Acting coy about her off-screen romance with Warren Beatty, simulating masturbation on stages across the country, urging us to vote while she was being spanked (and wearing nothing but her underwear and an American flag), doing the horizontal hula with her newest boyfriend in a music video — 1990 was an over-the-top year, even for Madonna. She seemed to be everywhere — theaters, concert halls, record stores, newsstands, MTV…oops, put an asterisk by that one. After seven years of flashing and trashing on the music-video channel — crawling on all fours while wearing a dog collar or kissing a saint — Madonna finally went too far even for MTV with her kinky video for ”Justify My Love.” A personal breakthrough? Perhaps. An artistic triumph? Umm, maybe. A financial bonanza? But, of course.
The controversy spurred sales of the ”Justify” single and home video, and that was by no means an accident. Art and commerce blend perfectly for Madonna — a woman who sings about love while miming sex. Her box score for 1990 was stunning: two albums, I’m Breathless and The Immaculate Collection, that have sold a total of more than 4 million copies in the U.S.; three hit singles, ”Vogue” (No. 1), ”Justify” (No. 2 and rising), and ”Hanky Panky” (No. 10); a best-selling music-video retrospective, also called The Immaculate Collection; a concert tour, Blond Ambition, that sold out in 27 cities; a broadcast of a concert that became the highest-rated entertainment special in the history of HBO; and a movie, Dick Tracy, that grossed more than $100 million. While we’re at it, because publicity is very much the coin of Madonna’s realm, let’s note that she again seemed to appear on the cover of just about every major magazine in the United States.
Yet this was a year in which Madonna, 32, really tried to stretch — and we don’t mean just her spandex. With I’m Breathless, she belted out music in high Broadway style. The album featured some of her own schmaltzy compositions, inspired by Dick Tracy, which she had the guts to put next to those of Stephen Sondheim, one of the Great White Way’s most respected tunesmiths. Theatricality was also very important to the Blond Ambition tour, which established her as one of the most relentless live acts in pop music. Her show was a blitzkrieg of barely-there costumes, high-impact choreography, and on-key warbling. As Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy, she tried once more for cinematic respectability — and pretty much got it. With this whirlwind of diversification, she proved that she’s much more than a dance-pop diva.
Forbes magazine suggested that she was one of the smartest businesswomen in the country, and as the highest-grossing woman in entertainment (earning more than $125 million since 1986), Madonna seems like a woman of the junk-bond decade. But she doesn’t care that the ’80s are over. She still wants as much of our attention and money as she can command, and so far — how does she justify our love? — she’s got a lot of both.