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Why Madonna's Unapologetic 'Bedtime Stories' Is Her Most Important Album

When Madonna found herself in the middle of a scandal 20 years ago, she apologized by saying she wasn't sorry with 'Bedtime Stories.'

For as long as Madonna has made music, she has endured relentless criticism for her sexuality. She’s been perhaps the most consistent target in the music industry, drawing critiques for more than three decades, and reviews of her work have served as a roadmap for how we scrutinize women at each stage in their music career. Whether it was public speculation on why she isn’t “like a virgin” or it was chastising her middle-aged body in a leotard, the shaming has had many iterations despite its one unwavering resolution: She goes too far.

That’s why her album Bedtime Stories, even as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, is still her most important work. For months leading up to its release, it was marketed as an apology for her sexual behavior, and critics hoped it would be her return to innocence. Instead, she offered a lyrical #sorrynotsorry and a response to the problem of female musicians being scrutinized for their sexuality rather than their music. As a result of the public’s moral concerns, it has become Madonna's most quietly important album, setting the tone for how artists deal with critiques of their sex life.

In 1992, Madonna released Erotica, a techno concept album and ode to bondage, alongside the coffee table book Sex, a softcore pornographic photo catalog of her and her pals. The concurrent releases created enormous and long-running backlash, resulting in multiple countries banning the album from radio airplay and the Vatican banning Madonna from entering. Madonna was already well established as an icon, but her frank lyrics on S&M and published photographs of analingus incited the harshest public outrage in her career. Bedtime Stories was slated to be her one last chance at redemption, and Warner Brothers agreed to produce it under the auspices of a less provocative image.

Both the label and her publicist Liz Rosenberg did everything they could to reverse the damage from Madonna's last projects. They had her release the soundtrack single “I’ll Remember” to bring her a family-friendly hit and further increase speculation that Bedtime Stories would convey her apology. The album’s promo video promises that there will be “no sexual references on the album” and even panders with Madonna saying “it’s a whole new me! I’m going to be a good girl, I swear.”

Madonna-shaming was a two-part construct: First she was scorned for her sexuality, and then she was eclipsed by it. Since it cited her sex appeal as her sole commodity, the promo video had everyone wondering what she was going to sing about if the topic wasn’t sex. Speculation leading up to Bedtime Stories focused on her exit plan for becoming irrelevant, whether she planned on future facelifts, and what she would offer as a middle-aged version of herself.

“When you’re a celebrity, you’re allowed to have one personality trait. Which is ridiculous,” Madonna told the Detroit News in 1993. When Bedtime Stories was finally released on October 25, she addressed both aspects of the shaming process. Despite the promises in her promo, she continued to acknowledge her sexual desires, although she also experimented with the sound and subject matter. Beginning with “Survival,” a song she co-wrote with Dallas Austin, Madonna doesn’t hesitate to address the backlash and sings “I’ll never be an angel / I’ll never be a saint it’s true / I’m too busy surviving.” The lyrics continue to convey a loosely drawn narrative of the punishment she endured from the media and her feelings leading up to the release, and the songs are carried mostly by R&B melodies produced by Austin, Nellee Hooper, and Babyface.

The definitive single on the album is an explicit rebuke of the backlash. In “Human Nature,” she confirms that wasn’t sorry and that she’s not anyone’s bitch, and she paired the song perfectly with a video that toys with bondage like an Erotica throwback. Right when she is about to drop the mic she whispers, “would it sound better if I were a man?”

Madonna asserted her lack of apology on the grounds that she had not said or did anything unusual; it was simply unusual for a woman to say it. In an interview with the LA Times, she defended Bedtime Stories by saying “I’m being punished for being a single female, for having power and being rich and saying the things I say, being a sexual creature—actually, not being any different from anyone else, but just talking about it. If I were a man, I wouldn't have had any of these problems. Nobody talks about Prince's sex life.”

Beyond offering Madonna’s final word on the scandal of her sexuality, the album pivots to address the misconception that her sexual persona limited her versatility as an artist. The narrative in Bedtime Stories immediately turns introspective, relating “I know how to laugh / but I don't know happiness.” While the album borrows mostly from R&B and new jack swing, it becomes more experimental with the Bjork-penned title track, accompanied with a video that could not have explored the collective unconscious better if Carl Jung directed it. The video for "Bedtime Story" is the first instance of what would become Madonna’s long history of culture-plucking spiritual inquiry, and to this day is stored in a collection at the Museum of Modern Art. As a pair, “Human Nature” and “Bedtime Story” prove that Madonna owned her sexuality and would not be eclipsed by it. While the former fully embraces the decisions she made with previous albums, the latter dismantles the “slut” narrative that her overt sexuality discredits her depth as a performer. Surely people would see this as a feminist masterpiece, no?

Still, critics didn’t get it. The New York Times’ Jon Pareles waxed nostalgic for when “Madonna thrived in the 1980s on being sensational and suggestive against a tame mainstream backdrop,” calling her more recent work “vulgar instead of shocking.” Critical reception continued to focus on the scandal of her attitude rather than the actual record. “Madonna's career has never really been about music; it's been about titillation, about image, about publicity,” began one TIME review, which wasn’t unique in its premise. Any mention of the album’s experimental sound or numerous collaborations were overshadowed by her promiscuous image and once again left cheapened. Bedtime Stories as an album was not the clear apology the public demanded, and its emotional depth was largely ignored. At best, it was thought of as Madonna’s return to a safer expression of sexuality.

The record found commercial success with the release of “Secret,” and “Take a Bow,” but the two most important songs never broke into the Top 40, a problem Madonna hadn’t faced in nearly ten years. Today, Bedtime Stories is not the first album that comes to mind in Madonna’s legacy. It is, however, the most relevant to many of the cultural conversations that are still happening. Had she acquiesced to the public’s call for apology, it could have set a dangerous standard for how the public can decree an artist’s silence, and it would have allowed the categories for female singers to remain in place. Critical anticipation of the album predicted either a penitent pop star or a one-dimensional sexpot. She defeated both categories, and left the critics to ponder if sexuality and solidity are as mutually exclusive as they had hoped.

Mary von Aue has absolutely no regrets. Follow Mary von Aue on Twitter.