In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The underground — any underground — tends to find peculiar and unintended routes into the spotlight. Madonna was always a creature of New York club culture, and it wasn’t particularly out of character for her to get interested in a particular facet of that culture, which kept evolving after she got famous. But it was pretty weird that Madonna managed to take a small slice of the deep underground and mainstream the absolute hell out of it. And it was also pretty weird that Madonna pulled this off with a would-be B-side that got stapled onto the hoochie-coochie retro-cabaret album that she’d recorded as a tie-in with her big summer-blockbuster movie.
Madonna didn’t exactly intend to take Harlem drag-ball culture and transform it into the sort of mainstream fad that immediately becomes a butt of sitcom jokes. But the world moves in unpredictable ways. Madonna was prescient about a lot of things, but she can’t have predicted the ripple-effects of all the moves that she made. “Vogue” wasn’t even supposed to be a single, but it became one of the defining smashes of a hall-of-fame career. That happens sometimes.
Drag balls existed in the United States for a full century before “Vogue.” Langston Hughes, for instance, wrote about attending a Harlem drag ball in the ’20s. The vogue, as a dance, emerged from that world during a particularly fraught moment. Voguing emerged in Black and Latinx gay and trans clubs in the ’80s, as AIDS decimated those communities. There are even some reports that the dance truly took hold when the gay inmates at Riker’s Island would get into catwalk-style battles with each other. Voguing got its name, of course, from the magazine — from dancers striking poses as if they were being photographed for fashion spreads. People who were subjugated in so many different ways, then, found escape by building their own sort of glamor. I think that’s beautiful.
Madonna may have first encountered voguing in 1989, when the promoter Susanne Bartsch held an AIDS fundraiser called the Love Ball at her downtown boutique. But you have to figure that Madonna was always going to learn about this culture. Even at the galactic height of her fame, Madonna stayed informed about club trends; that’s how she was able to seem so far ahead of the curve for so long. Madonna also loved LGBTQ culture, to the point where she’s often been accused of exploiting it. And as one of the most photographed people in the world, it’s easy to see how she would’ve been drawn to voguing.
Madonna wrote “Vogue” with Shep Pettibone, a DJ and producer who was mostly known as a remixer. Pettibone had started out by working with Arthur Baker to remix Afrika Bambaataa’s single “Jazzy Sensation” in 1982. For years after that, Pettibone became a regular on the credits of 12″ singles. He remixed dozens of tracks for stars like Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston and George Michael. Pettibone knew Madonna from her early recording days, and he started remixing her tracks in the mid-’80s. His early reworkings of “True Blue” and “Into The Groove” made a whole lot of noise.
By 1989, Madonna made sure to include Shep Pettibone remixes on just about all of her singles. In plenty of cases, those remixes were better than the originals, and Madonna knew it. When Madonna released “Express Yourself” as a single in 1989, for instance, she made sure the expensive David Fincher-directed video used the Pettibone mix, not the album version. (“Express Yourself” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)
During Madonna’s Like A Prayer album cycle, Craig Kostich, the head of dance music at Warner Bros., had the idea that Pettibone and Madonna should just make a track together — that Pettibone shouldn’t be relegated to remix duty. Madonna was about to release “Keep It Together” as the fifth single of Like A Prayer, so Kostich gave Pettibone a $5,000 budget to make a new track. (Naturally, Pettibone also remixed “Keep It Together,” and the song ended up peaking at #8. It’s a 7.)
Pettibone put together a new track — a burbling deep house thump that sampled the bongo ripples and horn stabs from the Salsoul Orchestra’s 1983 track “Ooh, I Love It (Love Break).” When the Salsoul Orchestra first released “Ooh I Love You (Love Break),” Pettibone had remixed it. The “Vogue” sample led to a lawsuit, which a judge ultimately dismissed in 2016. (The Salsoul Orchestra’s highest-charting single, 1976’s “Tangerine,” peaked at #18.)
Madonna loved Pettibone’s track, and she wrote lyrics while flying to New York to record with Pettibone. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Pettibone remembers that Madonna walked into the session and told him, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to call the song ‘Vogue.'” Pettibone was surprised to learn that Madonna wanted to sing about voguing; he’d thought that the dance was already “semi-passé” at the time.
It’s not really possible to lay out the whole cultural context for a subcultural movement in the space of a pop song, but Madonna gave it a shot. “Vogue” is not a history lesson about voguing, and it never specifically identifies the Black and Latinx LGTBQ dancers who came up with voguing. But Madonna’s “Vogue” lyrics do describe the conditions that could lead to the the emergence of a dance like that in the first place: “Look around, everywhere you turn is heartache/ It’s everywhere that you go/ You try everything you can to escape the pain of life that you know.” In her lyrics, Madonna depicts the dancefloor as a site of escape, a place where you can imagine a better reality for yourself. I’m not an authority in ball culture by any means, but at least from where I’m sitting, that sounds exactly right.
On its own merits, “Vogue” is also a truly great club song — slinky and anthemic, with tension-and-release dynamics built in. The track moves from a throbbing strut to a cathartic explosion, and Madonna builds along with it. She starts out icy and commanding, fully in-control. When the chorus hits, though, she’s fully caught up in it. “Vogue” is a house track, and it’s got a ton of disco in its DNA. Madonna wasn’t a classic disco diva — she never had that bazooka howl — but she’s got passion and conviction. When “Vogue” peaks — “get up on the dance-floor!” — Madonna does her best version of that full-on disco-diva wail. Madonna’s vocal nails a certain combination of calm detachment and exhilarated abandon; in a way, it mirrors the dance itself.
The part of “Vogue” that everyone remembers is the quasi-rap bit at the end where Madonna reels off a list of classic Hollywood names: “Greta Garbo and Monroe, Dietrich and DiMaggio.” I love that. For one thing, Madonna doesn’t deliver those lyrics like a white pop star trying to rap. Instead, she calls all those old stars out with a certain haughty imperiousness. Madonna had already held herself up as a paragon of that old Hollywood glamor, and that part of the song allows her to pay tribute to those foundational figures and to the LGBTQ culture that had spent generations riffing on the glamor that those names evoked. Also, she sounds like she’s having fun there. (A few years ago, Pettibone told Billboard that he suggested the rap part. The man knew how to put a track together.)
If “Vogue” were a thesis statement on queer resistance through dance, then the song wouldn’t work. “Vogue” is also, after all, a dance-craze song, like “The Twist” or “The Hustle.” It needs that extra shot of goofiness. It needs ladies with an attitude and fellas that were in the mood.
When the people at Warner heard “Vogue,” they knew it was too good to be a B-side. They had to figure out some other way to push the song into the world. As it happened, Madonna had just taken on her own kind of retro movie-star gig. She’d just made Dick Tracy.
Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy tried to capitalize on what had happened with Batman a year earlier. There was a whole little wave there where movie executives thought what people loved about Batman was the pulpy detective-kitsch stuff, so they kept making movies in that vein: The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom. Most of them bombed. Dick Tracy wasn’t the era-defining hit that Disney probably wanted, but it didn’t bomb. The film had a big budget, huge stars, grotesque makeup effects, and a surreal color palette. Disney gave Dick Tracy a huge marketing push. I spent that summer on a cross-country RV trip with my family, and I saw little Dick Tracy toys at every rest stop. I was pissed that my parents wouldn’t just take me to see the movie. At some point, they finally relented, and I saw Dick Tracy in an Oklahoma City multiplex. It was OK.
Madonna was right at the center of the Dick Tracy marketing campaign. She played Breathless Mahoney, a femme-fatale nightclub showgirl in love with Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. This might have seemed a little far-fetched if Madonna wasn’t actually dating Beatty at the time. (Beatty, then in his early fifties, wasn’t quite old enough to be one of the movie stars mentioned on “Vogue,” but Madonna had been three years old when Beatty had starred in Splendor In The Grass.) Stephen Sondheim wrote a few songs for Madonna to sing in Dick Tracy, and then she went and recorded a whole album of old-timey would-be swing standards to tie in with the movie’s release.
In at least one interview, Madonna has said that I’m Breathless is her favorite of her albums. I disagree. I’m Breathless fucking sucks. There’s a two-part duet with Warren Beatty on there? There’s, like, a rumba song that Madonna sings in a quasi-Latin Betty Boop voice? Get that shit out of here. Unlistenable. It doesn’t even work as a promotional vehicle for a movie, the way Prince’s “Batdance” had done a year earlier. “Vogue” has nothing to do with the rest of I’m Breathless, but Warner tacked the song onto the end of the album anyway. In the context of I’m Breathless, “Vogue” sparkles like a diamond in a pile of cow shit.
David Fincher directed the “Vogue” video, and it might be the single greatest work of Fincher’s entire music-video career. The clip digs deep into the ’40s-Hollywood aesthetic that “Vogue” evokes. (Now that I think of it, the “Vogue” video looks a lot like Mank.) The clip features dancers from New York’s ballroom scene, including Jose and Luis Xtravaganza, who would go on to choreograph Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour and appear in her Truth Or Dare documentary. The clip puts their dances in the context of old-timey musicals, and it looks cool as hell. That video is a better cinematic work than Dick Tracy, and it’s probably better than about half of Fincher’s actual movies, too.
I haven’t watched the FX drama Pose, but there’s apparently a whole running narrative where characters debate whether “Vogue” was good or bad for the drag-ball scene. It’s an open question. Maybe Madonna was taking advantage of unrecognized creators, exploiting and appropriating. Maybe she was giving a platform to people who might’ve never found one otherwise. Maybe “Vogue” was cynical, and maybe it was sincere. Maybe it was both. But in 1990, it was definitely striking to see a mainstream smash that was this clearly identified with a whole queer underground. From what I’ve read, the stars of the drag ball scene were a lot more pissed off about Paris Is Burning, the documentary that came out a year later, than they were about “Vogue.”
In any case, “Vogue” was almost certainly the first house track to make it all the way to #1. House, like voguing itself, had been a relatively underground club phenomenon a few years earlier, and it had only started to make inroads into the mainstream. As far as this column is concerned, that breakthrough might be the main legacy of “Vogue”; we’ll see a whole lot more house music in this column soon. The genre got a big pop-chart boost from how hard Madonna pushed “Vogue.” At the VMAs in September, Madonna and her dancers performed the song in ridiculous, elaborately baroque ballroom costumes. Madonna wore one of the gowns that Glenn Close had used in Dangerous Liaisons two years earlier. It ruled.
I’m Breathless sold two million copies, and the “Vogue” single sold another two. “Hanky Panky,” the only other single from I’m Breathless, somehow made it to #10. (It’s a 2.) The following year, Madonna went to the Oscars and brought Michael Jackson as her date. Stephen Sondheim had been nominated for Best Original Song for writing “Sooner Or Later,” and he won the award, beating out one song that’ll eventually appear in this column. Sondheim didn’t show up to accept the award, but Madonna still sang it on the telecast, practically dressing up in her own Marilyn Monroe drag for the occasion.
“Vogue” remains a big part of Madonna’s iconography. She performed “Vogue,” for instance, it at her Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2012. And when Madonna introduced the VMAs last week, she walked onstage to “Vogue.” Madonna will appear in this column again, and so will Shep Pettibone.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 1990 Fresh Prince Of Bel Air episode where Will Smith comes up with his own version of “Vogue” and clowns the entire idea of voguing:
(Will Smith will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Vogue” soundtracking a montage of Anne Hathaway looking great in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Rihanna performing an elaborate version of “Vogue” at Fashion Rocks in 2008:
(Rihanna will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kylie Minogue doing the “Vogue” rap as part of a 2009 performance of her song “Burning Up”:
(Kylie Minogue’s highest-charting single, her 1988 version of “The Loco-Motion,” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Katy Perry performing “Vogue” as part of her 2015 arena tour:
(Katy Perry will eventually appear in this column.)