“Look around, everywhere you turn is heartache, it’s everywhere that you go”…
While those lyrics certainly apply to the raging dumpster fire that 2020 is shaping up to be, they’re from 1990 more specifically from Madonna’s legendary single, “Vogue,” which was released 30 years ago this week. And three decades later, as we sit in quarantine in the middle of a global pandemic, facing a time of unprecedented uncertainty, we’re definitely trying everything we can to escape the pain of life that we know.
Vogue was the lead single off the 1990 album, I’m Breathless, which included music from and inspired by the movie Dick Tracy in which Madonna played Breathless Mahoney alongside Warren Beatty. The song’s video is as iconic as the track itself, shot in super stylized black and white with Madonna in full retro Hollywood glam and featuring several of the dancers that would accompany Madonna on her subsequent super successful Blond Ambition Tour and of course, featured later in her ground-breaking documentary, 1991’s Truth or Dare.
While Madonna’s video may have been some people’s first exposure to voguing, it existed long before Madonna told us to strike a pose with ballroom culture dating all the way back to the 1960s. “It didn’t shine a light on ballroom culture,” says Twysted Miyake-Mugler, a key figure in the Canadian ballroom scene and co-founder of the Toronto Kiki Ballroom Alliance, “however, it brought voguing to the mainstream as a dance phenomenon.” And while Madonna has been accused of appropriating the culture, “It depends how you look at it.” says Twysted. “Icons Jose & Luis Xtravaganza (reigning voguing divas) were in the video, she did the old way style and moves correctly. From a casting perspective, these dancers look great, but vogue came from trans women including Paris Dupree. Therefore, one can argue that the use of gay men instead of trans women can be seen as not giving credit to the originators and pioneers. However, at least she used people FROM the ballroom in her video.”
The same year “Vogue” became a pop culture sensation, the documentary Paris is Burning, which chronicles New York’s ball culture in the mid-to-late 80s, was also released. It went on to win the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and become a cult classic, but Twysted sees a stark difference between the two and their treatment of the culture. “Paris Is Burning is seen as one of the most exploitative documentaries of all time,” he says. “It put the filmmaker, a white woman, in the spotlight, by putting the very real lives and stories into a collection that was seen by everyone. People have died since starring in the film, and there was NO SUPPORT! I do not feel the same about Madonna as I do about (director) Jennie Livingston. Madonna paid homage and gave them a spotlight that they were able to live off of for the rest of their lives, as dancers and instructors. Madonna took her dancers on tour around the world and gave them an unforgettable work experience. You cannot compare the two at all.”
And as for the legacy of “Vogue,” Twysted says, “the legacy of the actual dance has already surpassed the video. The dance has evolved past the old way and styles seen in the video, into a more fluid style with a new name: “Vogue Fem,” but he adds, “the legacy of the video will always live on, as it is one of Madonna’s most successful hits and queer culture will never let it die.”
So, where does the 1990 hit figures into our present culture, all these years later? On the track Madonna sings “beauty’s where you find it” and boy, do we ever need to find beauty right now. In trying times, it’s often our familiar comfort classics, whether our favourite food, movies, TV shows, or music that help us to survive.
“I know a place where you can get away it’s on the dance floor.” For now, our only dance floors are of the social-distancing respecting virtual variety, but let’s hope it’s not long before we can return to the real ones. Until then, all we need is our own imaginations, and we’ll always have Madonna and “Vogue” just a click away.