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25 Years of Sex & Erotica

Hard – very hard – to believe that this marks the 25th anniversary of Madonna’s ‘Erotica’ album and ‘Sex’ book. What a heady time the fall of 1992 was – I still don’t know if I ever came to terms with that period of my life, and I’m certain no good would come of it making any sense at this point. Adolescence is a rocky time in one’s life – coupled with everything else a burgeoning gay boy goes through, it’s a wonder some of us survive (and the sad fact remains that some of us don’t). I don’t think I’ll ever know what got me through it, but I do know that part of it was thanks to Madonna.

The ‘Erotica’ period has a darker underside that I don’t always acknowledge. At the time of its release I was going through my own dark period, and in a weird way it kept me alive. I wanted to hear it. On one rainy night I held onto that thought as I careened through wet leaf-strewn roads and tear-stained eyes. I wanted to feel alive in the way that only Madonna’s music could make me feel. Most of us have one or two artists that do that for us, touching a chord that rings in the specific tone that feels destined only for own experience. Something in their delivery, and the way a song resonates at the exact point in time when it means the most. The right song at the right time can save your life.

Coming as it did as my own sexual self was awakening, I was not immune to the work at hand, nor was my cock immune to the stirrings of seeing those naked guys at the long-defunct Gaiety preen and pose in naked abandon. Sex was life. It was vital to it. It literally created it. The idea that Madonna’s book, and her whispered coos and orgasmic sighs on the ‘Erotica’ album, would elicit cum from men the world over was a thrill in and of itself. That both men and women would find a sort of orgiastic release from the joint project lent a hedonistic abandon to the whole affair, like some love-bead-festooned 60’s free-love-for-all fuck-fest in which we could all participate – jointly, singly, collectively.

It was there in the ‘Deeper and Deeper’ video and its first live performance in The Girlie Show. It was there in the ‘Erotica’ video too, where peeks into the shooting of the ‘Sex’ book became a grainy art form in itself. It was there in Madonna’s Dita Parlo persona, presiding over proceedings with a whip and a gold-toothed smile, both in charge and demanding to be taken from behind.

At their gritty best, the ‘Sex’ book and ‘Erotica’ album personified a multi-faceted look at their subject matter – good, bad, ugly, uncomfortable, beautiful, tender, raw and rough – and most people couldn’t take such complexity without revealing their own discomfort with the idea that sex wasn’t necessarily dirty (or that its dirtiness was a form of gorgeousness). Today, the images are no more extreme than the ads that populate any number of fashion magazines, not to mention the veritable pornography on standard television.

Back then, though, ‘Sex’ was a big deal. For Madonna fans especially. A friend’s mother had procured the book for me and I descended into my basement to view it in the bright and harsh double fluorescent tubes of the early 1990’s. Turning each page and taking in each image was an experience that was seering itself into my head. The smell of those stiff pages, the shiny cold metal of the covers, and the provocative poses within aroused all my senses. As the mylar-encased CD single of ‘Erotica’ played in the background, my mind journeyed with Madonna on her sexual adventures – from the dungeons of New York City to the tropical playground of the Florida shore – and the rapturous appreciation of such a work of art inspired me on a path that has led to all my creative endeavors, from writing to photography to this very blog.

‘Sex’ – the book – got everyone’s attention. It was the elusive party invite that everyone wanted but no one wanted to admit to wanting. Not unlike sex the act. Pretty genius on Madonna’s part, and everyone fell for it. The naked girl brings everyone to the door, but what’s going to keep us in the room? For me, it was the music. While lead single ‘Erotica’ was the headliner, it wasn’t close to being the strongest cut. That honor went to ‘Deeper and Deeper’, which picked up right where ‘Vogue’ left off, featuring a flamenco guitar bridge that impels the most staid person to move once that bass kicks back in. Let your body go with the flow, indeed. Giving ‘Deeper’ a run for its money, albeit a slower and more somber one, is ‘Rain’ – one of Madonna’s strongest ballads, and a beautiful foil for the heat and crackle of the album. Whereas tracks like ‘Fever’ and ‘Thief of Hearts’ burned, ‘Rain’ cooled and soothed the savage beast brought out by all the heavy breathing. ‘Bad Girl’ tempered all the antics with a dose of self-blame and a brilliant David Fincher-directed video (with a guest turn by Christopher Walken no less). Deeper cuts like ‘Words’ and ‘Secret Garden’ proved Madonna’s musical mettle and completed an album that was somewhat maligned on release, but that has proven a potent slice of 90’s dance-pop all these years later.

The backlash was swift and harsh. People get all bent out of shape when anyone steps beyond boundaries regarding America’s ridiculously puritanical public stance on sex. Madonna was attacked even more than usual, and this time some of it stuck, tarnishing her run as uncontested top-of-the-pop goddess. After the title track, the singles uncharacteristically stalled on the Billboard charts, failing to rise to her usual perch at number one. It was a career slump (even if it was a rather successful one at that) and the criticism seems to have stung Madonna more than usual. There’s sometimes a sad beauty to sex, so the dampening denouement felt like a fitting finale. It still couldn’t dim the fireworks that Madonna set off, and this period remains a favorite stretch for many a fan.

In my own life, it came at the jumping-off point for sexual exploration. It titillated in a safe masturbatory way, it took unabashed pleasure in itself, and it offered no apology for any of it. “A lot of people don’t say what they want,” Madonna wrote at the end of the book, “That’s why they don’t get what they want.” Simple and true, it was Madonna at her brazen best. Fuck you, literally, if you don’t want to get it. I was just beginning my trip down the rabbit’s hole of sexual wonderland. It was still shiny and new, but I now had markers and signifiers. I had hints of what sex was, stories and tales of arousal and excitement, images and songs of sexual events. Tied into love and romance, heartache and betrayal, sex was something sacred and serious, along with playful and fun. It was all there in the aural romp of the ‘Erotica’ album, there in the pages of ‘Sex’ – and if the woman whom I had idolized and worshipped could make matter-of-fact commentary on the subject, it might be safe to discuss all the questions and concerns I had.

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The Madonna Timeline: Song #66 – ‘Rain’ – Fall 1992/Summer 1993

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

I feel it
It’s coming…

It turns out I’ve already written about the next iPod selection for the Madonna Timeline, ‘Rain’, but it was before the official Timeline came into existence, so I’m putting the original up here now. It was written a couple of years ago, but it’s a memory that’s true, a memory that has lasted, and a memory that still matters.

Rain – feel it on my fingertips, hear it on my windowpane,
Your love’s coming down like rain.
Wash away my sorrow, take away my pain,
Your love’s coming down like rain.

Sixteen years ago I did not have my driver’s license. I was old enough to drive, I just hadn’t gotten around to making it officially legal, mostly because I didn’t care. Still, I loved sneaking out at night when my parents had gone to bed, putting the car in reverse, and starting it as the wheels eased out of the driveway.

When your lips are burning mine
And you take the time to tell me how you feel
When you listen to my words
And I know you’ve heard, I know it’s real
Rain is what this thunder brings
For the first time I can hear my heart sing
Call me a fool but I know I’m not
I’m gonna stand out here on the mountain top

That Fall was difficult for me on a number of levels. It’s not worth going into depth about it – it was simply a lonely time, and the onslaught of dreary gray weather did nothing to abate my melancholy. As a cold rain began to come down, I drove out of the small city and onto the back roads of upstate New York.

Rain – feel it on my fingertips, hear it on my windowpane,
Your love’s coming down like rain.
Wash away my sorrow, take away my pain,
Your love’s coming down like rain.

The rain was tearing the leaves from the trees – dark brown ones from the lofty reaches of grand oaks were driven down by the wind. The car sped along the messy road. Back in my bedroom, a plastic bag, a large rubber band, and a bottle of sleeping pills awaited my return. A page of the suicide manual ‘Final Exit’ was marked, its instructions strangely void of emotion, no guidance on what to feel.

When you looked into my eyes and you said good-bye,
Could you see my tears?
When I turned the other way, did you hear me say,
I’d wait for all the dark clouds bursting in a perfect sky
You promised me when you said good-bye
That you’d return when the storm was done
And now I’ll wait for the light, I’ll wait for the sun…

The road turned, twisting itself along a line of trees. Rain pelted the windshield, a curtain of falling leaves parted for the car, and my sweaty palms and wet eyes glazed the glass between us. On the radio they were playing an as-yet-unreleased Madonna album, ‘Erotica’ (back when radio did that sort of thing). I would never get to hear it in its entirety, not if everything went according to plan. It was the one drawback to ending it that night. I could bitterly rejoice at skipping all my math homework due the next day, and defiantly put off cleaning my room – add it to the mess I was leaving – but I would not be able to hear the rest of Madonna’s music, not if I left tonight.

Rain – feel it on my fingertips, hear it on my windowpane,
Your love’s coming down like rain.
Wash away my sorrow, take away my pain,
Your love’s coming down like rain.

It was a simple ballad with a simple chord progression and a simple resounding theme of yearning, and if Madonna was having a rough go of it then how could anyone, much less myself, be expected to do any better?

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say, never go away…

So I decided to wait, at least until the album came out and I could get a proper listen, promising myself that I could always come back to where my head was at and do it right then.

Waiting is the hardest thing
(It’s strange I feel like I’ve known you before)
I tell myself that if I believe in you
(And I want to understand you)
In the dream of you
(More and more)
With all my heart and all my soul
(When I’m with you)
That by sheer force of will
(I feel like a magical child)
I will raise you from the ground
(Everything strange)
And without a sound you’ll appear
(Everything wild)
And surrender to me, to love

There would be other attempts at self-annihilation, and there will always be that part of me that sometimes wishes to go away, but for that moment, that night, the simple promise of a Madonna song was enough to bring me to another day. It was the night a Madonna song saved my life.

I feel it,
It’s coming,
Your love’s coming down like…
Rain.

Song #66 – ‘Rain’ – Fall 1992/Summer 1993

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The Night Madonna Saved My Life

{This is a repost of something I wrote in October of 2008, but given the news of late it seems a good time to resurrect it.}

I feel it
It’s coming…

Sixteen years ago I did not have my driver’s license. I was old enough to drive, I just hadn’t gotten around to making it officially legal, mostly because I didn’t care. Still, I loved sneaking out at night when my parents had gone to bed, putting the car in reverse, and starting it as the wheels eased out of the driveway.

That Fall was difficult for me on a number of levels. It’s not worth going into depth about it – it was simply a lonely time, and the onslaught of dreary gray weather did nothing to abate my melancholy. As a cold rain began to come down, I drove out of the small city and onto the back roads of upstate New York.

Rain – feel it on my fingertips, hear it on my windowpane,
Your love’s coming down like rain,
Wash away my sorrow, take away my pain.

The rain was tearing the leaves from the trees. Dark brown oak leaves were driven down by the wind. The car sped along the messy road. Back in my bedroom, a plastic bag, a large rubber band, and a bottle of sleeping pills awaited my return. A page of Final Exit was marked, its instructions strangely void of emotion, no guidance on what to feel.

I know it’s real, rain is what the thunder brings
For the first time I can hear my heart sing,
Call me a fool but I know I’m not
I’m gonna stand out here on the mountaintop
Until I feel your rain…

The road turned, twisting itself along a line of trees. Rain pelted the windshield, a curtain of falling leaves parted for the car, and my sweaty palms and wet eyes glazed the glass between us. On the radio they were playing an as-yet-unreleased Madonna album, Erotica. I would never get to hear it in its entirety, not if everything went according to plan. It was the one drawback to ending it that night. I could bitterly rejoice at skipping all my homework due the next day, and defiantly put off cleaning my room – add it to the mess I was leaving – but I would not be able to hear the rest of Madonna’s music, not if I left tonight.

Waiting is the hardest thing,
I tell myself if I believe in you, in the dream of you,
with all my heart and all my soul,
that by sheer force of will, I could raise you from the ground,
and without a sound you would appear, and surrender to me, to love.

It was a simple ballad with a simple chord progression and a simple resounding theme of yearning, and if Madonna was having a rough go of it then how could anyone, much less myself, be expected to do any better?
So I decided to wait, at least until the album came out and I could get a proper listen, promising myself that I could always come back to where my head was at and do it right then.

I feel it,
It’s coming,
Your love’s coming down like…
Rain.

There would be other attempts at self-annihilation, and there will always be that part of me that sometimes wishes to go away, but for that moment, that night, the simple promise of a Madonna song was enough to bring me to another day.

– Alan Ilagan, 2008

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This week I’ve pondered how I made it through, what it was that saved me all those times, and more often than not it was something as simple as a new Madonna album. I made it through the week waiting for that CD, and after dancing around the bedroom to “Deeper and Deeper” I realized that if I could make it through a week, I could make it through a month, and if I could make it through a month, I could last a year, and by then I would be out of high school, and maybe things would be better. And they were.

If you’re contemplating suicide, if you think you just cannot go on, please stop and wait a moment. Think it over for a day, for a week – it is never as bad as you think it is. And I don’t care if it’s Madonna, or Lady Gaga, or Justin Freaking Bieber, find something to hold onto. If you still feel alone, call someone. The Trevor Project is a 24-hour, toll-free suicide hotline for gay youth – there will always be someone there to listen. It may seem silly, but it’s not.

I grew up without The Trevor Project, but on another dark night when the world closed up around me I had the strength to call a local suicide hotline, and as foolish as I felt (and as sure as I was that they knew who my parents were) I poured my heart out to the woman on the other end, and it was all I needed to make it through that night.

There is always someone somewhere willing to listen to you, and though you may feel like there is nothing to live for, you have no idea what the next day or year will bring. Don’t deprive the world of everything you might one day become. You are not alone, so if you need to talk just call The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386.

If you need inspiration, check out Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project on YouTube. It’s fun to see the various celebrities on there, but it’s the personal, private stories of people you may not know that moved me the most.

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