In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Madonna could tell which way the wind was blowing. For the longest time, this was her superpower. Part of the reason that Madonna maintained her place near the top of the hierarchy for so long was that she could recognize shifts in fashion and aesthetic. She could see those changes coming in real time, and she could adjust her style to meet those changes. Often, Madonna made those adjustments artfully. Sometimes, though, you just need to go out and get yourself a hit. That’s what Madonna did when she made “Take A Bow.”
Bedtime Stories, the album that Madonna released in 1994, was Madonna’s version of a clear, unambiguous commercial move, a blatant attempt to get back in the good graces of the American record-buying public. In the years before Bedtime Stories, Madonna had tested our collective patience. After she reached #1 with the soundtrack ballad “This Used To Be My Playground,” Madonna’s next few artistic statements — the Erotica album, the Sex book, the movie Body Of Evidence — all came off as try-hard attempts to be risqué. Erotica is a pretty good album, but that didn’t really matter at the time. Erotica sold half as much as Like A Prayer, Madonna’s previous album, and it yielded no chart-topping singles. That’s not a career-killing reception, but it’s not great, either.
After the all the jokes about Erotica and Sex and Body Of Evidence, Madonna maintained that people didn’t have to be so scared of sex, but she also made a clear and conscious attempt to meet the record-buying public where it already was. In the mid-’90s, that meant that Madonna needed to make an R&B album. That’s what Bedtime Stories is. Madonna still had juice, so she worked with in-demand collaborators like Dallas Austin and Dave “Jam” Hall — the people who made the songs that ruled the Billboard charts in that era. Bedtime Stories could’ve seemed desperate, and maybe that’s what it was, but the album gave Madonna a nice little commercial bounce-back. It also had the Babyface collaboration “Take A Bow,” which topped the Hot 100 for longer than any other Madonna song, before or since.
In the first half of 1994, Madonna earned herself a whole lot of bad publicity, spinning from one tabloid scandal to the next. It wasn’t just the Erotica/Sex/Body Of Evidence triumverate. Touring behind Erotica in San Juan, Madonna rubbed the Puerto Rican flag between her legs. Then she gave David Letterman her underwear, told him to smell them, and got bleeped for cussing a bunch of times. That Letterman appearance honestly seems pretty mild by the present-day standards of Madonna media hits, but it caused a big stir at the time.
The same month as that Letterman appearance, though, Madonna also released “I’ll Remember.” Alek Keshishian, director of Madonna’s Truth Or Dare documentary, had made a collegiate coming-of-age movie called With Honors, and “I’ll Remember” was its big end-credits ballad. The song had nothing to do with the horny deep house of Erotica. Instead, it was a soft, synthy, wistful little number. Madonna recorded it with her old producer Patrick Leonard, and the two of them co-wrote it with Richard Page, a guy who’s been in this column a couple of times as the frontman of Mr. Mister. “I’ll Remember” peaked at #2, which means it was a bigger hit than anything on Erotica. (It’s an 8.)
“I’ll Remember” did not, however, indicate a new change of direction for Madonna. Instead, the song, much like “This Used To Be My Playground,” was just an interlude in Madonna’s career. Madonna was always down for a big soundtrack ballad, but those big soundtrack ballads were separate animals from her albums. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Madonna explains her aim with Bedtime Stories: “The idea was to juxtapose my singing style with a hardcore hip-hop sensibility and have the finished product still sound like a Madonna record.” There is absolutely no hardcore hip-hop on Bedroom Stories, unless you count the way she sample-jacked Brand Nubian’s “Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down” on “I’d Rather Be Your Lover.” Still, Bedroom Stories mostly succeeds on Madonna’s own terms.
There’s something weirdly audacious about Madonna’s attempt to tap into ’90s R&B on Bedtime Stories. This decision meant that Madonna, who was never exactly famous for her vocal firepower, was willingly putting herself in the same bracket as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men. But Madonna always recognized and compensated for her own vocal deficiencies, and she never tried to sing like Mariah Carey. Instead, she knew that her great on-record gifts were presence and attitude. There’s a ton of swagger on Bedroom Stories, and there’s also some canny craftsmanship at work. Instead of over-singing, Madonna slyly purrs out big hooks. She also combines the R&B of her big-name collaborators with the London club music that she loved so much. Soul II Soul’s Nellee Hooper co-produced five tracks on Bedtime Stories, and Björk co-wrote the song “Bedtime Story.” (“Bedtime Story” peaked at #42. Björk’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “Earth Intruders,” peaked at #84.)
At least for me, Bedtime Stories is nowhere near Madonna’s best album, but its combination of sleek R&B and slinky club music works way better than it probably should. Madonna sounds comfortable on the whole thing, and she never radiates the sweaty eagerness to please that you sometimes see from pop stars making self-consciously commercial moves. First single “Secret” set the whole thing up. Madonna co-wrote and co-produced “Secret” with TLC collaborator Dallas Austin, and she handled its elegantly bluesy acoustic guitar and its funky drum-loop by nicely underplaying her own vocal. “Secret” didn’t try too hard, and maybe that’s why it succeeded. The song peaked at #3. (It’s an 8.)
But the big hit from Bedtime Stories was the one that Madonna made with Babyface, who was the final boss of the Hot 100 in 1994. That’s when Babyface wrote and produced Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You,” an absolute monster record that happened to be sitting comfortably at #1 when Bedtime Stories came out. That year was also when Babyface reached his peak as a solo artist, getting to #4 with his tender ballad “When Can I See You.” (It’s an 8.) Madonna loved that song.
When Babyface got the call to meet with Madonna, he was surprised to find that she was a relatively low-key presence with no big entourage. Madonna and Babyface were both pros, and they had a relatively easy time working together. Maybe that was a mutual-respect thing. Madonna had made a lot of songs with a lot of collaborators, but she hadn’t worked with a superstar producer on a #1 hit since she and Nile Rodgers made “Like A Virgin” together a decade earlier. Madonna drove to Babyface’s house, and they wrote a couple of songs together.
Madonna wrote most of the “Take A Bow” lyrics to a track that Babyface had already written. The song is all about an affair with an actor who blows a relationship by taking Madonna’s narrator for granted: “All the world is a stage/ And everyone has their part/ But how was I to know which way the story’d go?/ How was I to know you’d break my heart?” The whole actor bit isn’t necessarily literal; it could be a metaphor for a partner who’s way too concerned with personal image. But given Madonna’s own dating history, there’s always been speculation that the song is about a particular movie star.
Specifically, rumor has it that “Take A Bow” is a song for Madonna’s ex Warren Beatty. At least in theory, this could mean that Beatty directly inspired two #1 hits that came out decades apart from each other, “Take A Bow” and Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” That’s a pretty wild swing for one man. Of course, by the time “Take A Bow” came out, Madonna’s dating life had taken its own twists and turns; she’d already had public flings with Dennis Rodman and future Number Ones artist Tupac Shakur. That’s some serious range. Madonna ain’t got no type.
“Take A Bow,” sadly, is no “You’re So Vain.” I know that this mostly an effect of the SoundScan era, but it seems like a cosmic injustice that “Take A Bow” should be Madonna’s longest-reigning #1 hit. I don’t think of the song as being part of her canon at all. Madonna’s best hits, ballads included, have always been big and dramatic and immediate. That’s now how “Take A Bow” works. It’s soft and sleepy. Madonna and her backup singers murmur back and forth at each other while the beat delicately percolates underneath them. There’s also a little orientalist chime that doesn’t add much. “Take A Bow” sounds like it was built to become background music, which isn’t something that I can say about too many of Madonna’s other hits. Madonna’s best songs are shameless. “Take A Bow” is tasteful, which is the big reason I’ve never been that into it.
It’s a perfectly pleasant piece of music, but “Take A Bow” tends to evaporate from my brain as soon as I’m done listening to it. The hooks just aren’t Madonna-sized. (They aren’t really Babyface-sized, either.) There’s lots of poise in Madonna’s vocal, but she never fully locks in with the song. As written, “Take A Bow” is at least a little bit angry, but you don’t get much of that from how Madonna sings it. She mostly just sounds sad that this relationship hasn’t worked out. I find the precision of her vocal just slightly off-putting; it’s got some of the same clipped quality of the fake English accent that she started using a few years later. The end product is a perfectly OK song that never makes my heart sing. It’s a big step up from “This Used To Be My Playground,” but I’d take most of Madonna’s other mid-’90s singles over this one.
Babyface and Madonna, co-producing “Take A Bow” together, had a pretty easy time recording the track, even though it was Babyface’s first time working with strings. (Nellee Hooper, the Soul II Soul guy, arranged those “Take A Bow” strings.) In the Bronson book, Babyface says, “She had worked with [strings] many times before, but for me, it was a new experience. So I was learning new things. I had always thought about it but had never done it.” In January of 1995, Madonna and Babyface, along with a full string section, performed “Take A Bow” together at the American Music Awards. Babyface said that he and Madonna were both freaking-out nervous before the performance, but it came off fine.
For the “Take A Bow” video, Madonna went to Spain to shoot with director Michael Haussman. According to some reports, she wanted the video to have a Spanish feel because she was trying to land the lead role in the 1996 film version of Evita. (If that was her plan, it worked. Madonna played Eva Perón, and she got to #8 with the big soundtrack song “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” The truth is it’s a 7.) In the sepia-toned “Take A Bow” clip, Madonna wears a bunch of fancy designer clothes, strips down to her underwear, and lusts after a bullfighter who’s played by actual bullfighter Emilio Muñoz. The whole thing looks like a perfume commercial, and it’s one of the most pretentious and self-serious videos that Madonna ever made. I respect the video’s ridiculousness, but I don’t actually enjoy it.
In a promo video for Bedtime Stories, Madonna came close to apologizing to her fans for past antics: “It’s true; I have put you through the ringer, but at least I’m not boring, and I’ve never been arrested.” With a little kid sitting on her lap, Madonna promised “no sexual references” on the album because she’d “exhausted that genre… It’s a whole new me, right? I’m going to be a good girl this year, I swear.” She was trolling at least a little bit, and she ended the video like this: “You know what? Fuck this nice business, all right? Just work my fucking record, OK?”
They worked her fucking record. Bedtime Stories had its intended effect, moving Madonna back to the center of the pop conversation. The album went triple platinum — better than Erotica, though not as good as Like A Prayer. Madonna stayed in nice-business mode through 1995. Later that year, she released the all-ballads collection Something To Remember, which also went triple platinum. One of its new songs was “You’ll See,” which Madonna recorded with MOR overlord David Foster and which had a video that once again featured Emilio Muñoz. (“You’ll See” peaked at #6. It’s a 7.)
A few months after Something To Remember came out, Madonna started filming Evita. A League Of Their Own is the biggest movie that Madonna ever made, but Evita might represent her movie-star peak. For a minute there, it almost looked like Madonna was mellowing out and becoming part of the Hollywood establishment. But Madonna was never going to venture off into the adult-contemporary dusk. She’s not wired that way. Soon enough, Madonna’s music moved in more playful and exploratory directions. We’ll see her in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Take A Bow” soundtracking the dramatic cliffhanger moment from the end of the first season of Friends:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Trisha Yearwood and Babyface performing “Take A Bow” together on their 2007 episode of CMT Crossroads:
(Trisha Yearwood’s highest-charting Hot 100 single is her 1997 version of the big Con Air ballad “How Do I Live,” which peaked at #23.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Norwegian singer-songwriter and Stereogum friend Sondre Lerche’s 2018 cover of “Take A Bow”:
THE NUMBER TWOS: “Candy Rain,” the heartsick smooth-strut R&B jam from young family-act Heavy D proteges Soul For Real, peaked at #2 behind “Take A Bow.” It’s an 8.