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Strike A Pose: Why Vogue is Madonna’s finest 45

”Vogue was inspired by walking into a nightclub – it may have been the Paradise Garage – and seeing the Xtravaganza crew basically voguing and I was like ‘Whoa, what the hell is that?‘” — Madonna, iHeartRadio, 2019

Get me. 1990’s I’m Breathless pseudo soundtrack to the dire Dick Tracy movie that she also “acted” in would be the first Madonna album I bought on the day of release, following the slightly reluctant purchasing of Like A Prayer in October of 1989, when its third single Cherish was sweetly taking up space in the UK top ten and I realised Madge wasn’t the talentless tart I’d spent most of the 1980s writing her off as. 

Isn’t it funny how some things come around again, almost full circle, like.

Actually, I tell a lie, because as the new decade dawned I’d become friendly with a cash-in-hand CD dealer in musical Milton Keynes who would hand deliver your chosen new release in person, often the day before the official release date. In fact, I distinctly remember handing over ten of your English pounds on the doorstep of my parents’ village cottage on Sunday May 20, 1990.

Vogue, the album’s lead 45, had just vacated the top of the charts after a month as the biggest selling single in Britain. This was an artist at the peak of her powers. The Blonde Ambition tour was underway and footage for its associated Truth Or Dare documentary was being recorded. I remarked to Mr Dealer how “Madonna seems as popular now as she ever was.”

“Well, she looks good, doesn’t she?” he smiled, with a conspiratorial metaphorical wink. 

Thirty-three years later you’d be hard-pushed to find too many folks still with eyesight who’d want to offer that visual analysis of her, but lest we forget, Vogue is actually a great song. Possibly Madonna’s finest 45, in fact. In an ideal world I will never have to be subjected to the overplayed Holiday or Like A Prayer ever again, while Minnie Mouse’s favourites Like A Virgin and Material Girl will have vamoosed to that great helium balloon in the sky once and for all. 

Vogue, however, doesn’t seem to have dated very much last all. It sounds as fresh and danceable as it did when I first slotted I’m Breathless in the CD player, though I remember being slightly disappointed that the version which incongruously closed out the “soundtrack” wasn’t what I’d heard on the radio, which had a punchier, dancier opening with the “What you looking’ at?” refrain, strangely excised from the longer video/album mix with its long instrumental build up. That 7” mix, in fact, wildest appear on a Madonna album until 2022’s Finally Enough Love compilation. 

That might be what‘s playing here then.

Instagram will load in the frontend.

Talking of video bits…

“I thought MTV might not play my Vogue video. You can see my breasts through my dress.” — Madonna, Interview interview

Even the David Fincher promotional film is an evocative, provocative art piece.

But if all you knew of Vogue was the ITV Chart Show’s butchering of it, then the song started with the line “All you need is your own imagination”, because the telly channel decided that Madge’s nipples through a semi-translucent negligee was a tad too racy for Saturday morning Brits. 

Mirroring Into The Groove‘s inception by originally being recorded as a mere B-side (in this case for Keep It Together, the final single from Like A Prayer that wasn’t even released as a single in Europe), Madonna and her then go-to remixer Shep Pettibone banged out Vogue on a suitably modest budget of $5,000. There, the singer improvised the very white movie-star rap last-minute in a makeshift basement studio in midtown Manhattan. 

The result wasn’t just one of her Madgesty’s most definitive hits but an improbable connector between the golden age of Hollywood (with the newly expired Bette Davis as chief icon), the late ’80s club scene and Harlem drag balls, finding glamour, subversion, inspiration and self-preservation at the peak of the AIDS epidemic. 

Vogue is a fantastic journey of sounds – musically, lyrically, vocally, and has a great nod to history. There is not one flaw to this track: the deep bassline that rendered previous Madonna tracks as thin and weedy is toxically propulsive; not to mention the finger clicks, the house piano, the percussion. Everything worked.

Though at this point I should mention that had songwriters been sued for copying a “vibe” in 1990, as Robin Thicke and future Madge collaborator Pharrell Williams did by the estate of Marvin Gaye almost 30 years later then Pettibone and Ciccone would have almost certainly faced a lawsuit from the artful dodger himself, ex Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren, who had released a not dissimilar track and similarly monochromatic video paying tribute to the dancing style of Willi Ninja, the godfather of Voguing, as well as black, gay and Hollywood culture in 1989 called Deep In Vogue.

But don’t take my word for it.

Where a copyright infringement case had been brought against Vogue was over the appropriation of a 1982 12” mix of Ooh, I Love It (Love Break), a 1970s single by the Salsoul Orchestra. The snazzy floorfiller was remixed by none other than Shep Pettibone, who added the distinctive horn bursts replicated in the Madge track. 

Essentially, while not owning any part of the copyright on a song he remixed, flat-fee Shep plagiarised himself, even to the point of punning the “love break” repeated refrain by turning it into “girlfriend” on Vogue‘s eight-minute 12-inch mix.

That’ll be this one then.

Curiously, Pettibone was able to have the case found in Madonna’s favour when he demonstrated that merely recreated the synthetic horn sound, not sampled it. Again, had that litigation been brought today I doubt he and Her Nibs would be laughing. 

Ultimately though, this pumping house banger is probably Madonna’s most important song — a masterpiece of myriad melodies and gorgeous grooves that acted as an affirmation to a community that desperately needed some love and affection. Lest we forget, Vogue was also when commercial and creative endeavours coalesced, inspiring everybody to be something better than they are today. 

All you have to do is strike a pose — there’s nothing to it*. 

Steve Pafford

*Or… They had style, they had grace, what the hell has she done to her face?

She’s Madonna: Her 30 Greatest Singles is here

Movie review: Strike A Pose, back when Madonna ruled OK is here

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