Ryan Murphy’s FX series, Pose, is set in the ball culture world of New York City, 1990. The music is such a large part of the viewing experience that you could spill hundreds of words discussing what each song means, and/or how awesome it is—and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing here! Each week I will list each remotely notable music choice, complete with a thorough Spotify playlist to match, as well as some discussion of what the song’s significance might be to the world of our characters. If you find yourself scrambling to Shazam each musical selection or you want to hypothesize about what a certain music cue means for a character, join me here to move through each Pose episode—beat by beat. You can read season one’s music breakdowns here.
We are finally back in the world of Pose and the episode takes its time before getting to any needle drop—but when it hits, of course, you know what it’s going to be! The first several scenes feature the show’s gentle score, which is entirely appropriate for the somber and sobering sequences informing us as to how the AIDS epidemic has progressed. Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Blanca Evangelista (MJ Rodriguez) visit a mass grave on Hart Island, and Blanca gets officially diagnosed with AIDS as her T cell count drops below 200. 1990 is fully in session, and the epidemic is growing with the only hope coming from the leftover AZT from wealthy victims which, at best, will keep you alive a bit longer and, at worst, increase your suffering and do nothing to save you.
And then, like magic, the characters get a brief reprieve from that cold reality with the introduction of these epic words: “what are you lookin’ at?” “Vogue” by Madonna kicks in (finally!), and we see it bursting out of the radio speaker at Blanca’s salon. The song leads us into our first ball scene of the season and perfectly accompanies Angel’s (Indya Moore) walk onto the floor in one of her most stunning looks yet. Her face, previously obscured by a carefully tilted hat, is revealed to coincide with Madonna’s glamorous rap, “Rita Hayworth gave good face.”
What is there to say about “Vogue” that you—viewers of Pose—don’t already know? I’m sure the song and its immense popularity (it became the world’s best-selling single of 1990) is going to be explored and mentioned quite a bit in the coming season, so I’ll spare you. The legend is this: Madonna encountered the vogue scene while clubbing with her friend Debi Mazar and shortly after collaborated with producer Shep Pettibone to craft “Vogue” in about three weeks. The single was released on March 27, 1990, and two days later the striking music video (directed, yes, by David Fincher) premiered on MTV.
The video contains the dancers for Madonna’s then-upcoming Blonde Ambition tour, which included inspirations for Pose, Luis Xtravaganza Camacho and Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza. Those members of the House of Xtravaganza were also a part of Madonna’s incredible performance of the song in September 1990 at the MTV Video Music Awards, during which we see some really fantastic vogueing, and during which Madonna and her dancers are dressed in full 18th century garb. They were inspired by the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons, but for our purposes, they look an awful lot like Elektra and the other dancers during the “French Revolution Runway” category later in the episode.
“Vogue” is a stunning, thrilling, sudden burst of brightness that breaks the sober reality of AIDS and governmental and religious negligence and prejudice that our characters are living through. Just as the balls serve as a refuge, and a place to be celebrated and to celebrate, the use of “Vogue” in the episode highlights that stark difference between “reality” and the joyous escapism of “the balls.” The song is beginning to personify a kind of hope for our characters, especially Blanca, who sees its growing popularity as a sign of her and her community finally having something to use as leverage, as an offer and a unique talent, to the “straight world.” Already in episode one, Blanca plans on capitalizing on the fame of “Vogue” to get Damon installed as a dance instructor, to give Angel a leg-up in the modeling contest, and to help get her own beauty salon off the ground. This first appearance of “Vogue” ends somewhat abruptly when we leave the ball and go back to reality with Angel at the piers.
“Vogue” is probably one of the best songs ever made and could be talked about forever, but we did hear a couple of other tracks in the episode that are worth mentioning. When we get the first look back at the Evangelista House, we hear “Get Up (Before The Night Is Over)” by Technotronic while the family makes dinner. This dance hit, released in 1990 by the Belgian band, was their second single after the song that remains their biggest hit, “Pump Up the Jam.” The appearance of this bop indicates how on top of current dance hits the family is—and why wouldn’t they be? They were vogueing before Madonna.
The next big use of music is admittedly cheesy, but delightfully so. During Angel’s photo shoot—before it takes a sharp jump off the cliff into misery and exploitation—we hear Roxette’s “The Look” over the montage of her costume changes. The Swedish band, best known for “Listen to Your Heart,” released the single in early 1989. Interestingly, the single’s surprise success in America began with an American exchange student who returned from Sweden a fan of “The Look.” He urged his local Top 40 station in Minneapolis to play the song, and as it became popular the station sent it out to their sister stations. The 80s, dude! The song is bizarre, with absurd lyrics that the band has admitted were just filler lyrics they decided to keep. I genuinely encourage a listen to Punch Up the Jam’s deep-dive into this song to fully appreciate it. Needless to say, it is a perfect song to soundtrack a fun 80s modeling montage. Angel’s got The Look!
One of the most heartbreaking moments of the episode comes soon after, however, when Angel’s photographer makes her strip naked so he can take pornographic pictures of her and exploit her trans body. This scene, out of all of the other emotional moments in the episode, is the one which is entirely quiet. The quiet and the close direction of Gwyneth Horder-Payton bring out the extreme vulnerability, disappointment and pain felt by Angel at this moment.
During the aforementioned “French Revolution” walk, we hear classical music in the ballroom for the first time. It may not be entirely appropriate for dancing, but in a truly committed fashion, the classical pieces are required to fully portray the ball-goers’ 18th century characters.
Soon after, we attend another ball (with a different MC!) where Angel represents House Evangelista and wins yet another trophy. During this category, we hear “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)” by Soul II Soul and Caron Wheeler. It was released by the British R&B band in 1989, and you have certainly heard it before. It was the group’s most popular single in America, reaching number four on the Billboard Hot 100, while it hit number one on the UK Singles Chart. It won Soul II Soul their first Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, and was popular enough in the UK to be included in the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony, as part of a sequence highlighting popular British songs from the 1960s onward. The song is also featured on the “coming this season” teaser played after the episode (this season looks so good!) and with its lyrics of “back to life, back to reality” performed over an R&B/dance beat, we get a mix of what this season of Pose can bring. The characters will be facing more unavoidable “reality” than ever, but at the same time their community and the balls and vogueing will be, in a way, flourishing.
We hear “Vogue” one more time after Elektra goes full Real Housewives of New Jersey, as it plays in the ballroom and the dancers hit the floor to fully vogue and show us what this dance can be when at its best. Pray Tell calls out Paris Dupree as one of the originators of vogueing, and what their ballroom culture has become, so they can pay homage to her. The legend is that Dupree stepped onto the dance floor of Footsteps on 2nd Ave and 14th Street, took a Vogue magazine out of her bag and started dancing—only to stop and imitate the poses of the models to the beat of the song.
It caught on and the idea took off, albeit taking inspiration from a variety of other cultural influences including “African art and hieroglyphics,” according to Kevin Ultra Omni. It was also during the House of Dupree’s first ball in 1981 that strict categories were introduced to the proceedings. Prior to Pose, the most popular exhibit of ballroom culture was in Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, which is named after Dupree’s ball and released in August 1991 (Will Pose touch on this too?). That film is currently streaming on Netflix and is going to be in some art house theaters around the country in a restored edition this month and it’s worth watching if you enjoy Pose at all, which you should.