Twenty years ago this week, literature changed forever. And not, it’s because Toni Morrison released a new novel or someone dug up 40 new Shakespeare plays. Even if those things had happened, they wouldn’t have compared to the release of Sex, Madonna’s coffee-table book that feature erotic poetry and dirty photos of her performing all kinds of lurid sexual fantasies, from gang rape to getting fondled by an old man. Some of the photos even included celebrities like Naomi Campbell, Big Daddy Kane, and Vanilla Ice. (And yes, there was a time when all three of those people counted as celebrities.)
I was only 13 when Sex came out, so it was really hard for me to process the arguments it generated about Madonna’s power in the marketplace, about her ability to shock and control the media, or about her attempt to critique oppressive sexual traditions by gleefully them. Nope… all I knew was that this book was making everyone crazy, so I figured it was probably the nastiest thing ever created. Since I was several years into my Obsessive Madonna Fandom, I also figured this nastiness was righteous.
Being a young thing (and a very law-abiding person), I never got a look at Sex when it first arrived, and then it quickly went out of print, becoming a rare book. At least I got to see the “Erotica” video when MTV aired it after-hours. Images from the video made it into the book.
But when I was a college senior in 2000, I went to the Special Collections of Emory University’s library to take a look at the real thing.
And you have to understand: Special Collections is generally a place where scholars go to look at, like, thousand year-old Bibles or letters stained with Emily Dickinson’s tears. At the time, you had go to a special floor of the library to see anything from the collection, and you had to fill out a slip requesting a librarian to go get a book for you. And then they placed the book on a lectern and made you turn the pages with tweezer-like things. That way, none of your gross body oils could get on the irreplaceable pages.
In other words, there was no way to sneak a look at Madonna’s beaver and go home. I had to make a giant production number out of it. I clearly remember filling out the request slip, because in the space where it said “Why are you requesting this book?” I wrote, “Just a fan. Not a pervert.”
I also had a friend with me, and it was really difficult to enjoy flipping through the pages while were in this crazy room with those crazy tweezers. Plus, there was some grad student looking at an obscure French novel a few feet away. She was probably getting lost in French philosophical trends, and my friend and I were looking at Madonna’s boobs as she went naked hang gliding.
So… yeah. I know that some people pinpoint Sex as a turning point in Madonna’s career… when she projected a hardness that didn’t go away until the earth mother vibe of Ray of Light in 1998. But for me, that book will always symbolize my adolescent curiosity and the most awkward moment I’ve ever had in a library.
And isn’t it interesting how a scandalous text from 1992 can become a “special” one just a few years later? Maybe in 2020, there will be college students shamefully flipping through preserved copies of 50 Shades of Grey.
Mark Blankenship will never forget that hang gliding picture, or this other photo where it looks like Madonna is peeing, but she’s really just straddling a fountain. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship.