Last month, Ann Powers celebrated Madonna’s 53rd birthday by collecting her 53 favorite songs from the Material Girl. She posted suggestions on Twitter and I provided my picks along with several others. This went live shortly after Ellen Copperfield’s musings on Madge for This Recording and preceded Carilynn27’s Persephone post that twined Madonna’s music with autobiography and fandom. It also follows a sustained narrative of (predominantly white) women (and girls) taking about, listening to, and playing with Madonna. Lots of media studies criticism in the late 80s and into the 90s sought to understand Madonna as screen subject, fan object, and feminist star text. All of the stuff that will be written about Gaga will have to be built upon this body of work.
I came of age during this time, and remember listening to Madonna with my mother, a fan who didn’t think that allowing me to watch the video for “Like a Prayer” would make me a Satanist. Actually, it clued me in on Madonna being something of a racial fetishist. I also developed my nascent Madonna fandom during my pubescent years through my stepmother. I was fascinated by her outspoken love for Madonna, especially since it seemed so closely tied to adult sexual expression. As a ten-year-old girl, coming across a copy of Erotica was better than any of the Updike or Nin I snuck off my dad’s bookshelf at night. You can’t dance to Rabbit, Run. I also purloined my stepmom’s copy of Sex, which she tucked into the back of her closet.
Erotica was well-received critically, though underrated. Some thought Madonna ran out of ideas, or was just trying to shock people, or simply wasn’t sexy. A few critics claimed Erotica was too cold and calculated to be sexy. I think they miss the point–mediating an image of sexiness usually takes the sex out of it because sexuality tends to operate (and be obfuscated) at a subliminal level. Openly subverting expectations of feminine sexiness and reconfiguring what signifies as sexy for women causes a lot of discomfort. Power is an aphrodisiac, as long as it isn’t actually wielded by women. Many of the scenarios in the “Erotica” video are trite and regressive–lipstick lesbianism, celebrity friends, S&M, problematic assumptions about black sexuality. But I can’t imagine many contemporary pop stars exploring erotic menace or foregrounding explicitly queer images of sexuality in a mainstream context as Madonna did with Erotica, which was released during a time when AIDS casualties and HIV prevention were more greatly emphasized. Plus the album has “Rain” and “Bye Bye Baby,” which are two of my favorite songs. It also has “Did You Do It?,” which, as with all song where Madge raps, you should skip.
Gaga may come the closest to fulfilling Erotica‘s potential. There’s no question that Jo Calderone owes hir existence to Ralph Macchio, Annie Lennox, Andrew Dice Clay, Danny Zuko, and Lenny Bruce. But what I appreciated about Gaga’s drag performance at the VMAs was her commitment to it. She didn’t make any costume changes during the night to re-establish her femininity. She kept her breasts bound throughout the ceremony and didn’t wink at the camera. Sure, she was boorish for trying to kiss Britney, whose trembling bottom lip seemed to simultaneously telegraph “Is this a trick?”, “Should I?”, and “I don’t think my manager will approve.” But if you compare Gaga’s performance alongside Katy Perry’s egotistical assumption that a song like “Firework,” which vaguely addresses queer closeted identity by celebrating individual perseverance, is doing something good for the world when it merely aligns herself with a lucrative niche market, Gaga might be moving closer toward pop progress. But I hate “Born This Way” as both a pop song and a political message, so I’m actually hoping Janelle Monáe brings the sex and politics back to pop music. Androids need love too.
But if we’re talking about pop music’s ability to inspire exciting sex, I can’t discredit an album I like a great deal more than Erotica. Sade’s Love Deluxe slunk into American record stores on October 20, 1992, the same day that Madonna’s fifth album initiated controversy. Janet Jackson’s janet. came out the following spring and is more potently erotic than Madonna’s offering, but I think that album requires its own post and a review of Poetic Justice. While many contemporaries sought reinvention to stay relevant, Nigerian British torch singer Sade Adu and her band continue to release reliably warm, enveloping jazz-pop for quiet storms, yacht rides, and power outages. I bought Love Deluxe on tape in junior high as a compromise. I wanted to see Indecent Proposal but my parents were like, “Ummmmm, absolutely not!” “No Ordinary Love” featured prominently in the trailer, so it sufficed until I finally saw Adrian Lyne’s sexist glamorization of kept women and poor business decisions at a girlfriend’s house. The scene in the kitchen is pretty hot, though. But “Kiss of Life,” “Cherish the Day,” and “I Couldn’t Love You More” are way hotter.
I don’t want to set up a racist, misogynistic binary wherein white female pop stars are cold sexbots and female pop stars of color have erotic energy coursing through their veins. Nor do I want to overlook that Sade’s songs assume heterosexual coupling. But Sade’s articulation of sexuality is predicated on the assumption that these forms of expression are something people do together. Also, sexuality isn’t the only lens through which Sade explores empathy and human connection. Despite the luxe atmosphere Sade’s music often seems to cultivate, many of her songs focus on poverty and the struggle for basic survival. Two such songs on Love Deluxe are “King of Pain” and “Pearls.” The latter track, which is about a poor Somalian woman, always makes me tear up a little. It may be a bit paternalistic in its storytelling, but it’s no less effective.
Thus, I think Sade’s articulation of the erotic is at least as powerful and enduring. Others seem to agree. Molly Lambert recently saw Sade in concert and raved about the performance, Sade’s enduring sexiness, and the sense of community the event created. Ms. Adu turns 53 next January. Let’s remember to wish her a happy birthday.