an oral history: madonna’s 'erotica' by the people who helped create it
To celebrate its 25 birthday, we revisit Madonna’s provocative classic "Erotica" via the album’s key collaborators.
Screenshot via YouTube
This article was originally published by i-D UK.
Exactly 25 years ago today, Madonna dropped her fifth album, Erotica. A day later, she released Sex, a glossy coffee table book featuring highly stylzsed photographs of Madonna and collaborators including Naomi Campbell and Vanilla Ice depicting everything from S&M to gay sex to rimming. It caused one of Madonna's career-defining controversies, and sold 150,000 copies in 24 hours.
The album was pretty explicit, too. "If I take you from behind / push myself into your mind / when you least expect it / will you try to reject it?" Madonna purrs on the title track as she introduces Dita, her dominatrix alter ego. A few songs later, on Where Life Begins, she issues an ultimatum to any sexual partner who's reluctant to go down on her: "It's not fair to be selfish or stingy — every girl should experience eating out."
The collective impact of Erotica, the Sex book, and Body of Impact — a dodgy erotic thriller starring Madonna and Willem Dafoe that opened the following January — provoked a backlash. Some people, some prurient and conservative people, felt she'd finally gone too far. "People bash Madonna because she triggers them to think outside of the box. She's not a conventional person," says Carlton Wilborn, who danced with Madonna on her Blond Ambition and Girlie Show world tours. "The way she comes at life, and the way she comes at being female, it's challenging for a lot of people. She pushes people to look at their understanding of things in a new way, and the default for most people is to judge that before they become open to it, and realize it can help them grow." By most artists' standards, Erotica wasn't a flop, but it was easily Madonna's least successful album to date.
Yet among fans, it's grown in stature in recent years. Erotica isn't a flawless album, but it is a fascinating one filled with provocative and inspiring imagery and ideas. This week, drag queen Margo Marshall put on an Erotica tribute night at one of London's best queer venues, The Glory. "I had to do something because this era of Madonna is so iconic," 23-year-old Margo says. "I was 15 when I first saw the Sex book and heard this album, and I just thought it was incredible that she was displaying so much power. She was taking ownership of her sexuality and saying: "You think that's too sexual — well look at this then!"
Back in 1992, Madonna's message was somewhat lost: this album isn't just about sex. " Deeper and Deeper" celebrates coming out, " Bye Bye Baby" is a fabulously blunt break-up song, and "In This Life pays tribute to Madonna's friends and collaborators taken by AIDS. "We all knew how much AIDS had affected Madonna because we all knew how much the gay community helped to shape her," recalls writer and pop cultural commentator Paul Flynn. "That song is the backbone of the record. It gives the album a purpose and resonance beyond this simply being Madonna's sex record next to her Sex book. And the fact she made Erotica and the Sex book at this time is important. Because of AIDS, sex was the news — it was the news in people's lives. When AIDS happened, people lost control of this thing that's supposed to be so life-giving and enjoyable."
To celebrate the album's 25th birthday, i-D reached out to the people who helped Madonna to make it: her co-producers Shep Pettibone and André Betts, co-writer Tony Shimkin, and longtime backing singer Donna De Lory. This is the story of Erotica in their words.
Tony Shimkin [co-writer]: Shep and I would work on tracks and send them to her. She'd get her ideas together, then we'd all work on the tracks together in the studio in New York. We'd lay down vocals and melodies and develop the tracks further. Madonna always had a running book of lyric and melody ideas she was looking to incorporate into her music, so all she really needed was the inspiration of a track to spark that. At this particular time she was working on the Sex book, and I believe she always had a vision for this album. She's highly creative and determined and knows exactly what she wants to do. I don't think she ever goes haphazardly into the studio and just sees what happens.
Shep Pettibone [co-producer]: Raw was the goal with this track. " Erotica" was very "musical" at one point. It went through many adaptations until it got to the final album version. The Kool and the Gang sample gave it the dark, mysterious vibe. Being a DJ first with DJ ears, I heard [their track] " Jungle Boogie" in my head over the song. I went and found the album in my library, rode it over the existing " Erotica" track and it worked!
"Bye Bye Baby"
Shep Pettibone: There was a lot of experimentation going on — Madonna wanted her voice to not sound natural, and the filter thing was just what she was looking for.
Tony Shimkin: Oh, this was fun! We had this really raw track and we'd rented some equipment to play around with. It wasn't like Madonna finished her vocal and then we said, 'Let's put this filter on it so it sounds like a telephone conversation'. We put the filter on this vocal as she was recording it, so we committed that effect to tape and there was no turning back. Everything kind of built off of that — the effect inspired Madonna's performance because she heard her voice as she was recording it. I guess this song is the equivalent of breaking up with someone by text today!
"Deeper and Deeper"
Tony Shimkin: I think this song was a big nod to her beginnings as an artist. The disco feel is her going back to her Danceteria and Jellybean days. Other songs on the album are more sultry and emotional, whereas this is a real party anthem.
Donna De Lory [backing singer]: Niki [Haris] and I were flown to New York to work on Madonna's record. We'd sung with her before so it was just a really comfortable relationship. And oh my God, this song! All Niki and I wanted to do was sing "SWEETER AND SWEETER AND SWEETER." Madonna was just like, "Belt it out!" So we did, and it was so much fun!
Tony Shimkin: When you have Madonna's enthusiasm for something, her determination even, she's not really someone you can say no to! You kind of have to go all in on it, so I think Shep did then embrace the idea. He was like, "If we're gonna do it, let's really do it." And then the castanets came into play.
"Where Life Begins"
André Betts: This is the first song Madonna and I wrote [for the album]. I think you know what it's about, right? She explains it in the very beginning when she says: "Dining out can happen down below." I wasn't surprised that she was being so explicit — I'm not gonna lie, I was happy about it. I looked at it like this: "She's Madonna, she can say whatever she wants." And I got the album concept from the very beginning. One time she brought in all these old Playboys just to look through for ideas. I was like, "Oh man, she's crazy but I love it."
Tony Shimkin: On this album, both " Bad Girl" and " In This Life" were highly emotional songs for Madonna. But I didn't really realize how emotional Bad Girl was for her until we were done with the record. When you see her videos, you get an even deeper meaning and a deeper feel for what she put into the song. It's one of those songs, like " Oh Father" or "Papa Don't Preach," where she really calls on her own emotions and experiences. She's never afraid to expose herself emotionally.
André Betts: For this track I actually sampled stuff from " Justify My Love." I'd worked on that track too so I had the masters. The "waiting" part is actually Madonna's vocals from " Justify My Love." That was an easy sell to Madonna: when you play her something with her own vocal already on it, she's gonna respond to it. You know, we had a lot of fun. It wasn't a stiff working environment at all. I'll never forget she was wearing this floor-length fur coat and she sat down to start writing and this rat ran by! She just looked at me and said: "What's wrong with you? Dré, don't tell me you're scared of that rat. I'm from Detroit — I can handle a rat."
Shep Pettibone: I came up with the song the night before she was coming in [to the studio]. It was a Sunday, it was raining - ha! - and she wrote the words, and sang the song and harmonies all in that day. " Rain" came together very quickly. She also sang the lead to " This Used To Be My Playground" the same day.
"Why's It So Hard"
Donna De Lory: I really liked recording this song because it just has such a universal message. It's all about peace and love.
Tony Shimkin: During a break from recording, we all went on vacation. I went to the Cayman Islands and Shep went to Jamaica, so we both heard a lot of reggae. So when we came back, inspired by that, we kind of put together this track for " Why's It So Hard." One day after Madonna had left the studio, I started playing around with some background vocal ideas, not really expecting her to hear them. But the next day she came in without me noticing and said, 'What's that?' I played it for her and she said: "I like it, let's record it." I'm not a singer by any means, but those kind of ethereal backing vocals I can do, and they wound up on the record. It was a fun song to work on because it was such a departure from the rest of the album, but at the same time, it fits.
"In This Life"
Shep Pettibone: Actually it was my idea to write a song for her friend Martin [Burgoyne, a Studio 54 bartender who died from AIDS]. I had come up with some chords before she came over that day, and when she walked in. She said, "That's beautiful, but I don't know if it would work with my album." But she quickly came up with the words in about 15 minutes and that became " In This Life."
Donna De Lory: I had also lost a really great friend to AIDS. I think nowadays, people don't really have a grip on what was going on at that time. And there was so much we didn't talk about. But here she was, talking about it. It's such a sad and beautiful song. Recording it, you know, it was somber. She didn't really have to explain what the song was about; we just knew.
"Did You Do It?"
André Betts: One day Madonna went off for dinner with the Sex book guys. She and I had this playful way of talking, so some of the guys in the studio were asking if Madonna and me had done it — you know, had sex. I just started freestyling: I recorded one of the guys saying, "Did you do it?" and then me saying, "You know I did it." Even though I didn't! When she came back from dinner with the guys in suits, she was like, "I want them to hear " Waiting." But instead I played her " Did You Do It?" as a joke — because it starts out sounding exactly the same as " Waiting." When she heard what I'd done, she laughed so hard she got tears in her eyes. A few days later, she called me and said she wanted the song on the album. I was like, "No no no, Madonna, I'm not a rapper, I was just freestyling." She put her manager on the phone and he explained that I was gonna get a very generous cut of the publishing. So I was like, 'OK, the song's on the record!' And because of " Did You Do It?," the album got an explicit content sticker. Who else would do something like that?