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Dec 10

MADONNA – “Vogue”

FT + Popular86 comments • 5,077 views

#644, 14th April 1990

After a crucifixion, an ascension: as discussed on the Lollards Of Pop, “Vogue” is Madonna’s attempt to join a pantheon of pop culture icons – “Grace Kelly, Harlow Jean….” and so on. No, not her attempt: her assertion that she is already part of this company by right. She’s the first modern pop star to join it, to rise above the colourised grit and mess of the rock era and act like she belongs in black-and-white.

To do this is an act of serious willpower on her part, since her previous outing was all about personal debris. Like A Prayer positioned herself as serious and soul-bearing and was rapturously received. “Vogue” closes that off – from that initial wash of synth this is nothing but pristine: high-hats gliding and bustling like wine-waiters in the background, clipped stabs of string and brass, Madonna herself alternately tender and imperious, offering divine advice. In one sense it’s a return to the dancefloor, but Madonna’s early club music was hungrier than this. This is the work of a star who knows she’s a star in perpetuity – from now on her songs, even the most personal, have something of the official statement about them: her interest in new producers and styles has an element of patronage.

This is the thrust of the arguments against Madonna we talked about briefly on the radio – that her interest in the Harlem vogueing subculture and its rich tradition is appropriation and neutering. It seems to me, though – as an obvious outsider, I grant you – that vogueing is in a wider tradition of aspiration as mockery. In this case it’s multiracial queers pastiching the rituals of white high society, to a degree that the pastiche becomes its own, more vibrant and intense reality. This isn’t a risk-free process: Elijah Wald’s How The Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll traces how the cakewalk, originated by plantation slaves as a parody of slaveowners’ social events, took on its own life after the Civil War and morphed into a minstrel show standby.

So a song about aspiration with these roots can’t help but contain a second edge, and it’s worth asking not just what “Vogue” does to voguing, but what Madonna’s own casual assumption of her icon status does to the pantheon she’s claiming membership in. Ends it, perhaps: at the end of the video the stiffness, skill and remove of the vogueing dance breaks down and the crowd begin to move more freely. “Vogue”, with its tension between the pose and the release, is a song which fits a particular moment in dance music history – as the wave of democratisation house music unleashed started to break against entrenched club mores.

OK, “be your own icon” isn’t necessarily the most profound of messages, but luckily what makes “Vogue” a great record is primarily its music – that house piano cutting across the synths and dominating the record’s endgame, and of course Madonna’s brilliant rap, emphases coming down regular like heels on marble so the triple-stresses (“we love you”, “dance on air”, “gave good face”) jump out even more. That section is one of the great pop moments of the 90s, where Madonna proves she fits just fine into whatever company she’s choosing to keep, and encourages you to believe the same.

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Comments

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  1. 76
    swanstep on 6 Feb 2012 #

    @Cumbrian. I thought M. did well, the best since Prince. The only really great half-time show before Prince that I’m aware of was U2’s post-9/11 Superbowl show, which had a special unrepeatable vibe. Go here if you haven’t seen it.

  2. 77
    Cumbrian on 6 Feb 2012 #

    Yeah, the U2 one was good. For once, Bono’s love of the grand gesture actually worked out well. Also, as people used to playing large stadia, they’ve got an inbuilt advantage I guess. Given that it was the post 9/11 Super Bowl as well, they judged the performance pretty finely.

    Not surprised to see more people judging that Madonna’s performance wasn’t all that good. A predictable reaction from the point at which she was chosen. I might well watch it again when I get home just to check – but my gut reaction was that it was pretty good.

  3. 78
    Cumbrian on 7 Feb 2012 #

    Minor update: hamstring injury was apparently the cause of Madonna’s awkward movement on Sunday night. Seemed pretty obvious that there was something wrong.

  4. 79
    thefatgit on 7 Feb 2012 #

    Hamstring injuries at sporting events? Whatever next?

  5. 80

    […] Cyrus’s performance at the VMA’s and her music videos are frequently being compared to Madonna’s Vogue video and Gwen Stefani’s use of “Harajuku girls”; essentially, that these white […]

  6. 81
    Patrick Mexico on 11 Nov 2013 #

    From reading certain blogs I had no idea that so many people hated Black Velvet by Alannah Myles. I’m not sure I’m any the wiser as to why, apart from “Black velvet with that little boy smile” isn’t really appropriate in the steamy context of the song. I hear it as “that ladyboy smile”.. can… worms.. opened.

  7. 82
    mrdiscopop on 16 Nov 2014 #

    Tom, I love your reading of the song as “Madonna’s attempt to join a pantheon of pop culture icons” but I wonder if you knew it was originally knocked off in an afternoon as the b-side for Keep It Together (and released in that format in the US, amongst other places). It was only released as a single when dance stations started playing it instead of Shep Pettibone’s rather joyless remix of the a side.

    Madonna was undoubtedly stating her case for inclusion on the pop culture wall of fame. But she was doing so with her role in Dick Tracy (not for the first time overestimating her screen presence). I suspect the role call of famous names in the middle section were the photos she had pinned on her wall in the Warner Bros dressing room. Quite noticeably, she’s not comparing herself to any musicians…

    Still, by fluke or coincidence, she writes her last truly great song of the early 1990s. The single edit and 12″ mix are head and shoulders above the versions on I’m Breathless and The Immaculate Collection, which spoil the song’s immediacy with a dreary extended intro. 9/10

  8. 83
    hectorthebat on 15 Mar 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Arizona Republic (USA) – Madonna’s 30 Best Singles of All Time (2013) 18
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA)- The Songs That Shaped Rock (Additions 2011)
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 19
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 90s (2011) 10
    Washington Blade (USA) – Top 10 Madonna Songs (2004)
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1990s (2008)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1990s (2012) 12
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Sunday Times (UK) – Top 10 Madonna Songs (2007) 4
    Spex (Germany) – The Best Singles of the Century (1999)
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – The 100 Best Songs from 1990 to 1998 (1999) 50
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Porcys (Poland) – The Best Songs of the 1990s (2013) 9
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 4
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year 25
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 27
    Sounds (UK) – Singles of the Year 15
    Spex (Germany) – Singles of the Year 13
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – Songs of the Year 3

  9. 84
    Girl with Curious Hair on 25 Mar 2016 #

    Vogue has this awesome, almost fearful *precision*. The bassline and the house piano riff are merciless: they pound you into submission. Omit needless notes. The rap is delivered in stern Dominatrix tones. Even the video, appropriately monochrome, opens with the dancers straining to hold poses. Everything is as lean and clipped as those dancers’ cheekbones.

    It’s actually a pretty spare arrangement, once you get past the percussion. The bass and keyboard riffs that just keep on circling, tightening, coiling around the listener – they’re what, three notes each? The strings are high, unflinching drones, of the same technique that composers use to build tension in the movies. The stabs of synth are really just extensions of the beat. Is there a chord change in the entire song?

    It’s a leather pencil skirt of a song, really. Restrictive as hell, but the restriction is the whole point, and when it’s done right (which Vogue is), damn it’s sexy. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that this was very roughly around the time when Madonna was going off into Erotica and the BDSM imagery of Human Nature. Clearly there was something in the water in the early 1990s…

  10. 85
    Adam Puke on 25 Mar 2016 #

    Sex turns militant as a backlash against the squeaky clean post-AIDS pop years? Never thought of it like that before, but as a product of the anything goes immediate pre-AIDS NY clubland era Madonna certainly (briefly) had pop territory to reclaim from the wholesome Kylies/Jasons/New Kids. The new minimalism of ‘restrictive as hell’ house beats (plus their attendant UK tabloid notoriety) arguably provided the perfect platform to reinvent herself, even if the voluminous fashions of the time were the polar opposite of the leather pencil skirt.

    Though Erotica seemed a bit tired to me two years on, and she’d well kicked the arse out of the whole concept (no pun intended) by the time of Human Nature. Haven’t revisited them since, mind.

  11. 86
    Girl with Curious Hair on 25 Mar 2016 #

    I just checked, and apparently there were 5 years between Vogue and Human Nature – I had no idea it was that long! I still think Human Nature is the culmination of something about power and control that Vogue started, in a way.

    Vogue isn’t about sex, textually, but in the context of Madonna’s early career, where sex and its consequences are never far away, I can hear it throbbing through every beat of the song. Madonna is a legitimately Powerful Woman at this point, and it’s her assertiveness (mirrored by the music) that pulls you in.

    Human Nature *is* about sex (or, perhaps more accurately, the puritanical reactions that Madonna encountered when asserting her sexuality) but in the preceding 5 years, M has become defensive, over-eager to provoke, and it harms both song and video. When you’re tying yourself to a chair as latex-clad dancer boys writhe around on the floor about you, well… seduction works better when it’s subtext, I find.

    So yeah, I think Vogue is part of a sex-and-power continuum in M’s work that goes from Like a Virgin through Material Girl and Like a Prayer all the way to the aforementioned Human Nature, which seems to be the end point. After this she discovered mysticism and William Orbit, and sex was out.

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