t isn’t until the third to last track of Erotica that Madonna explicitly invokes the AIDS crisis, still-cresting in the U.S. at the time of the album’s release in October of 1992. But if there’s a song even more representative of the career-defining transgression that is Erotica—in retrospect, Madonna’s most important album—it may well be her mercilessly stern cover of Little Wille John’s jazz standard “Fever,” which was popularized by Peggy Lee in 1958.
Madonna’s version kicks the 75-minute, magnum-sized Erotica into something resembling high gear, dovetailing with the prowling opening title track. Gone are the spare upright bass licks of Lee’s rendition, to say nothing of the singer’s sultrily behind-the-beat delivery. In their place are producer Shep Pettibone’s unyielding house kicks, a swirling dervish of synthesizer swaths, and Madonna’s near-totally inflexible take on the song’s hooks. “What a lovely way to burn”? Forget it. The emphasis here is on the far more ominous “Everybody’s got the fever.”
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