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I'd Like To Put You In A Trance: Madonna's Erotica Turns 20

Today marks 20 years since Madonna released her fifth album Erotica, a work which I personally feel is an underrated masterpiece.

Most casual listeners, and quite a few superfans, often cite either Like A Prayer or Ray of Light as the ultimate Madonna album, and with good reason.

Like A Prayer was a turning point artistically. With songs that tackled religion, death, domestic violence strained parental relationships, and AIDS, Madonna brought her personal life into her art like never before, shedding the glossy Material Girl image. The music was also a sonic 180 from the synthesized dance pop of her previous albums, incorporating classical instruments and a live band to create a more organic feel. Uptempo tracks like “Express Yourself” and “Keep It Together” still had killer grooves, but were clearly a step up composition wise. It revealed a Madonna who had grown up a bit, but was still willing to stir up controversy.

Ray of Light also marked a new chapter, one that saw her deconstructing her blond ambition, sex-lioness persona as she embraced Earth mother realness. Motherhood and Kabbalah set her off on a different path. The songs talked about the emptiness of fame, the emotional consequences of selfish or immature behavior, a search for spirituality/a human connection, and the realization you can”t control or change a lover. Her mother”s death was explored even more viscerally this time around in closing track “Mer Girl,” but was now tempered by the healing power of giving birth to new life on “Little Star.” The album was also her most radical

sonic shift ever: electronica was still mostly an underground phenomenon in the late 90″s. R&B and hip hop dominated American radio. The mix of techno rhythms, ambient soundscapes, Euro-pop ballads and alternative-rock guitars was truly left-of-center for mainstream pop.

Erotica deserves to sit alongside those two masterworks. Many fans link Ray of Light to Like A Prayer, and while both albums are highly personal works that deal with spiritual exploration, I feel Erotica is the yin to Ray of Light“s yang. The latter details the thrill of discovery, of gaining new knowledge, while the former mines the personal wreckage of one”s own desires, fears and frustrations, be they sexual or romantic. In fact, only three songs –the title track, “Where Life Begins,” and “Did You Do It?”–deal with sex, contrary to the popular belief the album is a porn soundtrack. Of course, Madonna is partly responsible for said belief; the backlash that began simmering with Truth or Dare grew into a full-on firestorm after the infamous SEX book and Body of Evidence were released before and after the album.

But Erotica is so much more than that. The icy, confrontational tone and Madonna”s dry vocal delivery may lead a listener to think of it as an impersonal concept record. But though there”s a definite thematic element, soul-searching and emotion are not skimped on. It”s there in “Bad Girl,” a tale of a neurotic woman burying herself in alcohol, cigarettes and lovers she doesn”t care about. Or “Waiting,” an indictment of falling for the wrong man laced with resentment and bitter sarcasm. Or in “Thief Of Hearts,” “Words” and “Why Is It So Hard” ferocious lyrical swipes aimed at man stealers, critics and the world at large. Underneath all the anger, confusion and heartbreak though, is lingering sadness over friends and mentors lost to AIDS, laid bare on “In This Life.”

The music, a moody cocktail of thumping house beats, jazzy R&B and East coast rap–along with the occasional flamenco guitar solo–matched the heavy subject matter. The darker tone may be another reason why Erotica wasn”t a blockbuster–people were used to the warm, cheeky come-ons of “Into The Groove” or “Like A Prayer,” not grimy tracks with couplets like “I”ll hit you like a truck/I”ll teach you how to f*ck.” Sweetness and light, the album is not. But with the final track “Secret Garden,” with its aching desire for “A petal that isn”t torn” and “A heart that will not harden,” Madonna offers a glimmer of optimism. That while she may never feel quite like a virgin again, the inner resolve to make it through the wilderness remains.

Of course, Bedtime Stories often gets lost in the album shuffle too, but that”s a whole other post. Listen Erotica in its entirety below.

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