Fortune Favors the Brave: Madonna and Kylie Minogue Pick Up Donna Summer’s Torch and Run With It

[11 February 2014]

By Quentin Harrison

Call it an “ordained” cultural shift (“Disco sucks!”), but when Donna Summer offered her eighth record, her Geffen debut The Wanderer (1980), it hinted at an earlier revolution. With I Remember Yesterday (1977), Summer’s view into the pop niche, defined as dramatic, stylistic switches per album, had been realized. Often recalled as the home of “I Feel Love”, the remaining material like the titular song, “Love’s Unkind” and “Can We Just Sit Down (And Talk It Over)” suggested that “disco” or “dance” wasn’t the only springboard for the modern pop singer.

The Wanderer’s use of rock, synth and gospel further challenged the “pop equals four-on-the-floor” rule; Summer spent the remainder of the ‘80s trying on various sonics. She crafted the transformative pop model with The Wanderer; all other pop vocalists trailed this breakthrough. Her two descendants, Madonna. and Kylie Minogue, are the brightest examples of revising the model, but retaining its core principles: change and music.

Twenty years ago, Madonna and Minogue were at a creative impasse; for both women (Madonna aged 35, Minogue aged 25) it was time to evince that they weren’t “dance pop” figurines. With Bedtime Stories (1994) and Kylie Minogue (1994), they took the “dance pop departure” vehicle on its wildest ride, one that has yet to be surpassed in the present day.

“Kiss the past until it’s better.”
—Kylie Minogue, “Falling” 1994

The year 1993 had Madonna saying goodbye to the Erotica (1992) epoch. Conceived with her book, Sex, her image superseded her music. The commercial consequences were middling, but the damage to her artistic reputation stung.

Madonna’s “sex as a weapon” tactic backfired; for every assured cut like “Deeper and Deeper”, the listener was subjected to messy stabs at slinkiness (“You can eat all you want and never get fat.”) on “Where Life Begins”. Cunnilingus à la mode? Maybe not.

Erotica was Madonna’s fourth try, out of five, at building an album with non-single / single equivalency. The R&B inflected pop of Erotica heralded a continuation of that aesthetic on her next record. Whereas hip-hop and house asserted itself there, Madonna strove for an organic touch on Bedtime Stories.

Minogue, on the other hand, had been trying to extricate herself from the Stock-Aitken-Waterman machine since the vibrant Rhythm of Love (1990). Its singles (“Better the Devil You Know”, “What Do I Have to Do” etc.) aligned Minogue to the London nightlife. Her fourth album, Let’s Get to It (1991), bore the weight of her needing room to roam musically. Whether it was a conservative cover (“Give Me Just a Little More Time”) or a soaring duet with an unlikely Stateside soul crooner like Keith Washington (“If You Were With Me Now”), Let’s Get to It itched with impatience to get out from under the S-A-W thrall.

Enter Steve Anderson and Dave Seaman; known collectively as the Brothers in Rhythm, they’d been remixing since the early ‘90s for other artists. The Brothers in Rhythm recast of Let’s Get to It’s finishing move (“Finer Feelings”) clutched that “grown up thing” Minogue was trekking toward.  Spurned onward by a fast (and creative) friendship with the Brothers in Rhythm, Minogue signed to the BMG offshoot Deconstruction Records in 1993. Deconstruction was known for its innovative hand in the dance scene.

In the 2003 remastered edition of Kylie Minogue, this 1994 quote from Deconstruction founder Pete Hadfield detailed the acquisition of Minogue: “Kylie is regarded as a trashy disco singer. We regard her as a potential radical dance diva. Any radical dance diva has a home at Deconstruction.”

Was Minogue, who’d spent the better half of her last two records in dance inflected pop (albeit under S-A-W) only going to do a repeat? A closer look at two of Deconstruction’s acts, the M People and later Republica, implied something else; the former built bridges between modern disco and rare groove, the latter’s rock roar couldn’t be categorized as “dance”.

Hadfield’s slightly erroneous statement sought to tie Minogue to the clout her recent hits had afforded her. Like the M People and (subsequently) Republica, Minogue was to be (re) branded as a pop savant. This remodel was to be done through the music of the ‘90s: hip-hop, acid jazz, R&B, adult contemporary, and club chic; popular music was rife with overlapping mainstream and underground talent.

Minogue and Madonna knew that while dance pop wasn’t going away, for their survival they had to consider other music circles. Additionally, the pair found themselves written off as “singles artists”. Records like True Blue (1986) and the stated Rhythm of Love tried to rectify this, but some (not all) of the album tracks were lacking that snap, crackle, pop to complete the puzzle. Each woman was now on her own track to the same destination of emphasizing their music as a whole.

“Express yourself, don’t repress yourself.”
—Madonna, “Human Nature” 1994

Madonna’s tasteful orbit of R&B paid off with Bedtime Stories. The sessions began with “Vogue” and Erotica co-creator Shep Pettibone; they didn’t spark so the parties amicably separated.

Madonna then surrounded herself with an intimate quartet of writers and producers: Dave Hall, Dallas Austin, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, and Nellee Hooper. Hooper ran with Soul II Soul, Massive Attack and, Björk; the other three had been cutting, or would cut, some of the most influential American R&B of the decade. Together, all four sat down to soften Madonna’s music; she’d been particularly taken with the Dallas Austin piloted Pendulum Vibe, by Joi, preceding in 1994.

The beats were bottom heavy and Madonna’s funky restructuring bounced on “I’d Rather Be Your Lover”. The track spotlighted a recent signee to Madonna’s fledging Maverick label (distributed by Warner Brothers), Meshell Ndegeocello. Her bass playing drove the citified cool that contrasted beautifully to the urgent tone (pre-‘Evita’) that Madonna’s voice held. Alongside its original composition, “I’d Rather Be Your Lover” interpolated “It’s Your Thing” by Lou Donaldson; Madonna’s sampling had come into play on Erotica and she kept her choices interesting.

The ebon fueled “Inside of Me” had no less than three samples: Aaliyah “Back & Forth,” The Gap Band “Outstanding” and Gutter Snypes “The Trials of Life”.  The mixture was so smooth, only the sharpest ear caught the singularities of the trio of tracks. “Inside of Me’s” highlight was staging Madonna’s improvement as a songwriter. It spun like a jilted lover’s yearning, the attentive person heard Madonna’s somber ode to her mother, a constant in her lyrics.

A similarly confessional thread wove into Bedtime Stories on the warmth of “Secret” and the wounded “Love Tried to Welcome Me”; in correlation to Like a Prayer (1989) that was touted as Madonna’s personal reveal, Bedtime Stories had her vulnerable with the appropriate soundtrack.  Like a Prayer’s “Till Death Do Us Part” couldn’t be seen as staid in spite of its words because of the jovial nature of its music. On Bedtime Stories the weathered melody and rhythm of “Survival” proportioned its lyrical bite of “I’ll never be an angel, I’ll never be a saint it’s true. I’m too busy surviving”. Madonna was sensitive and street authentically.

Bedtime Stories urban soundtrack appropriation only faltered on the Erotica taint of “Human Nature”.

The Main Source’s “What You Need”, borrowing from Maynard Ferguson’s “Spinning Wheel”, was tapped for the fuzzy bassline that channeled Madonna’s ire at the being “misunderstood” for her “talk about sex” on Erotica. Granted, its grittiness tantalized, but it splintered the cohesive sensuality of the LP. Even the dual slices of ambient electronica (“Sanctuary”, “Bedtime Story”) fit better into the arching romantic mode of the LP; the twosome forecasted the transcendent storm of Ray of Light (1998). Closing with the Asian ache of “Take a Bow”, Bedtime Stories maturation secured Madonna’s secondary phase in her musical journey.

Kylie Minogue...

If Madonna went downtown with the Bedtime Stories sound, Minogue took her mirroring forays into R&B-pop and adult contemporary uptown with Kylie Minogue. Laboring closely with the Brothers in Rhythm, Minogue received supplementary input (writing /production) from a variety of sources for her eponymous album: the Pet Shop Boys, Jimmy Harry, Gerry DeVeaux, Saint Etienne, M People, The Rapino Brothers, Peter Heller and Terry Farley.

Minogue’s international perspective lent her canvas precision, not iciness as witnessed with “Confide in Me”. The cut played like a lost spy film accompaniment, its grandiose strings and rumbling groove enthralled. “Confide in Me” let Minogue become the vocalist cynics sneered she’d never be and she didn’t stop on the Quiet Storm spaciness of “Put Yourself in My Place” or the sensuous jazz entreaties of “Surrender” and “Automatic Love”. These ballads had Minogue eager in her burgeoning womanhood.

British funk troupe Incognito would have beamed at how Minogue reshaped the cult disco charter by Within a Dream, “Where Is the Feeling?”, into a jam session worthy of their talent. Reshaped when earmarked as a single, it transformed into the dimly lit “Brothers in Rhythm Soundtrack”.  Out of this the spoken word single edit (“BiR Dolphin Mix”) and promo-performance friendly rendition (“BiR Bish Bosh Mix”) were culled. It’s Minogue’s “lost single” with the bulk of the discussed mixes materializing (commercially) on the CD maxi exclusively; the “BiR Dolphin Mix” surfaced on the Deconstruction centered Hits + (2000) compilation.

“Where Has the Love Gone?” and “Falling”, tempestuous uptempos, veered from the traditional CD length; letting the arrangements breathe, the songs were deliciously fussy with lines like “I’m a woman and I’ve got my vanity”. Minogue’s trademark “joie de vivre” that encapsulated her “Smilie Kylie” days (think “Got To Be Certain”) got a sophisticated makeover on the salty swing of “If I Was Your Lover” and the grinning “Time Will Pass You By”.

Though Minogue’s songwriting had decreased here (she only co-wrote on “Automatic Love”), she was active in the process of selecting the songs she’d interpret. It was a gambit that relied on Minogue’s ability to make these works her own. Kylie Minogue was crisp and cunning, in fact growing up never sounded so sexy. 

“Stick or twist, the choice is yours”
—Kylie Minogue, “Confide in Me” 1994

Minogue fired first with “Confide in Me” in August 1994. The reception was unanimous; Minogue’s lead single, a triumph: U.K. #2, AU #1, US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play #39. Madonna took an identically restrained route with “Secret” on the following October; “Secret” utilized the (then) infant internet for its advocacy.  Madonna won the prize in many quarters: US #3, US Adult Contemporary #2, US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play #1, UK #5, AU# 5.

Madonna and Minogue owned the fall of 1994 as the parent albums for their silver, gold and platinum launching singles came into view just six weeks apart from the other. Kylie Minogue: September 1994: UK #4, AU #3; Bedtime Stories, October 1994; US #3, UK #2, AU #1. Minogue achieved platinum (Australia) and gold (United Kingdom) certifications; Madonna locked in triple platinum (America) and platinum (United Kingdom) awards.

Their follow-up singles met success and indifference.

Minogue’s included the gold seller “Put Yourself in My Place” (November 1994, UK #11, AU#11) and “Where Is the Feeling?” (July 1995, UK #16, AU #31). The seven months between Minogue’s second and third releases had different factors.

Minogue was clinging to the remnants of her steadily diminishing acting occupation in the wake of her music. She starred in the adaption of Capcom’s ‘Street Fighter’ in December 1994 and the Pauly Shore comedy ‘Bio-Dome’ in 1995. Whispers of an attempted U.S. breach with “If I Was Your Lover” did not come to fruition. Minogue began to consider “Time Will Pass You By” as her concluding single; instead, she opted for a duet with the King of Darkness himself, Nick Cave. Thus was born “Where the Wild Roses Grow” from Cave’s Murder Ballads (1995) LP; “Roses” became quite a smash in the fall of 1995: UK #11, AU#2.

Madonna led next with “Take a Bow”, her longest running US topper as of this writing: (December 1994, US #1, US Adult Contemporary #1, US Billboard R&B / Hip-Hop #40, UK #16, AU #15). Madonna’s traction Stateside went awry with her last two offerings: “Bedtime Story” (April 1995, US #42, US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play #1, UK #4, AU#5) and “Human Nature” (August 95, US #43, US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play #1, US Billboard R&B / Hip-Hop #57, UK #8, AU #15). “Bedtime Story” was notable for two reasons, it was the most expensive music video of its time (until dethroned by Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream”) and featured Nellee Hooper’s friend, alterna-chanteuse Björk’s writing credits.

Prior to “Take a Bow” and “Human Nature”, her final showings on the US R&B singles chart, Madonna had 13 placements there; her highest position had been with “Like a Virgin” (#9) and her lowest rank fell to “Who’s That Girl?” (#78).  The commercial victories had been muted overall, but the stock earned for Madonna and Minogue was inextinguishable. Kylie Minogue and Bedtime Stories proclaimed that the “wilderness years” had begun for the ladies and there was no turning back.

“It took me by surprise that you understood”
—Madonna, “Secret” 1994

Kylie Minogue and Bedtime Stories rippled through Madonna and Minogue’s legacies, career- wise and artistically.

Madonna took Jamie King on board, the video director behind “Human Nature”, to help her conceptualize her tours from ‘Drowned World’ to ‘Sticky & Sweet’. Interestingly, Bedtime Stories is the least performed record in Madonna’s discography and its ensuing era has been kept under wraps. The atmospheric flip to “Secret”, “Let Down Your Guard”, is solely available on the CD pressing. Madonna did share the Bedtime Stories leftover “Your Honesty” on the remix companion to 2003’s American Life,Remixed & Revisited (2003).

Minogue was liberal in comparison with the Kylie Minogue rarities. Kylie Minogue was reissued in 2003 along with its complex follower Impossible Princess (1998); the second disc contained alternate mixes, b-sides and curiosities that hadn’t been widely available. “Love Is Waiting” (confined to the Japanese version) and the b-sides “Nothing Can Stop Us”, and “If You Don’t Love Me” delighted fans.

The “Confide in Me” b-sides were covers; “Nothing Can Stop Us” a Dusty Springfield sampled Saint Etienne number, and “If You Don’t Love Me” courtesy of Prefab Sprout.  A wealth of residual recordings from the Kylie Minogue album are vaulted to this day.

“Confide in Me” is representative of her Deconstruction method in concerts, though “Put Yourself Place In My Place” comes in second; the forgotten “Where Is the Feeling” made a cameo in her ‘Fever’ tour in 2002. In terms of personnel, Steve Anderson (one-half of Brothers in Rhythm) stuck with Minogue as a songwriter and musical director for all her live shows since 1998.

In the way that Donna Summer’s The Wanderer made use of popular music at the dawn of the ‘80s, Madonna and Minogue did the same. They took advantage of the “global village” music mentality of the ‘90s to prove their mettle outside of dance, but without forsaking it.

Pop is about music and change, elements lacking in the newest generation of women in the movement. Consider two of its number, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga unveiled records (Britney Jean, ArtPop 2013) that were tut-tutted as “statement / departure” projects. Spears’ “personal” effort kickstarted with the “business as usual” club trash of “Work Bitch”; the proof of Spears’ smugness in her sameness since In the Zone (2003) had been confirmed.
Gaga was even more troublesome with “Do What You Want”. Its shameless “paper dolls” technique with late ‘80s pop productions (Exposé comes to mind) titillated, but it didn’t innovate.

There’s hope with British vocalist Sophie Ellis-Bextor and her fifth LP, Wanderlust. Stepping onto the trail carved by the likes of Kylie Minogue, Madonna, and Donna Summer, Bextor’s temporary leave of dance music for chamber /acoustic pop thrills.
Sadly, Bextor’s recording won’t garner the attention Spears and Gaga’s music has. In an age where controversy is proven method to get ears to an album, the shut out of players like Bextor cemented the notion that pop has to be tied to dance music. The loss of the broader “dance pop departure” revitalization past Madonna and Minogue’s (re) pioneering in 1994 is palpable.

Fourteen years after Summer’s declaration of independence from disco, Madonna and Minogue took up the torch of redefinition with Bedtime Stories and Kylie Minogue. Now, 20 years removed these albums stand as benchmarks for the pop genre and the women who delivered them.

It isn’t enough to get an audience to look at you, you have to keep their attention by getting them to listen to you. Despite the peaks and valleys that Madonna and Minogue have endured in the 20 years since Bedtime Stories and Kylie Minogue, they knew that without the risk there is no reward.

Fortune favors the brave. In pop music, that’s true immortality and redefinition.

Quentin Harrison is a Dayton reared and (for now) Atlanta based writer. Writing for eight years, his works have appeared in the Dayton City Paper and reissued CDs for Big Break Records, Gold Legion, and Soul Music Records. Quentin runs The QH Blend where his thoughts on music can be found. Quentin considers himself to be the Charles Barkley of pop music commentary.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/178875-fortune-favors-the-brave-bedtime-stories-and-kylie-minogue-turn-20/