The “Queen Of Pop” has been celebrated – and challenged – for pushing boundaries since breaking into the mainstream with the Like A Virgin album, in 1984. With the publication of her Sex book, in 1992, Madonna risked everything with a provocative photo essay of sexual fantasies. The pictures may have outraged some, but most missed the humour in the work. The fact is, Madonna’s Sex book remains pop’s greatest political statement, one designed to shine a spotlight on the shocking double-standards of the era and which created a new agenda for women’s right to present their sexuality with the same abandon as men.
“The genesis of a controversy: How playing it safe may have fuelled the creative fire”
Madonna had been largely abiding by the rules of corporate North America after the firestorm created by the 1989 release of her Like A Prayer single and its attendant video. The singles and videos after that launch release from the groundbreaking pop masterpiece that was the Like A Prayer album had played it safer (Cherish was a throwback to the bubblegum 60s girl-group sound – and who was going to object to soft-focus beach frolics shot by the late Herb Ritts?), while the quirky soundtrack album I’m Breathless set up Madonna’s role in the family blockbuster Dick Tracy with little more than a knowing tease – and the ace card of Vogue, the 1990 hit that extended Madonna’s astonishing run of No.1 singles into the new decade.
With the movie safely out in cinemas, there was a noticeable shift in Madonna’s creative sensibilities. Soon after, the “Queen Of Pop” reportedly spoke to publisher Simon & Schuster about a book project she was pitching, tentatively titled Madonna’s Book Of Erotica & Sexual Fantasies. For that winter’s release of The Immaculate Collection – her first hits compilation, and now one of the best-selling records of all time – she recorded two new songs, including the erotically charged Justify My Love, which topped the Billboard charts and was supported by a groundbreaking video by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Its success seemed to fuel Madonna’s ambitions to push ahead with a politi-sexual agenda now at the heart of her creative manifesto.
The principal players and Madonna’s direct but intriguing brief
Fashion photographer Steven Meisel had shot the portrait that appeared on the Like A Virgin sleeve, and, having created one of Madonna’s best album covers, has continued to work with her in the decades since. In 1991, Meisel shot a series of images of the “Queen Of Pop” for Rolling Stone, and some of the styling for Madonna’s Sex book can be traced back to this collection, which cast Madonna as an early-20th-century showgirl with a taste for erotic experimentation.
Partnering with Meisel and designer Fabien Baron, Madonna started recruiting partners for the Sex book’s photo shoots, which would see her act out erotic fantasies, with two straight-to-the point questions: “Do you mind getting naked?” and “Would you mind kissing me?” A charismatic band of supporting players signed up to the brief, including supermodel Naomi Campbell, rappers Big Daddy Kane and Vanilla Ice, porn actor Joey Stefano and arthouse movie star Isabella Rossellini.
The rules even the “Queen Of Pop” had to abide by
With recording for what would become the Erotica album underway, there was an obvious opportunity for the publishing division of Madonna’s record label, Warner Bros, to pick up the Sex book project. As discussions with Simon & Schuster gave way to negotiations with Warner Bros, the label had some restrictions on the material it was prepared to put out. Madonna signed up to some constraints on the detail of the content, but there was still a lot of creative latitude in what she could release.
It’s a sign of Madonna’s star power at the time, and the confidence of the label in her artistic choices, that such a risky project got the green light in a more sensitive era. Plans to call the book Erotica, in line with the album, were abandoned, but Warner Bros did allegedly insist that the book – now given the straight-to-the-point title Sex – came out before Christmas. A release date of 21 October was agreed upon, with the Erotica album hitting the shelves the day before.
The release: A publishing sensation
With tight security in place, production started on the aluminium-covered book, which was written by Madonna, at a specially designed, three-storey printing press. The project created a barrage of press attention, with most media commentators baffled at such a controversial move in the pop mainstream. No one could deny Sex’s commercial success, however, with 150,000 copies of the book selling in the US on its first day of release. All 1.5 million copies of its one-off print run would quickly be sold, putting Sex at No.1 on the international bestsellers lists.
The misunderstanding and backlash: “This is not pornography”
Sex also came with a CD of Erotic, a trip-hop reinterpretation of the more familiar song Erotica), but amid the controversy created by the book, Madonna’s music was the last thing on people’s minds. While some critics got it – Playboy columnist Kerig Pope said, “I’ve seen lots of pornography. This is not pornography. This is a book about how sex is involved in the culture” – the tabloids had a field day: one British newspaper famously created a “Madonna-free zone”… while still continuing to write about the fuss.
The story soon became a collective unleashing of outrage against the idea of the book, and almost nothing about what Madonna was trying to say. A series of promotional engagements, including a British TV interview with Jonathan Ross, were brittle and confrontational, but that didn’t stop later Erotica singles such as Deeper And Deeper and Rain entering the UK Top 10.
The legacy, and why stars such as Miley Cyrus owe much to the bold experimentation of Madonna’s ‘Sex’ book
In time, the fuss died down. Madonna dialled back on the sexual themes in her work and, though it would take a few years, by 1998’s Ray Of Light album, the “Queen Of Pop”’s commercial and critical fortunes were on par with each other. In time, the Erotica album would be reappraised, and many artists have since followed a similar artistic left-turn: Miley Cyrus is an obvious example, while Christina Aguilera’s 2002 album, Stripped, owes everything to the template set by Erotica and the Sex book. It’s no coincidence so many female artists have gravitated here – they routinely have the most to gain by taking more control of their sexual identity.
The last word? That should be Madonna’s. In 2000, she said, “My rebellion happened, instead of in my teens, when I was 30. I just wanted to go, ‘Don’t tell me what to do just ’cause I’m a girl. Don’t tell me I can’t be sexual and intelligent at the same time.’ I’m proud of the way I acted because it set a precedent and gave women the freedom to be expressive. I’m happy to have been a pioneer.”
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