In 1991, Madonna’s fame was at its height. Truth or Dare, her behind-the-scenes documentary filmed during the Blond Ambition tour a year earlier, caused a sensation with its revealing take on the star. After reaching her pop apotheosis with Like a Prayer, she had struck out in new directions with ‘Vogue’ and ‘Justify My Love’ (a sultry, experimental track produced by Andre Betts, with a video banned by MTV.)
While filming A League Of Her Own in Indiana, Madonna began swapping demo tapes with Shep Pettibone, the DJ and remixer with whom she produced ‘Vogue’. They worked together on ‘This Used to Be My Playground’, a wistful ballad for her new film, and later in New York while she was shooting her infamous book, Sex, with photographer Steven Meisel. By then, Betts had joined the team. Madonna wanted to move away from the high-gloss sound of her recent albums, going back to her roots in the city’s underground club scene, while lyrically exploring her sexuality and troubled emotional life.
At 34, she was still recovering from a painful divorce and had been through a string of short-lived relationships. By the time Erotica wrapped up, she was already filming Body of Evidence, a steamy thriller which would be critically mauled. Released in October 1992, in tandem with the publication of Sex, her fifth studio album – and the first to be released on her Maverick label – was overshadowed by a vicious media backlash. The cover depicts her face in close-up, washed in blue; and the booklet includes various images from Sex, with Madonna bound and gagged in one shot, a far cry from the playful allure of her True Blue days.
The title track begins with the sound of a needle hitting a record, followed by a declaration: “My name is Dita/I’ll be your mistress tonight.” The eponymous heroine of Sex will guide us through Madonna’s only concept album. In ‘Erotica’, she adopts a low growl for the spoken-word verse, in which she tells us her dark fantasies (“I only hurt the ones I love”); and for the chorus, an ethereal trill. Shep Pettibone supplants her dual vocal with inventive samples, from the ubiquitous Melvin Bliss drumbeat, and horns from Kool & the Gang’s ‘Jungle Boogie’, to an Arabic hymn by the Lebanese singer, Fairuz, who would later sue Madonna for credit.
Fabien Baron’s ‘Erotica’ video shows a masked, cavorting Dita, interspersed with footage shot during production of Sex. The song would open the Girlie Show tour in 1993, and Madonna would rework it as ‘Erotica/You Thrill Me’ with another DJ-producer, Stuart Price, for her Confessions tour in 2006. In a more romantic mood, she sings, “I wouldn’t want to change a thing/In spite of all the pain that love can bring.”
The blues standard, ‘Fever’, has been recorded by everyone from Elvis to Beyonce, but most notably by jazz singer Peggy Lee in 1958. Madonna decided to cover it after going to a Lee concert, adding her dreamy vocal to the instrumental for an unfinished demo, ‘Goodbye to Innocence.’ She later performed it on the Arsenio Hall Show. ‘Fever’ was released a single in most markets except the USA. Her cool, distant take on this popular classic received mixed reviews, although Lee herself praised it. A remixed version is featured in Stephane Sednaoui’s video, where Madonna dances in body paint against a psychedelic backdrop.
‘Bye Bye Baby’ takes its name – and nothing else – from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the Marilyn Monroe film that influenced Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ video. It’s a snippy, teasing number, with Madonna’s high-pitched vocal – once described as ‘Minnie Mouse on helium’ – tripping lightly over a sample from LL Cool J’s ‘Jingling Baby’. The melody is repetitive as a playground rhyme, but the lyrics are a hard-hitting rebuke to a spurned lover.
The opening line, “This is not a love song,” recalls her earlier duet with Prince, and Public Image Limited’s anti-smooch track of the same name. Madonna’s voice is filtered, like a message left on a telephone answering machine. “I keep on waiting, anticipating,” she complains – impatience is a recurring theme in her work. “Does it make you feel good to see me cry?” she asks, before her words are cut off by a bleep – “You fucked it up,” she concludes, in the first of Erotica’s pithy codas. It would be the sixth and final single, released a full year after the album’s debut. The video was filmed on tour with The Girlie Show, where Madonna plays Dietrich in a tuxedo, choreographed in a brothel-like setting.
‘Deeper and Deeper’ is next in this quartet of hits. Although the single’s cover plays on titular innuendo – with a gold-toothed Madonna chomping on a cigar – musically, it heralds a more joyful mood. An homage to disco meets early 90s house, its melody is rhapsodic, bridged by Paul Pesco’s flamenco guitar. Lyrically, Madonna transcends cynicism and embraces romance (“Daddy couldn’t be all wrong/And my mama made me learn this song.”) In the liner notes to her 2001 compilation, GHV2, it’s framed as a ‘coming-out’ track. Whether or not that was her first intention, it’s a triumphant example of how her quest for sexual liberation resonated with gay fans (“This feeling inside, I can’t explain/But my love is alive, and I’m never gonna hide it again.”) In the closing lines, she repeats an ecstatic mantra from ‘Vogue’ – “Let your body go with the flow…”
The video is directed by David Fincher, a regular collaborator since ‘Express Yourself’, and by then on the verge of a Hollywood breakthrough. In an introduction worthy of a German expressionist movie, a mysterious older man (Udo Kier) quotes from Goethe’s Faust: “Beware! Our idols and demons will pursue us until we learn to let them go.” Madonna plays an Edie Sedgwick-style It Girl, immersing herself in nightlife alongside friends Debi Mazar and Ingrid Casares, celebrity pal Sophia Coppola, gay porn actor Joey Stefano, and Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn. With ‘Deeper and Deeper’, Erotica’s gritty, monochrome aesthetic bursts into glorious technicolor. Madonna would later rework it as a cabaret number for her 2004 Reinvention Tour.
‘Where Life Begins’, a paean to oral sex (“a different way to kiss”) was definitely not single material – although in the pantheon of songs celebrating female sexuality, it stands alongside Divinyls’ 1990 hit, ‘I Touch Myself’, but its light-hearted tone (and rather laboured ‘dining out’ puns) veers closer to Madonna’s own ‘Hanky Panky’, albeit with a certain tenderness. Producer Andre Betts adds a layer of sophistication to what could have been merely a risque joke, and Danny Wilensky accompanies Madonna’s vocal on saxophone.
‘Bad Girl’, another single, is a mid-tempo ballad with melancholy strings. “Something’s missing and I don’t know why,” she laments. “Can’t bring myself to let you go.” Mourning a lost love, she is drawn towards self-destruction: “Bad girl, drunk by six/Kissing some kind stranger’s lips/Smoke too many cigarettes a day…”
In David Fincher’s video, Madonna confronts her fear of death. As ‘Louise Oriole’, a business executive (using an amalgam of her own middle name and a street where she once lived), she drowns her sorrows in sleazy bars and one-night stands, watched over by a guardian angel (Christopher Walken) and the man who will ultimately murder her. Filmed in New York, ‘Bad Girl’ is one of the highlights of Madonna’s extensive videography, and she brings to it a raw intensity rarely matched in her movie roles. She also gave a stripped down, pitch-perfect performance of the song on Saturday Night Live.
Side One closes with ‘Waiting’, one of her finest album tracks, sampling ‘Sneakin’ in the Back’ by 1970s jazz-pop outfit L.A. Express, and ‘Justify My Love.’ A further meditation on broken relationships, ‘Waiting’ alternates between spoken word and song, mirroring the structure of Erotica’s eponymous opener. Lyrically it’s a rejection letter, blending disillusion with simmering anger. “What happened? What do I remind you of?” she asks her ex. “Your past, your dreams/Or some part of yourself that you just can’t love?” She signs off with wicked wit: “And the next time you want pussy/Just look in the mirror, baby…”
In an echo of Like a Prayer’s ‘Til Death Do Us Part’, Side Two opens with the sound of breaking glass. ‘Thief of Hearts’ is a catty diatribe against a false friend who “thinks she’ll get respect if she screws it.” Its sing-song rhymes and rattling pace are reminiscent of ‘Bye Bye Baby’. Madonna, who has stolen a few hearts in her time, warns of an amoral trickster who “spins her web, then she’s stealing your boyfriend.” Capturing her rival, she asks coolly, “Which leg do you want me to break?” In Erotica’s final spoken climax, she sneers, “Stop, bitch/Now sit your ass down…”
‘Words’ is another hidden gem, combining high-energy pop with Eastern overtones. “You think you’re so shrewd/You try to bring me low/You try to gain control with your words,” Madonna sings to a manipulative lover. His eloquence once seduced her, but now she questions his motives. In a spoken meditation, she reflects on how words can be used to deceive (“Conversation, expression, a promise, a sigh/In short, a lie.”) As a typewriter clicks in the background, she pleads for honesty (“Don’t mince words, don’t be evasive/Speak your mind, be persuasive.”)
‘Rain’ rounds off Erotica’s array of hit singles with a blissed-out take on love, evoking the New Age philosophies of the early Nineties while alluding to hippie anthems like George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ Mark Romanek’s video shows a gamine Madonna with dark, cropped hair, in a studio setting drenched in Erotica’s signature blue. Her vocals blend seamlessly with backing singers Niki Harris and Donna De Lory. Their perfect harmonies were highlighted during live performances of ‘Rain’ in 1993, followed by an orchestral homage to Singing in the Rain.
‘Why’s It So Hard’ is a protest song backed with dub reggae beats. Madonna channels her personal frustration (“What do I have to do to be accepted/What do I have to say”), and taps into wider battles with sexism, racism and homophobia (“Why can’t we learn to/Challenge the system/Without living in pain?”) ‘Why’s It So Hard’ was performed in The Girlie Show with Madonna’s troupe of dancers, its pulsating rhythms set against a mood of world-weary despair.
‘In This Life’ sustains the sombre mood. Based on George Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2 for piano, it is a tribute to two of Madonna’s friends who died from AIDS: Martin Burgoyne, the artist and dancer whom she befriended during her early years in New York (“Gone before he had his time”); and Christopher Flynn, her first dancing teacher and mentor (“He was like a father to me.”) “In this life I loved you most of all,” she sings, exuding loneliness (“Have you ever watched your best friend die?”) She also speaks out against bigotry (“Shouldn’t matter who you choose to love.”) Madonna introduced the song with a short speech during The Girlie Show, describing AIDS as “the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.”
‘Did You Do It?’ is a remix of ‘Waiting’, produced by Andre Betts and featuring two rappers boasting of their sexual exploits with ‘Mo.’ Lacking the soulfulness of ‘Where Life Begins’, it’s a childish exercise in braggadocio. Its inclusion made Erotica her first album to earn a Parental Advisory warning, and is omitted from ‘clean’ editions.
With the final track, ‘Secret Garden’, she returns to more intimate terrain. It employs a kind of reverse innuendo in which the ‘garden’, her sexuality, is also a metaphor for creative and personal growth. “I wonder if I’ll ever know/Where my place is,” she muses, over jazz piano by Andre Betts, and a drumbeat sampled from James Brown’s ‘Soul Pride’. Like Erotica’s title track, ‘Secret Garden’ is surreal and dreamlike, hinting at further exploration to come.
A number of unreleased demos, produced with Shep Pettibone and Anthony Shimkin, have surfaced over the years and are known by fans as the Rain Tapes. As well as early versions of ‘Erotica’, ‘Bye Bye Baby’, ‘Thief of Hearts’, ‘Words’, and ‘Secret Garden’, these sessions included original songs such as ‘Dear Father’, ‘Shame’, and ‘You Are the One.’ ‘Goodbye to Innocence’, the outtake which inspired Madonna’s ‘Fever’, was renamed ‘Up Down Suite’ as a B-Side to ‘Rain’, and in 1994 a further remix appeared on Just Say Roe, a pro-choice compilation album, alongside tracks by David Byrne and others.
With world sales of $7 million, Erotica performed less than half as well as its predecessor, Like a Prayer, and is ranked ninth overall among Madonna’s thirteen studio albums. Artistically, however, it is now considered one of her crowning achievements. Earlier this year, Slant placed it second only to R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People as the best album of 1992. At that time, dance music – which Madonna had helped to bring into the mainstream with her first two albums – was entering its most experimental phase. Erotica merges contemporary trends from techno to hip-hop with older disco sounds and classic pop hooks. Lyrically, she explores adult themes with a subtlety and depth of emotion which makes Erotica an ideal counterpart to the radical aesthetic of Sex.