How 'Pose' Pays Homage to Madonna in Its Second Season
About 10 minutes into the Season 2 premiere of Pose, the thumping house piano of Madonna's "Vogue" rings out. Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), the caring house mother who pushes her children to succeed, is overjoyed. "Mark my words, 'Vogue' will make us stars," she tells some naysayers at a ball. "Madonna lives on the edge for what's next, and what's newer than an entire world undiscovered brimming to the rim with guts, gorgeousness, and raw talent?"
There are a couple of historical events that frame the second season of FX's breakout series, which picks up in 1990. The episode opens on Hart Island, where unknown numbers of AIDS patients were buried in unmarked graves. Later it stages its own version of activist organization ACT UP'S die-in at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York's midtown. (In real life, the protest occurred December 1989; Pose messes with the timeline a bit.) And then there's "Vogue."
"The season isn't specifically about 'Vogue' as much as that song and the video and her Blond Ambition tour are just a jumping off point to dig into a more nuanced conversation around what it means to go from being a subculture that's underground to suddenly being thrust onto a mainstream stage... what are the exciting pieces of that, but also all the complications that come out of that as well," creator Steven Canals told a group of reporters gathered in May at the Bronx-based studio where Pose shoots. A little while later, we'd enter the cavernous ballroom set where cast and crew were gathered to shoot the opening of episode four, directed by co-creator Ryan Murphy. Dancers practiced. Choreographer Leiomy Maldonado sang bars of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Impossible" from Cinderella. And we all awaited a special guest to enter the scene: It was a character, who will go nameless now due to spoilers, dressed in full Madonna regalia.
"Vogue" was released as a single in March 1990; the video, directed by David Fincher, featuring Jose Gutierez and Luis Camacho of the House of Xtravaganza, came out a few days later. In Pose, a character like Indya Moore's Angel sees new doors open up because of the song's popularity. When she visits an open casting call for models, the older white lady evaluating her is charmed by the fact that she can vogue "like the new song." But there's also the gnawing fear that the ball community's lifeblood will be thrown out when the next craze comes along. Billy Porter's Pray Tell vocalizes this, countering Blanca's optimism by reminding her of other moments in which queer culture gained widespread appeal and then was disregarded. Among the events he references is the 1979 "Disco Demolition" at Chicago's Comiskey Park, in which disco records were literally blown up.
"I remember so many times the idea, and I feel this in my life, where if you're a marginalized group you feel like, 'Finally I'm at the party, I'm at the table, I'm at the seat.' You have that moment where you are and you're like oh no I'm really not," Murphy said. "It was a pretend move. I remember, we talk about this in the first episode, in the '70s when disco became a big thing, finally African American music is mainstream in that way, and the gay culture is mainstream and everybody is sort of mixing and people are writing stories about fluid sexuality. And then Studio 54 shut the doors and all the white straight suburban boys who were mad that the culture had moved that way burned the records on the field of the ball stadiums. I remember going to a baseball game with my father where that happened."
Looking back, you can see just how quickly members of the ball world were erased from the narrative surrounding "Vogue." The act of voguing was deemed "narcissistic" by more than one writer. The New York Times' Stephen Holden argued, "Both 'Vogue' and its music video raise narcissism to a new high in pop music by presenting glamorous posing as synonymous with self-realization." Meanwhile, Mark Coleman said in a June 1990 Rolling Stone review of Madonna's album I'm Breathless, on which the track appears, "Voguing is disco dancing at its most narcissistic: a true escapist fantasy. A series of improvised model moves struck to the deafening sound of house music, this inner-city trend may already be passé." In its first season, Pose beautifully made the case that the "fantasy" of ball is a means of survival for queer and trans POC. To see that heartbreakingly dismissed as an act of self-involvement is simple proof of how the establishment got it wrong.
The "Vogue" legacy -- along with Madonna's -- is not easily summarized. As the queen of pop embarks on another press tour for her upcoming album, Madame X, old questions of appropriation start to arise. Gutierez told Gawker in 2016 that: "The community shouldn’t feel like she took anything. If anything, it would take a person like her to bring it to the masses." And Pose also seeks to remind viewers of the hope embedded within a song like "Vogue." Dominique Jackson, who plays the fearsome Elektra, recalled seeing the video as a child in Tobago at the press event. "When I saw that video it was like, wait a second, all I have to do is get out of this island and maybe I can exist because there are gay people out there," she said.