Friday, May 21, 2010

Songs of My Lifetime/Music of 1990: Madonna - Vogue

No single represents 1990 more significantly to me than Madonna's "Vogue." Madonna has long been my favorite popular artist, and 1990 was a watershed year for her, coming off of the success of Like a Prayer, having a hit movie in Dick Tracy (one of few for her), a big world tour, Blonde Ambition, and this amazing dance pop single from her album I'm Breathless, a concept album inspired by the music of the 1930s era of Dick Tracy and including a few songs from the film. She's had a lot of great singles, and if I had to pick her absolute best, in my mind, this is the top, edging out "Like a Prayer" and "Frozen" (which I also adore, of course).

The song opens with a dramatic flair, slowly introducing the layers of the song's melody: first it's just the synth chords; then the bass line, bongs and snaps kick in; and then finally the drum machines and vocals as Madonna commands the listener to "strike a pose." It's certainly one of her most iconic musical openings. Later that year, an even longer version was created for The Immaculate Collection, which starts with a spoken "what are you looking at" and extends the opening layering by separating the snaps, bongos and bass line, which all came in at once in the original version. There's also a shorter single version which skips the layered opening all together and has a slightly different bass line.

The production is typical of dance pop at the time--frenetic drum machine programming over layers of synth melodies that build to bigger choruses. It's similar to the dance remix of "Express Yourself," as well as the sound on her next album, Erotica--both of which were the product of producer Shep Pettibone (although the original version of "Express Yourself" was produced by Stephen Bray). It was her 11th #1 hit on the Billboard dance club chart (she scored her 40th #1 on this chart last year with "Celebration").

A particular highlight of the song is its bridge--a rapped list of famous screen icons from the past, many of which were notable for their dance skills ("Greta Garbo and Monroe; Dietrich and DiMaggio..." etc.). At the time, 9 of the 16 entertainers mentioned were still alive; today, only Lauren Bacall is still living.

The video for the song is particularly great. Shot in black and white and directed by David Fincher, the imagery is inspired by old Hollywood glamour, with Madonna's wardrobe expressing a mix of feminine and masculine identities, ranging from the bra-less see-through blouse to the pinstripe suit. As music videos go, it's a hands-down classic.

On the personal side, "Vogue" was rather, shall we say, inspiring for me in my youth. Back in 1990, I was 13 when the song came out toward the end of 7th grade. I loved the video, which I got to see plenty of on MTV after school. I thought the dancing was so cool that I taught myself the moves. Then one day during the break between English and social studies classes, I announced to the students that I would perform the dance and proceeded to do so. What would possess me to do this? Well, as a 13 year-old, I didn't really fit in, but I also didn't have a fear of standing out, so while I was very studious, I always liked attention. Whether because they thought it was fun or just bizarre, it became a "thing." I was asked to do it repeatedly, and students from other classes even started showing up.

Then there was the end-of-the-year school dance. Picture the darkened junior high gymnasium with DJ equipment at one end blaring Technotronic, Rob Base, and "Stairway to Heaven." Then "Vogue" comes on--the extended dance remix....uh oh. Suddenly I was surrounded by a deep circle of teenagers shouting "Andy! Andy! Andy!" They wanted me to dance, and while I had no problem doing so for small groups, in this big crowd I panicked. I froze! Thankfully, a 9th grade savior yanked me from the circle. I ran out of the gym and down the hallway...chased by the mob! I hid in the boys' room (not very creative, but leaving the building seemed like a bad idea). The music stopped and the gym lights came on. Apparently the teacher-chaperons thought there had been a fight. But no, it was just me and my "Vogue," or rather non-vogue that night.

Eventually, I got over my performance anxiety and vogued quite freely at parties and other occasions. Ten years later, while doing some volunteer campaign work with a group of D.C. gay and lesbian politicos in Machester, New Hampshire, I sang and danced to "Vogue" during a lesbian bar's karaoke night. I was pretty fresh from college at that point and it helped make a good impression on the group, many of whom I saw frequently during those years when I worked in politics. They were certainly a more appreciative audience than junior high kids.


Paul said...

it's just one of those brilliant songs isn't it? Thanks for sharing all your memories and inspirations :) Still love this 20 years on!

John said...

There are some songs that transcend trends, and "Vogue" is one of them. Who knew you were a dancer? Thanks for sharing the story.

ww_adh said...

You're welcome! I'm glad you read this story. It's definitely one of my favorite pop songs of all time. If not my #1 favorite ever.