’90s No. 1s Revisited: “Take A Bow”
The eighty-sixth No. 1 song of the 1990s was “Take A Bow” by Madonna. This track, co-written and co-produced by prolific hit-maker Babyface, was Madonna’s 11th No. 1 single, and her fourth and final one of the decade, following “Vogue” (1990), “Justify My Love” (1991) and “This Used To Be My Playground” (1992). She had peaked at Nos. 2 and 3 in 1994 with “I’ll Remember” and “Secret” respectively, both of which were good songs. “Take A Bow” would stay at the top of the charts for seven weeks, making it her longest-running No. 1 single in history, a piece of trivia that would come as a surprise to many of her fans as well as those who view her as an ’80s artist. After “Bow,” Madonna would have several more hits in the ’90s, including four Top 10s, and would reach No. 1 again once more in 2000 with “Music.” It is worth noting that although she hasn’t (as of this writing) hit No. 1 in the U.S. since “Music,” she continues to send almost everything she releases to the top of the Dance chart, and two of her ’00s songs, “Hung Up” (2005) and “4 Minutes” (2008, featuring Justin Timberlake and Timbaland) did extremely well outside the U.S., but fell short of the top spot in her homeland. She also continues to do very well for herself on tour.
“Take A Bow” is a beautiful, string-rich ballad faithfully in Babyface’s signature style. It is thematically similar to Rihanna’s unrelated 2008 No. 1 hit of the same name; both are extended metaphors about discovering the deceit of a dishonest lover and comparing it to having been duped by a talented “performer.” Rihanna’s version is squarely about infidelity, whereas Madonna’s beau has been taking her for granted and misrepresenting his feelings. In both, the protagonist tells the man to take a bow and go away.
Let’s take a few minutes to enjoy “Take A Bow”:
How gorgeous this song is! Madonna, whose celebrity often overshadows her artistry, put out some of the best music of the ’90s, so it’s saying a lot to call “Take A Bow” among the very best of the best, but so it is. So fond of this song was I (John) that it was the first single ever released that I spent a premium to own on CD, because I couldn’t find it on cassette. I listened to it on repeat and thought it was a tremendous achievement — evocative, fresh and masterfully arranged, produced and performed. One could argue that Madonna was playing it safe with this one, turning to a collaborator who, at this time, could do no wrong, and therefore nearly guaranteeing herself a hit. But it worked, regardless. Babyface, as we mentioned, wrote hits for all sorts of artists in the ’90s, including Boyz II Men, Toni Braxton and Eric Clapton. In the case of “Take A Bow,” the more mellow writing and production were well-suited to Madonna’s vulnerable delivery, and we suspect it wouldn’t have worked as well in the hands of a different singer. This track gives Madonna space to demonstrate what’s best about her voice, and gives Babyface a chance to let his melody-writing shine without being obscured by unwelcome vocal embellishments. This was a good collaboration at just the right time. Radio ate it up, and so did the music-buying public.
By the time “Take A Bow” came out, Madonna had been a superstar for a little more than 10 years. Her music was getting more sophisticated, and her image was becoming wiser and, soon, more maternal. But she was still a hot, unquestionably A-list act in 1995. The track was a smash on U.S. Adult Contemporary formats, and in Canada, where it was the No. 3 song of the year (compared with No. 8 in the U.S.).
Does it hold up? We still like this song but it faces some endurance challenges. For one, Madonna shifted her focus to more upbeat music after “Ray Of Light,” so ballads like “Take A Bow” may confuse younger people who know Madonna exclusively as a Dance act. In addition, the general Babyface sound is pretty firmly associated with the ’90s, making certain elements of this recording seem hopelessly dated. But besides those obstacles, “Take A Bow” still stands as a Pop triumph, and in our books sounds just as nice today as it did 20+ years ago.
Dopeness: 5 out of 5 Birkenstocks
’90s No. 1s Revisited is a regular feature on “Was It Dope?” where we walk through every No. 1 song of the 1990s on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in order, give it another listen, and answer two critical questions: Was it dope? And does it hold up?