Discovering Madonna's Erotica, a reflection 20 years later
Madonna released the new album Rebel Heart this year, and in honor of the Material Girl, I'm reprinting Lizette Clarke's guest column, originally published on this blog in 2012.
I bought Madonna’s Erotica album (on cassette!) during Memorial Day weekend back in 1997. With less than a month of one of the hardest school years of my life to go—seventh grade—I already knew that I had become a completely different person in the past year. I was attending a suburban school that was predominantly black, and already knew that I was deemed too weird and felt unwelcomed by the majority of my peers. What made that late spring so important in my life was the fact that by that point, I no longer gave a shit what others thought about me. I was weird, I was artistic, and I was becoming a woman.
We stopped at Coconuts Music on Hempstead Turnpike en route to a family barbecue at my relatives’ new house in Jamaica, Queens. I remember exactly what I wore: a glittery, tan colored t-shirt with a turtleneck collar, and denim overalls from the Gap. I liked this top because it was tight enough to suggest that I had boobs (which I did not have), and there’s also a good chance my shoes that day were Jellies from Payless Shoe Source. This Memorial Day was also one of the first times a boy hit on me. Some random wannabe thug rode his bike up to mine and asked me what my name was. I immediately deferred to one of my two go-to fake names: “Valleri” or “Maria.” I don’t recall the rest of the conversation, but I do remember it being one of the last of its kind. Shortly hereafter, I went to great pains to go unseen by anyone riding a bike in Queens.
But anyway, the album. The album. The second I got home, I put it in my Philco boom box and read the lyrics to each song as I played them for the first time. Already five years old by 1997, the sound of Erotica ranged from New Jack Swing to house music to jazz, with the occasional pop ballad or reggae track thrown in for good measure. One eye-opening aspect of the tape—in addition to its subject matter—was that Madonna merely spoke the lyrics on some of the tracks. She also said bitch! And ass! That shit was out of this world to 13-year Old Me.
Relatively unbeknownst to me at the time, this album received a lot of backlash when it first came out in October of 1992. Released concurrently with Madonna’s Sex book—which I couldn’t get my hands on back then, even if I’d tried—many critics and pearl-clutchers believed Madonna had gone too far. It was instantly regarded as an album about sex and nothing more, when in actuality it was mainly about all the bullshit that surrounds sex: relationships, betrayals, loss, and acceptance. More than anything, Erotica is an album about the pain that comes with the territory of being a sexual creature.
And it’s so obvious to me now! Madonna tells us at the end of the title track:
“Only the one who hurts you/Can make you feel better/Only the one who inflicts the pain/Can take it away.”
As far as my junior high reading comprehension skills went, shit was literal. Like, if you’re doing S&M stuff, the person pouring hot candle wax on you is the only one who can stop pouring hot candle wax on you. Duh, right? But I’m pretty sure she’s not talking about S&M or even sex there. As a 28-year old now, I read this song as an ode to ourselves, not an ode to BDSM: if we fixate on pain from the past, only we can stop inflicting it on ourselves. Sure, I earned two writing degrees in the last fifteen years, so I could be reading too much into it today, but one of the album’s stand out songs, “Rain,” hammers home a message of renewal and redemption, of overcoming your own personal darkness and letting yourself be loved. Considering sex and all its surrounding emotions, maybe I’m not being (that much of) an English major blowhard when I surmise the album’s overall message: let it go.
With a few exceptions, Madonna isn’t talking about sex at all in Erotica. One of my favorite tracks when I was thirteen is the shortest on the album, dance track “Bye Bye Baby.” With the help of auto tune (or whatever the hell its 1992 equivalent was), Madonna sassily tells an ex-lover that she’s so over it and to get the fuck out. Man, I loved the shit out of that song. It was bratty, it was catchy, and it boasted what I considered to be the ultimate in lyrical depth at the time:
“I don’t want to keep the burning flame/Of your ego going/So I’ll just stop blowing in the wind/To love you is a sin.”
So deep, right? When you’re thirteen.
In “Why’s It So Hard,” Madonna ponders why people can’t just get along. Seriously; that’s the whole song. “Thief of Hearts” is about a man-stealing, two-faced friend who will screw anything, and “Words” is literally about, well, words: their ability to harm, their ability to skewer reality, and everything else you started noticing when you were in junior high and emotions were running high.
Does any of this have anything to do with fucking? Barely.
The darker side of sex is present on my favorite track on the album, “Bad Girl,” which still may be my favorite, nostalgia notwithstanding. Why did a song about a protagonist who drinks whenever she’s alone and sleep around only to hate herself afterward appeal to me so much as a junior high schooler? It certainly wasn't my life at the time. Honestly, I think I just loved the melody and the music (my eventual forays into Boys for Pele and foreign music would later prove that lyrics are rarely a priority to my ears). Listening to “Bad Girl” in the present, however, I can truly relate to the lyrics, and I also realize what a painful fucking song it is. “Bad Girl” could be an anthem for sexual addiction. It’s probably no coincidence that most of my fictional characters could sing its lyrics and mean every word.
The one song on this album that’s explicitly sexual—and the only one that inspired me to take the album’s booklet to school the next day to show around to fellow young pervs—is “Where Life Begins.” This is the type of song for which seventh-graders live. If you can figure out what the metaphors and innuendo are referring to, you feel like a fucking adult. Because you get it. In this song, Madonna invites the listener to partake in cunnilingus. Her arguments are well-reasoned, but not terribly clever, for example:
“You can eat all you want and you don’t get fat.”
“Colonel Sanders says it best: finger licking good.”
Well, shit. The first time I listened to this jazzy number, I was like, “Why the fuck is Madonna singing about some restaurant in a basement?” When it finally did dawn on me, I assure you I was forever changed. I was all, people sing about this stuff? Girls sing about this stuff?I’m not a weirdo for thinking about this stuff? Right on! Right on, Madonna.
Erotica became crucial in my development not only as a woman, but as a writer. My propensity for creating female characters who would also totally listen to stuff like this got its stamp of approval from this track, from this album, from Madonna herself. She was telling me to go for it.
And I’m pretty sure that’s why this album holds such a special place in my heart. Honestly, I don’t know if I could recommend Erotica to any adult to hear for the first time in 2012. I think you have to be a thirteen-year old girl to truly appreciate it. Twenty Eight-year Old Me finds the lyrics silly and infantile now, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe this is a teenager’s album, even if Madonna was well into her thirties when it was made. Instead of reading Sweet Valley High novels or whatever the hell young girls were supposed to learn their earliest life lessons from, I was listening to Madonna. And Alanis. And Tori Amos. Is it any wonder I went through the balance of my teens and most of my twenties as a bawdy, cynical, foul-mouthed, open-minded (for lack of a better word) artist?
That’s not to say that I was a mature thirteen-year old by any means. Far from it. Only that this album taught me what to expect out of sex, relationships, and adulthood: expect the pain, expect the bullshit, and expect the ephemeral beauty of having your eyes opened to something new for the first time.
Happy 20th anniversary to a bold, raw, honest body of work. Without discovering Erotica in my formative, early teen years, I would not have learned the significance of exploring the darker, dirtier parts of our minds. I probably never would have had the courage to do it on my own. I’d probably be a different person, and I probably wouldn’t be much of a writer.
Lizette Clarke is a writer based in Los Angeles. She has a M.F.A. in Screenwriting from the University of Southern California, and she was a 2009 CBS/NAACP Writing Fellow.