When Madonna declared, “Only the one who inflicts the pain can take it away,” on 1992’s “Erotica,” she wasn’t kidding. Following the funk of the Erotica album and her notorious Sex book, Madonna provided the creamy balm of Bedtime Stories, a fluffy-pillowed concept album that unfolds like a musical fairy tale.
Whether it’s the poetic ballad “Love Tried to Welcome Me,” which was inspired by a stripper Madonna met in a club, or the enchanting “Sanctuary,” in which she quotes Walt Whitman’s “Vocalism,” Madonna seemed more interested in literature and human psychology than sexual biology this time around. The album’s mix of sorrow and romance—she compares rejection to an aphrodisiac on “Forbidden Love” and equates death and desire on “Sanctuary”—exposes a woman who might have been in need of some serious therapy.
The album’s lead single, the surprisingly understated “Secret,” is one of the most naked performance of Madonna’s long career. Acoustic guitars, expertly sweetened vocals, and producer Dallas Austin’s signature R&B beats soulfully transport the listener into her troubled yet soothing world. Despite the album’s multiple producers and genre jerkiness, it’s this theme of yearning that holds the whole thing together.
Working with superstar producers was a rarity for the singer, so Babyface, who co-wrote and produced “Take a Bow,” was in scarce company. The ballad is at once syrupy and bittersweet, calling on the words of one William Shakespeare to help recount the tale’s dramatic conclusion: “All the world is a stage/And everyone has their part…But how was I to know you’d break my heart?”
“Take a Bow” became Madonna’s longest-running chart-topper, but it’s the Björk-penned “Bedtime Story” that is, perhaps, the single with the most unfulfilled hit potential in Madonna’s career. “Let’s get unconscious, honey,” she sings hypnotically over pulsating beats and electronic gurgles courtesy of Nellee Hooper and Marius DeVries. The song hinted at the electronic-pop sound that would go on to define the latest phase of her career.
Both the media and the public’s rejection of Madonna’s sexual politicking informed songs like the album’s opening track, “Survival.” For years, Madonna spoke in metaphors, fantasies, and blatant shock tactics, but the singer indignantly struck back at her critics on the single “Human Nature”: “Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex/I musta been crazy…I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about you.” Whether licking her wounds over lovers or critics, Madonna has never sounded more emotionally vulnerable or more cerebrally plugged in than she does here.