Friday, October 29, 2010

Throwback Friday/Weekend Extra 10-29-10 Madonna in the 90s

Looking back, it's hard to tell if "Justify My Love" was the end of an era for Madonna or the beginning of a new one. Or as the French say, a liaison between the two. The stark, coldly funky collaboration with Lenny Kravitz, then a a rising newcomer, sounded nothing like she'd ever done before and was an odd, incongruous choice for inclusion as the token new single on her first greatest hits package, The Immaculate Collection.Indeed, the prior year's Blond Ambition Tour, felt like the culmination of her 80s personas, weaving together all of her biggest hits into a stunning package the likes of which had never before been seen, climaxing in her sleek, modern dance smash "Vogue."
With "Justify My Love," Madonna, no stranger to controversy, found herself once more caught up in a whirlwind after her sexually explicit video in which one model's breasts are exposed and Madonna herself kisses another woman, while male love interest (and real-life boyfriend) Tony Ward looks on.

But from a purely musical standpoint, Madonna CLEARLY turns a corner with this song, leaving behind the bouncy pop of past hits for a colder, more electronic sound, bridging her earlier club sounds with that of her followup album, Erotica.
The lead single, "Erotica" carries over the cold, mid-tempo electronic thump of "Justify" and even delves deeper into sexuality with its S&M-inspired lyrics.

The release of the Erotica single and album coincided with the release of Sex, a metal-covered book of... well, erotica, featuring Madonna herself in states of undress, indulging in her sundry sexual fantasies, which... shudder, include frolicking with one-time fling Vanilla Ice as well as rapper Big Daddy Kane and Naomi Campbell. Also, Madonna was promoting an upcoming film, a sexual thriller along the lines of Basic Instinct called Body of Evidence, which also dealt with overt sexual themes.
Both the album and single hit #1, but the public was wearying of this sexual barrage and Madonna, always a lightning rod for controversy, found herself losing casual fans in droves. Of course, the sheer experimental nature of her new music may have also been off-putting to many.
Her second single from Erotica, "Deeper and Deeper" was the lightest, frothiest song from that album and was in many ways a throwback to dance floor classics like "Express Yourself" and "Vogue, " from which she even reprises the lyrics, "Ooooooh, you got to just, let your body move to the music. Ooooooh, you've got to just, let your body go with the flow."

The song and its 70s-Warhol inspire video were successful enough, reaching #7 on the US charts.
She was less successful with her next single, "Bad Girl." Despite its earnest lyrics and a gorgeously shot video directed by David Fincher, who'd previously helmed her landmark videos "Express Yourself," "Vogue" and "Oh Father," the public was wearying of her bad girl persona. It didn't help that the single's release corresponded with the release of Body of Evidence and even featured her costar from the film Willem Defoe. The film was poorly received and possibly as a result, "Bad Girl sank with a thud. Excellent video, though!

Perhaps in an effort to hedge her bets and to retain her club following, Madonna included her electronic cover of "Fever" as the b-side to "Bad Girl" and released a "Bad Girl/Fever" 12-inch featuring club remixes of "Fever." Even though the song was a b-side, Madonna released a stunning video for it.

At least that part of it worked. The US single barely cracked the Top 40, but managed to hit #1 on the club charts.
Despite the lack of performance on the mainstream charts, Madonna launched The Girlie Show Tour and sold out shows the world over. Interestingly, she bounced back with her fourth single from Erotica, the warm, "innocent" ballad "Rain."

Another stunningly gorgeous video from this era, Madonna looks gorgeous in it with her blunt, black bob. The song became a high-point in her Girlie Show. The song wasn't a smash, but did receive probably more airplay than any of the other singles from Erotica. The warmer tone of "Rain" foretold of what was to come for her.

Looking back at "Justify My Love" and Erotica with a modern eye (or ear rather), Madonna proved truly innovative as these projects predated the rise in 90s techno/electronic music. The influence of these works can definitely be heard in later tracks like Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" and tracks by artists like Prodigy, Tricky and even Bjork herself! Many argue that Madonna frequently "steals" from these underground sounds, which already exist, but without her bringing them to mainstream audiences first, those same audiences would not have been as likely to embrace these more edgy artists. (So NYAH!)
Bedtime Stories is widely considered her "R&B album" which it had the sole distinction of being until 2008's Hard Candy. Fans knew they were in for something vastly different, when Madonna released her lead single "Secret."

The track opens with the strumming of an acoustic guitar and picks up a smooth, mid-tempo beat. But it was nothing like her stark, cold Erotica sound or her earlier pop/dance style.
It did however, fit well with the rise in mid-tempo R&B that came from the fall of early 90s dance pop, and the popularity of Dr. Dre's smooth West Coast hip hop. The song hit #3 on the charts.
Her club fans however were appeased with the release of Junior Vasquez's club remixes of the song.

In times past, "club remixes" were generally simply longer versions of the normal version of the song. Junior's remixes of "Secret" were among the earliest of the modern definition of the "club mix," a complete overhaul that bore almost no resemblance to the original! The remix hit #1 on the Club Charts.
Perhaps surprisingly, Madonna's next single, the slightly Asian-tinged, Babyface-produced ballad "Take A Bow" became a MONSTER hit, not only staying at #1 on the Pop Chart for seven weeks, but also becoming a smash hit on the R&B charts! (Babyface's production and background vocals certainly helped there!)

The stunning video caused some controversy when some argued that it glorified bullfighting, which many animal activists considered barbaric. Madonna actually adopted the bull from the video and sent it to live out the rest of its life in peace on a ranch in Spain.
Madonna struggled after that, however. "Bedtime Story" was something of a throwback to Erotica and was, in many ways, a "sore thumb" on the otherwise more organic album. The song was written by Bjork, however, rumors abound that Bjork intentionally wrote bad lyrics in order to make fun of Madonna's songwriting.
Madonna crafted a VERY elaborate, abstract video that suited the song.

The video remains to this day one of her most visually stunning, however the single struggled, making it to #1 on the Club Charts (once again, featuring club remixes by Junior Vasquez among others) but only to #27 on the Pop Chart.
Many believed the warmer, organic approach to the Bedtime Stories album was Madonna's reaction to critics who took her to task over the sexuality and coldness of Erotica. In a bold move, Madonna actually addressed her critics in the definitely West Coast R&B flavored "Human Nature."

The song was the poorest performing of the Bedtime Stories singles, but is fondly remembered by fans and she performed it on her most recent tour, Sticky & Sweet, in this case, collaborating with Britney Spears, who appears via video screen on the track.
Once again, this may have been a reaction to critics who blasted her for her "sacrilegious" performance of "Live To Tell" on her prior Confessions Tour.
Madonna took several years off from music after Bedtime Stories. She had hoped to tour for the album, but won the lead in the film Evita for which she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress. During the filming of the movie, she became pregnant with her first child. So after a several year hiatus, during which she embraced the religion Kabala, she returned with an Eastern religious/metaphysical-inspired album Ray of Light.
She returned to the electronic sounds of Erotica, with a stark electronic ballad "Frozen."

And got everyone back up on the dance floor with the frenetic "Ray of Light."

I will admit, I wasn't much of a fan of this album at the time. My general reaction was, "What the fuck is she singing ABOUT?!" It was all a bit too abstract (i.e. pretentious) for me.

It didn't help that after the release of her next album Music (in 2000, so I won't be discussing it here), she announced her first tour since The Girlie Show, but that she wouldn't be performing anything pre-Bedtime Stories. (She later amended the set list to include "Holiday" and an acoustic version of "La Isla Bonita.") Once again: pretentious.

It wasn't until years later that I came to appreciate this portion of her career more. In particular, the song "Drowned World/Substitute For Love" which was the third single from Ray of Light but failed to chart in the US.
I can see why. It's not the most accessible song, but I really connect with the lyrics. Sometimes we do things in our lives out of selfishness but that are harmful to others. Sometimes we blow through life, like a tornado, taking what WE want, damaging everything in our paths. This song felt like a lament on such behavior, which sadly I relate to, possibly too much.

This song, plus a song from American Life, "Nobody Knows Me" are my "rebirth" anthems. I came to connect with them both at a point when I decided to consciously MAKE myself a better person.

The non-single opener of Bedtime Stories, "Survival" also falls under this category.

It's not for me to say whether I've been successful. Obviously, I've failed on many occasions, but... I mean, I try. So yeah...

Anyway, that's my look back on a somewhat undervalued period of Madonna's career. I know that I myself didn't even fully appreciate it at the time, but there are numerous tracks I came to really enjoy years after they'd been out but that are now among my favorites by her. Sometimes you need distance to appreciate something and I think that was the case here. So yeah, hope you enjoyed!

1 comment:

  1. Good article and good points, but Erotica, neither the single or the album went #1. The album was #2, and the single #3. At the moment it was the first time a lead single from Madonna didn't go #1 since her debut album.