Madonna’s hit single “Vogue” became a worldwide phenomenon, but was it also the product of cultural appropriation?
Madonna is the type of icon who has transcended generations. Maybe you grew up listening to her, or maybe you grew up with your parents playing her music, but no matter what, she has remained present in the pop music canon for nearly 40 years. She’s been dubbed the Queen of Reinvention and, most importantly, the Queen of Pop. Even though others have tried to take her crown, and some, like Britney Spears, have come close (and earned her own moniker as the Princess of Pop), nobody has quite matched her success or her impact on pop culture.
When you think of Madonna, there are a few songs that probably stick out the most, “Vogue” being one of them. It’s one of the pop icon’s most recognizable and successful singles of all time, with a meteoric rise, as well as controversial roots.
With the release of “Vogue” on March 27, 1990 and the subsequent music video (directed by David Fincher), voguing went from being an underground movement to a worldwide phenomenon.
The song went to number one in over 30 countries and became Madonna’s best-selling single in the United States.
Suddenly, everyone was voguing, but probably didn’t realize the cultural significance it had in the queer community.
Though Madonna never claimed to invent it, it still left a sour taste in the mouths of many LGBTQ people of color.
For some, Madonna becoming the face of voguing was just another example of a straight white woman taking from a culture that wasn’t theirs and getting all the credit.
Suddenly, men, women and children around the world were voguing (or at least their watered down attempts at it) and Madonna was reaping the benefits of the success.
But the queer black and Latinx ball performers were still left disenfranchised, and when Madonna moved on to her next era, voguing was made out to be a fad instead of the livelihood of many underground performers even to this day.
‘Like A Virgin’ (1984)
The first example of the kind of strong imagery Madonna could present in her videos came with ‘Like A Virgin’. The clip cuts between her dancing on a Venetian gondola in her original punk-style look – already being copied at that point by young girls across America – and a more demure scene where she dons a full wedding dress (albeit a more demure choice than the one she would sport on the album cover). Her ambition is on full display. As the camera cuts between her eyes and those of a lion, it’s hard to tell who looks hungrier.
In 1992 Madonna took her role as a sexual siren to its full extent when she published Sex, a soft-core pornographic coffee-table book featuring her in a variety of “erotic” poses.
She was criticized for being exploitative and overcalculating, and writer Norman Mailer said she had become “secretary to herself.”
Soon afterward Madonna temporarily withdrew from pop music to concentrate on a film career that had begun with a strong performance in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
, faltered with the flimsy Shanghai Surprise (1986) and Dick Tracy (1990), and recovered with Truth or Dare (1991,
also known as In Bed with Madonna), a documentary of one of her tours, and A League of Their Own (1992).
She scored massive success in 1996 with the starring role in the film musical Evita. That year she also gave birth to a daughter.
Despite a marriage in the 1980s to actor Sean Penn and another to English director Guy Ritchie (married 2000; divorced 2008),
with whom she had a son, Madonna remained resolutely independent. (She also later adopted four children from Malawi.)
That independent streak, however, did not prevent her from enlisting the biggest names in music to assist on specific projects.
This fact was clear on Hard Candy (2008), a hip-hop-infused effort with writing and vocal and production work by Justin Timberlake,
Timbaland, and Pharrell Williams of the hit-making duo the Neptunes. With MDNA (2012),
which featured cameos from women rappers M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj, she continued to prove herself a shrewd assimilator of cutting-edge musical styles.
Rebel Heart (2015), featuring production work by Diplo and Kanye West and guest appearances from Minaj
and Chance the Rapper, was an ode to her career. In 2019 Madonna released her 14th studio album,
Madame X, which was inspired by her 2017 move to Lisbon, Portugal, and contained music influenced by Latin pop, art pop,
and hip-hop. Madonna was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
In addition to acting in movies—she also starred in the romantic comedy The Next Best Thing (2000) and in Ritchie’s Swept Away (2002)—
Madonna pursued work behind the camera. She cowrote and directed Filth and Wisdom (2008),
a comedy about a trio of mismatched flatmates in London, as well as the drama W.E. (2011),
which juxtaposed the historical romance between Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII with the fictional story of a woman in the 1990s researching Simpson’s life.
The moment changed the teenager’s life. In a matter of months, José was part of seven male dancers, all gay except for one, who joined the singer in her most controversial and successful Blond Ambition Tour.
“I am picked out of oblivion to be part of the famous singer’s dance crew,” José said. “We beat out seven thousand other dancers.”
Madonna was amazed to learn José was classically trained. He had his eyes on joining the renowned modern dance company, Alvin Ailey, since receiving a scholarship in the third grade.
“I didn’t know where the arts would take me; I was so young but I knew I wanted to express myself through dance,” he said. “I just went on a journey with Madonna, it was never about the money, it was about dance and self expression on the stage,” acknowledging that the opportunity was every young dancer’s dream.
For years it’s been the rumored in Alphabet City – now called the Lower East Side – which was once a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood, that that the Michigan born star “borrowed” from the urban black and Puerto Rican culture of the neighborhood. People have pointed to her signature red lipstick and the hoop earrings sported by Puerto Rican girls at the time, as well as the fluid dance styles of the young men and women.
The documentary confirms it. It was the Latino and black drag scene of New York City where Madonna went fishing for inspiration.
And it’s clear the impact the men made on the world that twenty-five years later, we are still talking and writing about them.
“She was smart about tapping into the culture and the gay urban scene. She knew where to go get it,” said José.
But there is one thing that still perplexes the dancer.
“I don’t understand why voguing is not on par with ballet,” he says. “Voguing is part of dance curriculums in dance schools. It’s elegant, sculptural and an outlandish art form. We don’t have names for the moves, but it’s just as beautiful and powerful as any other form of dance.”
For those who don’t know, “vogue” is a type of stylized dance that originated in the New York ballroom scene in the 1980s.
The ballroom scene in New York had an eclectic mix of performers from diverse backgrounds, mostly black and Latinx members of the LGBTQ community.
The dance style was inspired by both high-fashion models in magazines like it’s namesake magazine,
Vogue, as well as Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. While the exact roots of the dance are disputed, it’s clear that it stems from queer people of color in the ball scene.
When Madonna was a rising star in New York, she often frequented dance clubs, which is where she learned about voguing.
Dancers (and members of the ball scene’s House of Xtravaganza) Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Xtravaganza introduced her to the dance style at the Sound Factory, a club in New York City.
Thus the inspiration for the song was born, and Madonna brought Jose and Luis on to help choreograph the music video and eventually travelled the world with her on the Blonde Ambition Tour.
When you look back at the situation, though, is Madonna the one to blame? It’s a complicated case of cultural appropriation where the artist seemingly took all the appropriate steps, she appreciated the culture and made sure to give credit where credit is due.
After all, she was inspired by the ball scene itself, she worked with two dancers from the scene, hired them for the video and even brought them on tour with her.
But does that make it right, and if not, how could she have navigated that situation differently?
It’s also crucial to remember Madonna’s status as a gay icon and her history of support for the LGBTQ community. She has always used her voice to uplift the queer community, even early on in her career during the AIDS crisis, when it could have harmed her career to do so.
While her capitalizing on voguing may look like a calculated move by yet another culture vulture, it genuinely seems like it was her being surrounded by this culture and wanting to embrace it with the utmost respect.
But that’s just one perspective, and with so many diverse voices in the queer community, it’s important to listen to each side of the argument.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t celebrate “Vogue” as the groundbreaking single that it was, or continue to rank the video as one of the best of all time
. It’s just important to look at it and remember the queer POC that allowed for that song and video to happen, the ones who continued to struggle even when Madonna was on to her next success.
Born into a large Italian American family, Madonna studied dance at the University of Michigan and with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City in the late 1970s before relocating briefly to Paris as a member of Patrick Hernandez’s disco revue.
Returning to New York City, she performed with a number of rock groups before signing with Sire Records. Her first hit,
“Holiday,” in 1983, provided the blueprint for her later material—an upbeat dance club sound with sharp production and an immediate appeal. Madonna’s melodic pop incorporated catchy choruses,
and her lyrics concerned love, sex, and relationships—ranging from the breezy innocence of “True Blue” (1986) to the erotic fantasies of “Justify My Love” (1990) to the spirituality of later songs such as “Ray of Light” (1998).
Criticized by some as being limited in range, her sweet girlish voice nonetheless was well suited to pop music.
Madonna was the first female artist to exploit fully the potential of the music video.
She collaborated with top designers (Jean-Paul Gaultier), photographers (Steven Meisel and Herb Ritts), and directors (Mary Lambert
and David Fincher), drawing inspiration from underground club culture or the avant-garde to create distinctive sexual
and satirical images—from the knowing ingenue of “Like a Virgin” (1984) to the controversial red-dressed “sinner” who kisses a Black saint in “Like a Prayer” (1989).
By 1991 she had scored 21 top ten hits in the United States and sold some 70 million albums internationally, generating $1.2 billion in sales.
Committed to controlling her image and career herself, Madonna became the head of Maverick, a subsidiary of Time Warner created by the entertainment giant as part of a $60 million deal with the performer.
Her success signaled a clear message of financial control to other women in the industry, but in terms of image she was a more ambivalent role model.
In 1998 Madonna released her first album of new material in four years, Ray of Light.
A fusion of techno music and self-conscious lyrics, it was a commercial and critical success, earning the singer her first musical Grammy Awards, among them the award for best pop album (her previous win had been for a video).
She won another Grammy the following year, for the song “Beautiful Stranger,” which she cowrote and performed for the movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999).
Her experimentation in electronica continued with Music (2000). In 2005 she returned to her roots with Confessions on a Dance Floor, which took the Grammy for best electronic/dance album.
In the early 1990’s, Madonna, then a rising pop star, was so thirsty to know about “voguing” she asked one of her bodyguards to take off his pants so that a young Dominican American dancer from the Lower East Side of New York City, José Gutiérrez, could borrow them and show her a dance craze that was the rage in the underground black and Latino gay scene of the city.
Say the word “vogue” and “Madonna” and the iconic video with the amazing dance moves come to mind. Twenty five years later, a new documentary, “Strike a Pose,” catches up with six dancers, who unknowingly, would become icons to legions of dancers and gay kids worldwide
José, 18, was a classically trained dancer (much to Madonna’s surprise) and part of the underground ballroom dance duo, The House of Extravaganza, along with his best friend a young Puerto Rican teen, Luis Camacho.
José told NBC Latino about his life-changing moment with the superstar:
“I was at the Sound Factory, an after-hours spot where we went to dance all night long. A mutual friend, Debbie Mazar whispered to me that Madonna was in the club and wanted to see me. Madonna went straight to the point, she was very direct and asked, “Can I see you do this vogue thing I keep hearing about.” I loved fashion, because of course, fashion is part of the expression and what you wear to the club is part of the performance and I didn’t want my clothes sweaty or dirty. And she saw me pause and says, “It’s your pants right?”
“Then she tells her bodyguard to give me his pants. We went to the bathroom and changed. Wearing this stranger’s pants I did what I usually do, I danced my ass off. Then as more people found out that she was there everyone began to show their moves. It was a wild scene. I sat with Madonna and pointed out the best of what I saw.”
The film reunites the dancers and recalls the aftereffects of Madonna’s decision to turn her backstage sexually provocative antics with the talented dancers – all young men of color – into the groundbreaking documentary, “Truth or Dare,” which featured the first “gay kiss” and which outed the teenagers, some ironically, not ready to express themselves and tell the world about their sexuality or their HIV status.
“We were just being ourselves, young, free, and having a ball,” José says of those glorious days.
With Luis, José choreographed her infamous “Vogue” video and was nominated for an MTV Award.
After the legendary tour, which grossed $60 million dollars, José continued to work with Madonna and was featured with Luis in the “Justify My Love” music video. In 1993 Madonna sang background vocals on their smash club hit “Queens English.”
They are not in touch anymore, but he is not bitter. “It was a moment in time, a good moment,” he said.
One of the most touching moments of the film takes place when the cameras visit José in his humble childhood home in the Lower East Side. He sits in the small apartment living room with his mother, a Dominican immigrant who is feeling a certain kind of way that her famous and extraordinarily talented son did not buy her the house of her dreams. In between sobs, José translates the moment. You can see clearly the demands and strains of fame.
For the most part, the men have led private lives; one is a waiter, two others, Luis and Salim, fell into drug addiction, homelessness and got clean. All continue to dance. José for his part teaches voguing workshops all over the world, from to Mexico to Russia and to LGBT youth in his hometown of New York City. He has recently collaborated with Baz Luhrmann in the Netflix series, “The Get Down.”