Music

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

Quentin Harrison

Fourteen years after Donna Summer's declaration of independence from disco, Madonna and Minogue took up the torch of redefinition with Bedtime Stories and Kylie Minogue.

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 Conceived with her book, Sex, her image superseded her music.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.

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