Welcome to our latest author Q&A, where we chat to the writers behind new and upcoming 33 1/3 books! Today Michael Dango talks to us about his addition to the series: Madonna’s Erotica. He tells us more us about the political and social context in which Erotica was released, as well as Madonna’s impact on queer theory and critical race theory.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
Madonna’s Erotica made the sentimental sexy at a time when the gay community and American culture were both re-thinking the nature of intimacy.
What drew you to this album?
Like a lot of gay guys, I’ve always had an intense appreciation of Madonna. Growing up, she represented a queer world before I even knew to call it that. I remember in middle or high school staying up late at night, after the rest of my family had fallen asleep, to watch her concert videos on Bravo. It felt illicit and thrilling, for a baby gay just beginning to understand himself, to see guys in leather collars being whipped by this goddess in high heels. But because of my age, Madonna was never quite my peer—I was too young to grow up on the same dance floors she did. And yet, later on, I also felt too old, as a younger generation began to claim Ariana or even Gaga and act like Madonna was passé.
I’ve sometimes felt like a member of a transitional generation in queer life. Born at the end of the 1980s, I was relatively sheltered from the beginning of the AIDS crisis and the trauma, but also activism and political consciousness, that it has caused the queer community. But I was also born too soon to take for granted such civil rights as gay marriage—even as those rights, and many more, are under constant and now reinvigorated attack. I was drawn to Madonna’s Erotica album because, to me, it is something like a transitional album in the way I’ve felt part of a transitional generation. It wants to harken back to oldies, with Madonna affecting a Marlene Dietrich-like character and singing a cover of “Fever,” at the same time that it anticipates new developments in electronic and dance music.
If you were introducing someone to this album for the first time, what would you recommend they listen to?
I don’t think I’ll ever be in a position to introduce someone to Madonna for the first time. Even if her name recognition wasn’t the universal thing it is, she’s already the background soundtrack to countless Zara dressing rooms or spin class playlists or movies set in the 1980s. And yet Erotica would be the album to which I would first point today’s listener, because the political and social context it addressed, in 1992, is so uncannily like ours today. It came out at the height of a culture war that pitted conservatives against gender and sexual minorities. It came out in the aftermath of national conversations about police brutality prompted by the beating of Rodney King. And it had absorbed the anxieties of a global pandemic that made people simultaneously longing for and phobic of human touch.
The song that best captures the album, for me, is not the eponymous title track, but “Deeper and Deeper.” It’s a fun song, even if the disco influence makes the track run a bit longer than it probably should. What I like about it is that the song presents itself like it ought to be about sex, but really it’s more sentimental than that. In the book, I talk about how a sexy song that isn’t about sex might be particularly important in the context of a sexually transmitted disease like AIDS, giving us human connection that’s a safer form of sex when sex itself can be scary.
What was it like writing the book?
I’m a college professor who teaches a lot of the things that DeSatan and others are trying to ban across the country. I’m talking about queer theory, critical race theory, and other traditions of critiquing gender, sexuality, and racism. These traditions really gained prominence in U.S. universities around the same time Erotica came out, in the early 1990s. But I hadn’t realized until researching the album for this book just how important Madonna was for these traditions. The year Erotica came out, the first book-length collection of academic essays on Madonna, The Madonna Connection, also appeared. As I write about in my own book, it was through Madonna that many theorists, from bell hooks to Judith Butler, perfected their analyses of everything from gender performativity to cultural appropriation.
One reason Erotica seems so alive to me today is not just that the social context of the U.S. in the early 1990s has so many similarities to our context today. It’s also that the complexity of Madonna that generated so much ambivalent analysis—I mean analysis that loves to hate and hates to love, but which either way means you can’t stop thinking about her—remains really generative today, too. I’m thinking in particular of the vexed question of the relation between pop music and politics. Madonna, perhaps more than many other stars, was politically vocal, especially about HIV/AIDS. But she also knew that politics sold. Erotica was her first album on her own record label, Maverick, which means it also announced her rise not just as a star but as a businesswoman. I believe Madonna’s politics are sincere, and I believe she has actually done enormous good for the queer community. I also believe that politics is good for business, that politics can become a brand, too.
Are there any interesting stories that didn’t make it into the final book?
Erotica is one third of Madonna’s engineered season of sexual scandal in the winter of 1992/1993. Accompanying it was a pornographic coffee table book simply titled Sex and an erotic thriller Body of Evidence.
Most people remember Sex, which appropriates the style of Robert Mapplethorpe, who had just been at the center of a national hysteria for his nude photography. But I hadn’t seen Body of Evidence before writing this book, even though it features one of the early film performances of one of my favorite actresses, Julianne Moore, who appears nude in a scene she would later regret. It’s easy to hate on the movie, and it’s obviously not the pinnacle of the genre like Basic Instinct, which also came out in 1992. Rolling Stone said of Body of Evidence:
It’s not just that Madonna does not make for an effective Sharon Stone. She doesn’t even make an effective Madonna. Instead of emoting, Madonna strikes poses and delivers stilted lines that sound like captions from her book Sex read aloud in a voice of nerve-jangling stridency.
This is supposed to be a scathing review. But, you see, this is what I actually love about it. If you take even this description at face value, Madonna basically doing an audiobook about sex while striking poses instead of just doing sex, it sounds not only like a lot of fun but even somehow ahead of its time. It’s like the goofy avant-garde. I write about Body of Evidence in the book, but I don’t think my non-ironic love for it, for its messiness, makes it into the final version. This isn’t camp, or the bad art gays have long learned to adore. It’s something else. It’s basically conceptual art.
If you got the chance to write a 33 1/3 on one other album – what are you picking?
The Pussycat Dolls’s PCD. The perfect combination of messy hotness and aughts iconicity.
Michael Dango is Assistant Professor of English and Media Studies at Beloit College, USA, where he is also affiliated with Critical Identity Studies. He is the author of Crisis Style: The Aesthetics of Repair (2021). His writing has also appeared in forums such as Public Books, New Inquiry, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Artforum. You can find him online at www.michaeldango.com or on Twitter @michaeldango.
Madonna’s Erotica is out September 7th 2023 and available in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com).