There was a time, even during the peak of her stardom, that Madonna was behind the times.
By the mid 1990s, the shock and awe of her sexual subject matter had been dwarfed by the hard-hitting beats of R&B, hip-hop and, eventually, electronic music. What’s was a mega pop-star to do?
Michael and Janet Jackson (perhaps Madonna’s only two equals at the time) had already faced such a dilemma head on. The latter was busy perfecting her work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, peaking with 1993’s pop-R&B fused Janet.
Meanwhile, MJ found himself not only trying to match his sister, but also attempting to join the wave of New Jack Swing, which he accomplished with 1991’s masterful Dangerous.
Now it was Madonna’s turn. Enter Bedtime Stories, an album often overlooked because it was sandwiched between her most controversial work (Erotica) and, arguably, her best (Ray of Light).
Bedtime Stories arrives on heavyweight vinyl for the first time on Aug. 16 (You can order it on Amazon Friday). The album, which sold more than 7 million copies, is best remembered as Madonna’s response to the changing sonic landscape and a post Erotica backlash from the morality police.
Yet, if Bedtime Stories was Madonna dialing things back, it certainly came with a backhanded smack across the face. “Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex,” she sings on Human Nature. “And I’m not sorry.”
Human Nature is the perfect example of where Madonna’s evolution was taking her in 1994. The track not only serves as a middle finger to critics (“I’m breaking all the rules I didn’t make”). It also comes with a head-bobbing hip-hop beat courtesy of Dave Hall, best known for his work on Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411?
That shift to trendy R&B can also be found on the Isley Brothers-sampled I’d Rather Be Your Lover and the impassioned (and catchy-as-hell) Secret, helmed by TLC producer Dallas Austin.
Aside from tackling urban trends, Bedtime Stories foreshadows Madonna’s brilliant electronic music that would come later in the decade. The opening track Survival is perfect for cascading across the dance floor, while Madonna does her best Kylie Minogue impersonation on Inside of Me.
Of course, Madonna wasn’t the first artist to chase a trend or two to multi-platinum success. But if Bedtime Stories has a shortcoming it’s the failure to fully conquer 1990s R&B in the same way Jackson’s Dangerous climbed to the top of the New Jack Swing Mountain.
Still, the final two tracks on Bedtime Stories are the most noteworthy because they offer an emphatic exclamation point. The title song, penned by Bjork, indicates the work that would show up on Ray of Light more than any song.
Then there’s Take a Bow, which melds Babyface and Madonna’s writing styles. Perhaps Madonna chose it as the closer because of the memorable tagline “The show is over, say goodbye.”
But Take a Bow also serves as an emphatic statement: While Madonna was figuring out her next phase, she was still more than capable of delivering the best romantic ballad of her career.