Madonna’s ‘Erotica’ Turns 25: An Oral History of the Most Controversial ’90s Pop Album
Billboard.com‘s Joe Lynch looks back at how twenty-five years ago Madonna changed fully sheding her ebullient ’80s pop skin, donning a leather cat mask, and kick-opening a rusty back alley door that previous chart-toppers only dared to scratch at with the release of Erotica.
You didn’t need to pick up a copy of her celebrity nude-filled coffee table book, Sex, to realize it. You didn’t even need to see Madonna Veronica Louise Ciccone, whip in hand, mugging for the camera in the video for the title track. All you needed to do was press play on the album and let the impossibly thick, libidinous bass line of Erotica start vibrating throughout your body. Forty seconds in, the sampled horns of Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” flare up, but instead of sounding reassuring and familiar, they seem disembodied and eerie. Then, Madonna’s latest alter ego addresses you, low and firm: “My name is Dita / I’ll be your mistress tonight.”
If her earlier work was an invitation to celebrate sexuality without shame, Erotica was a challenge from Dita Parlo – Madonna’s unashamed, unflinching dominatrix persona – to witness and perhaps even indulge in society’s sexual taboos. Madonna may have addressed the male gaze before, but on Erotica, she wasn’t just staring back – she was making the world her sub.
Erotica occupies a watershed place in the pop pantheon, setting the blueprint for singers to get raw while eschewing exploitation for decades to come.
The seeds of Erotica trace back to 1990’s The Immaculate Collection, which included two new songs: Rescue Me from Shep Pettibone and his assistant Tony Shimkin, and Justify My Love from Andre Betts and Lenny Kravitz. The gospel-house of the former hit No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the hip-hop-inflected latter – which scandalized the world with its leather-clad, ambisexual music video — reached No. 1. For Erotica, Madonna reteamed with Pettibone and Shimkin for 10 tracks, and Betts for four.
For its 25th anniversary, Billboard spoke to the players involved in Madonna’s most creatively daring release. Check out what producer-writer Andre Betts, backup singer Donna De Lory, producer-writer Shep Pettibone, producer-writer Tony Shimkin and Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish recall of the writing and recording of Erotica, the insane release party for the LP and book, and the collective societal pearl-clutching that followed by reading the full story on Billboard.com.