Madonna has reinvented herself so many times over the last 40 years that it can be hard to pinpoint which persona represents her true essence.
I would look to Confessions on a Dance Floor, specifically its global tour, for an answer. You can read her 10th studio album as a love letter to the club scene that stuck with her through thick and thin. (As well as a needed reset after the chilly reception to 2013’s American Life.) Confessions was made for clubs, literally: the songs deliberately blend together, offering an hour of dance heaven from start to finish. The response was rapturous. It sold 10 million copies worldwide, won a Grammy, and the lead single “Hung Up” topped the charts in 41 countries (surprisingly, it only peaked at #7 in the U.S.)
People likely remember the album’s subsequent tour, The Confessions Tour, for its “Live to Tell” performance, where Madonna crucified herself on stage while wearing a crown of thorns and sparked outrage from religious groups (again). It’s pretty ironic (and very Madonna) that “Live to Tell,” one of her most accessible singles, spurred so much controversy. Meanwhile, a song that infuriated everyone upon its original release skirted by.
That song is “Erotica,” the title track from her 1993 album that many believed would end her career. “Erotica” is an icy, trip hop-styled ode to sexual desire, with Madonna role-playing a dominatrix named Dita who inspires fear as much as arousal. (I once described it as pop’s first kink negotiation.)
Thirteen years later, Madonna would revisit the song that scandalized America (again), folding the track into the Confessions Tour’s disco segment. Disco and trip-hop don’t naturally mix, so Madonna melted the ice and rebuilt the song as a pulsating, shimmering number reminiscent of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s “I Feel Love.” She also replaced the spoken-word verses with the lyrics from the “Erotica” unreleased demo, known to fans as “You Thrill Me.” Instead of “[hurting] the ones [she] loves,” Madonna details how all-consuming her passion is, “putting her in a trance.”
This version of “Erotica” is a decidedly warmer, sensual affair, which suited the hazy purple feel of her disco segment just fine. Alone on stage, Madonna strips off the Travolta-inspired leisure suit she started with to reveal a white and purple, ABBA-inspired unitard. Slipping into something more comfortable, she thrusts her hips back and forth to the sinfully irresistible synth beat. Her dancers join her, turning her private party into a bacchanal. Madonna’s male partners intimately spin her around the stage, giving off the illusion that we’re intruding on an intensely private dance lesson. Of course, inviting her audience into her fantasies is her thing, so she breaks up the gyrating coupledom with incredibly fun-looking group choreography, hustle and all.
“Erotica” is spellbinding to the point that you feel hungover when it ends with those final piano keys. The arrangement, the costumes, the stage design, and the choreography work together sinuously to create an atmosphere that pulls you in and, critically, turns you on. Forgive the obvious pun, but it is an erotic experience. It’s also a surprisingly elegant and romantic one. You can imagine yourself on stage behind Madonna and her silk-shirted dance partner, falling in love amidst the violet lights.
What’s most interesting about this performance is its subversiveness in the context of her career. “Erotica” was Madonna at the height of her sexual exploration, and the public responded negatively, arguing she had pushed the proverbial envelope too far. The era laid bare society’s rampant sexual anxieties, particularly in America. To them, Madonna was corrupting polite sensibilities with unabashed sex. In hindsight, neither “Erotica” nor its parent album was as libidinous or depraved as the reaction might suggest. Contemporary critics remarked on the album’s lack of sex appeal. The “Erotica” video – banned by MTV – seems squarely designed for people with at least a passing interest in kink rather than the world. It is easier to get off to Madonna’s performance of “Erotica” at the Confessions Tour and its sweaty vibes.
It took over a decade, but Madonna delivered a performance that could actually corrupt America’s delicate populace. If the perennially outraged had paid attention, they would’ve been up in arms. Instead, they saw Madonna on a cross and ignored something they would’ve flagged as sexually vagrant.
Madonna has lived many lives, but at her core, she is a dancefloor god who is five steps ahead of everyone and everything: Top 40 radio, her peers, her critics, and popular culture. Sensual, intelligent, deceptive, creative, and more fun than it has the right to be, Confessions-era “Erotica” is final-form Madonna.
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