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 Erotica album 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 Sex featuring 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” to Bedtime’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.
While Edmonds had recently worked with TLC and Toni Braxton, he tells Billboard it was one of his own hits that brought him to Madonna’s attention.
“Madonna was a fan of a song I did, ‘When Can I See You.’ Because of that, she was interested in working with me,” Edmonds recalls. “She came to me for lush ballads, so that’s where we went.”
Babyface would collaborate with Madonna on three songs — two of which, “Forbidden Love” and “Take a Bow,” ended up on the album. Although the latter became Madonna’s long-running No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Edmonds says he wasn’t gunning for chart-toppers when they met.
“I wasn’t so much thinking about the charts,” Edmonds recalls. “I think I was more in awe of the fact that I was working with Madonna. It was initially surreal, but then you get to know the person a little bit, and you calm down and then it’s just work. And work is fun.”
When Edmonds played Madonna the bare bones of a song that would become “Take a Bow,” she immediately took to it. “It was just a beat and the chords. From there we collaborated and built it up,” he says. “I was living in Beverly Hills and I created a little studio in my house, so she came over there to write.”
As for “Forbidden Love,” Edmonds recalls that track came together with similar speed. “She heard the basic track and it all started coming out, melodies and everything… It was a much easier process than I thought it would be.”
Donna De Lory, however, wasn’t surprised at how easily Bedtime Stories came together when she and fellow backup vocalist Niki Haris were called in to provide harmonies on “Survival,” co-written by Austin. At that point, she’d been performing with Madonna for seven years.
“The minute you walked in [the studio], she was giving you the lyric sheet,” De Lory tells Billboard. “That was the atmosphere — we’re not here to just hang out. It’s fun, but we’re here to work and get this done.”
And what Madonna sets out to do, Madonna invariably succeeds at. De Lory recalls the sessions for “Survival” took just a “couple of hours” and there were no retakes.
Similar to Babyface, De Lory describes working with Madonna as a creative partnership, even if she was the one setting the tone. “Once she got her ideas out, she was open to your ideas. You didn’t want to go in with her and right off the bat say, ‘Well, I hear this,’ because she was so specific and articulate. She already had the sound in her head. But after she’d spoken, we’d put our two cents in. We always had ideas, like, ‘Can we answer this line with an extra “survival” [in the background]?'”
The result of that session is the perfect opener to the album — a lush, beguiling anthem to resilience and statement of purpose. “I’ll never be an angel, I’ll never be a saint it’s true/ I’m too busy surviving, whether it’s heaven or hell/ I’m gonna be living to tell,” Madonna sings, nodding to her critics while simultaneously brushing them off.
Speaking of critics, Bedtime Stories received very positive reviews, especially compared to her two previous albums, the divisive Erotica and her Dick Tracy companion I’m Breathless.
It was similarly successful on the charts, debuting at a respectable No. 3 slot on the Billboard 200. The first single, “Secret,” also peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. (FYI, Madonna teased “Secret” in an audio message available exclusively online prior to its release — a prescient publicity move for an era where less than 15 percent of adults had Internet access.)
But it was the second single from Bedtime, the Babyface-produced “Take a Bow,” that became its biggest hit. Topping the Hot 100 for seven weeks, it became Madonna’s 11th No. 1 hit and is still her longest-running No. 1 on the Hot 100.
Despite the unqualified success of “Take a Bow,” Bedtime’s next two singles — the Bjork-penned “Bedtime Story” and “Human Nature” — stalled, becoming her first singles in a decade to not crack the Hot 100’s top 40. While De Lory recalls that Madonna was directing her energy back toward acting at that point anyway, the tepid performance of those singles could partly explain why Madonna didn’t tour behind the album.
She did, however, perform “Take a Bow” with Babyface at the American Music Awards in 1995, an experience he recalls as terrifying. “I was nervous as hell. But you couldn’t actually see my legs shaking under the suit,” Edmonds says. “When we finished, she told me she had never been that nervous before. That was crazy to me — I was thinking, ‘You’re Madonna, you’re on stage all the time!'”
These days, Madonna is readying a new album for a presumed 2015 release and Edmonds is hot off producing an album for another unstoppable icon: Barbra Streisand. Looking back on Bedtime Stories 20 years later, he says the whole experience seems surreal. “Today when I think about it, it’s hard to believe I even did that with Madonna,” Edmonds says. “It’s always nice to be part of an album that’s a classic — but you never know when you’re a part of it at the time. Only time can tell.”
As for De Lory, she stopped performing with Madonna in 2007. Today, she’s following her own muse, performing and crafting world-music-influenced electronic pop on albums like her most recent, The Unchanging.
Recalling her time with Madonna, she’s still in awe of the pop icon’s total immersion in the recording process. “I was constantly amazed at her ability to focus in on the intonation and rhythm of our vocal parts,” De Lory says. “When you worked with her, you had to be so on. She was very present in the moment — she knew what she wanted, she got what she wanted, and then she was moving on.”