Madonna Tells Some Bedtime Stories
By the time Bedtime Stories was released in October of 1994, almost two years to the day from Erotica, Madonna seemed to have shouldered excessive abuse and sought to move on from her career. Though she never expressed regret for any of her choices, she looked to Bedtime Stories as a salve of sorts to the rush of bad publicity. Though not incredibly different, stylistically from most of her music, Bedtime Stories looked to contemporary urban pop for its sound. Working with producers Babyface, Dallas Austin, Dave Hall, and Nellee Hooper, Bedtime Stories was as warm and inviting as Erotica was chilly and forbidding. Incorporating contemporary pop-soul, Madonna pivoted, making romantic bedroom pop instead of the portentous club music of Erotica. The title and cover art clued listeners and potential buyers to the record’s tone. Instead of the carnal attitude of Erotica, we are invited to a slumber party. (In fact, to hype the album, Madonna threw a slumber party for a select, exclusive group of guests, including legendary New York columnist Michael Musto.)
Working with R&B producers signaled a slight shift in her sound and a concerted effort to make the kind of luxurious, sensual pop that mainstream soul-pop represented in the mid-1990s. Dave Hall – the man behind some of Mary J. Blige’s brightest tracks on her 1992 debut album What’s the 411? – was given production duties for three of the album’s eleven songs, including the most Erotica-like “Human Nature”, a song that seemed to answer directly to the backlash of her Erotica era. The song, with its grinding, jeep groove, has Madonna croon disdainfully of the sexist double standards that penalized her for expressing her sexuality while rewarding artists like Prince, who was (rightly) hailed a genius. The video – directed by the veteran photographer and music video director Jean-Baptiste Mondino – took some of the superficial markers of the Erotica era but significantly altered them to make them fit into the context of her Bedtime Stories era. The two artists have worked together in the past, with Mondino helming her “Open Your Heart” video in 1986 and the much-ballyhooed “Justify My Love”. (The pair would go on to work on three more videos after “Human Nature.”)
Mondino brought some visual cues from his previous collaborations with Madonna for “Human Nature”. In “Open Your Heart”, Madonna plays a stripper who works at a peep show. Referencing Liza Minnelli’s work in Cabaret, Mondino’s music is framed through the windows of the peep show, with patrons watching. It’s a scopophilic video with the singer presented as a visual spectacle. In “Human Nature”, the singer is again presented in frames – this time boxes, in which she and her backup dancers perform the choreography (courtesy of Jamie King). Madonna and her troupe of dancers are dressed in dominatrix gear, embracing some of the S&M imagery of “Erotica” – but there is a wit and a sense of humor (at one point in the video, she cuddles with an adorable chihuahua).
What Madonna accomplished with the video and the song was rebuke the blowback she suffered. She repeatedly sings throughout “Human Nature” that “I’m not sorry” and wonders if “Would it sound better if I was a man?” before she reassures her listeners that she has “no regrets”. With Hall, Madonna finds feelings of outrage and hurt, but with his help, she creates a sympathetic soundscape that emphasizes the catchy melody and groove as well as her soulful crooning. Though radio-friendly and time-stamped, the song emerges as a terse FU to her detractors.
But “Human Nature” seems to be the only sonic link to Erotica on Bedtime Stories. It’s the sole link to her Erotica era (the best way to reference Madonna’s career is to parse it out according to eras corresponding to specific studio LPs.) The rest of Bedtime Stories is lush, plush, and lovely – swoony love songs that talk about heartache, desire, romance, and regret. From the opener, the midtempo dance song “Survival,” which Madonna wrote with Dallas Austin and produced with Nelle Hooper, we hear that this is a slightly different Madonna album. The song is a swinging, New Jill Swing pop song that dates immediately but would read as revelatory for a Madonna record. It sounds like the kind of post-grunge R&B/pop of Janet Jackson, Jody Watley, or Karyn White, all of whom, like Madonna, were dance-pop divas of the 1980s but softened their dance beats to more sultry, soulful dance-pop. Working with longtime background vocalists Niki Haris and Donna DeLory – the record’s heavenly harmonies give “Survival” an En Vogue or SWV sound.
Bedtime Stories is a solid entry with some incredibly high points amongst the comfortable tunes. Aside from “Human Nature”, the album boasts two other excellent singles, “Secret” and “Take a Bow”, both of which were among Madonna’s most successful singles. The title track is another crucial tune on the album as it predicted her embrace of techno and electronica on her 1998 career renaissance, Ray of Light. “Secret” is a moody, thoughtful ballad driven by a prominent acoustic guitar and a wah-wah guitar, giving the song a languid ’70s soul feel. On the track, Madonna’s voice is pitched to a lower register, multi-tracked to give it oomph, and its depth offers the song a reflective tone. It’s one of Madonna’s most sedate hits, one that avoids the bliss of her dance classics, nor does it reach for the heartstrings like her pop ballads.
Conversely, “Take a Bow” is a lavish, stately ballad elegantly produced by Babyface, who contributes ethereal background vocals. Its production is lush, luxuriant, like slippery silk sheets. Madonna’s sweet coo is enveloped in layers of pillowy synths. Like other songs on Bedtime Stories, “Take a Bow” doesn’t sound like a Madonna; instead, it sounds like a lovely outtake from a Whitney Houston or Toni Braxton record.
“Take a Bow” is simultaneously a career-high and low for the singer. More so than any song on the record, “Take a Bow” sounds like Madonna reaching and looking around at pop radio to fit into what was popular at the moment. The song is beautiful and would become a standard. However, the song also betrayed Madonna’s worries about remaining relevant in the 1990s after her period of sustained hostility.
Madonna was looking for respectability, and her strategy would be to record tasteful ballads. “Take a Bow” had a spiritual sequel, “You’ll See” from Something to Remember, a compilation of her ballad hits. The song – written by schlock maestro David Foster – was another big hit for Madonna, but she was encroaching on Houston’s territory. This rivalry amusingly played out with Madonna admitting that she dreamed that Houston’s 1996 ballad “Exhale (Shoop, Shoop)” was the bigger hit, only to hear her vocal coach hum the tune when Madonna popped by for a lesson. “I was devastated,” she confided. “This is what I’m dreaming about.”
If much of Bedtime Stories sounds like a bit of a measured retreat, there is one song that is creative and innovative in a way that few of the other tracks are: “Bedtime Story” is an expansive, dark electronic dance song that would point to Ray of Light. Inspired by Björk’s Debut album, Madonna turned to Marius De Vries, Nellee Hooper, and the Icelandic diva herself to pen the studiously eccentric trance track. Unlike the rest of Bedtime Stories, which looks to Black American contemporary pop, “Bedtime Story” looks to European club culture for its sound. Madonna – always a cultural magpie and Europhile – would sound at home on the song – one of the few of her studio LPs that are not credited to her.
Once Bedtime Stories was released, Madonna went through another period of transition in her career (she goes through so many) and turned to Hollywood to shore up some of the goodwill she hoped she amassed with the more conciliatory image and music of Bedtime Stories. Evita was the height of respectability for the singer. She won warm reviews and grudging respect from critics for her work on the Parker musical.
Predictably, Madonna changed course again – this time, embracing the sound of “Bedtime Story” and expanding on it, making a triumphant return to pop dominance with Ray of Light. The success – critical and commercial – of that album was a return of sorts to Madonna’s salad days in the 1980s, and she embarked on a second career on far sturdier footing due to the success of Ray of Light and a renewed interest in her work.
Though conservatives still eyed her warily, Madonna wouldn’t have to endure the same onslaught of the misogynistic furor that she did in the early 1990s. Her position as a legend, icon and a pop grande dame meant that she was seemingly inured from the kind of knee-jerk backlash she endured in the 1980s, finding herself the target of ageism as she aged, releasing music and creating furor on her own terms as entered her 60s.
The renewed Culture Wars that emerged from the post-Obama backlash during a splintered culture, the monoculture obliterated. The fractured culture means that Madonna’s impact during these years was not as omnipresent or ubiquitous as they were in the early 1990s; she was no longer a significant talking point or the towering figure in pop culture anymore.
The pop narrative became far more spread out and expansive, meaning she no longer found herself at the center of the conservative backlash. Her last album, 2021’s Madame X was a record made by a woman utterly confident in her place in pop music; there’s little of the slight flail that can be attributed to Bedtime Stories or the strident defensiveness of Erotica.
The story of Madonna enduring the culture wars of the early 1990s is the story of an American culture that was far more unified and funneled. It meant that a superstar of Madonna’s stature was a constant in the news and tabloid press. The years between 1992 and 1995 represented a period in pop culture that has since disappeared: American pop culture no longer can sustain overwhelming superstardom like Madonna’s (or Michael Jackson’s, Whitney Houston’s, Bruce Springsteen’s, et al.). It’s also the story of a normally subversive and confident pop artist who was forced to reset the course of her career in the face of a backlash that she could never have predicted.