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Human Nature: Behind Madonna’s Most Defiant Musical Moment
Warner Music
In Depth

Human Nature: Behind Madonna’s Most Defiant Musical Moment

“Absolutely no regrets” was the message behind Human Nature, the Madonna song that once again urged fans to express themselves.

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Madonna’s 1994 album, Bedtime Stories, is fundamentally a smooth R&B record but, nestled between the tender Babyface ballads and slick Dallas Austin grooves, sits Human Nature, a song as confrontational as any the “Queen Of Pop” has ever recorded.

This is the story of how Madonna fought back against detractors who sought to silence her self-expression.

Listen to the best of Madonna here.

The early 90s was a confrontational time for Madonna

Across the second half of the 80s, Madonna could do no wrong. Each consecutive album elevated her critical fortunes, each provocative gesture outdid the last… and there seemed no end to her unstoppable rise, with her global fanbase growing with every creative step.

Yet controversy surrounded the release of her 1992 album, Erotica, and the boldly exploratory Sex book. Erotica would earn critical commendation in the decades that followed, but at the time of its release Madonna was engulfed by a tidal wave of misogynistic media criticism against which 1993’s The Girlie Show World Tour seemed to be a declaration of war.

Inevitably, a truce would have to be called. Softening her sound and image, Madonna issued the successful film ballad I’ll Remember and the more radio-friendly Bedtime Stories album. She was, however, still determined to have the final word…

R&B writers would shape Madonna’s new sound

For her sixth studio album, Madonna would work with the cream of the contemporary radio hitmakers – Babyface, Dallas Austin and Nellee Hooper – but it was Dave Hall who would create the record’s most controversial cut.

Hall had enjoyed success across the early 90s as the producer of hits for Stephanie Mills, Mary J Blige, and – most notably – Mariah Carey, on the US No.1 Dreamlover, in 1993. He would co-write and produce two other Bedtime Stories album cuts, I’d Rather Be Your Lover and Love Tried To Welcome Me, but hit gold when Human Nature was picked as the record’s fourth and final single. The track features a memorable sample from What You Need by hip-hop act Main Source.

Madonna would have the final say

Madonna spent much of her Erotica promotional duties defending her sexually charged artistic choices in a series of confrontational TV appearances and magazine articles, but Human Nature would be the first time on song that she would comment on the furore caused by her work.

From “Express yourself, don’t repress yourself”, the song’s opening line (consider the contrast to Express Yourself’s “C’mon, girls, do you believe in love?” from just five years earlier) to “Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex; I must’ve been crazy”, the message couldn’t be clearer. And for anyone who might have missed the point, there was the closing kiss-off: “I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me.”

Human Nature maintained her presence on the dance charts

Coming off the back of her biggest-ever US hit, Take A Bow, the experimental Bedtime Story single (co-written by Björk) had proved too out-there for mainstream North America, but Madonna’s loyal UK market took it into the Top 10.

The next track lifted from the album, Human Nature, was a more radio-friendly option. Released on 6 June 1995, it peaked at No.2 on the US dance charts, narrowly missing out on qualifying for inclusion on Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Ones, the 2022 collection that would chronicle Madonna’s record-breaking run of US No.1 singles.

Human Nature’s promo video is one of Madonna’s most memorable clips

Arguably now more famous than the song that inspired it, the video for Human Nature is one of the best Madonna promo clips. Partnering for a third time with Jean-Baptiste Mondino, after Open Your Heart and Justify My Love, it features terrific choreography by long-term dance collaborator Jamie King.

Taking a visual brief from erotic artist Eric Stanton, this video is a sharp send-up of the Sex book and the public’s misunderstanding of the project (Madonna’s then pet dog, Chiquita, even makes a hilarious appearance). But there’s a message behind the parody: “Absolutely no regrets” is Madonna’s definitive statement to camera at the video’s end.

Human Nature has become a live favourite

Human Nature has become a staple of Madonna’s touring setlists – making that grade no less than four times on her major live projects: 2001’s Drowned World Tour; the Sticky And Sweet shows of 2008 and 2009 (where the performance featured an AV nod to Britney Spears, referencing the fact that the younger pop titan had also struggled when the media turned against her); 2012’s concerts for MDNA; and, across 2023 and 2024, the greatest-hits package that was The Celebration Tour. In 2015, she also appeared with Drake at the Coachella Festival, to perform this track and Hung Up.

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