Madonna‘s career has always been about being in conversation with the moment, but her oft-forgotten 1994 R&B-tinged album Bedtime Stories feels more like a compromise to a particular moment than a mastery of it. So, it’s a bit surprising that, of all the collections in her catalogue, this should be the one to have a sudden commercial resurgence.
Then again, time has never felt less relevant than right now. The fact that last night Bedtime Stories hit number one on the U.S. iTunes chart seems almost fitting.
Of course, the iTunes charts, unlike the Billboard charts, are more a reflection of by-the-hour sales trends. The algorithm is a bit mysterious, but devoted fans know how to manipulate it. Madonna fans noticed that the album was marked down to $4.99, and launched a campaign to purchase and stream the album to send it rocketing up the charts (in fact, it was the first time the album had even entered that particular chart). Once there, the fan campaign got an acknowledgement from Madonna herself.
Perhaps in part, Madonna fans were out to seek justice for one of Madonna’s less successful projects. Upon its release, the album only hit number three on the Billboard charts, which, aside from her debut, is the lowest of Madonna’s career (yes, she can still rack up #1 albums, as Madame X recently proved).
It arrived at a particularly weird time for Madonna. Her Exotica album and artistically lurid Sex coffee table book had pushed her bad girl image to extremes. While the double entendre of Bedtime Stories was intended, the collection was still an attempt to soften and mature her image.
Still, it also came at a time when American-made pop music was at a low point. Times were notoriously good in the early ’90s, and yet the dominate musical trends were grunge, smooth R&B, trip-hop and adult contemporary ballads. Everyone was in Gap chinos and their feelings for some reason. Not exactly welcoming conditions for a dance floor queen.
In response, Madonna recruited a trio of producers who would come to define ’90s commercial R&B: Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Dave Hall, and Dallas Austin. The trio would help her conceive of most of the album’s sounds, but, because she’s Madonna, she had to throw a few curveballs into the mix.
Like most people of taste in the early 90s, Madonna had taken a liking to Björk‘s album Debut. She not only recruited the album’s co-producer Nellee Hooper to contribute, but also enlisted Björk herself to co-write the album’s title song (though, the pair never met during production).
The public, however, wasn’t particularly intrigued. The lead single “Secret,” was a moderate hit, but only the album-closing ballad “Take a Bow” became a commercial smash. The rest of the singles failed to enter the top 40. Madonna decided against launching a tour to support the album, opting for her role in Evita instead.
It’s not as if the album is without its merits, but it still sounds like a Madonna project trapped in time rather than at the height of her power. Then again, maybe that’s why it’s suddenly so relevant right now.
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