Madonna talks about ‘Sex’ and spice and all things nice
‘You can push the envelope but you can’t open it … I’ve been hanged in the public square ever since’
At the very beginning of 1993, Madonna made a public declaration that she wouldn’t take her clothes off for a whole year. “Except when I’m in the shower,” she cracked.
Of course, we first had to get through her notorious gynecological thriller Body of Evidence, in which she cavorted on top of a parked car with Willem Dafoe, and the TV stations still playing the X-rated videos for her recent singles Erotica and Justify My Love. And all the TV stations talking about the fact that they weren’t going to play her X-rated videos, apparently on moral grounds. But after all of that, then we’d be blissfully free of Madonna’s naked body for at least a little while.
Just a month before, Madonna had released one of the most provocative merchandising products of all time. Sex, her explicit, nudity-filled coffee table book, was the pièce de résistance of a six-year run of calculated controversy, one that grew progressively more boundary-pushing as it went on, while simultaneously morphing her into one of the most famous and talked-about women in the world.Turning 60 this week, Madonna has spent much of her adult life in the role of pop’s foremost scandal-magnet, dominating cultural discussion with a vast rap sheet of stunts, controversies and image makeovers, laying the groundwork for every sexually uninhibited female pop icon that came after her, from Britney to Beyoncé.
But Sex remains the peak of her powers, a career move that proved unstoppably controversial and enormously profitable, if the closest she has ever come to full-blown self-destruction. Arriving on the heels of a series of music videos that eschewed the relatively subtle displays of sexual self-discovery in her earliest work and instead exploded with themes of voyeurism, sado-masochism and bisexuality, Sex was Madonna at her most gleefully, dangerously uninhibited.Conjured up by the star on the set of her 1992 comedy film A League of Their Own, Sex was envisioned as an elaborate photo book that would depict her acting out her wildest sexual fantasies, accompanied by erotic musings on sex, masturbation and S&M. Steven Meisel would be her photographer, and a copy of her latest CD would be attached as a bonus gift.
“I don’t have the same hang-ups that other people do, and that’s the point I’m trying to make with this book,” Madonna told Vanity Fair ahead of its release. “I don’t think that sex is bad. I don’t think that nudity is bad. I don’t think that being in touch with your sexuality and being able to talk about it and being able to talk about this person and their sexuality [is bad]. I think the problem is that everybody’s so uptight about it that they make it into something bad when it isn’t, and if people could talk about it freely, we would have people practising more safe sex, we wouldn’t have people sexually abusing each other, because they wouldn’t be so uptight to say what they really want, what they really feel.”
She continued, “I am not going around saying everyone should fuck more. That is not the point. The point is just to feel comfortable with yourself and whatever you want to do. Whether it’s be with another man. Be with another woman. Be with three people. Be alone. Masturbate. Whatever. You shouldn’t feel shame about it. It’s not quantity, it’s quality. And honesty.”Many around Madonna were nervous, from her long-time publicist Liz Rosenberg to her dancers and beauty team. “Of course we’re all worried,” her makeup artist Nars told Entertainment Weekly. “Madonna doesn’t need to do it, but she wants to push buttons. So she does. Madonna is somebody who doesn’t want to be just normal ... I don’t think she likes normalcy. She’s an extreme person and she chases extremes.”
In January 1992, after protracted negotiations with her very anxious but also very excited publishers at Warner Books, production began on the shoots for the project. With help from Meisel and his large list of contacts, names like Isabella Rossellini, Naomi Campbell, rapper Big Daddy Kane, actor Udo Kier and gay porn star Joey Stefano were roped in to pose with Madonna.
Model Tony Ward, Madonna’s equally clothing-resistant ex, and Vanilla Ice, Madonna’s then-boyfriend, were also encouraged to take part, Madonna claiming the latter would work for “kitsch value”. The majority of the book’s other male models materialised through auditions, with Madonna asking auditionees two questions: “Are you afraid of nudity?” and “Would you mind kissing me?”
Several of the book’s photoshoots were decided on the fly. Campbell and Madonna improvised for the camera with just a bottle of body lotion as an accessory to their nude cavorting, while a day shooting naked in a Miami mansion became more visually arresting when Madonna and Meisel decided to move the shoot outdoors – resulting in a memorable photo of Madonna hitchhiking in the all-together on a busy street. In the end, over 20,000 photos were snapped for the book, with 475 making the final cut.Those involved in the book’s production were made to sign ironclad non-disclosure agreements as Sex was physically put together. Initially, 75,000 copies were mass-produced, a highly complicated process as the book was bound in a metal cover and held together by spiral binding. Several printing companies balked at the job, citing moral concerns, with the company that finally accepted the job only agreeing to manufacture Sex in exchange for non-credit on the finished product, so nervous were they about the possible reaction. Employees were also allowed not to work on it if it offended them.
Things nearly went awry, however, when an employee of a New York photo lab working on Sex reportedly stole negatives of several of its images and attempted to sell them to the News of the World for $100,000. The newspaper declined to pay, but did agree to a meeting with the employee, who was captured during the sting, with the negatives recovered in the process.
And in a move that today screams Kardashian, Madonna and her team eventually decided to partner with the News of the World to leverage the scandal for publicity. A deal was struck in which the paper would report on the crime only, giving Sex the illusion of something so shocking that lowly office employees would be willing to risk jail for a private glimpse of the photos. At the time, some suggested that the theft itself was an elaborate publicity stunt, but by the time Sex hit shelves proper, it didn’t matter.After months of hype, Sex finally arrived on October 21 1992, with crowds gathering outside bookstores worldwide to get their hands on a copy, which had a $49.95 price tag. The week before, Madonna had held a private launch party in New York for 800 of her friends and collaborators, including Campbell, Grace Jones and Billy Idol. Rosie O’Donnell, who starred with Madonna in A League of Their Own, told the gathered press outside, none of whom could score an invite, that the party featured “a lot of scantily-clad people in leather, with very sexual objects, doing obscene things to each other”.
To prevent voyeurs from sneaking a peek of the book in store and not actually paying for it, Sex was encased within a vacuum-sealed mylar bag (an unopened copy can today fetch up to $500 at auction). Madonna had originally wanted the wrapping to resemble a large condom packet, but that was deemed too expensive. The secrecy worked: one New York art store began charging customers a dollar to enter a mock Catholic confessional to view the book for a whole minute, with all proceeds going to an Aids charity.
Many, however, were prepared to go all the way and buy the thing. Now recognised as the most successful coffee table book of all time, it sold 150,000 copies on its first day of sale, before ultimately selling 1.5 million copies worldwide. But backlash was immediate. Lawmakers in Chicago investigated whether its sale violated a state obscenity law, while protests occurred outside of bookstores across the US, with one in Sacramento featuring conservative Christians holding placards declaring Madonna the “pied piper of perversion”.The media were also particularly unsparing. Newsweek called the book “relentlessly self-conscious ... cold and uninviting,” while the Independent argued that Madonna had “gone too far”. Journalist Bob Guccione Jr, in an unusually hostile comment piece for Spin, wrote that the book was “as sexy as a body chart at a doctor’s office”, adding: “Her whole personification is loveless and somehow slightly ridiculous, like a mannequin dressed provocatively in a department store window.”
While some of the critical reaction felt directly attuned to a desire to bring Madonna down, particularly after years of continued success in the face of increasingly gonzo controversy, much of it made a certain kind of sense.
Many of the photographs, which include Madonna posing naughtily with a dog and later eating a slice of pizza wearing nothing but a pair of heels, toe the line between intentional goofiness and faux-sexy cringe, while the accompanying and very literal text, in which Madonna adopts different personas (“Sex was like a game to her ... like Monopoly”), recounts sexual fantasies and fictitious carnal experiences (“I usually have lesbian sex dreams with people I know ... Like my maid”) and offers sex advice (“Sucking on your finger every once in a while doesn’t hurt, like in the middle of dinner”), is often quite silly.In response, Madonna claimed the humour was intentional, later telling Juice Magazine that the book was always meant to be tongue-in-cheek. “I meant to poke a hole in the whole idea of sexuality,” she said. “What I predicted would happen, happened: everyone went out and bought the book, it sold out, then everyone slagged it off, which to me is an absolute reflection of public attitudes towards sex in America. It did what I intended to do. All I ever wanted to do in my honesty about sexuality, in my portrayal of sexuality, was to try to make people feel less ashamed about it. Just be comfortable about who you are.”
But while Madonna insisted that it had apparently all gone to plan, many felt that she had crossed a line. She wasn’t prepared to apologise, but she did at least participate in a course-correction. In early 1994, she released the single I’ll Remember, a pretty, largely forgotten ballad from an equally forgotten Brendan Fraser movie. It was a radical departure from her previous sound – moody, emotive and soft, with a video that saw her dressed in a simple black gown and sporting a costumey, Louise Brooks-style wig.
And when she began recording Bedtime Stories, her follow-up record to 1992 album Erotica, she appeared even more reserved. In a promotional video for Warner Music, in which she spoke of being in the studio once again, Madonna sits and hugs the young daughter of her regular musical collaborator Patrick Leonard, and promises that there would be “no sexual references on the album”, adding: “It’s a whole new me! I’m going to be a good girl, I swear.”The maternal, MOR Madonna didn’t truly materialise on the record itself. Secret, the album’s launch single, is a slinky R&B number with a video in which she writhes around in bed and is filmed looking a little wounded but defiant in a Harlem dive bar. The album’s fourth single, Human Nature, saw her spank her dancers in a tight leather catsuit and directly address her detractors: “I’m not sorry,” she sings, “It’s human nature / Don’t hang your shit on me.” “Would it sound better if I were a man?” she whispers at one point.
Bedtime Stories failed to emulate the stratospheric commercial success of Madonna’s previous work, but it was still perceived as a toned-down, necessary left-turn. And those early pledges to be more demure this time around ended up being another canny move. The promotional buildup to Bedtime Stories, featuring Madonna in an oddly anxious mood, has been lost to history, or at least grainy YouTube clips transferred from old VHS, while the deliciously nonchalant “sorry not sorry” messaging of Human Nature was the response that became embedded in Madonna mythology.
But while Madonna herself rose from the ashes, giving birth to a daughter, scoring rare positive reviews for her acting in 1996’s Evita and releasing what is still considered her arguable magnum opus in 1998’s Ray of Light, Sex remained something of an albatross. Speaking to Spin in 1995, she expressed disappointment over its treatment and her own vilification at the hands of the press at the time.
“My mistake was that I naively thought that everybody liked the same things I liked, and had the same sense of humour I had, and was turned on by the same things, and I was really creating in a vacuum,” she said. “I was pushing the envelope with Justify My Love, but when I put out Sex, that’s when the big steel doors came down on my head. It’s like, you can push the envelope, but you can’t open the envelope … I’ve been hanged in the public square ever since.”She joked to David Letterman in 2000 that she couldn’t tell him what the point of the book was, but also added that conversation about it was “tired”. Five years later, and very much entrenched in her “English Lady of the Manor” phase and married to filmmaker Guy Ritchie, she implied to Ladies Home Journal that the book was more of a tease than anything particularly meaningful.
“Listen, there were times I really had an altruistic goal, I really did want to help people. And then other times, I just wanted to show off – let’s call a spade a spade,” she said. “And I knew I could get away with it, and I knew I could get people to pay attention to me. Do I think I helped people? Yeah, I do. Do I think I hindered people? Yes I do ... I didn’t exactly help people by being an exhibitionist. I think I hurt myself, too, because I ended up devaluing my original message, that anybody could do anything – it’s about what’s on the inside. Then I was glorifying the outside.”
Always a font of mixed messages, she later retracted that, telling Jonathan Ross in 2015 that she didn’t hold bad memories of Sex: “I don’t regret it at all. I never said that. I don’t regret it. I love it. I paved the way.”
Others were less kind. Isabella Rossellini told Out Magazine in 2010 that she didn’t feel the book worked (“I think there was a little bit of a moralistic sort of ‘I’ll teach you how to be free!’ and that bothered the hell out of me”) while Vanilla Ice claimed he was so offended by it that he ended his relationship with Madonna as a result. “I was hurt to be an unwitting part of this slutty package,” he told the News of the World (via Huffington Post) in 2011. “It was disgusting and cheap. We were in a relationship yet it looked like she was screwing all these other people.”Over the years, Madonna has expressed a range of explanations for the book, which today remains a collector’s item and one of the most desirable out-of-print books. She has demonstrated a straight-faced defiance over its apparent social good, along with “What was I thinking?”-style regrets that often felt more connected to whatever she was plugging at the time than her actual feelings.
In the wake of her celebratory 2015 record Rebel Heart, which saw her finally leaning into her unimpeachable status as the elder stateswoman of pop, she appears to have nicely embraced its existence as a enjoyably notorious and undeniably iconic envelope-pusher.
But, somewhat oddly, her most interesting indication of the book’s true purpose came just over a year after its release. While speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1994, Madonna was asked by journalist Sheryl Garratt if she sometimes wished she had been as guarded in the past as two of her contemporaries, Prince and Michael Jackson. Her answer was surprising.
“Prince’s demure behaviour and Michael Jackson’s running away from the truth is much more revealing about them than any of the things that I’ve told,” she claimed. “I could talk to you for hours and you could read all my interviews, but you’d never feel you completely knew me … Because I’ve taken my clothes off in public doesn’t mean that I’ve revealed every inch of my soul. They isolate themselves too much. If they would just come outside and mingle with humanity, everything would benefit – their art, and whatever relationships they may have. They’ve made such a big deal about being secretive that now it’s going to be even harder for them, because the more you say, ‘I’m not going to show you, you can’t see,’ the more everybody wants to see.”In 2018, with Madonna the last of the quartet of pop icons who helped shape the 1980s, alongside Prince, Jackson and Whitney Houston, it is a response even more loaded than it was when she first uttered it. And it helps cast Sex in a new light.
At its most base level, Sex was about provocation and the pushing of boundaries and societal norms, but it was also about survival. A product that was a carefully calculated and financially lucrative illusion of full-frontal openness in its most literal terms, but one that was, in truth, not very revealing at all. It should really come as no surprise that, long after the controversy over Sex dimmed, Madonna is still standing.
- © The Daily Telegraph