Though Erotica, Madonna’s fifth studio album, was released in late 1992, the project’s creative evolution can actually be traced back to 1990—perhaps the greatest year of the Queen of Pop’s career. First, she dropped “Vogue,” the strike-a-pose paean to the underground ballroom scene that became her biggest hit at the time. Then she launched her Blond Ambition World Tour, a mammoth effort that established a new blueprint for pop-diva stage spectacles (this was all accompanied by her highest-grossing movie, Dick Tracy, and its accompanying hit soundtrack). Finally, at the year’s end, Madonna shocked the world with the controversial single “Justify My Love,” which went to No. 1 thanks in part to its provocative video, which was banned by MTV—but covered endlessly in the press. From the clubby to the carnal, both “Vogue” and “Justify My Love” would set the tone for Erotica—so much so that Madonna wound up recruiting the song’s respective producers, Shep Pettibone and André Betts, to collaborate with her on the album. The result was as radical as it was raunchy—especially for a pop superstar of Madonna’s magnitude. Erotica is a reinvention in every sense of the word, kicking off with the title track, which finds Madonna adopting a dominatrix alter ego, named Dita. The song is a perfectly sleazy jumping-off point for this album-long journey to erotic enlightenment: “Where Life Begins” is an ode to oral sex with a feminist twist, demanding equal time on the receiving end for the ladies, while “Deeper and Deeper” plays like a musical sequel to “Vogue”—but with lyrics that make a powerful, pro-LGBTQ statement about loving who you love (a philosophy Madonna espoused long before it was cool to be queer). Indeed, Erotica is the album that made Madonna the most important and influential gay icon of the AIDS era. It’s a record that reclaims sex—and the sexiness of the dance floor—in the midst of the epidemic, while also pausing to reflect on what had been lost, as with the Pettibone-produced ballad “In This Life,” which remains one of Madonna’s most poignant personal and political statements. But it’s also the record that marked the libido liberation of pop’s leading ladies, and set the tone for her risque early-1990s run.

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