After the deep disco of Erotica and the intense blowback of its overt sexuality (and that book), Madonna gets into her groove on with her most soul and R&B inspired album to date. Interestingly, Madonna’s earlier work has always been a hit on R&B stations but with Bedtime Stories she eschews a lot of her dance and pop for swerve and sway funk. The opening tracks “Survival” and “Secret” are Spanish-Harlem infused bits of new jack swing that perfectly set up the album. “Inside of Me” is a sultry slow-jam like it could have come off a Janet Jackson record.
The pain of the blowback from her “Sex” book is front and center in “Human Nature,” a stinging retort of the criticism she took for it (“Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex…”) and one of the first times she addresses her critics in song. It and the video are little masterpieces.
The album, for its modest commercial success, features her longest running #1 song ever in “Take a Bow,” one of her many ballads to reach the top spot. The only song not written or co-written by Madonna was “Bedtime Story.” The song, co-written by Bjork, deviated from the rest of the album (despite carrying its title) with a more electronic, esoteric feel both in lyrics and musical arrangement. It wasn’t a big hit for her as it was probably too much of a departure for her fans.
But something amazing happened this week, happened today. After a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #JusticeForBedtimeStories, the album vaulted over 600 spots and is currently, as of this writing, the #1 album on iTunes. Not only is it a wildly impressive feat, it is true justice for a perfect, no-skip album that peaked at #3 on the Billboard chart.
AN: I couldn’t be more excited to discuss this album, especially on the morning when Madonna fans took it to the top of the iTunes charts twenty-six years after its release. I hope we do justice to Bedtime Stories in this conversation. Madonna released this album after the most controversial period of her career. Erotica. The Sex book. Body of Evidence. The infamous Letterman appearance with the cigar and the cursing. It felt like society had really turned against her. Before Bedtime Stories was released, I remember lots of talk about the softer Madonna, and while she gets brilliantly vulnerable on this album, this isn’t an apology album. Absolutely no regrets, after all. Starting the album with Survival is the perfect move. She begins by telling us that she’ll never be an angel or a saint but she’s still here, and in another example of Madonna quoting herself, she tells us she’s gonna be livin’ to tell. Once she gets that out of the way, she can move on to those bedroom ballads. Another thing I find fascinating about Madonna’s studio albums is the way the one-off soundtrack cuts and greatest hits songs she released often hinted at the sound of what was to come. Crazy for You pointed the way to Live to Tell, and Justify My Love pointed the way to Erotica, and in this case, it was I’ll Remember that pointed to some of the emotional soundscapes we’d be immersed in here.
EA: Definitely not an apology album. But it was a rough couple of years for her, getting punched down hard by critics and even fans. This is partially a reaction album, not reactionary though. “Survival” as the first song on the album exemplifies that perfectly. “A little up and down and all around.” She’s been kicked but she’s not beaten. It also show us right away that she’s shifting her musical style from what we’ve heard before and digging deep into R&B and soul.
And we can’t go without mentioning that TODAY Bedtime Stories is the NUMBER ONE album on iTunes! A huge push yesterday vaulted the 25-year old album up 600 spots. Can you imagine if iTunes had been around in her era? This would have been another #1 album for her.
AN: It’s one of the least talked about albums in her discography, but hopefully this moment it’s having will bring it back into people’s consciousness and their playlists.
EA: “Secret” is dripping with so much eroticism and hope in equal parts. “Happiness lies in your own hand…” harks back to “Express Yourself’s “what you need is a big strong hand…” when she’s really talking about doing it yourself, for yourself. This song, like the album, really showed her exploring so much more and doing so with a wider group of producers. Every time she hums “Mmm mmm” I close my eyes. I move my shoulders. It’s a song that envelopes you like a velvet robe.
AN: Ooh, a velvet robe is exactly what this album feels like, maybe with a leather strap though. This album came out right when I started college in New York City. Alongside Deee-Lite, lots of club music, and trip-hop classics, this is the album I most associate with my freshman year of college, a major year of personal change for me. I used to light a candle in my little dorm room and listen to this album’s ballads and just feel all those teenage feelings. The other place I listened to and discovered these songs were New York’s clubs. On my very first day of college, a group of like-minded new friends and I escaped the trust falls of orientation and went to the Limelight. A few days later, we were at Wigstock. Soon enough, I was wearing a royal blue ski suit, dying my hair blue and calling myself Papa Smurf. Club kid culture was my world for a year (before it got real dark, as anyone who has read or seen Party Monster knows), and the remixes from this album were some of the anthems of the clubs in 1994. I remember so fondly the many moments when the whole club realized Junior’s Secret remix had come on. Everyone would stampede the dance floor. I remember another night when Junior was spinning at The Tunnel. At some obscene hour of the morning, he started playing nothing but Madonna remixes. It was a spiritual place, the dance floor. Anyway, I love this song because it belongs both in a candle-lit bedroom and on a dance floor. It’s stunning. And every time RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” I think of this song.
EA: Your Madonna-infused stories are as evocative as her work and I cherish each and every one of them, every time. Madonna might not always be seen as directly connected to club kid culture but for a queer kid who loves to dance how could she not be?
AN: She was a big presence in the club scene back then, as evidenced by the pajama party she had to promote this album. What an event. Okay, onward. I find it a little annoying when Madonna fans complain about the features on her recent albums when some of her most cherished albums (Like a Prayer, Bedtime Stories) featured guests on songs. I’ve always wondered what this album would’ve felt like, and how it’s legacy would’ve changed, if the Tupac version had ended up on the album (I do love that he gives Blond Ambition a shout-out in his unreleased verse). But I love this song, and I love the way Madonna and Meshell’s voices work off of each other. There’s a really sexy grit to it all.
EA: Yeah, this song is so horny. The opening is a mover. The Isley Brothers co-produced! I love the lyric “I could be your sister, I could be your mother, We could be friends, I’d even be your brother” because it at first a pearl clutch and then her just trying to get some! Me’Shell NdegeOcello is such a cool addition here because she has such a masculine voice and, after “Justify My Love,” continued Madonna’s twisting of gender norms. I constantly think of the Tupac version though (I’m listening as I type this) and especially the implications since they dated.
EA: Ahh, the horns, the bwow wow. Get up on the dance floor! This is another super sexy sway back and forth mover that I love. It feels like Keep It Together and Into the Groove had a baby. “Don’t Stop” is an interesting continuation of the disco numbers from Erotica because the feeling is the same but the tempo is slowed down to a sexier, flirtier beat. She finally answers the question Where’s the Party. Sing la dee da dee, it’s here.
AN: Oh, I’m singing la dee da dee. I love what a low-key bop this is. Up until this point, Madonna was largely a very maximalist artist with songs that spoke to her major ambition. Anthemic lyrics and robust production. Don’t stop has classic Madonna lyrics about perseverance, but in terms of tone and production, this isn’t Over & Over. She’s as persistent as ever, but now she’s willing to take her time and luxuriate in her powers a little more. Speaking of not stopping, as we have this chat, the queen herself has acknowledged the fact that Bedtime Stories is currently number one on the iTunes charts. Pretty badass to get her attention.
EA: I think we were all waiting for that! I’m so glad she did, I’m elated that people are going to find this album again because straight up this is a no skip masterpiece.
AN: The first of the album’s stunning non-single ballads. This one, Love Tried To Welcome Me and Sanctuary are up there with my favorite Madonna songs of all time. Inside of Me is just heartbreaking. The title, especially after the Erotica era, sets the listener up for a song about sex. Instead, Madonna delivers one of her most profound songs about loss. It’s one of her most moving tributes to her mother, but it’s also a song anyone who has lost someone they love can enter emotionally. It’s so cathartic. Who can’t relate to the lyrics, “I’ll always have you inside of me,” and “Even though you’re gone, love still carries on.” The production is so lush, which is the word that probably best describes this album. Luckily for us, the lushness explored here wouldn’t disappear in subsequent albums.
EA: I am obsessssssed with “Inside of Me.” It actually kicks off like “Don’t Stop.” I know it feels and sounds like a song about loss, and it definitely is (I mean, how does one ever truly get over the loss of a parent), there is also still a palpable sexuality to it. But this is such a different type of sexuality from Madonna. It’s a sensuality. I do think that, even though we agree this isn’t an apology album post-Erotica, the Sex book and Body of Evidence, that her response was a scaled back and more romantic version of sex and love. It’s always been, for me, one of Madonna’s greatest strengths: merging concepts and ideas and feelings so that you can interpret it as you need to for yourself. It’s also SUCH a Janet Jackson song, she even sounds like her on it. Not in a copycat way just evoking her soft vocals.
EA: Madonna hasn’t clapped back at critics in songs that much, and doesn’t often talk about ‘the price of fame’ (as least at this stage) as much as a lot of other artists have but when she does, you better watch out. While Bedtime Stories is a dreamy and romantic record, “Human Nature” is such a scathing retort of the response to her early 90s efforts. “I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me” is lacerating. It’s something I still quote, all the time. “Express yourself, don’t repress yourself…” she says – to us and to herself. It’s a response not only to her critics but also to reinforce her own confidence and self worth. This is and always has been an all-timer for me. Not to mention the video, which brings back the bondage themes from Erotica and Sex in a way that’s in your face, yet still with a side eye of comedy.
AN: We’ve talked quite a bit about track placement, and this one is placed brilliantly at the dead center of the album. It’s the most aggressive song on the record, both in terms of sound and lyrics, and it almost serves as an act break between the first half and second half of the album, and also as a reminder that as dreamy as many of these songs are, we’re still dealing with Madonna here. She slays this song. The delivery is perfect. The whispery vocals in the background. The sense of humor you refer to (oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex!) And of course, the leather-clad Mondino music video. Madonna of Finland! She should have absolutely no regrets about this song, and clearly doesn’t since it’s the one song on the album that keeps making her live set lists. This song also speaks to why this album is so important in her discography. This era follows the most criticism she ever received, and just as she did when those nude photos were released, she responded without regret or shame in this song. As I say in my novel LIKE A LOVE STORY, “the opposite of shame is Madonna.” With this song, she set an unapologetic template both for herself and for other marginalized people who would be criticized for exploring their sexuality. She’s not YOUR bitch, but she’s an unapologetic bitch.
EA: “Madonna of Finland” I am screaming.
AN: Joan Crawford made two unrelated films called Possessed, which is so right because Possessed could be the title of her life story. And Madonna released two unrelated songs called Forbidden Love, which also feels so right because so much of Madonna’s work is about celebrating the love society wants to forbid without shame. I absolutely love this song. It feels like a warm bath, or a velvet robe. I honestly feel that if I could pick one unreleased song from her discography to choose as a single, it might be this one. Especially off of the massive success of Take a Bow, I feel like this could’ve been huge on the charts. But we live in a country where even Into the Groove wasn’t released, so don’t let’s ask for the moon when we have the stars (did you see what I did there, I began with a Joan Crawford shout-out and ended with a Bette Davis quote).
EA: A warm bath, I love it. I was listening to this and closed my eyes and this whole album you could just lie back in bed with the lights off and let it take you away. “Rejection is the greatest aphrodisiac” is such a GREAT line. There’s so much power in it. I love that Me’Shell NdegeOcello returns on this song, playing bass. I love the overlay of vocals. Joan Crawford AND Bette Davis? Gurl, people are going to think ‘is he, you know.’
EA: So many influences here, you can’t help but love it. The return of her flair for Spanish guitar. “My heart has always been a lonely hunter” evoking the novel and the film. There’s a lot of hurt in this song but I love that it was inspired by a stripper. There’s a certain sacrifice that sex workers are forced to embrace sometimes, that they aren’t worth love or that they can’t. It turns the song into something else completely.
AN: My favorite on the record. One of my favorites of all time. This song is a mood and then some. While I’ve heard the song is inspired by a stripper, I think one reason the song works so well for me is that it captures a moment in time where I felt that I would never find love. Though Erotica is her response to AIDS, this record came out when AIDS was still at its worst in the United States. I came out to most of my friends and cousins in my freshman year in college, but despite being able to say I was gay, I wasn’t even close to ready to real intimacy. I had way too much fear and shame to deal with still. The heroine of this song, being offered love but pulling back, very much felt like a version of me at the time. So the song works just as well if it’s about a stripper or about a scared and lonely gay teen. I’ve luckily found love since then, but this song still feels like a piece of me, that kid who didn’t think he’d ever be loved.
EA: Which speaks right to the universality of so many of her songs. It can be one thing to this person and another altogether to someone else without ever losing meaning. My heart aches for young Abdi at this period and it’s so true that so many young queer people, then and now, feel undeserving of love. I hope a song like this, an album like this, does even a small part to change that.
AN: We’ve already discussed our love for Madonna’s poetic spoken word moments, and here she delivers us not just poetry, but Walt Whitman. This song just feels like a dream to me. The soundscape reminds me of some of my favorite trip-hop artists (Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead) and the lyrics are both unbearably romantic and a deeply sad. She may be telling someone they’re her sanctuary, but she’s also singing of a world that’s void and empty, a world of tears. I guess this is a bit of a sister song to Ghosttown in that way. Also, I always felt that the Frozen music video visuals would’ve fit this song nicely. That dark vastness. This is on top of my wish list of songs I want her to perform live. Love Tried To Welcome Me too. (Also, Gambler, but that’s another story).
EA: Massive Attack, yes! Especially considering her work with them on “I Want You.” Walt Whitman, too, we stan a queen who loves the classics. I’m totally with you on the feeling of vast emptiness it evokes, like Ghosttown does. “Who needs the sun/sky/smile/home…” really hits hard. There is so much in this song, from its writing credits and samples that include Herbie Hancock, to its production that so perfectly feeds into the very next song with no break.
EA: As I mentioned, we go right from “Sanctuary” to “Bedtime Story” with no break and omg is it perfect. I still can’t believe we exist in a world where Bjork wrote a song for Madonna. Not just a song but one that would very clearly mark a path for Madonna as she explored deep electronic style and religion in her life from the early days of Catholicism to New Age to Kabbalah. What’s interesting to me is that Madonna didn’t really go back into this type of acid, tripped out electro-techno too much until “Dark Ballet” on Madame X. I could obsess over this song, over Bjork’s comments about it. “‘Let’s Get Unconscious’ was what I wanted to hear from Madonna’s mouth.” The video is a topic we could talk about for days. The whirling dervishes, the continued imagery of motherhood and pregnancy.
AN: I worship the women of alternative music who defined the 1990s. Tori Amos, Sinead, PJ Harvey, and obviously Bjork. In high school, one of my closest friends introduced me to Bjork’s Debut album and I loved it. So did Madonna, apparently. Their collaboration is everything I could’ve hoped for and more. From the bubbling intimacy of Sanctuary, we transition seamlessly into flight with this song. The transition alone is brilliant, and the song is too. “Let’s get unconscious, honey” felt like an anthemic statement, especially in the clubs, where this song’s remixes were also ubiquitous. I honestly don’t understand why the song didn’t chart better, especially with that fucking brilliant Mark Romanek music video homage to Madonna’s favorite painters. It’s one of her most stunning visuals clips. And her live performance of it at the Brit Awards in the Versace dress is one of my favorite Madonna TV performances.
EA: Yes, I completely agree, one of her very best performances. I wish the song had charted better too. This and Human Nature, which are obviously the two biggest style outliers on this album, are the only singles from it that didn’t crack the top 40, breaking a 33 (?) song streak for her. I don’t think people, and definitely radio, were ready for ‘weird’ Madonna. Sometimes people don’t want to see the singers they love outside of a certain box. Madonna has never been an artist you can box in and never will be.
AN: A point she makes visually in the Human Nature video.
EA: Quite literally!
AN: A perfect ballad, honestly. The lyrics are such a profound exploration of love as performance, and of the way fame can challenge intimacy. It’s kind of wild that this is her longest-running Billboard Hot 100 hit because it’s not even close to the top of the list of songs that come to mind when we think of Madonna, right? But this reigns as her longest-running number one hit in the U.S., and deserves more respect than it gets in her discography. Also, the music video is stunning, and pointed the way forward to Evita. With this album getting some quarantine love, Madonna should really remind everyone of its power by performing some of its songs in an Instagram bedroom concert, starting with this one, which has never made one of her tour set lists. And if any of her albums lends itself to being performed from a bedroom, it’s this one. Long live this classic.
EA: Timing is really everything, no matter if you’re you or me or Madonna. That this was the #1 song for seven weeks, by far her longest, is still so crazy. But, when you look at her 12 chart toppers, her ballads do extremely well so they’re speaking to people at the right time. I do find it a bit of a strange closer coming after two wildly different songs and in some ways I think it hurts it a bit. It makes it sound a bit pedestrian in a sense, when it really shouldn’t. Although, a closing song called “Take a Bow” also makes perfect sense. The gay bar I met my husband at would always and only play this song at 1:30 in the morning as the last call. Evita! I can’t wait for that discussion but yes, this legendary video is a five and a half minute audition piece for what would end up being a performance that rightfully shocked a lot of people. An Instagram concert is honestly a perfect idea. Especially for songs she’s never or rarely played live.
BEDTIME STORIES by the numbers
- Released October 25, 1994
- Peaked at #3 on Billboard 200 chart on November 12, 1994
- Length: 51:50
- 2.5M US / 8M worldwide
- Billboard Hot 100 hits: “Secret” (#3), “Take a Bow” (#1 for seven weeks), “Bedtime Story” (#42), “Human Nature” (#46)
- Grammy nominations: Best Pop Vocal Album