The underground — any underground — tends to find peculiar and unintended routes into the spotlight. Madonna was always a creature of New York club culture, and it wasn’t particularly out of character for her to get interested in a particular facet of that culture, which kept evolving after she got famous. But it was pretty weird that Madonna managed to take a small slice of the deep underground and mainstream the absolute hell out of it. And it was also pretty weird that Madonna pulled this off with a would-be B-side that got stapled onto the hoochie-coochie retro-cabaret album that she’d recorded as a tie-in with her big summer-blockbuster movie.
Madonna didn’t exactly intend to take Harlem drag-ball culture and transform it into the sort of mainstream fad that immediately becomes a butt of sitcom jokes. But the world moves in unpredictable ways. Madonna was prescient about a lot of things, but she can’t have predicted the ripple-effects of all the moves that she made. “Vogue” wasn’t even supposed to be a single, but it became one of the defining smashes of a hall-of-fame career. That happens sometimes.
Drag balls existed in the United States for a full century before “Vogue.” Langston Hughes, for instance, wrote about attending a Harlem drag ball in the ’20s. The vogue, as a dance, emerged from that world during a particularly fraught moment. Voguing emerged in Black and Latinx gay and trans clubs in the ’80s, as AIDS decimated those communities. There are even some reports that the dance truly took hold when the gay inmates at Riker’s Island would get into catwalk-style battles with each other. Voguing got its name, of course, from the magazine — from dancers striking poses as if they were being photographed for fashion spreads. People who were subjugated in so many different ways, then, found escape by building their own sort of glamor. I think that’s beautiful.
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