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Vogue: The Story Behind Madonna’s Biggest-Ever Hit
Warner Music
In Depth

Vogue: The Story Behind Madonna’s Biggest-Ever Hit

Vogue started life as a planned B-side, but it would go on to earn a place in pop history as Madonna’s biggest hit song.

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It could have been the biggest missed opportunity in music history. With no time to film a video, Madonna was scouting around for extra material to help support the final US single from her Like A Prayer album, Keep It Together. When she alighted on the song Vogue, she ended up creating a cultural moment far beyond anyone’s expectations.

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The recording: Little did anyone realise what they had created

Shep Pettibone had remixed the 12” versions of the singles True Blue and Causing A Commotion, but Vogue was the first song the “Queen Of Pop” would write and record with him. There was little time and budget for the track, with Pettibone laying down a backing instrumental and Madonna recording the lyrics in a New York City studio. It wasn’t until the cut was delivered to the label that anyone realised what they had created.

With Vogue ringing in their ears, it was decided that Keep It Together would have to stand on its own (with a Soul II Soul-inspired swingbeat remix, the song peaked at No.8 in the US). Meanwhile, Vogue was prepared for release as a single in its own right.

The release: The biggest-selling single of the year

Today, this classic pop-house song has had TV programmes written around it (an episode of Ryan Murphy’s drama series Pose), and its promo clip is widely regarded as Madonna’s definitive music video. Released on 27 March 1990, it became the biggest hit of her career to date, spending three consecutive weeks at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 and four weeks at No.1 in the UK. By the end of 1990, it would be billed the world’s best-selling single of the year, and it remains one of the best Madonna songs of all time.

The video: Theatrical extravagance and a subculture in its prime

Vogue was inspired by the ballroom scene of New York’s gay clubs, celebrating a subculture in its prime at the end of the 80s. Madonna paired the theatrical extravagance she saw there with big-budget, high-gloss Hollywood production values in the iconic David Fincher-directed video, which was choregraphed by the Emmy-nominated choreographer Vincent Paterson and featured Madonna wearing an iconic ivory satin floor-length halter gown decorated with rhinestone drops. The catchy pop-house treatment of Vogue marked a stark, more synth-heavy shift away from the more organic pop sounds of songs such as Like A Prayer. This chameleon-style jump surprised no one – critics had grown accustomed to Madonna’s restless creativity – but the scale of the single’s success exceeded everyone’s expectations.

The influence: Recreated in clubs and school discos across the planet

The “Queen Of Pop”’s representation of the highly stylised dance culture was energetically recreated by less skilled dancers in gay clubs, high-street dancefloors and school discos across the planet, and Madonna’s iconic rap, immortalising 16 stars, including Greta Garbo – who died just three weeks after the single’s release – and Ginger Rogers, became an instant magnet for parody but undoubtedly added an extra, magic ingredient to the song.

Pettibone has said most of Vogue’s lyrics were written by Madonna on the flight over to New York ahead of the recording, but that the pair of them came up with the name-checking centrepiece of the song together in the studio. “Vogueing was in the underground clubs,” he recalled to author Fred Bronson. “It had been around for a while, and it was also semi-passe. People were saying: ‘What’s the next thing? That’s over.’” Madonna knew better and, as fans have long been aware, her cultural instincts are usually spot-on: an underground scene that the cultural elite was starting to grow tired of was ready for a mainstream makeover.

The ‘Dick Tracy’ effect: An extra way to promote the movie

Walt Disney Studios and Dick Tracy director Warren Beatty were also looking for extra ways to promote their upcoming big-screen revival of the iconic cartoon hero, which also starred Madonna. She agreed to add Vogue to the film’s concept soundtrack album, I’m Breathless, which she had recorded with material by Patrick Leonard and the late Stephen Sondheim, though the song didn’t feature in the movie.

The legacy: A synchronicity that resonates so strongly

Vogue won three gongs at the MTV Video Music Awards, where Madonna performed it in a unique Marie Antoinette styling, and David Fincher’s black-and-white promo clip is routinely referenced as one of the best music videos in pop history. The song has also inevitably become a principal pillar of Madonna’s live shows. It first featured on the Blond Ambition World Tour and has appeared in seven setlists since, including a theatrical set-piece during 2023-2024’s Celebration Tour. An homage to Vogue’s ballroom origins, it played out like a scene in the Ryan Murphy TV hit Pose, with Madonna – and her daughter Lourdes, on some dates – scoring some of the fabulous creations parading on the catwalk.

Vogue also became the centrepiece of Madonna’s Superbowl halftime show in 2012, and, if she has tired of what’s arguably her most iconic hit, she’s showing little sign of it. That sweet spot between luck, craft and perfect timing is hard to capture, but there’s a certain synchronicity at play in a track about highly stylised theatrical dance, created by one of the most innovative performance-artists of all time, that resonates so strongly. The “Queen Of Pop” may not have invented vogueing, but she certainly made it her own.

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Original article: 27 March 2023

Updated: 19 October 2023

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