My pal Piotr has launched a Facebook page in honor of the 20th anniversary of Madonna's Sex book, which more than any other thing she's done creatively is a work that separates one part of her career from another. Was it good for you? Or was it like when the trick of your dreams shows up looking nothing like his picture? Or maybe it was both from page to page? Regardless, Sex changed how people perceived Madonna.
I remember when it was coming, fans were salivating. The long-lens shots of her posing on the beach for Meisel were tantalizing—she looked like a goddess...a naked goddess. When it dropped (in the days when people still said "released" or "came out"), I had just moved to NYC and just gotten a job at St. Martin's Press in the Flatiron Building but still took a cab on my lunch hour to Tower Records to pick up some Sex.
I pored over it, and I came away confused, impressed, embarrassed, annoyed, intrigued. In some ways, it was a solidification of the concept that Madonna was a '90s Candy Warhol, girl provocateur, and that her life was one long piece of performance art. It even came in a Mylar sleeve that looked like one of Andy's balloons.
Some of the images were and are still breathtaking; Mr. Meisel, please figure out a way to do a show based on the book soon, eh? Madonna never looked more beautiful than she does in some of these—the necrophiliac image of Madonna's version of Laura Palmer awash in pink, the literally cheeky shot of Madonna biting Tony Ward's ass and of course the most indelible image, of Madonna hitchhiking nude, a photograph that was later absurdbly mistaken for a long-lost Marilyn Monroe outtake despite Madonna's very 1992 ripped torso.
But visually, the book is also a mess, a victim of poor or no editing, arresting images piled on top of one another, less impressive snaps (Madonna's butt with baby powder on it) overemphasized. And then there were the dozens of silly images and images of Madonna goofing that felt like she was hedging her bets.
And the writing—God, the writing. Really horrendous and embarrassing. Laughable. But aggressively transgressive, too; what other popstar would try something like, "Sex with the young can be fun."? Probably the same woman who would allow herself to be photographed topless playing with a dog, an image that in another context would be cute and innocent but in Sex was an obvious and juvenile reference to bestiality. Her critics wondered aloud if she shouldn't be spayed.
In the end, Sex works much better as a statement of intent, as a (now broken) promise that the artist behind it could not care less about what the mainstream thought of her or had to offer, than it works as fiction or even as a collection of photographs. But it is unique in popular culture for how far it went and how much its mastermind seemingly willingly threw away by publishing it—certainly, scores of fans never looked at her the same way again and scores of anti-fans were born out of Madonna and Meisel's unprotected Sex.
As a Madonna fan, even if I have mixed feelings about the book, it only deepened my interest in and respect for Madonna's status as a visionary and as not only the architect of her own career and destiny but as one of the chief architects of popular culture in the past 100 years. It's not perfect, but that's not a trait I associate with being a great artist, perennial perfection; for me, one of the most admirable things about great artists is their absolute conviction that what they're doing is important and worth expressing and deserving of an audience, even if they know that many viewers will think it's a piece of shit.