At the start of the ’90s, Madonna had seven Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s under her boy-toy belt and could pretty readily make the case she was the defining female pop star of the ’80s. The only thing arguably working against her was the embarrassment-of-riches issue of figuring out how to follow-up a career-defining smash such as 1989’s “Like a Prayer.”
She solved that problem by dropping another world-shifting pop hit. “Vogue,” which became her eighth Hot 100 No. 1 30 years ago today (May 19, 1990), topped the chart for three consecutive weeks and remains one of her most enduring hits. Over the course of this lush, gradual ascent into thumping house-disco bliss aided by co-writer and co-producer Shep Pettibone, Madonna lays out yet another masterful manifesto about ecstatic liberation on the dancefloor.
Inspired by the visually dramatic dance style of voguing that grew out of Harlem ballroom culture (as depicted in the classic 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning), Madonna tapped dancers/choreographers Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Xtravaganza from that world to show America how it was done. While Madonna hardly invented the iconic moves, her global reach propelled voguing into the mainstream, a double-edged sword that season 2 of FX’s Pose thoughtfully dealt with in 2019 (on one hand, it gave scene players an industry launch pad, but some queer people of color felt their culture had been appropriated, then discarded, after the craze went out of, well, vogue).
Thirty years after “Vogue” topped the chart, it’s truly difficult to think about something related to the song that isn’t iconic: There’s the irresistible choreography; David Fincher’s black-and-white art deco music video; her Marie Antoinette-styled VMAs performance of the song; the movie-star roll call near the end; and also every damn lyric. Really, the only thing “Vogue”-adjacent that isn’t a clear victory is the album it first called home: I’m Breathless: Music From and Inspired By the Film Dick Tracy. It was a hit, certainly, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, but remains one of the more neglected titles in her otherwise essential catalog, in no small part because its biggest single shares almost nothing in common with the rest of the LP other than an affection for Golden Era Hollywood.
It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn “Vogue” wasn’t even intended for that collection of Sondheim numbers and Jazz Age throwbacks. According to Pettibone, it was given a budget of $5,000 and slated as a b-side for “Keep It Together,” but when execs heard it, the plan changed. “The attitude was like, ‘This isn’t gonna be a b-side. How can we get this out there?’” Pettibone recalled to Billboard in 2015 of the decision to tack it on to the Dick Tracy companion album.
Regardless, three decades later, its power remains undiminished. When Madame X trotted out “Vogue” at Pride Island 2019 during New York City’s 50th anniversary of Stonewall World Pride celebration, the response was deafening, with the crowd surging like a tsunami. But even then, it was so much deeper and deeper than just bumping and grinding: It was a magical, life’s-a-ball moment of transcendence few dance songs dare to reach.