Anyone who claims that Madonna’s appeal has only ever been erotic is kidding themselves – she’s so much more interesting than that. Yet from the very start, erotica was certainly a primary element of her appeal. Her voice had a tinge of sexual urgency without ever tipping over into blatantly adult-content. And because anticipation is so much more exciting than release, Madonna’s refusal (mostly) to belt out her pop songs at the top of her lungs, keeping them tightly wrapped in understatement, suggested future pleasures in the bedroom without fully succumbing to them. Just like a virgin touched for the very first time.
But the religion/sex mashup “Like a Prayer” saw a decided turn towards a more provocative exploitation of her sexual starlet image. And hot (very hot) on its heels came “Justify My Love”, in which Madonna limited her vocals even further to the point where she was practically just talking in-tune, making her sound all the more sultry.
Erotica follows on in the manner of the sexual frankness of “Like a Prayer” and the vocal lack of fussiness of “Justify My Love”. The album’s a series of dance tunes, each one on average longer than 5 minutes, that combine to create an aura of erotic indulgence delayed gratification. Somewhat cold and distant, building from the bottom up with its plethora of drum machines and chilly synths, the tunes take a while to sink in; yet Madonna is always there to promise the pleasure will come later. She still wants to take you there, but slowly this time, and you’re damned right at her own pace.
I don’t think she ever sounded as in control as on this album – with the exception, perhaps, of Music. She takes enjoyment from the male objects of her desire, she toys with them, she’s sometimes hurt by them. She realises there’s something a little scary about going “Deeper and Deeper” – in love, if not in sex – but you can rarely hear that tentativeness in her voice. After all, sexual power can never be absolutely complete, because a relationship relies on two people, and that other person can always fuck it up. Yet Madonna sounds as autonomous, as in control of her pleasures, as it’s possible to be, on a smart album that acknowledges the complexities of sexual relationships between flawed members of the ever-so-flawed species we call the human race.
Humanity emerges from the synth soundscapes in the form of an all-pervading soft funk that leans heavily on Doug Wimbish’s bass, particularly on “Waiting”, which could almost be a De La Soul track. I don’t use that comparison lightly; on many occasions Erotica verges on hip-hop, and producer Andre Betts even manages to sneak in a rap on “Did You Do It?” As usually is the case with good artists, the use of hip-hop production techniques contributes an exciting creative aura in which almost anything can happen (it’s the reason why hip-hop is easily the best genre of music in the world today). Madonna’s often spoken-word technique fits in with that aura, as does the unexpected cover of “Fever” (the best since Elvis), and the sampling of LL Cool J on “Bye Bye Baby”. ‘Forget the rules’ she says on that last song, and boy does she manage to live by that mantra throughout the rest of the album.
Reviews were pretty mixed when Erotica first came out, and it still tends to get forgotten amidst discussions about the Queen of Pop, which inevitably focus on Like a Prayer and her numerous hit singles. Truth is that I don’t like it quite as much as a few of her other albums, including the seminal Like a Prayer of course, but also the glorious mess of I’m Breathless (an album that contains the line ‘Hanky panky/Nothing like a good spanky’ and a song called “I’m Going Bananas”), Music, and the slowly unspooling Ray of Light.
Yet Erotica is probably her most coherent statement of intent. It’s an incredibly brave flip of the bird, so much as to say ‘I don’t care what you think’, to everyone who thought her career simply boiled down to the one word of its title.