Madonna’s “Bedtime Stories” Turns 20: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
Throughout her extensive career, Madonna (a.k.a. The Queen of Pop) has worn many, quite controversial hats. Whether it be a girly-girl for 1986’s True Blue, a political rebel for 2003’s American Life or a disco goddess for 2005’s Confession On A Dancefloor, the entertainer always knows how to switch up her persona to keep her fans interested and the world guessing what her next move will be. (Well, maybe not with MDNA. I’d like to forget that album.)
But one of the singer’s greatest musical eras was arguably her most subtle. On October 25, 1994, her sixth studio LP Bedtime Stories released worldwide. The album found Madonna easing up on her naughty persona and going for a softer vibe, and today (October 24) we celebrate its timeless sound.
Madonna’s much talked about album, Erotica (released in 1992), did not go over well with critics or some of the entertainer’s fans. The backlash she received from it stemmed from its explicitly sexual nature (which included the infamous Sex book). Two years later, Bedtime Stories acted as the tamer, more mellow sister that tried to gloss over the singer’s panned image. While it was obviously a cleaned-up and more accessible album, it still signified another era of change for Madonna. Sure, she makes incredible dance-pop classics, but Bedtime Stories displayed the evolution of a soulful singer, and it helped lead to albums like the adventurous Ray of Light (1998) and possibly even the “B-girl” edge of 2008’s Hard Candy (as crazy as that sounds).
The album kicks off with “Survival,” and its first line is “I’ll never be an angel.” It immediately reminds you of why this record came about in the first place. Madonna was fully aware of the critique she was facing at the time, and “Survival” acknowledges it while simultaneously letting the hate roll off her shoulders. The song has a distinctly cool nature to it, which most likely came from co-writer and co-producer Dallas Austin, who is famous for working with TLC — which would explain the track’s acoustic R&B production.
Following is the album’s lead single “Secret.” I would refer to it as the defining moment of the Bedtime Stories era. This smooth mid-tempo was such a departure from Madonna’s previous work, which was riddled with club-ready dance tracks, and it showed the general public that she was still capable of creating approachable music. But don’t let all of that fool you! “Secret” is still a sultry tune, but instead of her being blatant with the lyrical imagery, the singer chose to use her vocal tone to evoke its theme of mystery. From the slightly melancholic nature of the verses to the rumbling “mhmmm” harmonies, Madonna sounds like she’s about to whisper a secret in the listener’s ear. Yet once the song is over, she never reveals what that secret is. The overall affect is gorgeously intriguing — and many fans agreed! “Secret” peaked at the #3 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and stayed on the chart for 22 weeks.
Songs on the album like “Don’t Stop” and “I’d Rather Be Your Lover” have a new jack swing undertone, thus extending her exploration of the hip-hop sounds she dabbled with on Erotica. Even the cheeky “Inside of Me” samples Aaliyah‘s debut smash of the same year, “Back & Forth.” Bedtime Stories‘ “I Could Be Your Lover” is a funky bop — complete with rhythmic production, smooth-as-velvet vocals and a rap feature from Meshell Ndegeocello.
Madonna – “Secret”
The second single off Bedtime Stories is arguably her most beautiful ones of all. “Take A Bow” showed a more vulnerable side to Madonna, as she sunk deeper into her lower vocal register to evoke a tender compassion. R&B songwriting legend Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds co-wrote and co-produced it with the singer, and his delicate fingerprints are evident throughout the entire track. It’s swaying strings and lush harmonies made it one of the standout songs from the LP. It kept its #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks straight, and is also her longest-running single at that spot.
A vast majority of the singer’s music videos are epic mini-films, and the visual for “Take A Bow” is no different. It tugs at your heartstrings with its tragic love story of a woman who is being neglected by her Spanish lover, who works as a bullfighter. It’s also important to note that the video helped Madonna land the role of Eva Peron in 1996’s Evita (which won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy).
Babyface also helped with creating “Forbidden Love,” a bedroom romp with a steamy aesthetic that courses through your veins as soon as the brass and percussion beat kicks in. Madonna sounds incredibly enticing on this tune, as she croons: “I know that you’re no good for me/That’s why I feel I must confess/What’s wrong is why it feels so right/I want to feel your sweet caress.” Babyface’s plush harmonies help to elevate the song’s sensory vibe, making it one of Madonna’s underrated gems that should be on everyone’s “sexy time” playlist.
Madonna – “Take A Bow”
“Sanctuary” is another track off Bedtime Stories that finds Madonna going the subtly hedonistic route instead of being too in your face with explicit sex talk. The singer coos all throughout the song, as she confesses to her lover how much he comforts her. The poetic lyrics (“Who needs the sun, when the rain’s so full of life/Who needs the sky/It’s here in your arms I want to be buried”) are anchored by a steady, R&B-influenced bassline with a sound effect that is reminiscent of a creaky bed (so naughty!).
The ending of “Sanctuary” blends seamlessly into what may be the highlight of the album — “Bedtime Story.” Many of the tracks have a clear R&B theme, but “Bedtime Story” definitely go against the grain. Doused in electronica, the LP’s third single has a trippy vibe that separates itself from the rest of the album. The song was written by Björk, Nellee Hooper and Marius de Vries; Madonna co-produced it with Hooper as well. It sucks you in with its quivering drum patterns taken directly from trance music, which creates an ethereal ambiance.
The chanteuse’s vocal performance takes the song to the next level, as she repeatedly sings in a low whisper: “Let’s get unconscious honey/Let’s get unconscious.” The combination of UK dance influence from the writers with Madonna’s provocative voice made for an album cut that is truly hypnotizing. I can’t help but think “Bedtime Story” helped to inspire Britney Spears‘ “Breathe On Me” — both tracks share breathy vocals, icy electronic production and sensual undertones.
Madonna – “Bedtime Story”
Despite using Bedtime Stories as a way to win back her audience, Madonna was not going to be a slave to the media! “Human Nature,” the last single to be released from the album, was shamelessly unapologetic way before Unapologetic. The singer co-wrote and co-produced it with Dave Hall (the man behind Mary J. Blige‘s “You Remind Me” and Mariah Carey‘s “Dreamlover”), which explains the track’s rugged R&B influence.
Hall helped Madonna find her R&B/Hip-Hop groove, making the song different from anything she’d ever done in the past. “Human Nature” can be looked at as an unintentional sequel to 1989’s “Express Yourself,” due to its liberating theme. The song was a sneak diss, as Madonna asked why she was being so heavily critiqued for expressing herself as an artist. She exclaims, “You punished me for telling you my fantasies/I’m breaking all the rules I didn’t make.” With its straightforward statements that are dripping with sarcasm (Did I say something wrong?/Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex), “Human Nature” became a feminist anthem of sorts. It’s safe to say it has influenced various female artists who have looked to Madonna’s legacy, with songs from the past decade like Christina Aguilera‘s “Can’t Hold Us Down,” Britney Spears‘ “Piece Of Me” and Beyonce‘s “***Flawless.”
Instead of denouncing sex like her critics would have wanted, in “Human Nature” Madonna chose to play up the societal taboo which surrounds the topic. Even the music video (directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, the man behind “Open Up Your Heart, “Justify My Love and “Don’t Tell Me”) has a message. With her sexually explicit visuals in the past, Madonna used bondage as a form of erotica. But with “Human Nature,” the S&M-inspired outfits are more constrictive. It is a direct reflection of the media encapsulating her sexual freedom.
Madonna – “Human Nature”
Madonna’s sixth studio album was more successful than Erotica, its predecessor. Bedtime Stories debuted at the #3 on the Billboard 200, but its sales didn’t truly kick in until the second single “Take A Bow” was released. The LP was eventually certified triple-Platinum in the United States. It was also nominated in the Best Pop Album category at the 38th annual Grammy Awards.
Bedtime Stories proved that Madonna never lost her edge; she just decided to soften it so that her image could regroup. When listening to the sultry undertones and R&B influences threaded throughout it, you come to realize how flawlessly the singer could change up her persona while still sounding genuine. Like many of her albums, Bedtime Stories had a impact on many artists of today. But the LP speaks to the rising generation who prefer chilled electronica and R&B instead of bubbly synths. People like Banks, Tinashe, Jhene Aiko and Rihanna all have a sound that mixes icy vocals with warm, soulful production. For that, we have to thank Madonna for whispering sweet stories to us in the comfort of her musical bedroom.
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