Following Sex, the backlash against Madonna’s transgressive image climaxed. At first, she struggled to tone herself down, but couldn’t quite do it: A tender soundtrack ballad, “I’ll Remember,” was promoted with a profanity-intensive David Letterman appearance in which she gave her panties to the host and suggested he smell them. Bedtime Stories, her October 1994 album of comparatively subtle R&B, showed similar growing pains. “Secret,” the first single, scored big, but listen closely and you can hear that it’s more than a little blue, as if Madonna deeply resented the widely shared belief that she should hold herself back in order to save her career, but didn’t know what else to do.
Co-written and produced by TLC overseer Dallas Austin, Mary J. Blige producer Dave “Jam” Hall, Soul II Soul’s Nellee Hooper, and R&B crooner Babyface, most of these stately ballads and muted mid-tempo grooves share that sense of hurt — not just over sour relationships, but also her career itself. Her largest chart-topper since “Vogue,” the Babyface collaboration “Take A Bow” ruminates on both simultaneously. Pain and a renewed fear of failure made her an alternately sharper and blunter lyricist: “I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me” from “Human Nature” couldn’t have attacked her critics more plainly, even if her cartoony delivery undercuts her assault. But there’s nothing compromised about the Björk-penned title cut, an undulating ambient techno showstopper that points the way to her artistic peak.