A sample of Madonna's 1990 hit "Vogue" inexplicably appears two-thirds of the way through the sexually charged "Holy Water," a track from the singer's new album, RebelHeart. Previously, Madonna erupted into the song's refrain at the end of her 1992 single "Deeper and Deeper," and it's perhaps a testament to the euphoric spirit of "Vogue" that she seemed compelled to reference it at these climactic moments. Released 25 years ago tomorrow, "Vogue" wasn't just a hit single; it was a cultural phenomenon. Ironically, no other song better exemplifies both Madonna's influence on pop culture and the accusations of appropriation that have been lobbed at her over the years. The track, produced by Shep Pettibone, is at once a musical map of disco, shamelessly ripping MFSB's "Love Is the Message" and Salsoul Orchestra's "Ooh, I Love It (Love Break)," and an enduring prototype of its own, spawning countless copycats and spoofs in the early '90s and inspiring covers by more contemporary acolytes like Britney Spears, Rihanna, and Katy Perry. Like the Harlem drag balls that inspired it, "Vogue" is about presentation, and unlike, say, "Like A Virgin" the queen of reinvention has found little need to fuss with perfection.
Music Video: Look closely when that butler brushes off the bannister. Nope, no dust there; the finger pulls clean. Those who objected to Madonna's co-opting two vibrant New York scenes—ball culture and the house underground—had every reason to cast any available aspersions once the instant-classic music video for "Vogue" hit the airwaves. Directed with diamond-cut precision by David Fincher long before he became the fussiest of the A-list auteurs, the already plush song became a plummy fantasia of Old Hollywood luxury, and an actualization of the sort of glamour Paris is burning's drag queens and dance-floor ninjas openly longed for. And it came with a steep price tag. "It makes no difference if you're black or white," goes the familiar refrain, but it's unclear whether Madonna realized to what extent the clip's flawless, monochromatic cinematography would underline the point. To some, the video (like New York's ball scene) represented the ultimate democratization of beauty. To others, a presumptuously preemptive eradication of the racial question entirely.
Blond Ambition Tour: Compared to the spectacles Madonna would go on to stage for the song over the next quarter century, the premier live performances of "Vogue" were surprisingly quaint. Stripped down to the bare basics (aside from the dancers' headdresses, even the costumes consisted solely of simple black spandex), the Blond Ambition version of the song came closest to capturing the essence of the gay ballroom scene the lyrics were inspired by: presentational, preening, and all about the pose. [Editor's Note: Below is the performance as presented in the 1991 documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare.
Rock the Vote: Along with "Vogue," this year also marks the 25th anniversary of Rock the Vote, the nonprofit organization aimed at mobilizing and registering young voters. In 1990, the group made its national debut with a TV spot featuring Madonna and two of her Blond Ambition dancers harmonizing to a cheeky, revamped version of her then-recent smash. In what might seem tame by today's standards, the sight of the world's biggest pop star draped in the American flag, comparing freedom of speech to sex, threatening to give non-voters a "spanky," and name-dropping Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., all while dressed in red lace lingerie, twisted more than a few panties among the Moral Majority. And that was before it was revealed she wasn't even registered to vote.
1990 MTV Video Music Awards: Indulging in a cheeky bit of dress-me-up make believe, Madonna's performance at the 1990 VMAs gracefully elided politics altogether in favor of lace-front cosplay. Borrowing liberally from Dangerous Liaisons, specifically costume designer James Acheson's cleavage-crushing bodice, Madonna and regalia flitted around a rec room, taunting a bevy of eligible suitors in short pants, punctuating every tease with an audible snap of fans that sounded more like trashcan lids. Sandwiched as the song was between "Like a Prayer" on one side and "Justify My Love" and Erotica on the other, it was nice to see at least one performance of the song that revels in the simple thrill of innocent ribaldry.
The Girlie Show: Not by any stretch the most iconic performance of the tune, and in fact very likely the most rote of the bunch, especially when you consider its place in context with the surrounding Erotica-heavy content, against which "Vogue" can't help but sound just a smidge "Let's All Go to the Lobby." The Mata Hari headdress promises subversion that never really materializes, which is hardly a surprise given Madonna—clad in a boy bra and chunky platform military boots—has probably never looked more rectangular. This marked the last time she would perform the song in concert for more than a decade, and the vague sense that an increasingly doom-obsessed Madonna was vaguely bored with the song's escapism is palpable here.
Re-Invention Tour: Madonna took an eight-year break from touring in the late '90s to concentrate on films and family, but her 2001 comeback tour's focus on newer material meant it would be 11 long years between the Girlie Show performance of "Vogue" and this show-stopping show-starter from 2004's Re-Invention Tour. Still in the thick of her yoga years, the singer merged her past and present, enlightenment and artifice, by turning "strike a pose" into a spiritual mantra. If not her greatest performance of the song (the mimed vocals are particularly irksome given that the tour boasted some of her best), it was certainly her most athletic
Sticky & Sweet Tour: More than once during the Hard Candy-fied incarnation of "Vogue," the track drops out to allow Madonna to check her ticking watch. It's awfully tempting to be, ahem, reductive and compare the lasting influence of her 1990 house blockbuster unfavorably against the instant irrelevance of "4 Minutes," a song which even in its own title falls well short of the Andy Warhol promise. While Madonna's sinewy, hip-heavy choreographed combinations are a welcome deviation from the on-tiptoe strutting that usually accompanies "Vogue," the decision to replace those immortal piano chords during the chorus with Timbaland's clumsy faux-tuba blasts affirms the song's message that beauty is "not just where you bump and grind it."
The Super Bowl: Leave it to Madonna to open her performance at the Super Bowl in 2012, arguably the most heterosexual audience she's ever appeared in front of, with perhaps the gayest anthem in her catalogue. Drawn into the stadium on a throne by about 75 buff-bodied gladiators, the Queen of Pop took to the stage to perform her ode to glamour accompanied by holograms of moving fashion magazines and a multi-ethnic troupe of dancers who looked like they picked up their Egyptian-themed gear from the leather aisle at a sex shop rather than the local sporting-goods store.
MDNA Tour: The MDNA Tour was frequently, for many of the Material Girl-era dressed fans in the St. Paul audience I attended the concert with, a perverse experiment in avoiding simple "greatest hits" pleasures. (You haven't witnessed truly radiant disappointment until you've seen packs of Gen X'ers trying in vain to sing along to Madonna's sad cabaret version of "Like a Virgin.") Which is why it was out of character for Madonna to open up the second half of her show with such a highly to-the-roots staging of "Vogue." The dancers' contortions howled, "Opulence!" The couture was a spendier version of the video's untouchable monochromatic finery (with a bonus nod to the conical bra). The song, a note-for-note reproduction of Pettibone's original bones. In its every detail, borderline in-concert karaoke. And yet, when those giant monitors flashed the song's title in a font ripped from "the cover of a magazine," there could no longer be any denying that Paris is Burning's "You own everything" had now officially been overshadowed by a Gaultier-flashing Madge: "I own everything."
by Sal Cinquemani and Eric Henderson for Slant Magazine