What if Madonna gave a sexual bonfire and nobody came? In the quiet before the inevitable storm a few weeks back, NEWSWEEK asked Madonna about the possibility of failure or, more grievous, inconsequence. What if she released "Sex"—her explicit coffee-table book of erotic photos and writings, celebrating sadomasochism, homosexuality, exhibitionism and other pansexual delights-and the public merely yawned? "If everybody yawned," she said, armed for this and other contingencies, "I'd say hooray. That means something happened."
It was one of those neat identity makeovers for which Madonna is justly renowned: after coloring the last nine years with her determination to engage our attention at all costs, here she was, Florence Nightingale, dutiful erotic night nurse, content to slip into the shadows once her services were no longer needed, the patient cured. Now that's what you call spin.
But for Madonna and for the rest of us, this was no lark. A deft little way to make some money and grab some spotlight, "Sex" also promised our first barometric reading of a turbulence boiling in American culture. Call it the new voyeurism: the middlebrow embrace, in the age of AIDS, of explicit erotic material for its own sake. From Mapplethorpe to MTV, from the Fox network to fashion advertising, looking at sex is creeping out of the private sphere and into the public, gentrified by artsy pretension and destigmatized out of viral necessity. Canny marketers exploit it; alarmed conservatives, joined by many feminists, are trying to shut it down. In many ways, as Pat Buchanan asserted at the Republican convention in August, there really is a cultural war going on. "Sex" stood to claim the battlefield. Advance cover stories on the book in Vanity Fair, Vogue and New York Magazine heralded hot like you've never seen before.
And from the looks of things last Wednesday morning, "Sex" measured up. Dismissive reviews,splashed across the tabloids like news of Pearl Harbor, couldn't stop the ambush. Bookstores, record stores, anybody who carried it got swamped. Priced at $49.95 and packaged in a Mylar bag that warned ADULTs ONLY!, the book sold 150,000 copies on the first day, out of 500,000 printed for American distribution. Who says we're in a recession? Laurence J. Kirshbaum, president of Warner Books, called it "reviewproof." Many stores pre-sold their shipments before they arrived. Others couldn't restock fast enough to keep pace with demand.
But while the book sold like crazy, it sparked little of the anticipated outrage. Even the professionally offended couldn't lure camera crews up to the mountaintop, whence to hurl thunderbolts (or at least boycotts) at Madonna. The lone visible protest came from a group of concerned Roman Catholics in New York, outside a store that was offering one-minute looks at the book for a buck donation to an AIDS charity. The complaint? The viewing booth was called a confessional. Once the store changed the name, the protesters went about their business. Her pansexual "Erotica" video, poised to follow in the spike-heeled footsteps of 1990's notoriously banned "Justify My Love," entered MTV (after midnight) to no clamor. Madonna, who throughout her career has been able to turn an exposed belly button into a major-league scandal, here couldn't parlay a legitimate publishing event into a hubbub worthy of Sinead O'Connor's clipping file.
Part of the anticlimax is owed to "Sex" itself After all the buildup, the book is neither groundbreaking (save that it features a major star) nor particularly sexy. Madonna says she conceived "Sex" to "open some people's minds" to the breadth of human sexuality. "I see myself as a revolutionary at this point." Even if you pardon her piety, this is a bad sign, a signal that she's pitched the book to its enemies at the expense of its friends. And it shows. Relentlessly self-conscious, the book is cold and uninviting, pushing you away rather than drawing you in. Madonna pursues her ersatz identities with no more commitment or personal risk than she assumes in her music videos, and with no more intimacy. "Sex" is convincing only when it' playful, as when she appears nude in a Miami pizzeria, chewing a slice while a baffled customer looks on. Elsewhere, she's simply undressed with no place to go.
But the bigger problem with "Sex" is that it's uncharacteristically redundant. Throughout her career, Madonna has thrived by embracing underground nightclub subcultures and taking them mainstream. This time, she's behind the curve. Sex is already out there in the light.
At a time when doing it has become excessively dangerous, looking at it, reading about it, thinking about it have become a necessity. AIDS has pushed voyeurism from the sexual second tier (OK if there's nothing else around) into the front row. Adolescents, among whom the spread of AIDS is accelerating ahead of the general population, no longer tolerate the vague euphemisms that used to pass for sex talk, hiding the flesh and fluids behind acceptable turns of phrase. For them, hard information is a matter of life and death. Rap groups like the 2 Live Crew are signs not so much of a moral decline as of a cold survivalism. And for adults, as looking at sex has moved in from the margins, there is a hunger for erotica that reflects that psychic shift.
Entrepreneurs, God bless America, are providing it. You want tattooed lesbians with genital hooped rings? Never mind the Mylar baggie, they're next on Oprah, in prime-time kid viewing hours. You want bisexual Machiavellian women with bionic bods? Rent "Basic Instinct," a box-office smash that grossed more than $343 million worldwide. Three weeks before "Sex" bared Madonna's all, Mariel Hemingway bared it all on national television, before an audience of 9.9 million, on the ABC series "Civil Wars," her honor protected only by a well-placed hand and a strategic camera angle. ABC's "Going to Extremes" cast June Chadwick's bare backside to the Caribbean winds, and the contestants on the Fox network's "Studs" regularly hear their innocent remarks about dinner dates recast as "he stuffed a big sweet thing in my mouth." And never mind what's happening in the soaps or on cable.
"Clearly there is more skin on TV than there was a few years ago," says Walter Kendrick, author of "The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture." Kendrick believes that AIDS, along with the Republican backlash against risque entertainment, is fueling the boom. Throughout the Reagan-Bush years, and particularly since 1986, when Attorney General Edwin Meese's Commission on Pornography accused some of the largest and most respected media corporations and retailers in America of distributing porn, the climate for television has all but begged for a little rebellion. "There is an assertion of sexuality in the face of sex being demonized," says Kendrick. "Also the assertion of other forms of sexual activity. For instance, leather and chains and bondage have become more highly visible than ever before because, curiously, they are safe."
At the same time, TV is also responding to purely economic factors. During the budget crunches of the late '80s, all three networks pared down their standards-and-practices watchdog departments, giving adventurous producers an unchallenged path to the airwaves. The FCC, meanwhile, has lost its teeth to deregulation-happy courts. Since a 1988 federal court decision, the commission has agreed not to mess with programs running after 8 p.m., as long as they eschew the seven dirty words. The networks are also forced to compete with the even less restricted cable, home to shows like the soft-core "Red Shoe Diaries," produced by "Wild Orchid" director Zalman King. "Everything is loosening up," says Ed Papazian, media consultant and author of "Medium Rare: The Evolution, Workings and Impact of Commercial Television." "In a cluttering environment where there are so many more media, you have to be more explicit and daring to stand out."
Advertising, particularly fashion ads, has also gotten more explicit. A recent Calvin Klein ad in The New Yorker, for example, showed the rapper Marky Mark, a teen heartthrob, with a topless model's adolescent breast poking into his neck. That's in The New Yorker, for crying out loud. The ad's designer: Fabien Baron, who also designed "Sex." Another recent Baron ad, for Wilke/Rodriguez shirts, showed a young man with his face nuzzled lustfully between the legs of an ecstatic woman. Ad supplements like the notorious 116-page Calvin Klein pullout that ran in Vanity Fair last year, shot by the homoerotic photographer Bruce Weber, or the Request jeans supplement that ran in Details magazine this October, show more skin than clothing.
David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University and the author of "The Hurried Child" is one of many health professionals concerned about the impact of all this heavy breathing on children. As AIDS brought overtly erotic stimulation in from the periphery, the imagery has also landed in the laps of youngsters. Playboy and Penthouse were always at least rhetorically off-limits to kids; Klein ads and MTV aren't. Though Madonna now acts as if she doesn't have a young audience, and "Sex" certainly doesn't address kids, a big part of her following has always been not just teenagers but very young children. Same with Marky Mark. This troubles Elkind. "In what I call the postmodern family," he says, "we have this new image ofthe child as competent and sophisticated. Adults have this perception that children can handle all this stuff ... But I disagree. I think children find it most disturbing, hurtful and damaging. And they wonder, 'Why am I being allowed to see this? Why isn't anyone saying, Kids don't need to see this stuff. Why isn't anyone looking out for my interest?'"
Many experts agree that, despite appearances, the average levels of sex on TV and in advertising haven't gone up much in the last decade. Feminism and those hoary family values keep the most broadly based media in cheek; we'll not likely see another shaving-cream campaign like Noxzema's "take it off" pitch any time soon. But what's clear is that the gap between the media's provocative edge and their cautious center has widened. In a fragmented culture, people take their stimulation and blasphemy along different tracks. Niche marketing allows television shows, ads and even Material Girls to target their own audience, upping the ante whenever appropriate.
It also allows for alternate forms of sensuality. What's new about the Klein ads, as well as most of Madonna's recent work, is that they flaunt specifically homoerotic imagery. As gay-bashing has become one of the most common hate crimes in America, gay iconography is bubbling up defiantly in mainstream media. Since Madonna first cast herself as Marilyn Monroe, she has played out the role of drag queen, using identity as a form of self-defense. In exchange for her genuine affection, she's raided gay subculture's closet for the best of her ideas. Like Klein, she isn't just taking explicit sex mainstream; she's taking explicit homosex mainstream. In this she is a pioneer. Hard as it is to imagine a major celebrity of another era making a book as graphic as "Sex"—and surviving—it's impossible to imagine anyone making one as gay.
But she's also just a bellwether for her times. A product of the Reagan-Bush era, she's been steadily counterpoised to the of the right. As the New Right expanded conservative ideology to focus on social issues like school prayer, Madonna moved the language of pop liberation from global political rhetoric to private issues like identity and sexuality. "Sex" carries that to a head. It's too soon to say whether, once the initial curiosity dies down, we'll collectively yawn at it. But she's right: if we do, it'll mean people have changed. An era will have paw& in pop culture, just as it is, most likely, passing in the polls. As a new one begins, the question remains, with dread from some quarters and anticipation from others: what next, Madonna, what next?