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Dec 10

MADONNA – “Vogue”

FT + Popular81 comments • 4,357 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. 51
    Matthew H on 13 Dec 2010 #

    Speaking of the Pet Shop Boys, I noticed this morning that the intro to Take That’s ‘The Flood’ sounds as if it’s emerging from their ‘The End Of The World’.

    Back on message, that’s another terrific write-up which concisely sums up ‘Vogue”s status as Event Pop. One frivolous observation from me: at the time, this always made me feel “sexy” – a towering achievement with a floppy-fringed 17-year-old boy.

  2. 52
    Mark G on 14 Dec 2010 #

    The same sample used on “Justify My love” is present on a My Bloody Valentine track called “Untitled”, a freebie with “Isn’t Anything”.

  3. 53
    Rory on 15 Dec 2010 #

    My Madonna blind spot, temporarily suspended for “Like a Prayer”, returned with this; even today I’d only give it 6. Intellectually I can concede the fine points you all make, but my heart has never been in it.

  4. 54
    Rory on 15 Dec 2010 #

    Number one in Australia for 5 weeks, by the way, as a double A-side with “Keep It Together”.

  5. 55
    Kit on 17 Dec 2010 #

    does anyone actually have a citation of either Chuck or Hank being angry about the S1W loop? Hank seems more likely, if there’s any truth to it, but it all seems a bit playground chatter from here.

    (Though if it were true, I’d argue that there’s no hypocrisy; the Bomb Squad cut up, played backwards, sped up, slowed down, collaged and rebuilt hundreds of individual samples into their tracks, and did it at home and on cheap overnight rates in grotty studios. Kravitz took a big paycheck and a writing/publishing credit for pitching a single loop down to -7, at a time when the Boxleys were trying to get actual major-label earning work [eg the Sinead remix, Bell Biv Devoe production] and would have been happy for the opportunity to actually create & get paid for something themselves. That’s a reasonable enough cause for irritation.)

  6. 56
    swanstep on 17 Dec 2010 #

    @Kit. It was Hank who was angry. I’ll try to track down a ref. for you (but your google fu is probably at least as good as mine!) [update - here's an EW piece and here's a Christgau piece on some of the furore at the time]. IIRC, the pretty sweet payday Kravitz got for not doing very much was part of what irked Shocklee. In interviews too, Kravitz argued something like that it wasn’t a real sample loop because he’d just used some rough tape of ‘Security for the first world’ in the mix, not an ultra-cleaned-up, digitally separated file (and to Kravitz’s credit that lo-fi-ness of the sample, and hearing tape speed up at the beginning on Justify really does add something – but, jesus, it’s still a sample that’s most of the song!). Shocklee wasn’t amused by this at all.

  7. 57
    Kit on 19 Dec 2010 #

    Ha, thanks for the Xgau link – sounds like Shocklee and Stepney saw a great opportunity for publicity far more than there was genuine sustained outrage behind the kerfuffle. Nice to see I guessed right abt what would have kicked it off, though.

  8. 58
    George on 22 Dec 2010 #

    God knows why Joe DiMaggio is mentioned in the pantheon of glamour and style. From what I’ve read about him he was a fairly conservative guy who believed Monroe should dedicate herself to being an housewife first and making sure his linguine was on the table for when he got home from practice. Knowing next to bugger all about Baseball I’ll bow to superior knowledge on this one.

    Madonna was cruising in high gear here but the first real commercial decline of her career wasn’t too far away. She had got away with the furor over the video to ‘Justify My Love’ by releasing it as a VHS single which unsurprisingly sold by the truckload after some broadcasters banned it but the coffee table soft porn of ‘Sex’ plus the sight of Madge receiving cunnilingus from Willem Dafoe on a car bonnet in the dreadful ‘Body Of Evidence’ was too contrived by half. All that however, was a couple of years down the line.

  9. 59
    weej on 22 Dec 2010 #

    In the early 90s I thought for some reason that she sang “Rory Bremner” instead of “Marlon Brando”. No idea why.

  10. 60
    Mutley on 22 Dec 2010 #

    #58 I’m glad you raised the point about DiMaggio. I think this “pantheon” doesn’t hang too well together and raises a lot of questions, at least to an elderly pedant like me. DiMaggio was a great sportsman, but I don’t think he was glamorous. If one sportsman has to be included (and why?), why not pick Sugar Ray Robinson the ultimate glamorous sportsman of the very extended period covered (includes Jean Harlow died 1937, and Lauren Bacall born 1924 and still alive).

    By the way, why Lauren Bacall but not Humphrey Bogart?

    Brando and James Dean brought in a new style of acting that was the antithesis of glamour as shown in the video and represented by some of the other stars listed. It would make more sense to include George Clooney.

    OK, I’m being pedantic, the lyrics of pop songs don’t merit such close scrutiny, and by 1990 all these old stars could be condensed into to a single point in showbiz history that can be labelled glamorous or stylish.

  11. 61
    punctum on 22 Dec 2010 #

    #60: the answer, as with all such things, lies in what will scan and what won’t.

    Kids! What’s your favourite non-”Vogue” song with the words “Joe DiMaggio” in the lyrics? Choose from the following:

    A) “Mrs Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel;
    B) “Smalltown Agonist” by Carla Bley and Paul Haines;
    C) “We Didn’t Start The Fire” by Billy Joel.

    It could be your chance to write for H&F News!

  12. 62
    Mutley on 22 Dec 2010 #

    #61 I’d vote for (C) because it has a punctilious attention to chronology unlike Vogue.

  13. 63
    Mutley on 22 Dec 2010 #

    #61/62 And (C) mentions Sugar Ray Robinson (which of A,B and C contain the word “Robinson”?)

  14. 64
    vinylscot on 22 Dec 2010 #

    Can we allow mentions of DiMaggio on it’s own so that Tom Waits can win with “A Sight For Sore Eyes”? (After all, that’s all that Madonna said)

  15. 65
    George on 22 Dec 2010 #

    C, which is a great ‘list’ song. Not an easy task to pull off either, but then I’ve never understood the deep contempt much of the UK music press had for Joel. There’s been far worst crimes in pop’s history than singing into a spanner on a music video.

  16. 66
    Steve Mannion on 22 Dec 2010 #

    My favourite bit in the video is when she nudges her potentially show-stealing co-dancer.

    Earlier in the year during round 10 of the Which Decade Is Top For Pops spectacular on FT I quoted DJ Sprinkles/Terre Thaemlitz’s anti-’Vogue’ rant as featured on his (imo very good) ‘Midtown 120 Blues’ LP from 2009.
    http://freakytrigger.co.uk/which-decade-is-tops-for-pops/2010/06/which-decade-is-tops-for-pops-round-10-the-number-ones/

    Still interested in Mike A’s response to that if he wants to add it here. It’s severely at odds with what Ciaran described at #19 and tho I do recall Frankie Knuckles in that documentary talking about why it was okay to do a remix for the Pet Shop Boys but not Julio Iglesias I’m not sure how inclusive the House pioneers wanted things really.

  17. 67
    DietMondrian on 22 Dec 2010 #

    Another list song from around the same time was The Beloved’s “Hello”, where the list appears truly random. From Wikipedia:

    “In alphabetical order, the people listed in the song are: Jeffrey Archer (politician and novelist), Fred Astaire, Bobby Ball (comedian), Charlie Brown, Tommy Cannon (comedian), Billy Corkhill (soap opera character), Leslie Crowther (TV presenter), “Freddie” Flintstone, Paris Grey (singer), Brian Hayes (broadcaster), Vince Hilaire (footballer), Barry Humphries, The LSO, Kym Mazelle (singer), Mork and Mindy, Little Nell, Charlie Parker, Andre Previn, Little Richard, Salman Rushdie, Jean Paul Sartre, The Supremes (“Mary Wilson, Di and Flo”), William Tell, Sir Bufton Tufton, Desmond Tutu, Willy Wonka, Zippy and Bungle (TV characters). There are also references to “Peter” and “Paul”, presumably the Christian apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Kym Mazelle, who’s mentioned in the song, actually sings backing vocals on it.”

  18. 68
    Steve Mannion on 22 Dec 2010 #

    Let’s not forget the altogether (awesomely) grimmer Big Hard Excellent Fish’s ‘Imperfect List’ from this same year. I’m imagining an awry mash-up of all four now.

    “Hula hoops / Vince Hilaire / Ginger Rogers…focken bastad Thatcher”

  19. 69
    vinylscot on 23 Dec 2010 #

    …and also “Endless Art” by A House from 92, although the people listed were all dead.

  20. 70
    thefatgit on 23 Dec 2010 #

    Oooh! I love list songs!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uR_2wEnqzbU

  21. 71
    swanstep on 23 Dec 2010 #

    Not a list song, but a useful bit of name-dropping: Atari Teenage Riot’s (impossibly attractive when dancing) Hanin announces the millennium in 1992 and the end of marilyn, james dean and everything madonna hails in vogue, in the b-section of the first verse, of atari teenage riot. WHAT DID YOU SAY?

  22. 72
    Billy Smart on 27 Dec 2010 #

    MMWatch: April 7 1990. Bob Stanley was underwhelmed;

    “Another disappointment. Not *bad*, but ‘Vogue’ sounds like it would be the second or third single off a Madonna album (‘Express Yourself’, ‘Dress You Up’) rather than the deluxe, top of the range introductory model (‘Like A Prayer’ ‘Who’s That Girl’). A nod to techno on the rhythm track becomes wholesale robbery on the verse which casually nicks the entire chorus from Inner City’s ‘Ain’t Nobody Better’ and hopes we’re too dumb to notice. The cheek! Even a checklist of hep cats towards the end is tiresomely predictable – “Marylin and Jimmy Dean” etc. Why not Warren Beatty, Sean Penn, it would have been much cooler? Doubtless it’ll sound 10 times better in tandem with the video.”

    Stanley awarded single of the week to ‘The Play EP’ by Ride. Also reviewed that week;

    The Associates – Fever
    Professor Griff & The Last Asiatic Disciples – Pawns In The Game
    Marillion – Easter
    Snuff – Flibbidydibbidydob

  23. 73
    DanielW on 3 Feb 2011 #

    Good, but not her best by a long stretch. The spoken-word part is the highlight of this song for me and the verses are good too, but the chorus is bland and a little stilted in my opinion.

    #72 – Bob Stanley pretty much hit the nail on the head with that review, and I could kick myself for not noticing the similarities between “Vogue” and “Ain’t Nobody Better”

  24. 74
    Davyboyb on 22 Sep 2011 #

    #6 what about the “I” in “That’s why I feel so beautiful….”?

  25. 75
    Cumbrian on 6 Feb 2012 #

    Vogue kicked off Madonna’s Super Bowl half time show last night. Being a keen American football fan, I’ve seen pretty much all these shows going back to the early 90s and I would say that…she was pretty decent. The stage show itself was excellent, amazing on-field graphics augmenting the Vogue and Give Me All Your Luvin’ sections and a healthy amount of spectacle – which really is required for the Half Time show to really work (after all, you’re performing in the round, with most of the audience miles away from you and you also need to provide something for the audience at home too). Also, unlike recent hows from the heritage stars that have come in post the Timberlake/Janet Jackson incident, it did have a tinge of the contemporary in there which I thought made it work a bit better than some recent Half Time shows (Nicky Minaj and MIA being involved was a plus for this I think). It was certainly miles better than Black Eyed Peas last year.

    I think the one major criticism I would have is that Madonna’s choice of footwear was pretty poor – massive high heeled boots – and led to her movement around the stage being quite stilted. I can’t believe I am recommending sensible shoes – but it probably would have made a difference to the energy levels she was able to physically show.

    Quite a bit of the commentariat seem to be harping on her lip-syncing some of this performance. Not bothered by this – apart from anything, no one plays live at the Super Bowl (too many things can go wrong, so apparently acts record the backing track before the night and mime) and I reckon I’ve seen a few of the other acts lip-synching in previous years too – funnily enough when it was aging male rocks stars, this seemed to be tolerated (or at least not noticed). Also, minor controversy, MIA gave the camera a healthy up yours too, which will doubtless raise temperatures in parts of the USA.

    All in all though, pretty decent. In my view, not as good as Prince’s half time show but better than Springsteen’s (and I love Bruce) and a country mile better than Tom Petty’s, Paul McCartney’s and the Black Eyed Peas’ efforts.

    Of course, I’ve only seen it once – this morning whilst trying to catch up with the game before going to work; so I could be talking rubbish. Maybe I should watch it again.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 79
    thefatgit on 7 Feb 2012 #

    Hamstring injuries at sporting events? Whatever next?

  30. 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 […]

  31. 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.

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