How Was I to Know Which Way The Story'd Go? - Madonna's "Take A Bow" at 25
It began with a tweet.
This would have been in either the late summer, or early fall, and I, as I often am, was sitting on the floor in my living room, on the computer; and at the time, with my headphones on, was listening to the song “Take A Bow,” by Madonna.
This would have also been at a time when I, as I would often describe myself with no additional explanation on what the expression meant, as being ‘in my feelings1,’ which was probably the reason I was listening to “Take A Bow,” with headphones, late into the evening.
If I remember correctly, I was listening to the song on repeat, or at the very least, starting it over every time it concluded, and it was during these listens that I realized the song itself, as well as the Madonna album it was originally taken from, Bedtime Stories, was turning 25 years old.
And it was during this time spent with the song playing over and over in my headphones, letting it more or less envelop me completely, this is what I tweeted2—
“Madonna did not have to go as hard as she did on ‘Take A Bow.’”
And you know, she didn’t. She didn’t have to make a song that good, and that emotional—and she certainly did not have to involve Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who was coming off of his own wildly successful For The Cool in You, released just a year prior, and spawned the different (but equally) as good and emotional single, “When Can I See You?”
She didn’t have to do any of those things.
But she did.
Madonna was a ubiquitous figure throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, with a tumultuous career full of highs and lows. I was all of 11 years old when Bedtime Stories was released late in the fall of 1994, so as a sixth grader, who more or less grew up never not being aware of who Madonna was, I was however too young to be aware of how the album was a push on her behalf to get back into the good graces of fans and critics, who had been dismissive of both the album she released two years prior, Erotica, the other endeavors she engaged in between ’92 and ’93, and of her hyper-sexualized persona.
There was the sexually explicit coffee table book, her bizarre appearance on “The Late Show” with David Letterman, and her taking a handful of roles starring in critically panned and commercially unviable erotic thrillers—Bedtime Stories was a conscious decision on her part to reel in the persona that had taken over, and in a sense, respond to the backlash. Yes, she could and would still be a controversial figure, but the overall goal with Bedtime Stories, at the time, was to be less sexual in nature and instead, be more sensual (there is a difference, right?) and shift the focus back onto pop music.
To put things into perspective, Madonna had been at it for over a decade by the time Bedtime Stories was released; her self-titled debut, which includes “Holiday” and “Borderline,” was released in 1983—she was all of 25 at the time. She was 36 when Bedtime Stories was released (the same age I am now, 25 years later) and outside of a remix album and two soundtracks, it was her sixth, canonical, full-length album.
That kind of frantic work ethic—recording, touring, and more and more film roles being offered to her—is staggering to think about, and I don’t think there are any modern day performers who could, in a sense, ‘do it all’ of the course of a relatively short amount of time.
Released roughly around the same time as Bedtime Stories, in the fall of 1994, R.E.M.’s maligned and often misunderstood Monster contains one of their most well received singles—“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” a song that is about someone who is old and out of touch, desperately trying to understand people younger than themselves.
I stop short of saying that at 36, Madonna was ‘out of touch;’ she was no longer the youthful pop provocateur seen in countless videos throughout the 1980s on MTV, but she still had her ear to the ground on what was popular, or of interest, at the time.
Bedtime Stories, as a whole, is representative of the zeitgeist that bore it—the early to mid 1990s, and it’s an album that doesn’t lack cohesion, but there are the moments that are nearly shoehorned in to the album’s sequencing to serve as the singles, like the slithering clap back against her critics, “Human Nature,” or the slinking, R&B-tinged lead single off of it, “Secret.”
And then, there’s the album’s closing track, “Take A Bow.”
A slow burning, dramatic, haunting ballad, tucked in right before the album concludes, on an album where there aren’t really any other ballads in the traditional ‘pop’ sense of the word, “Take A Bow” would, at first glance, seem incredibly out of place in an album that, for a bulk of its running time, caresses its fingers against the trip-hop, downtempo sounds coming out of the UK in the early 1990s; and at times, and this is even surprising that it kind of works—but at times, it steers itself into a very blatant hip hop influence as well.
And yes, comparatively, it does seem like a bit of a strange way to end the record, considering what comes before it is the trance-inducing, dizzying titular track, co-written by Bjork—again, Madonna’s earnest attempt at connecting with the cutting edge artists of the time.
Maybe it was a bit jarring of a juxtaposition 25 years ago, but today, because you know what’s coming as soon as you hear those first notes on the keyboard, the day and night transition from “Bedtime Stories” to “Take A Bow” works—maybe it’s that anticipation of a song you may know, inside and out. A song that you may call timeless; a lush, beautiful pop ballad that, even with the slightly aged production and instrumentation, still works 25 years later because that heartbreak is timeless.
That heartbreak is still very real.
Something that I hadn’t even considered, in all these 25 years, until I read it as a ‘factoid,’ if you will, will researching Madonna, Bedtime Stories, and “Take A Bow,” is that the song’s titular phrase is, surprisingly, only said once in the entirety of the song—it serves as the opening line: “Take a bow, the night is over.” It is never said again—not in any of the refrains, and not in any of the other verses.
Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds was among the artists that Madonna more or less hand picked to collaborate with on Bedtime Stories. The story goes that she was impressed with his ability to blend pop music with R&B, and after an initial meeting, the two began to shape what would become “Take A Bow” based off of a rudimentary demo Edmonds already had put together.
And in revisiting the song, both because it’s just so good, and the kind of thing you can immerse yourself in when you are in your feelings, but also looking at it from a critical viewpoint, not to detract from Madonna, as a charismatic vocalist, songwriter, and performer, but it’s really the inclusion of Edmonds’ back up vocals, serving as almost a response, or echo, to Madonna’s own, that really helps makes this song as captivating as it is, adding this additional layer onto it that makes it all the more heartbreaking, and all the more haunting.
Another factoid—and one I am uncertain I really can see, or agree with, but according to the analysis of “Take A Bow,” per its Wikipedia entry, the song itself is loosely influenced by Japanese music—with the example of the 1961 ballad “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto being cited. Recordings of “Sukiyaki” are easy enough to find on the internet, and in even listening to the first few moments, there is a part of me that hears it, slightly, but there’s a larger part of me that doesn’t see this critical comparison, allegedly pulled from an original review of Bedtime Stories upon its release.
Musically, as you would expect from a ‘ballad,’ “Take A Bow’ is slowly, deliberately paced in its rhythm—the song’s Wikipedia alleges that it slinks along at 80 beats per minute, and while the song’s melody is, primarily, played on a somewhat dated sounding keyboard that can only be described as ‘twinkling,’ it’s really the lush string arrangement that is the song’s primary—not so much instrument, but the thing that its sound, and structure, are both based in.
The strings are, apparently, where the song gets this supposed Japanese pop influence from, to to me, it just arrives sounding incredibly cinematic and gorgeous, creating an impenetrable layer of drama for the song’s lyrics to unfold across. “Take A Bow” was the first time that Edmonds had worked with live strings, but from how powerful they come across in the song, sweeping and swirling through, creating a gorgeous give and take of tension that, in the end, does find resolve, however heartbreaking it might be, you’d never know this was the first time had produced a song featuring this kind of live instrumentation.
It’s “Take A Bow”’s lyrics, and the story that it tells, that is what makes it the song it is, though.
Arriving at the end of Bedtime Stories, it was critically looked at, at the time of the album’s release, as a graceful and gimmick free way to conclude the record. The central conceit of “Take A Bow” is a love that has been taken for granted, and the idea of a relationship as performance, or keeping up some kind of public face—with all of that eventually dropping when you and your partner are alone.
Madonna and Edmonds waste literally no time building up this fragile domestic scene—“Light are low, the curtains down—There’s no one here,” Madonna sings, before Edmonds arrives with his slightly muted, ethereal back up vocals, serving as an echo: “There’s no on here, there’s no one in the crowd.”
The metaphor of performance, or acting, or theatricality, runs throughout the entirety of “Take A Bow,” though, by the end, the song is smartly written enough that it doesn’t come off as cloying, and as you listen, there’s no point where you roll your eyes at the inclusion of phrasing like, “Just make them smile, the whole world loves a clown,” or “All the world is a stage, and everyone has their part,” because those are often juxtaposed against something much more cutting, or harsher, to offset the risk of turning the song into a saccharine direction—like, “Wish you well, I cannot stay—you deserve an award for the role that you played,” and “How was I know which way the story’d go—how was I to know you’d break my heart,” respectively.
The video for “Take A Bow” was more or less, like Madonna herself during this period of time, ubiquitous on both MTV and VH-1, and was I didn’t realize at the time, because I was all of 11 years old at the time and obviously didn’t recognize the importance of the song itself, as just a flat out, unfuckwithable, astounding pop ballad, but I also failed too grasp the importance of the themes presented in the music video.
Madonna had always drawn upon themes of religion, specifically Catholicism, in her imagery in the past—most notably in the controversial video for “Like A Prayer,” which I seem to remember watching the premier of on MTV, with my parents, and not totally understanding why it was something they said they didn’t want me watching again (I was all of six years old at the time.)
Religious imagery is one of the many things present in the sepia soaked video for “Take A Bow.” The focus, though, is the contrast between love and violence—depicted through Madonna’s role as the neglected and abused lover of a bullfighter in what appears to be 1940s Spain—though the aesthetic breaks its character with the appearance of both more modern looking cameras, and the television in Madonna’s hotel room, which she uses as a window into longing for her partner, especially in the third act of the video, which finds her writhing around in her underwear, seductively gazing at the television set at the end of the bed.
The controversial (and morally appalling) conceit of the bullfighter is difficult to watch—cast as Madonna’s abusive lover was Spanish actor and actual torero Emilio Muñoz, but it’s also unforgettable in both the way the video’s cinematography makes even the most garish, horrific images seem so lush, and the way the acts of violence that Muñoz’s character performs on both the bull he’s fighting, as well as the woman he ‘loves,’ is a dizzying juxtaposition to watch unfold.
There are some things about Bedtime Stories that hasn’t aged well.
Recently, in a somewhat extended car trip, my wife had picked the album off of the mp3 player, but became almost irrationally irritated as it arrived on the fourth song, “Don’t Stop,” which, I’ll admit, features some of there most insipid lyrics on the record. As she complained, all I could offer in terms of a response was that, ‘I never said Bedtime Stories was a perfect record.’
It isn’t a perfect record, but it’s not all that flawed either. The last 25 years has been surprisingly kind to it, as a whole, and there are still moments of it that are wildly impressive when you take it as a whole—the ‘fuck you’ to her critics found in “Human Nature” is still scathing, and a lot of the production values sound dated, but dated enough to be quaint and charming, and indicative of the hip-hop (and trip-hop) influences of the time. And the way “Sanctuary” spirals right into “Bedtime Stories” is a flourish that surprises, and still works. The titular track itself, despite being based around a skeletal set of lyrics, is more about setting a tone, which it does almost effortlessly.
But it’s “Take A Bow” that can, and should, and will, outlive the other 11 tracks on Bedtime Stories. There’s no other sweeping, grand ballad like it on the record, and really, in Madonna’s catalog, there’s nothing else like it, musically speaking. It represents, truly, a perfect moment in time for her and Edmonds, the two of them working together to create something astounding in its beauty, based around emotions that nearly everyone can identify with on some level.
It ends with a tweet.
Writing about “Take A Bow” had been on my list of possible ‘thinkpieces’ for a number of months now, but kept being set aside3, and in sitting down to really take a look at the song, it meant having a better understanding of where Madonna’s career had taken her up until this point, and it also meant better understanding the album with which the song is plucked from. To my knowledge, I may had never heard Bedtime Stories from beginning to end until very recently, and upon hearing it, uninterrupted, I tweeted that I wished somebody had told me that it is, more or less, a trip hop album.
My friend Roz responded by saying that they didn’t know if this was a good or bad thing (it’s good, for the most part); and my friend Liz replied by only saying “Take A Bow” was timeless.
And that is, in the end, really the perfect way to look at it—because it is, isn’t it? Madonna didn’t have to go as hard as she did on “Take A Bow,” but she did, and we should thank her for that. A song from 25 years ago that, musically, doesn’t sound terribly dated in an embarrassing way, can call itself timeless, or a classic, if you will.
I often write about things being reflective of the human condition—it, like so many other phrases4 or words I use, may be used too often and have lost their impact, but the reason “Take A Bow” is so timeless, is that it is a facet of the human condition—lyrically, it haunts long, long after you’ve finished listening, and in a sense, it holds a mirror up to our own heartbreaks, and it captures the essence of the terrible, beautiful confusing space that forms between that heartbreak, longing, and love.
1- I was, in earnest, using this expression a lot in the late summer and early fall, much to the chagrin of my friend Andrea, who would often respond with “I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS. PLEASE STOP SAYING THAT.”
2- I am, by no means, some kind of social media success, or am responsible for content that goes ‘viral,’ but my tweet about “Take A Bow” got (by my low, low standards) a lot of likes, and I just wanted you to know that.
3- In case you are curious, things often get set aside when I become too overwhelmed by the deadlines I set for myself with other pieces, if there are new albums that have been released that I feel like I need to write about, or if I become to depressed to write the things I said I would. The reason this very piece you are reading right now, all the way to the end, for the footnotes, was set aside, was a mixture of all three.
4- I’ve been called out for the amount of times I refer to as song as having ‘evocative imagery’ in its lyrics.