Madonna’s Bedtime Stories Turns 20: A Look Back At Its Career-Defining Legacy
“A little up and down and all around, it’s all about survival,” coos Madonna on slinky boudoir groove “Survival,” the opening number of her just-turned-20 work Bedtime Stories. And, as all of us true Madonna queens know, prior to the release of this celebrated record, the Material Girl’s career at this point was indeed a little up and down and all around, and in definite need of survival.
Her previous studio set, the S&M-beat-blessed Erotica, ruffled the feathers of a lot of critics—and even some fans with its overt sexuality. Around the same time, her provocatively titled coffee-table book Sex prompted those same critics to throw up their hands. Had the queen of WTF moments reached her shock-value limits? Was America tired of her attention-getting ways? Many said yes. But those who doubted were eating their words after her infamous 1994 interview on Late Show With David Letterman, where she dropped F-bombs like they were going out of style. It was too much for a nation that was increasingly more conservative following Desert Storm and in the midst of a wallet-clenching recession. Girlfriend needed to reel it in.
After the Letterman debacle, Madonna must have realized she had some work to do image-wise, so she returned to the music scene with a more-polished, even kind of vulnerable style. To kick off her softer-side reinvention, she released the sensual “I’ll Remember,” a tender (and vastly underrated) ballad from the film With Honors. The radio-friendly pop tune became a No. 2 Billboard hit for the star, with an accompanying video that featured Madonna looking classic under a sleek black do. She came back later that year with “Secret,” an acoustic R&B-laced gem that served as the lead single from Bedtime Stories. Thus Madonna’s mid-’90s career comeback began.
“Secret” became another hit for the star, peaking at No. 3 on the charts and birthing a Harlem-shot black-and-white video that featured a blond-bobbed Madonna looking all ghetto fabulous—nose ring and all. Critics praised the single for its sexy guitar riffs and throbbing beat, but it was follow up single “Take a Bow” that truly put the diva back on top of her chart game. The classic rode the peaks of Billboard for seven weeks, and still remains her longest-running No. 1 hit to date.
However, as much as Stories put Madonna back on top, later single releases didn’t make as much of a rumble on the charts. After “Take a Bow,” she released “Bedtime Story,” but because of its not-ready-for-radio whirling and winding production, the track was vastly ignored on the airwaves and mainly gained buzz because of its eye-popping “Ray Of Light”-foreshadowing video. The same can be said for “Human Nature,” Madonna’s classic fuck-you-to-critics anthem that also barely got into the groove on the singles charts. In the end it would be the last mainstream single released from the Bedtime Stories era.
Bedtime Stories remains my all-time favorite Madonna album. It’s nearly flawless. The opener, “Survival,” will remain my personal gay anthem for years to come; sexy tracks “Inside Of Me,” “Love Tried To Welcome Me” and “Forbidden Love” will always find me slipping into something more comfortable; and whenever I get down to the sticky groove of “Don’t Stop,” I will always get my “la-di-da-di” on.
However, it’s not just the insatiable pure-pop moments laced throughout Bedtime Stories that make it great. This was a record that cemented Madonna as the icon we know today. It found her collaborating with classic artists and producers, like Björk, Meshell N’degeocello, Babyface, Dallas Austin and Nelle Hooper—folks that would define her sound for a decade. Even after 20 years, Bedtime Stories is an album worth staying up for.