As I mentioned last week, I'll be sharing the text of a paper I presented at a popular culture conference over the weekend. Since it's too long to give in a single post, I'll spread it out across the next two weeks. Enjoy this first installment, and come back to read the rest!
Something weird happened to Madonna in the ’90s.
After the creative and commercial success of Like a Prayer in 1989 and her first greatest hits compilation, The Immaculate Collection, in 1990, Ms. Ciccone chose to open an envelope she’d been pushing since the inception of her career. The flesh bomb that resulted was the one-two punch of Erotica, her 1992 album, and Sex, a limited-edition book that came packaged in a shiny wrapper, not unlike a condom. This is the same woman who, during an interview with David Letterman in 1994, asked him, “Why are you so obsessed with my sex life?” and then prodded him to smell the pair of panties she’d given him. Although she did rein it in with the soft-core Bedtime Stories in 1994, the masturbatory video for “Take a Bow,” while shot in artful sepia, showed she had no intention of backing down completely.
But then came the fallow period. Aside from her appearance in Evita in 1996, the one tangible thing Madonna produced between 1994 and 1998 was the old/new compilation Something to Remember in 1995, only three tracks of which were fresh. Part of this is thanks to the arrival of her first child, Lourdes, in late 1996. Of course she took time to be a new mother, but it was out of character for a woman who, traditionally, had been full-steam ahead to disappear for such a stretch. Little did the world know what she had in store.
There was nothing particularly subversive about Madonna until Ray of Light. In order to be subversive, one must work within the confines of his or her medium in a sly, smart way: a wink here, a nod there, an inversion from time to time. The closest she got pre-1998 was in “Deeper and Deeper” (Erotica) when she pulled a line from “Vogue” (I’m Breathless) to highlight the rest of the song. Otherwise, she was, for the most part, a double-middle-finger girl, shoving her sexuality and outrageousness in her audience’s face. In fact, if not for a handful of key tracks in the early- and mid-1990s--“Rain” (Erotica) and “I’ll Remember” (With Honors) chief among them--she may have ceased to be radio- and video-viable. After all, this is the woman who cut a track called “Where Life Begins” (Erotica), a five-and-a-half-minute ode to cunnilingus.
When Ray of Light dropped in 1998, however, listeners heard more of what had been hinted at in select cuts from Like a Prayer, Erotica, and Bedtime Stories: introspection and reflection. Ray of Light was both revolutionary and revelatory, showcasing a side of Madonna the public had rarely seen. In these thirteen tracks, Madonna reinvented herself yet again, this time as a serious singer with concerns both worldly and personal, spiritual and mental. This album would become the lynchpin of her career, a gateway between her early years and her later output.
For Part 2: Tracks 1-4, come back on Wednesday!
For Part 3: Tracks 5-8, come back on Friday!
For Part 4: Tracks 9-13, come back next Tuesday!
For Part 5: The Conclusion, come back next Thursday!