembley Stadium.

Madonna said she was “not interested in preaching to the converted”.

“I am going to the places where I have the most enemies”.

— Madonna, Gavin Report 1993.

Many governing bodies protested on the grounds of decency. Many catholic leaders once again spoke out. Only her China date was cancelled. 

Erotica and Sex as cultural statements

We have to remember this is a time way before social media or MySpace. 

Madonna is using the communication elements of the time to make an artistic statement.

Madonna recalled: “I was called a whore and a witch,” in an acceptance speech at Billboard’s Women In Music in 2016 about her treatment in the early 1990s to this. 

She was a queen of pop music in the 1980s. Mass repulse made pop culture moments like this have more effect given the luxury of hindsight.

After the 1990s, the internet allowed us to form our pop culture bubbles, and we might never see such a unified obsession with a single moment in time. 

We’ve gone from the monoculture of pop hits being dictated to the masses, to have the accessible ability to privatise our cultural journey. 

There will always be mass media, music charts and industry awards but the charts don’t govern. In fact, music videos were down over a third on MTV channel by 1995. There were online forums, CDs and MP3 players.

“The Balkanization of pop culture, the overthrow of the monopoly on distribution, and the fracturing of the collective attention into a million pieces has made it impossible for us to coalesce around one album en masse. We no longer live in a monoculture. We can’t even agree to hate the same thing anymore, as we did with disco in the 1970s.”

— Music critic Touré wrote 2011 for Salon

The whole package of the Blond Contrition world tour, Erotica album, Sex coffee table book and The Girlie Tour was a statement. 

The idea of Erotica and Sex was the idea of not only self-branding, but of presenting an authentic, unified aesthetic through pop-flavoured messages and photos as your personal brand. Does it now seem familiar given as we have Instagram in our lives?

Many critics have since noted the album’s influence on the works by female artists such as Janet Jackson, Rhianna and Beyoncé.

In my final say, Erotica and Sex made powerful statements for the time, and it took someone with the smarts of Madonna to make them. 

Ashlea Pritchard

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