Dec 10

MADONNA – “Vogue”

FT + Popular86 comments • 7,042 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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  1. 31
    rosie on 10 Dec 2010 #

    And it’s during the reign of this single that Rosie won a seat on the council of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, and thus became Councillor Rosie for the first time.

    It was the year of shenanigans in local government elections, in which underhand tactics were tried in Tory marginal boroughs Westminster and Wandsworth (the same underhand tactics, involving registering empty properties with the connivance of estate agents, manipulating postal votes, and setting up spurious proxies, would be repeated more widely two years later in a general election). Reading John O’Farrell’s autobiography years later I was struck by how closely his life and mine had run in parallel up to this point, whereupon John lost a supposedly safe Labour seat in Wandsworth and I picked up a potentially iffy one in North Kensington with a big swing. John went on to be a successful writer while I had an unhappy time in politics and was eventually thoroughly shafted by the Blair enforcers. But that’s another story for later in the decade.

  2. 32
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 10 Dec 2010 #

    “Retro-fitted” = the programme seemed shaped to a pre-determined conclusion? That’s what I took you to mean, hence “scripted” — which it wasn’t, they never are. (D’you mean the mark out of ten?)

  3. 33
    Tracer Hand on 10 Dec 2010 #

    vinylscot: due to a podcasting error, you actually WERE hearing a Rhod Gilbert standup set. The feed has been fixed so please try redownloading.

  4. 34

    Apologies VS, it’s a bit invidious me quizzing on your take on our show in public like this — but as one of the production team of the series I am interested in intelligent negative feedback, not least because more Popular-based Lollards are likely. Any chance of you dropping me a line with a more detailed critique? (Don’t worry if you don’t feel like it — but projects like this often end up in a bubble of the the good will of those directly involved, which is a nice bubble to be in, but not a good long-term set-up)

    marksink3r at googlemail dot com

  5. 35
    Jimmy the Swede on 10 Dec 2010 #

    #31 – Without wishing to defend Shirley Porter in any way, in the interests of fairness it should be pointed out that evil-doing in local government (particularly concerning allegations of postal vote fixing) has not been confined to one party, as subsequent events in Tower Hamlets demonstrated.

    Vinylscot – You were rather reticent in your criticism of the radio show back there. Please clarify. Did you not care for it?

  6. 36
    jim5et on 10 Dec 2010 #

    I thoroughly enjoyed it and have listened to some other Lollards stuff because of it.

  7. 37
    thefatgit on 10 Dec 2010 #

    I have always regarded Lollards as a series of informal conversations/discussions that tend to take on a life of their own, and are not dictated by a rigid format where bullet points are ticked off as the discussions progress. I don’t always agree with what’s being said, but the podcasts have never been less than fascinating.

  8. 38
    vinylscot on 10 Dec 2010 #

    Mark – I’ve dropped you a short note – I think. Obviously the “at” and “dot” get substituted, but does the “3” stay as a “3” in your email? Daft question, as it probably does, but just checking.

  9. 39
    Tom on 10 Dec 2010 #

    Sorry you didn’t like the show VS – I suspect and hope we’ll be doing more Slug of Pop formats but probably *not* actually tackling the very next track up on Popular, as it contributed somewhat to my demotivation in doing the entry! I felt I’d “done” Vogue when of course I hadn’t really.

  10. 40
    pink champale on 10 Dec 2010 #

    never mind the lollards (i haven’t heard the popular one, but like those i have: clever people talking lightly about things they are interested in – what’s not to like?), I don’t like ‘vogue’!

    okay, “don’t like” is too strong, but i just don’t hear it as one of the very best madonna records in the way that everyone else seems to. it just seems a bit brittle and static to me, lacking the emotional urgency and dynamism of something like ‘like a prayer’ or ‘papa don’t preach’, let alone ‘into the groove’ (which gets the SAME mark? *mutter, mutter*).

    you are all very convincing though, so i’m working my way towards accepting that it’s just me. the rap is certainly excellent.

  11. 41
    Mark G on 10 Dec 2010 #

    #21: Certainly she must have listened to Waltz Darling, the 1989 album by Malcolm McLaren and the Bootzilla Orchestra

    as you say, which was the first to “Vogue”..

    Still, fairs fair, as The Clash had actually beat Malcolm McLaren to the scratching/hip-hop by a full year with “This is Radio Clash” .

  12. 42
    ciaran10 on 10 Dec 2010 #

    Okay Vogue. Sister absolutely loved this.In fact remember my ears shattering given how loud she sang this when it was played on the radio one day in the car a few years back. Serious devotion along with gloria estafan and lisa stansfield which lasted for about 2 weeks.

    Im very surprised this didnt go into double digits.If anything as you say tom it cememted her place among the greats.its almost like vogue and like a prayer are the angel and devil on the shoulder type records with the blasphemous and dangerous like a prayer with the pitchfork in one hand and vogue being the more accessible and universal record.Not equally good all told.Not a record I would listen to much but wouldnt be be annoyed if it came on the radio either.

    Does this now mean that given madonna has 3 (9) and 1 (10) record that she has the highest ranking overall of all the acts.

  13. 43
    lonepilgrim on 10 Dec 2010 #

    re 42

    I’d put LaP on the side of the angels and this on the other if forced to make that distinction.

    Your last point is a great spot – a reflection of how Madonna fits into Tom’s own pop history rather than ‘the canon’ I would suggest.

  14. 44
    anto on 10 Dec 2010 #

    I find myself in accordance with Billy Smart here. Any notion of Madonna ever matching up to Bette Davies was swept away by er..Swept Away. Coincidentally this entry appears as I find myself a third of the way through Shaun Considines fascinating The Divine Feud. One thing that strikes me about Joan Crawford is just how modern and Madonna-esque her approach to fame seems – frequent changes of image/emphasis, ambition that exceeds but crucially does not dwarf her actual talent, obsession with carnal knowledge ,even being seen very publicly to adopt children. Also if the story about 21-year old Marilyn paying a visit to the Crawford abode and staying for breakfast is true….well the material girl had to be merely content with copying one of her film sequences. Maybe we’ll be spared Madonna starring in a re-make of Mildred Pierce.
    As for Vogue it strikes me as a bit of a fluke. The singer grabbing at several trends at once and somehow binding them together convincingly enough.

    Re: radio programme – I agree about the video for Being Boring. I find it a total mis-match. The Geordie lads and lasses in the So Hard vid look much better fun to party with than Bruce Webbers monochrome narcissists.

  15. 45
    loomer on 10 Dec 2010 #

    Not only did “Vogue” rip off Malcolm McLaren’s “Deep In Vogue” from the previous year – she had actually watched McLaren perform this at a benefit concert she was involved at – but it’s actually kind of a mash-up composite of several songs and influences “Blue Monday”-style.

    The opening verse is from the chorus of Inner City’s “Ain’t Nobody Better”, they complained about her thievery at the time. Most obviously the horns were taken from Salsoul Orchestra’s “Chicago Bus Stop” which Pettibone remixed. And the basic beat of the song is taken from another remix of his, Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much”. The bassline is also the same as her own “Causing A Commotion”.

  16. 46
    MikeMCSG on 12 Dec 2010 #

    Another name-dropping hit not previously mentioned – Transvision Vamp’s execrable “Born To Be Sold”.

    Looking forwards that “Get Up on the dance floor” bridge to the chorus was lifted wholesale for S Club 7’s “Don’t Stop Movin” which reminds me that its writer Cathy Dennis had a short-lived career recycling this song in the early 90s.

    For all its influence I find it cold and unengaging.

  17. 47
    swanstep on 12 Dec 2010 #

    @loomer, 45. Thanks for those references. Even the Inner City track is new to me, so I guess I was part of the great unwashed mass who got to hear Madonna as effectively originating a lot of stuff that was actually in the air at the time if you were connected to the right scene. I think you’re being a little harsh calling the final item just a mash-up, but your excavations definitely help clarify the exact level at which Madonna and her producers are working, i.e., to streamline things and to impose her lyrics and characteristic obsessions and personality on some existing sound possibilities.

    It’s interesting that after this M. *increasingly* looked to her producer du jour to very explicitly provide a lot of the underlying sound stuff and that they then get album co-writing credits for all. On that front at least Vogue feels transitional: Shep Pettibone is getting the co-writing credit but he isn’t really providing the sounds in the same way Willam Orbit or nellee Hooper or mirwais or stuart price/rhythmes digitales will later do. Rather all these other artists that Pettibone’s heard and/or remixed are providing the sounds, hence their prima facie pretty legit. gripes about thievery to the extent that, e.g., Inner city, aren’t given co-writing credits.

    I recall Public Enemy going pretty ape-shit about not getting payed/credited for the massive sample from them (from ‘Security of the first world’ IIRC) that’s most of Justify My love. But there wasn’t a law-suit about it as far as I know, perhaps because PE lived in a glass house on that front. A messy period for attributions until the mid ’90s was my sense of things. Certainly by the time Daft punk get on the scene, full writing credit for major samples and various sorts of reverse engineerings seemed to be much more widely practised.

  18. 48
    will on 13 Dec 2010 #

    Late on this one, and there’s nothing to add really except that this, for me, is Madonna’s greatest, most enduring Number One. The rap is simply delightful. I love the oh-so prissy way she enunciates the words ‘Jimmy Dean/ on the cover of a magazine.’

  19. 49
    Cumbrian on 13 Dec 2010 #

    re 47: Public Enemy going off on one about Justify My Love is pretty amusing – for one thing Security Of The First World is one of only two tracks on “It Take A Nation Of Millions…” to be devoid of a sample; I think the other is Mind Terrorist. As you point out – glass houses and all that.

    I love PE – both Millions and Fear of a Black Planet are high on my list of great rap albums (and I have a sneaking regard for Apocalypse ’91 too) but the main thing that is amusing about the hypocrisy of their stance on Justify is that quite a few of their lyrics are showing justified anger about the hypocrisy that surrounded them. I wonder if anyone pointed this out to Chuck and The Bomb Squad?

  20. 50
    Lex on 13 Dec 2010 #

    I’ve only just caught up to this, but this is a really strong entry Tom!

  21. 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.

  22. 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”.

  23. 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.

  24. 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”.

  25. 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.)

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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