When Madonna released her debut single, ‘Everybody’, thirty years ago, few people would have predicted that she would transcend the New York club scene that spawned her, let alone go on to become the most successful female artist of all time and an icon of popular culture.
A decade later, by the time she published her literary debut, Sex - a lavish coffee table tome - Madonna had firmly established herself as pop’s premier provocateur, using each song, video, tour or magazine cover to spark debate, provoke reactions and had embarked on her one-woman sexual revolution, challenging stereotypes and using her spotlight to highlight issues such as sexual politics, gay rights and AIDS awareness.
If the sexually-charged Blond Ambition Tour, ‘Justify My Love’ video and In Bed With Madonna documentary were examples of Madonna orchestrating the perfect striptease, Sex was her big reveal. It was, and remains, the most shocking and daring career move ever made by a mainstream pop artist. It was bold and fearless and set her apart from her contemporaries.
Ensuring that her vision was executed to the finest, minute detail, Madonna went so far as to set up her own entertainment company, Maverick, to simultaneously publish the book and release her ‘Erotica’ album. Determined to make sure that both were successful, Madonna embarked on a media campaign like no other to publicise her latest endeavours, from appearing on every major magazine cover to modelling topless at a Jean Paul Gaultier catwalk show, she certified that she would gain maximum coverage and publicity.
“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 said at the time. “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 is bad. I think the problem is that everybody’s so uptight about it and if people could talk about it freely, we would have people practicing 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.”
It was after her controversial ‘Justify My Love’ video was banned by MTV in 1990 that Madonna decided to explore the issue of sexuality more broadly in her work, frustrated that ultra-violent films were tolerated by society yet she was banned for a video depicting group sex and a lesbian kiss. The germ of the idea for Sex came when, considering offers from publishers to pen a book of erotic fiction based on her own sexual fantasies, she discussed the idea with her close friend and collaborator, renowned fashion photographer Steven Meisel. The pair had built a strong rapport working together on a string of provocative pictorials for magazines such as Rolling Stone, Vogue and Vanity Fair. Meisel himself was toying with the idea of doing a book and wanted Madonna, his muse, to star in it. The pair culminated both ideas and Sex was born.
Words: Mark Lindores
Photography: Rory Van Millingen
This is an excerpt from the December 2012 issue of Clash magazine. Find out more about the issue.