First Hit #1: January 5, 1991
Madonna entered into a sort of mid-life crisis in 1991. She was still young, but she was in an industry where youth is a marketable commodity. She had built her career on being a sexy young pop singer, but now she was old enough to actually release a Greatest Hits collection and actually justify it. She also gave it a groan-worthy pun for a title, because she could. But, if you can release a greatest hits disc, what does that mean? Does it mean your career is over, that you are no longer a dangerous influence but an accepted commodity? That’s a scary thought, especially if you’re Madonna.
The solution she came up with was to double down on the eroticism. Madonna would become a sexy sex person who liked sex a lot. She released a book called Sex, which showed lots of sexy sex things. She would record an album called Erotica, which promised to be erotic. This was a very Madonna thing to do, calculated controversy was her thing, and going sexy was definitely something that would ruffle feathers and get people to give her attention. Justify My Love was the scout, a song sent out into the world to see the response pushing her sexuality would get, and it went number one.
The song is largely famous for its video, which was banned on MTV, but it’s actually more interesting than that. The song, with Madonna’s half-whispered lyrics and minimal electronic backing actually sounds ahead of its time. It’s a bit of trip-hop before trip-hop was an established force. It would sound like a natural part of a Tricky album, except he didn’t come along until 1995 so Madonna is actually ahead of the curve here. It manages to make a global superstar sound surprisingly intimate, which is more sexy than all the people wearing nothing but suspenders in the actual video, and she manages to make a song that points at a new direction before most of the movement’s main forces actually start setting off in that direction. It’s a song that exists to create an atmosphere, and forgoes a lot of traditional pop songwriting in order to create that atmosphere. It is something of a glimpse into Madonna’s bedroom, or rather, a glimpse into what Madonna wants people to think her bedroom is like. All lithe dancers and people wearing nothing but suspenders where sophisticated pornography is created. It’s the perfect atmosphere for that, even if I suspect Madonna is slightly more boring than the image she wishes to create.