Photographs by Steven Meisel
For weeks before this book was published there were breathless rumors that in it Madonna would be offering the hospitality of her body to an assortment of men, women, household pets, sharp instruments and, shades of Truth or Dare, another bottle. But when you open Sex, it turns out she isn’t seriously involved with the bottle, just posing coyly behind it. Or maybe the bottle is playing hard to get.
Deflated expectations. That would be one reason why, although Sex has sold more than 300,000 copies, the shock waves it was supposed to set off never quite got moving. Though Madonna docs things in this book that we must all hope will never become a required career move for other celebrities—do you really want to see Wilfred Brimley in a leather sling?—much of its calculated lewdness is familiar, a denatured version of the fashion spreads photographer Helmut Newton pioneered in the 1970s.
It is also hard to stir up outrage when, for years, her albums and movies haven’t seemed so much like products in themselves as deluxe keepsakes from the publicity campaigns that launch them. Likewise Sex, a memento of the PR juggernaut designed to pump sales of her so-so album, Erotica, and usher in Body of Evidence, her film with Willem Dafoe. By its January release we’ll all be disappointed if she does anything short of plunge Dafoe into a vat of canola oil and romance him with a jackhammer.
What is the crucial byproduct that Sex was truly meant to generate? Not arousal, not even shock—just talk. Attackers were supposed to attack. Defenders were supposed to invoke the name of every artist, from Manet to Mapplethorpe, who ever toyed with the sexual anxieties of the middle class. For the most part, everybody passed. Maybe they remembered that Madonna‘s most pertinent historical precursor is Mae West. In 1926 she clinched her fame by mounting a racy Broadway revue. It was scandalous enough to get her thrown into a New York City jail for eight days of priceless publicity. And the show was called? Sex. (Warner Books, $49.95)