Madonna’s ‘Erotica’ Turns 20: Backtracking

Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.

If anyone in the last 30 years of American music knows how to grind artistic vision against the pop marketplace, it’s Madonna. But the fall of 1992 would be the first time her instinct faltered. With the trifecta of album (Erotica), coffee table book (Sex) and movie (Body Of Evidence), Madonna pushed as hard as she could against the public’s tolerance of sexuality in mass media. The effect was, at the time, wearying. Twenty years later, the Erotica album (released October 20, 1992), divorced from the book and (terrible) movie, stands as her most rococo album, layered in strange sounds, dark feelings and a pleasing defiance toward pop radio.

As the first full length follow-up to her worldwide hit album, Like A Prayer, Erotica is a bruised beast. Leaving behind the California life she’d been living, her new music was immersed in the sounds of New York, the city in which it was recorded. If Erotica was not a commercial success on the level of earlier hits — it peaked at #2 on the album chart — its triumph is that it has aged beautifully.

I’ll be your mistress tonight
“This Used To Be My Playground,” Madonna’s summer’92 soundtrack single (A League Of Their Own), was a red herring. The stylistic leap from that sentimental ballad to Erotica’s first single, the scratchy title track, is immense. Constructed on a sample of Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” the track was too gritty for the Hot 100, where it peaked at #3. The “Playground” video’s girl in a flowery field had been replaced by Madonna’s gold-toothed alter ego, Dita, who traded in sadism and provocation. (“I don’t think you know what pain is,” she intones, “I don’t think you’ve gone that way.”) Indeed, the bondage ’n’ boobs video was immediately banned from MTV.

Madonna — “Erotica”

The second single, “Deeper And Deeper,” nourished the masses in a more recognizably “Madonna” style. In his Erotica Diaries, co-producer Shep Pettibone reveals how much artistic control Madonna had during the recording of this disco classic. He wrote, “The middle of the song wasn’t working… Madonna wanted (it) to have a flamenco guitar strumming big-time. I didn’t like the idea of taking a Philly house song and putting ‘La Isla Bonita’ in the middle of it. But that’s what she wanted, so that’s what she got.” That flamenco-meets-house breakdown is now considered one of the album’s standout moments.

Madonna — “Deeper And Deeper”

Don’t mince words, don’t be evasive
If anything, Erotica’s legacy can be found in its album tracks. The bass heavy “Waiting” is the first of a thrilling triumvirate of deep cuts. Madonna, who sounds like she’s nursing a serious cold, delivers an angry riposte to a spineless lover. It boasts one of the most vicious put downs in pop music: “The next time you want pussy,” she snarls, “Just look in the mirror, baby.”

Equally quotable, “Thief of Hearts” is a swaggering bitch-fest. Like much of the album, the track — in which Madonna takes down “Little Susie Ho-Maker” — shifts between spoken word and sung vocals. From the shattering glass in the first seconds to the final command (“Stop bitch! Now sit your ass down!”), it’s clear that Madonna is channeling a new level of fury.

While much of Erotica is suffused with anger, “Words” is rooted in disappointment: “My friends, they tried to warn me about you,” she sings. “How can I explain to them, how could they know, I’m in love with your words.” Again, the arrangement is exhilarating, mixing huge synths and beats with a weird, repeating snake charm. It remains one of the finest songs of her career.

Everything strange, everything wild
Erotica’s balladry revisits the oceanic sonic landscape of her epic 1986 ballad “Live To Tell,” notably on the album’s sole expression of pure love, “Rain.” Again, it’s the details that count: the way the synths turbo-charge at 2:46 into a sleek middle eight that features dueling Madonnas reciting lines of poetry out of the left and right channels [play it on earbuds]. “By sheer force of will / I’ll raise you from the ground,” she says softly, “And without a sound, you’ll appear and surrender to me, to love.” The track is swooningly romantic, and the music is matched by an exquisite Mark Romanek-directed video.

Madonna — “Rain”

If “Rain” channels optimism, the dysfunctional “Bad Girl” is sound-tracked self-harm. “I’m not happy when I act this way,” Madonna sings, unable to control her own vices. Like much of Erotica, the sex is less sensual than lonely. The video, directed by a young David Fincher, drives the point home by ending with Madonna’s own strangulation.

Madonna — “Bad Girl”

A heart that will not harden
Madonna brought in another co-producer, Andre Betts, to plug the album into an underground New York vibe. He rooted their collaborations in the era’s fusion of hip hop and jazz. “Where Life Begins” remains Madonna’s most outrageously cheeky song (“a lot of people talk about dining in and eating out / I guess that’s what this song is about”), but it is “Secret Garden” that reveals her vulnerability. The whispery, spoken-word piece finds Madonna looking for “a rose without a thorn / a lover without scorn.” It’s less agitated than the rest of Erotica, bringing the album to a sweet, jazzy conclusion.

Erotica is a strong case for Madonna the Musician. Despite relatively weak sales, the album marks the point at which she went deeper and darker. The music still sounds bracing, cool, funny and sad. If it’s been awhile since you’ve played this, Madonna’s fifth LP, do it tonight, late. It’ll hit you like a truck.

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