Madonna never stops straining at the parameters of mainstream approval.
Her controversial, best-selling book, “Sex,” blows smoke in the faces of uptight conservatives with its stark, sensuous, and often playful photographic images of alternative lifestyles like homosexuality and S&M. Many have responded to the tome with outrage, while others applaud her latest effort to boldly explore and exploit subjects previously whispered in private.
But what about “Erotica”? Like “Sex,” her first studio recording since 1989’s “Like A Prayer” takes a left-of-center creative approach that aims to broaden the terms of radio acceptability. Cute ditties like past hits “Cherish” and “Material Girl” are replaced by intelligent, pensive tunes such as the wrenching, AIDS-weary “In This Life,” and tough, dance/hip-hop jams like ‘Words” and ‘Waiting.”
In many ways, “Erotica” comes across like a conscious return to clubland, where her roots lie. Not surprisingly, her ardent following at this level is so strong that “Erotica,” the single, sprints to No. 1 this week on Billboard’s Club Play chart less than one month after remixes by Louie Vega, Kenny Gonzalez, and William Orbit were released.
Beyond its considerable lyrical strength, this album is fueled by Madonna’s astute choices in Shep Pettibone and Andre Betts as collaborators. Though they come from opposite ends of the dance music spectrum (Pettibone is hailed as a pioneer remixer, while Betts is a hip-hop-minded newcomer), together the three have assembled a seamless set that has enough street-savvy to heat up dancefloors for months, while easily maintaining a tight grip on top 40 programmers. Next we will take a closer look at the boyz in La M’s hood.
What follows are excerpts from our recent conversation with Madonna, who is currently mapping out the future of her new Warner Bros.-distributed label, Maverick, as well as her next single, “Deeper & Deeper.” The cut, which is due out at the end of the month, has already been remixed for clubs by Pettibone and David Morales.
BILLBOARD: This is clearly your most club-accessible album. Was that intentional?
MADONNA: When I got married and moved to California, I tried to get into that whole lifestyle; like hanging out on the beach. And that was one way to experience life. But then I gravitated back to New York City, and my roots, and the club scene, which was so inspiring to me at the beginning of my career. There’s nothing better than going to the [Sound] Factory on a Saturday night. I like to sit on a speaker, and watch humanity just pulsating, and everybody is one. It’s so cool. That’s what moves me. That’s the kind of music I want to make.
BB: And the dance music community has supported you throughout your career.
MADONNA: Absolutely. I identify with the underdog. I feel like I take a lot of shit, and so does the gay and dance community. I feel comfortable there. I guess misery loves company. [Laughs] I’m not going to feel comfortable in a country club in Connecticut. I’m a freak to those people. I want to go where other people can go and feel like “we’re different, but we’re not freaks. We’re just different.”
BB: What do you think of the remixes of “Erotica”?
MADONNA: I love all of the “Madonna In My Jeep” mixes. They’re great to have sex to. They don’t knock me off my feet. But I think that’s because we approached the songs from a remix point of view to begin with. To me, it was hard to make [“Erotica”] better. Don’t get me wrong, they did a good job. But none are as sexy as the original.
BB: What do you think of your older music?
MADONNA: [Laughs] I need to get much further away from it. I go, “that’s the way I thought? God, I’ve changed so much!”
BB: Let’s talk about the experience of working with Shep and ‘Dre on this album. They both brought out so many different things from you, vocally. For instance, the rap on “Waiting”…
MADONNA: Isn’t that song cool? The vocal on that one was taken from the demo version of the song. My whole thing in writing and recording now is to not try too hard, and not make a big deal about everything. I hate being off in a vocal booth, away from everyone. I like to be in the room with everyone around me, and with the room noise going through the mike. I’m very into what comes off the very first time I sing a song. I like the raw, first interpretation the best; before you start thinking about it too much, and start trying to perfect it. The truest emotion often comes the first time.
BB: Why didn’t you work with people who are more established? Why take the risk of working with relatively new producers?
MADONNA: I’m all about finding stuff beneath the surface and bringing it out. I’m not at all interested in working with people who are a part of the establishment, or who are set in their ways. I’m a pioneer. I want to dig up new ground, and I don’t want to be safe. People aren’t always going to be into that, or want to spend money on that. But as an artist, that is the only thing that is going to make me happy. Shep and ‘Dre are still very raw. They’re young, and they’re hungry. That’s so exciting to work with.
BB: There seems to be a lot more angst than sex on this album.
MADONNA: I think a lot of people are on the pain tip with me — that I’m this sad and lonely person, and that I’m cold, and that there’s a lot of loneliness and sadness in my voice. That may be true. I think this album is very cynical. In the past, I’ve written a lot of songs of pure joy about living and laughing and loving and dancing. That’s all fine, but that’s not all there is to life. Who wants to hear songs that only say “I love you baby, you’re my dream come true”? I think my record is real female-in-the-world-today; like a woman of the ’90s, who is intelligent, has her own career, and has shit happening. [“Bye Bye Baby”] is about a relationship in which someone tries to fuck her over, and she says “I’m not having this.” And [“Where Life Begins”] says if you want to be involved with me, then you have to get into oral sex. This is real life.
BB: Do you think people are freaked out that a woman can take that kind of control over her sex life?
MADONNA: Totally! I don’t know one girl who I don’t have that conversation with. Guys are allowed to talk about it. I’m not trying be feminist, but it’s a female-in-charge kind of record. I talk about stuff you don’t normally get to talk about; like giving head, you’re breaking my heart … it’s not a pretty picture, it’s not perfect, but it’s life.
BB: And haven’t men been writing about oral sex for years?
MADONNA: Exactly! All of a sudden I write about it and it’s scandal. It’s like, “No, I will not fit into this box you’ve made for me.” That was the whole thing with my book. The outrage … I make fun of people’s outrage, too. First I talk about the subject, and then hidden underneath that is the reaction I know I’m going to get, and then I address that. People think I’m mind-fucking them.
BB: Some people seem so threatened by others who can take their day-to-day lives and reconcile it with their sexual fantasies.
MADONNA: They don’t want to see us as happy people. They want to paint pictures of us as being tragic and sad, or lonely and desperate. It’s hard to be different. And it’s hard to be famous and different — but I wouldn’t want it any other way. [Laughs] I didn’t go through all of this to end up like somebody else.
BB: Does it bother you that such outrage and media attention to the various things you do takes away from your music?
MADONNA: It does bother me. I wish people would … I hear people saying they’re outraged by the book, and then I find out that they’ve never read it. People don’t take the time to listen, understand, and read.
BB: At this point in your life, what motivates you to make music?
MADONNA: My work as an artist has nothing to do with fame and fortune. I’m a storyteller and I have things I want to say. I find people and humanity tremendously inspiring — whether I’m shocked and repulsed by it, or shedding tears of joy. The more famous I am, and the more life comes racing at me at incredible speed in all shapes and forms — especially with this book and watching people on “Sally Jessy Raphael” arguing over me — I have truly seen the scope of the stupidity of mankind, I’m dumbfounded. Then I think, “God, there’s so much that people don’t know.” It galvanizes me. People’s stupidity makes me want to regurgitate more information. I feel inspired to enlighten. I like to do that by telling stories through songs, videos, whatever. These are untraditional situations being played out in my songs. They’re about real people.
BB: How do you stay in touch with real people?
MADONNA: I won’t live in a mansion on a hill, cut off from the world. That’s not me or where my roots are. Yeah, it can be a pain in the ass sometimes. But I find a way to do it. I have to stay in touch with people and humanity. Otherwise, I’ll just die.