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Erotica: How Madonna’s Playful Tease Climaxed In All-Out Provocation
In Depth

Erotica: How Madonna’s Playful Tease Climaxed In All-Out Provocation

A journey through a range of sexually-charged fantasies, the ‘Erotica’ album found Madonna at the frontline of gender politics.

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The escalation from playful tease to all-out sexual-political provocation reached its climax on Madonna’s fifth studio album, 1992’s Erotica. But while many fans thought it her finest creative statement to date, the wider public were left shocked by its controversial – and at-times frenzied – positioning.

Listen to ‘Erotica’ here.

A journey through sexually-charged fantasies

Released on 20 October 1992, Erotica was certainly Madonna’s most contemporary record to date, drenched as it was in new club sounds and steered by Shep Pettibone, who had created the era-defining Vogue and the charming ballad This Used To Be My Playground, issued that summer to promote the movie A League Of Their Own. Emerging just months later, Erotica’s title track – and first single – couldn’t have been more different to that conservative tune, which had topped the US charts.

As a song, Erotica revisited the narrative theme of 1990’s Justify My Love, with Madonna’s gravelly vocals now casting her as Dita – a diva alter-ego daring the audience to join her on a journey through a range of sexually-charged fantasies. The video, of course, was banned, and the campaign was synched in part with Madonna’s notorious Sex book, issued simultaneously. As an exercise in marketing it all hung together well, with the song emerging as a frisky, funky dance track that charted strongly, hitting No.3 on both sides of the Atlantic.

The parent album enjoyed similar success, selling more than six million copies worldwide en route to peaking No.2 in both the UK and US. With excellent singles that, ranging from the old-school disco homage Deeper And Deeper to the dramatic, midtempo Bad Girl and the club reworking of Peggy Lee’s Fever (a relatively rare excursion by the “Queen Of Pop” into covers territory), still rank among the best Madonna songs, there truly is a little something for everyone on Erotica.

At the frontline of gender politics

The jazzy Where Life Begins is a charming, melodic treat, but with lyrics celebrating oral sex… it’s clear why radio programmers may have steered clear from it. Less problematic, Bye Bye Baby is a fun number, picked as a single in some European markets and pepped up by some of the vocoder trickery that would characterise more of Madonna’s material in the 21st century, including 2000’s Music album.

For pop fans, the album’s jauntiest cut, Thief Of Hearts, is a highlight, but its frothy instrumentation (a co-write with Tony Shimkin, Erotica’s other principal collaborator) frames a barbed lyric about romantic rivalry, while tracks such as Waiting (written with Andre Betts) and Words are effective floor-fillers for the clubs.

Steering the record into calmer waters, the imperial ballad Rain went Top 10 in the UK, with help from a terrific video from director Mark Romanek. A further two ballads, the reggae-tinged Why’s It So Hard and the poignant, AIDS-themed In This Life, are also particularly strong, and they paired brilliantly on The Girlie Show setlist, a world tour running across late 1993 that would prove Madonna’s final live shows of the millennium.

Elsewhere, the curveball Did You Do It? (featuring rappers Mark Goodman and Dave Murphy) upped the controversy with humorous profanity and appeared on an adults-only edition of Erotica, while Secret Garden, which closes the record, concludes a collection that sometimes demands as much from its listeners as it delivers.

Plenty to be thankful for

As a cohesive artistic statement, Erotica was a triumph. While I’m Breathless was certainly the first Madonna concept album (created to support her part in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy), Erotica is the more noble of the pair. A statement of confident sexuality, its ambition was decidedly not commercial, though Madonna would face aggression from some quarters for merely expressing herself this way.

Having felt gender politics and minority rights (particularly for the LGBTQ+ community) had become an all-out war, Madonna wanted her work to be on its frontline. As such, she emerged a stronger artist, and Erotica remains a dazzling time-capsule that helped move the campaign forward step by difficult step. Her bravery has given many plenty to be thankful for.

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