Nah, Rihanna: A History of 'Vogue' Exploiting Queer People of Color


In 2008, Rihanna covered Madonna’s “Vogue” for Fashion Rocks, the annual music-and-fashion-melding charity runway show. Accompanied by an elaborate stage show with ostrich feather-wielding buff dudes worthy of Madge herself, it was a fairly pitch-perfect interpretation of the 1990 single, no errant bouts of melisma or freestyles in the speaking zone. This week, the entirety of the audio was uncovered, and unleashed, upon the internet.

“Vogue” is one of Madonna’s most famous songs, and Rihanna covering it certainly made sense for a fashion show. But even though I fully subscribe to the tenets of the Navy and am an unabashed worshipper at the altar of Fenty, I do not really fux with “Vogue” in general.

Here’s why: the voguing community, which was started by and is still largely comprised of Black and Latino gay men and trans women, has a long history of being mined for its vast and mind-boggling creativity, and then discarded when it no longer suits said miners. “Vogue,” the song, is a symbol of that. As the producer, DJ, and ball scene vet Terre Thaemlitz, also known as DJ Sprinkles, put it on her excellent 2008 song “Ball’r (Madonna-Free Zone)“:

When Madonna came out with her hit “Vogue” you knew it was over. She had taken a very specifically queer, transgendered, Latino and African-American phenomenon and totally erased that context with her lyrics, “It makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl.” Madonna was taking in tons of money, while the Queen who actually taught her how to vogue sat before me in the club, strung out, depressed and broke. So if anybody requested “Vogue” or any other Madonna track, I told them, “No, this is a Madonna-free zone! And as long as I’m DJ-ing, you will not be allowed to vogue to the decontextualized, reified, corporatized, liberalized, neutralized, asexualized, re-genderized pop reflection of this dance floor’s reality!”

Depending on who tells it, Madonna was first introduced to voguing either by Jose and Luis Xtravaganza, or at the 1989 Love Ball, a huge charity ball for AIDS that was most of non-voguing New York’s introduction to it, too. Her comparatively fleeting interest in voguing was definitely beneficial to a handful of people who probably would have been elevated further eventually—Willie Ninja in particular, he of the preternatural talent, but also Jose and Luis Xtravaganza, all of whom were in her “Vogue” video, and on that tour. But ultimately, that song and moment is still seen as a breaking point of cultural appropriation, and some people continue to believe that even Paris is Burning, the groundbreaking 1990 documentary about Harlem ball culture, is a conduit of exploitation. (Here’s bell hooks on the topic.)

Because exploitation is cyclical, this is still happening in voguing communities, and with the music associated with it. Producers such as DJ MikeQ and Vjuan Allure, the latter of whom basically invented the sound we now refer to as “ballroom house” or “vogue house,” still work to be recognized for their innovations while a procession of interlopers—many of them straight white men—attempt to mimic them and ballroom culture in general, very poorly without fail. We are in a world in which the ballroom tenet of “throwing shade” is bandied about so ignorantly it must be handled by a judge and jury. If I see one more person with that stupid “Executive Realness” mug I am going to smash it. Y’all don’t know what that means, come on now.

(A rare exception from an outsider: shout out to Twigs for not being That Dude. And I still don’t even know what to think about Jennifer Lopez’s “Tens,” but again, shout out to her for getting legendary commentator Jack Mizrahi on the track.)

As a black woman and fellow queer icon, Rihanna certainly comes into “Vogue,” the song, with a different lens than Madonna (although it is worth noting that she covered it six years before she’d ever attended her first vogue ball, which happened literally two months ago). And because her cover of it dropped over half a decade ago, I doubt we’ll be seeing a resurrection of this track, even though it’s trending on the Tweets. (Also, can’t believe there was a time when Queen Riri felt like she had to cover Madonna LOLOLOLOLOL.) But since it’s back, and since she is working on her new album, it would be excellent and cool of Riri to commission MikeQ or Vjuan Allure or Divoli S’vere or AngelX or Kevin JZ Prodigy or any number of musicians to give her an ill assist. And they’ve already shown up for it!

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