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Dec 10

MADONNA – “Vogue”

FT + Popular86 comments • 6,557 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. 1
    logged-out Tracer Hand on 9 Dec 2010 #

    Hurrah!

  2. 2
    JLucas on 9 Dec 2010 #

    This is Madonna at her most imperial (and imperious) for me. It feels strange tagged onto the end of ‘I’m Breathless’ but as a standalone Greatest Hits single it’s perfection. I kind of see it as the “End of part one” single in Madonna’s canon. Sums up everything she’d achieved up to that point and put a neat cap on it. From here on in she was going to get a lot stranger, and unfortunately a lot less consistent.

    I do sometimes wish Hanky Panky had gone the distance as well though, what a bizarre chart-topper that would have been.

  3. 3
    richard thompson on 9 Dec 2010 #

    Greta Garbo died when this was number one

  4. 4
    lonepilgrim on 9 Dec 2010 #

    The ‘Like a prayer’ video finishes with a curtain call that emphasises the theatricality of the preceding drama – this picks up that performative quality and lets it infuse the whole song, harping back to an age where stars did not bare their hearts but where art was a lie that told the truth.
    When Madonna had performed at the 1985 Live Aid concert she declared “I’m not taking shit off today!” in reference to recently published nude photos. She has continued that process of concealment behind a variety of styles and poses to this day
    It’s interesting that this should coincide with ‘Pushing against the Dame’ hitting Bowie’s cover of ‘Wild is the wind’ (a song from a later era than Vogue’s movie stars), where he gives one of his more emotive performances with a song that (lyrically at least) reveals nothing about him.
    http://bowiesongs.wordpress.com/2010/12/09/wild-is-the-wind/

  5. 5
    lonepilgrim on 9 Dec 2010 #

    …and great to see Madge replace Kylie and JB

  6. 6
    Richaod on 9 Dec 2010 #

    Great to have you back – blogging hiatuses are something I know a lot about… Excellent review of course! There’s so much more to the song than meets the eye…

    I’ve probably written enough about Vogue: http://iconography.tumblr.com/post/311645733/vogue

    But the one thing I’ll add is, significantly, Vogue does not contain one instance of the word “I”. That Madonna manages to not so much argue as declare herself part of that pantheon, yet does so whilst seeming to totally remove any sense of ego from the equation is utterly brilliant. That’s one lesson I wish today’s popstars understood – self-aggrandisement without the reek of sheer effort, or Christina Aguilera-style narcissism.

  7. 7
    Clio on 9 Dec 2010 #

    On the rap bit and the triple stresses: This might jump out at me more because I’m an Amurrican, but most of the time when Madonna is rapping she’s not exactly trying to sound like a rapper. She’s almost cheering–and she was a cheerleader in high school. You can hear that specific sort of cheer cadence in a lot of her talking-rhythmically-in-a-song moments; the one that sounds the most like a cheer is the bit in “Thief of Hearts.” I think that’s a big reason why she can sound so relaxed and authentic, because she’s not trying to sound like a b-girl; she’s just a suburban girl who made up a cheer for her squad to go in the middle of that song.

  8. 8
    Tom on 9 Dec 2010 #

    #7 great point, yeah!

    #6 also a great point – cf my review of Dancing Queen IIRC.

  9. 9
    thefatgit on 9 Dec 2010 #

    A fine return to form, Tom, after such a long layoff. And in her video, Madonna returns to the screen goddess territory she obviously craved after her Marylin pastiche. But those monochrome soft-focus face shots simply highlight her shortcomings in the wake of her less than illustrious movie outings. “Vogue”, however is a stunning piece of House/Pop. Those synth-horn stabs that punctuate the Housey piano phrasing are marvellous, even if in a ’90s context, they’re an ’80s cliche. They work here.

    I get the sense, that even if everything she’s doing is carefully calculated, she can still cut loose and have fun on lines like “get on the dancefloor/that’s what it’s for! C’MON VOGUE…”. It’s a little less brash and visceral than “Into The Groove”, but she’s maturing and about to confront her most ardent fans with just what it means to be feminine and desired.

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 9 Dec 2010 #

    I’m listening to the Immaculate Collection ‘Vogue’ as I write – Somebody please tell me this another mistaken mix? It certainly goes on forever and is rather slower than I remember. Or does this just work better when halved in length and seen as a video on TV…

    The ‘rapping’ bit is miles better than the rest of it, and was what I enjoyed most about ‘Vogue’ at the time. Reaction to this bit was rather divisive – as a strange teenager who had voraciously read up books of old Hollywood I new who all of these icons were and didn’t really think that Madonna was worthy of joining their pantheon. Whereas for my peers who had sensibly spent their adolescences drinking, snogging and dancing rather than seeking out Busby Berkley films on Channel 4, only Marylin Monroe and James Dean from the Vogue list meant anything to them, the rest a list of cool names. Without this knowledge this section of the song – and the strike a pose philosophy of Vogueism – actually made more sense to them than it did to me.

    My other reaction was bewilderment that anyone of Madonna’s status would hitch a ride on the Vogueing non-bandwagon, something that I’d read about in Time Out and seen on ‘Out On Tuesday’ two years earlier and had manifestly failed to catch on in the interim, as Malcolm McLaren had learned to his cost. At least she didn’t go baggy, though!

  11. 11
    Billy Smart on 9 Dec 2010 #

    #2 Watch: Two weeks of Alannah Myles’ dreary smooth blues ‘Black Velvet’, then a week of Paula Abdul’s ‘Opposites Attract’

  12. 12
    Tom on 9 Dec 2010 #

    #10 The Immaculate Collection version is about half a minute longer and remixed, not as badly as LAP but still noticeably – FWIW I was using a mix just under 5 minutes from a torrent of all Madge singles I got last year and has proved usefully accurate re. radio and video mixes.

  13. 13
    Richaod on 9 Dec 2010 #

    #10 The Immaculate Collection mix is a barely noticeable 20 seconds longer… as much as the music is a 10 for me, I wouldn’t blame you for finding it more compelling as a music video (which, mind you, isn’t an edit, either).

  14. 14
    abaffledrepublic on 9 Dec 2010 #

    #5: I was also wondering when Madonna would get a turn at the top of the top of the FT page. This point is as good as any, as she reached number two no fewer than four times over the next year and a bit, although admittedly two of those were reissues. Any of them would have been more worthy number ones than some of the dreck that stood in their way.

  15. 15
    tonya on 9 Dec 2010 #

    My reasoning for a 9 would be 10 for the rest of the record minus 1 for the rap, so it’s interesting how much people love the rap. Is one of the definitions of imperial phase “ability to combine a faded dance trend and house-by-numbers into a record that everyone will immediately recognize as a classic”? Because I remember being amazed at how great this was when it kinda had no right to be.

    Her interesting move to me was taking vogueing away from fashion and saying it was about Hollywood. It bugged me at the time, like she didn’t understand, but I can see why people would think this was her way to say she was up there with the monuments. And I guess Madonna had better standing to steal black, gay culture than Malcolm McLaren ever did (speaking as a fan of both).

  16. 16
    Martin on 9 Dec 2010 #

    It hadn’t occurred to me until just now, but those triplets in the verse are a bit similar to another song that was hugely popular around the same time — Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Better, sure. But similar.

    If I were bolder I’d assert that two songs basically resorting to thumbnail descriptions of famous people and events would suggest a serious problem in pop music on the level of content during that period — but I’m not that bold.

  17. 17
    swanstep on 10 Dec 2010 #

    Rather impressive pop package this one… One important point about Vogue that no one else has made that I’m aware of goes as follows:

    On one level, as Tom says it’s ‘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.’ On another level, though, that assertion’s been there all along, just not made *completely* explicit. I think that M’s deepest insight from the beginning was that there was massive unmet demand in culture by the ’80s for female glamour: there had been no big new female stars out of Hollywood since the ’60s (and whole woman-centered genres from melodramas to the rom-com almost completely died off for almost 25 years from 1965-1990). Could pop-dance-music and vids be an alternative source of incredible glamour? Yes, M. established it could.

    But, at the exact moment when M. was somewhat desperately trying to become a movie-star (understandable, but also somewhat betraying of her own best insight), and also making her original modus operandi very explicit in Vogue, things *finally* changed in Hollywood, altering the equation for M. in culture overall.

    In early 1990 Pretty Woman comes out and suddenly glamorous Hollywood is suddenly all on again (and modern celebrity/tabloid journalism/cable tv explode in response to that and to the diva ‘supermodel’ wave hit). The great run of teen films from Fast Times, Risky Business, John Hughes to Heathers ends, and suddenly more adult-centered (at least 20 somethings) rom-coms and lots of wedding-based comedies are literally everywhere. Julia Roberts was the biggest female movie star since Audrey Hepburn (and the first female movie star of any serious magnitude for at least a decade) and the shift she produced across the whole industry was decisive. By the time you get things like 4 Weddings and Muriel’s Wedding in 1994 it was clear we were smack in the middle of something: the rotating stack of types, plots, tones that constitute the Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant screwball, or whatever it is. Anyhow, M. not only would have to beat a somewhat grumpy, chastened retreat from her Hollywood career throughout the ’90s, the culture had generally moved on so that pop-music absolutely didn’t have the female glamour field almost to itself any more. Pop-music wouldn’t own the female glamour business again until the mid ’00s, when esp. as roberts and grant aged out of the rom-com age-zone, that era and its tropes ran out of gas, and there were no freakishly ultra-charming stars* to replace them. Suddenly High school-centered comedy showed some serious signs of life, and suddenly too a gap in the marketplace for female glamour opened up again, which all the Beyonces and Gagas have duly filled.
    Anyhow, Vogue and its vid. are definitely a high-water mark for M. and for the power of pop-dance music itself as a source of female glamour in the wider culture.

    *Rom-coms esp. are inherently manipulative and predictable and irritating…. In my view, they tend to work only when there are a bunch of actors around (at least one woman and one man) who have off-the-charts level of charm, who make the whole thing bearable and then through repetition and familiarity allow us to see all the micro-differences in plotting and characterization that we otherwise would be invisible amid all the cloddish high-manipulativeness and heart-string-tugging etc. What made the ’30s/’40s stuff great was the large pool of freakish charmers, hepburn/grant/stanwyck/stewart/colbert/fonda/tracy. In most decades since there’s just been at most one solid pair (not necessarily working together all the time) anchoring the genre.

  18. 18
    weej on 10 Dec 2010 #

    Welcome back! I’ve been suffering Popular withdrawal symptoms.
    I can recognise Vogue as a masterclass of pop production, to the extent of not being able to find a single fault with it, but at the same time it just doesn’t move me in any significant way. I can’t really connect to it on a personal level. Still a great song, but it’s never going to be a favourite of mine.

  19. 19
    Ciaran Gaynor on 10 Dec 2010 #

    Frankie Knuckles was interviewed on the BBC’s Dancing In The Streets documentary in the mid 90s, and he said of Vogue that for him it was the moment where house music became “legit”. He wasn’t saying that in a dismissive way, he meant it as a validation. That’s quite in keeping with Mr Fingers’ Can You Feel It and that records pronouncements about house music being EVERYBODY’S music “if you’re black or white, jew or gentile” etc. Something about the mass popularity of Vogue is fitting with that everyone-welcomed ethos of Chicago house.

  20. 20
    Billy on 10 Dec 2010 #

    Madonna for most of her career has always felt slightly overrated to me. I mean, yeah, she’s made good stuff during her 80s heyday and late 90s revival onwards…but just not quite as good as the songs they’re trying to match. There’s much, much better dance-pop around during both those times, mostly from the UK.

    The exception is circa 1989/1990 when everything she did was absolutely awesome. Including Like a Prayer, the far too underrated Express Yourself, and especially this epic. It continues a run of unbelievably awesome number 1s during this time – I’d considered 1990 a bit of a weak year before these recent entries, but bloody hell there’s some classics!!

    And I just *bet* that had internet forums existed back then, everyone would still be complaining that music isn’t as good as it was twenty years ago ;)

  21. 21
    punctum on 10 Dec 2010 #

    “What you lookin’ at?”

    I’m looking at the end of the video for “Prince Charming” where successive Adams are standing, nearly motionless, dressed up as heroes for a centrespread and I nod my head in wonder that New Pop could permeate so much, so late.

    “Strike the pose”

    Even if Madonna merely studied post-punk and New Pop, took what she needed from it – in other words, the poses – and used it to advertise herself, implying that there was something to be advertised, such that Ari Up’s “I’m not a material girl” becomes, or is made to become “I am a material girl,” then she was the keenest and most astute of students. Certainly she must have listened to Waltz Darling, the 1989 album by Malcolm McLaren and the Bootzilla Orchestra which beat her to celebrating vogueing by a year…but few people outside the circle bought or heard that, and Madonna can hardly be blamed for wanting to drag it (in drag? “Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean/On the cover of a magazine”) into pop (im)proper.

    Opening on a flat plane of high string synth drones, Shep Pettibone’s aqueous electric piano and synthesiser land gracefully in the river of (dis)grace; as with the remixes he did for the Pet Shop Boys, there is an unhurried stateliness about his method of dance. The song revisits the “Into The Groove” territory of the dancefloor as escape (“You try everything you can to escape/The pain of life that you know”), but five years have passed and Madonna is no longer (was she ever?) ingenuous about her joy; there is a shadow looming over “Vogue” which cannot easily be displaced.

    “When all else fails and you long to be/Something better than you are today”

    The song appears over the end credits of Dick Tracy, a vogueing film if ever there were one; all primary colours, poses, living cartoons, queasy semi-reality. It fulfills the same function as the “Broadway Melody Ballet” does in Singin’ In The Rain; the hero wakes up from his dreams of a heroic past into an unforgiving modern world where doors are slammed in his face, mob henchmen toss coins threateningly at him, and yet he decides to continue surviving and thriving there (Cyd Charisse is there, and only there, precisely to “vogue”). Meanwhile, over the pleasingly ambiguous bassline, Madonna attempts to encourage a view of happiness, a guide to the thing if not the thing itself (“If the music’s pumping it will give you new life/You’re a superstar – YES! That’s what you are! You KNOW it!”) – but is she once again singing to her blackened but gradually brightening mirror? As the piano careers like a slalom of displaced chords through the chorus, like a labyrinth out of which she is trying to dance herself, there is a hint of desperation about her “come on”s and “hey, hey, hey”s; but then as the music rises in its bridge, via a nod to Bolan (“Not just where you bump and grind it”), Madonna rediscovers a soul, a purpose – the illuminated stairway to heaven which she ascends one step at a time (“musical,” “beautiful!,” “magical!!,” “LIFE’S A BALL!!!“) until she is at the summit, triumphant – “So GET UP ON THE DANCE FLOOR!!!!

    But then we descend again into the central spoken section – and there is a sudden blankness (“Beauty is where you find it” as if she hasn’t actually found it) to her cold, verging on frozen, incantation of idols of her past (“Picture of a beauty queen” – again, not the thing, or the human being, itself, or herself), with the odd wink (“Rita Hayworth gave good face”), a trace of earnestness (“Bette Davis…we love you”). “Ladies with an attitude, fellas that were in the mood” – the inference being that all of this illustrious history and art has led up to, culminated in, her…and was that all there is, as she rapidly descends the staircase with her death sentence:

    “Don’t just stand there.
    Let’s get to it.
    Strike a pose.
    There’s nothing to it.
    Vogue.”

    Madonna’s “There’s nothing to it” is one of the most terrifying chasms of emptiness in pop; she speaks it such that she means it literally. Look in the mirror, dance to the music – but glance behind that mirror, look below that dancefloor, and there is a ghastly void. The documentary In Bed With Madonna, which documented her Blonde Ambition tour, seems to exult in its own grumpy way that there is, indeed, nothing to what Madonna does, nothing to explain the presence of Warren Beatty or Kevin Costner – why are they there? Worse, why are we here, watching?

    Her closing “oooohhh”s are her lifeline out of the dredged river of nothing – but again there is that stern proclamation of (or order to) “Vogue” at the end, following which the track echoes away into limbo, like a briefly snatched dream, now too distant to grasp. As though she could ever be “near.” “Don’t you ever, don’t you ever…”

  22. 22
    vinylscot on 10 Dec 2010 #

    Welcome back Popular!

    Please don’t do that again. That “radio” programme was absolutely awful. Like a Rhod Gilbert stand-up set, it went on far too long. After five minutes we knew where it was going, after fifteen we had heard it all, and by the time it was half-way done I was praying for it to stop. Self-indulgent, supercilious, over-analytical, retro-fitted crap!

    Tom, your reviews and comments on this blog (which is the only source I know your writing from) shows that you are better than that. As you may have guessed, I was more than a little disappointed.

    I’m not saying I could have done any better, indeed I don’t really have very much to say about “Vogue”. Like one or two others, I don’t hear a rap in here, I hear a chant. A chant which gave rise to a number of silly drinking games involving inserting inappropriate alternative celebrity names – points off for repetition or hesitation, of course. “Hello”, by The Beloved, which had just left the charts as this arrived, was actually better for the game, as it already included some rather barmy “celeb” names, Vince Hilaire and Jean-Paul Sartre included.

  23. 23
    wichita lineman on 10 Dec 2010 #

    I’d never even thought of it as a rap, just a handy list of references – “check these cats out”. More like the chorus of Dance Stance than the hysterical twins We Didn’t Start The Fire/It’s The End Of The World As We Know It.

    Harlow Jean, though. Couldn’t she have spent another 30 seconds thinking about it and come up with “Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow” and “Grace Kelly, Norma Jean”? And the last couplet rhymes “to it” with “to it”.

    “Grace Kelly, Howard Jones”.

  24. 24
    Mark G on 10 Dec 2010 #

    Went out to Turkey with the dance troup. They’d asked us to have a routine based on the number 1 record in the UK at the time.

    So, we pre-rehearsed and practiced a routine around Snap’s “The Power”

    Unfortunately, the day we left the UK, this was deposed by “Vogue”, and we watched the video and said, ach, we haven’t go time to sort costumes and routines for *THAT* one out. So we told them “nooh, it’s still “The Power” at the moment.

    So, I would guess we were the first and only dance troupe ever to turn down the opportunity to do “Vogue”….

  25. 25
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 10 Dec 2010 #

    We didn’t know where it was going, vinylscott — they’re not scripted.

  26. 26
    vinylscot on 10 Dec 2010 #

    I wasn’t implying it was scripted, just mind-numbingly predictable.

  27. 27
    punctum on 10 Dec 2010 #

    #22: Who are “we”?

  28. 28
    punctum on 10 Dec 2010 #

    #23: I actually wondered whether that sequence might have been an inspiration for “Girl VII.”

  29. 29
    vinylscot on 10 Dec 2010 #

    punctum #27 – i did begin listening to it in company, but ended up alone!

  30. 30
    punctum on 10 Dec 2010 #

    haha my experience was exactly the reverse; I began listening alone and then Lena came home from work about halfway through the prog.

    We enjoyed the Terre Thaemlitz bit.

    Mark S should have his own TV cookery show, really.

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