Twenty years ago this month, Madonna released her sixth studio album, Bedtime Stories, a classic that came out at a strange crossroads in her career.
While Madonna certainly didn’t lack for fame in 1994, the button-pushing Eroticaalbum had soured many critics and fans. For the first time in a decade of superstardom, people weren’t shocked by her antics anymore — even worse, they often seemed exhausted by her.
Artistically speaking, she’d spent the last four years challenging and subverting America’s sexual puritanism. But after releasing an entire book called Sexfeaturing nude pictures of herself and other celebrities, there didn’t seem to be anywhere else to go in that realm.
It didn’t help that she’d detonated 14 F-bombs on a March 1994 episode of The Late Show With David Letterman, an infamous appearance that racked up FCC complaints and distanced her from Middle America. Evita was two years away and the overt sexuality of Erotica was growing stale — so when Bedtime Stories hit, Madonna’s career was at a strange point.
To that end, Bedtime Stories is lyrically and musically a much warmer album. She sacrifices some bawdy entendres (compare Erotica‘s “Where Life Begins” toBedtime‘s “Inside of Me”) and focuses on autobiographical matter.
Instead of Erotica‘s chilly, pounding dance pop, Bedtime puts Madonna in softer sonic territory. There’s the singer-songwriter-y “Secret,” the avant pop of “Bedtime Story” (co-written by Bjork), the new jack swing jam “I’d Rather Be Your Lover” (featuring Meshell Ndegeocello rapping), the Herbie Hancock-sampling ballad “Sanctuary” and the lush, orchestral R&B of “Take a Bow.”
But softer sounds didn’t necessarily mean muted lyrics. “Human Nature” finds Madonna taking on her critics more directly than ever with a logical, defiant attack on slut-shaming. And while album opener “Survival” is a cozy R&B-pop song, it was similarly unrepentant in attitude.
The inviting R&B sound of Bedtime Stories is due in part to co-producer Dallas Austin, who longtime Madonna backup singer Donna de Lory describes as “part of her tribe at that time.” Also on board were co-producers Nellee Hooper, Dave “Jam” Hall (hot off Mary J.Blige’s debut, What’s the 411?) and, of course, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
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(Joe Lynch for Billboard.com)