Digging Up The Roots: The Literary Sources of Madonna’s Music


In the December 1994 issue of Details magazine, Madonna was interviewed about her sixth album, Bedtime Stories. In it she mentions an author she had been reading at the time, Jeanette Winterson, quoting a line from her novel Written on the Body, but she mistakenly states that it is from Winterson’s earlier novel, The Passion. Madonna uses the quote, “This hole in my heart is in the shape of you and no one else can fit it. Why would I want them to?” to describe the sentiment behind the song “Inside of Me” about her mother, who had died when she was five, pointing to the effect of this loss on her. After reading this quote I began to read everything Winterson has written and she has been my favorite living author ever since.

A handful of Madonna’s songs from the early 1990s contain allusions to or direct quotes of verses from different poets and authors, suggesting her lyrics aren’t mere fluff and that she wants her work to be viewed in the light of these meaningful, classic texts. This is first evident on the B-side to the “Justify My Love” single of 1990, “The Beast Within.” In 1993’s Girlie Show the male dancers from her troupe, in army fatigues, perform a choreographed spectacle filled with anguish and passion, desire and a longing for intimacy, plagued by shame. It was also performed on her Reinvention Tour (2004) and appears on the live album recording from that show, I’m Going To Tell You A Secret. In this six-minute song Madonna recites varied sections from the book of Revelation; these verses include 1:3, 7; 2:1–4, 9–10; 13:1–10; 21:1–8; and 22:10–13.

Naturally, the text is apocalyptic, and the title of the song hints at the subtext of the verses Madonna has purposely chosen—“the beast within” humankind is a violent, sexual animal; the two are almost always entwined, and as the flipside to “Justify” the song only serves to reinforce Madonna’s interest in the relation between sex, repressed desire, and violence, and what happens when one’s sexual desires are not acted on in the best way possible. (Does anyone hear echoes of “Express Yourself” and “Human Nature” here?) “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea . . .” can be read as the untamed violent, sexual animal hidden deep inside each of us which is often set free when we surrender to our sexual urges, urges that religion either tries to utilize for deeper pleasure and self-control (a common Eastern trait, think Kama Sutra and Tantric sex) or to entirely deny and repress as a sin and a great evil engineered by Satan to keep us from our heavenly paradise. This beast is “worshiped” by those who believe the purpose of all life begins and ends with humanity itself, and that we are free to live and do as we please, giving in to all of our sexual and violent desires at the expense of others. Those people who are witness to this beast ask, “Who is like the beast and who can fight against the beast?” prompting the belief that we are all like the beast because at our core lies the beast of our inhumanity toward others, not just our “base” sexual instinct. And we are the only ones who can fight against the beast within. This beast must be fought through a belief in humans as greater than the instinctual, sexual, and violent animals they are at their core, and through a belief in God and the salvation brought by love in sexual intimacy and desire without it leading to excess wherein we are nothing but animals fucking for the sake of temporarily quelling our recurring natural sexual urges. The verses that end the song dwell on the idea of God returning to the world to save from death all those who have lived by the law and by love, to be with “He who conquers” the beast within, but that those who do not believe, those who go and live in excess—“murderers, fornicators, idolaters”—will suffer and “their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone.” Giving in to our urges is not a sin, is not evil, if we channel them in the act of love, and if we use our minds and our hearts to love one another and God, which is the right path, the middle path, which all religion preaches as the way to redemption. This will save us from the excess that leads us to the emptiness we feel when we detach sex from love.

In 1992, Madonna released Erotica, which includes a cover of the Peggy Lee classic “Fever.” Here the lyrics speak of Shakespeare’s “star-crossed lovers” Romeo and Juliet (she also mentions them in “Cherish”), in which she sings:

Romeo loved Juliet
Juliet, she felt the same,
When he put his arms around her
He said, “Julie baby, you’re my flame”
He gave her fever

Simple enough, the song is about sexual attraction; the chemical ground which produces desire within the mind, heart, and soul for another human being that burns so deeply and feels so good that it becomes an irreversible turn-on, and the flames of this desire can only be extinguished, albeit momentarily, by acting on that desire. Desire can’t always be contained or controlled, and “Fever” celebrates this with a hip, sexy beat.

In 1994, Madonna released Bedtime Stories, her one album with a number of literary influences. Aside from “Inside of Me,” discussed in the introduction, the other songs on this album which have literary influences are “Love Tried To Welcome Me,” “Sanctuary,” and “Take A Bow.” In “Love Tried To Welcome Me,” Madonna invokes two possible sources for the lyrics “And I must confess, instead of spring, it’s always winter / And my heart has always been a lonely hunter.” The first could be Carson McCullers’s American literary classic written when she was only twenty-three, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. This novel, written in the Southern Gothic tradition, is the story of teenager Mick Kelly, the deaf-mute John Singer, and other outcasts isolated by the Southern society in which they live. It is a novel that highlights the nature of adolescence with its awkward, frustrated hopes, dreams, and ambition, unrequited love, spiritual isolation, and the failure of humans to engage in meaningful communication. The other source, from which McCullers took the title, at the suggestion of her editor, is Fiona MacLeod’s poem “The Lonely Hunter,” from the verse “But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.”

The other literary influence present in the song is found in the two slightly modified versions of the chorus: “Love tried to welcome me / But my soul drew back / Guilty of lust and sin,” and “Love tried to welcome me / But my soul drew back / I was covered with dust and sin.” These lines slightly rephrase the first verses of the English Metaphysical poet George Herbert’s poem “Love (III),” which are as follows: “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, Guilty of dust and sin.” The song is about being beckoned by Love into a world of intimacy and fulfillment, where desire can blossom into the liberation of love and respect for oneself and the beloved, but the singer cannot be broken, because she is covered with the weight and guilt, the dust, of lust and sin, and so her heart and soul retreat, afraid to let go of her sordid past behavior, her heart is unable to set itself free to truly love and be loved, where sex is incorporated into desire, the foundation of love and intimacy.

In “Sanctuary,” one of Madonna’s darkest songs, her spoken-word lyrics are taken from Walt Whitman’s poem “Vocalism” as well as from the book of Genesis. This is a powerful song that expresses the idea that the sublime and the beautiful are found not just in the sun, but also in the rain, not just the light, but also the darkness, and not just a smile, but also someone’s tears, for in all these things life, and its mystery, are represented. It is also a song that asserts the singer’s desire to find peace and rest in the heart, soul, and arms of the beloved, where it seems the beloved has an almost hypnotic power over the singer, captivating her with his very being and his voice, which accounts for how the song is performed.

The spoken-word lyrics that begin “Sanctuary” and are added on to when repeated come directly from Whitman’s “Vocalism,” a poem whose theme concerns the power of the human voice to entrance its listeners with an eloquence, a beauty, and an enlightened knowledge that belongs to those who lead the masses of humanity forward through times of tribulation and joy, which makes the poet himself tremble because it is so wholly human with a fullness of experience, as well as divine. Madonna quotes the first verses of Whitman’s second stanza:

Surely whoever speaks to me in the right voice,
him or her I shall follow,
As the water follows the moon, silently, with fluid steps,
[anywhere] around the globe.

Madonna also quotes from the second verse of Genesis’s Creation story in her spoken-word lyrics when she says, “And the earth was void and empty / And darkness was upon the face of the earth.” As any Madonna fan very well knows, religion has been a pivotal influence on her thinking, lyrics, and music since early in her career, from “Like A Prayer” through “Shanti/Ashtangi” to “Isaac.” Here it seems to reinforce the idea that the earth in its unformed nature, swallowed by darkness, is itself a beautiful mystery.

Lastly, in “Take A Bow,” the powerhouse ballad that ends the album, Madonna, co-writing with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, quotes Shakespeare’s As You Like It. As pointed out in my previous article,[1] Madonna quotes (with a slight change) the first two lines of the famous “Seven ages of man” speech by Jaques in Act II, Scene vii, which begins, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Her lyrics are: “All the world is a stage / And everyone has their part.” These verses are appropriate because the song is structured around the theme of theatrics, acting, and performing, from its title to its final verses, and the gap between being an actor on stage performing a part and functioning without a mask in the real world and in one’s relationships.

Much can be said, both positive and negative, about Madonna as a singer-songwriter, actress, and theatrical performer, but what can be said with certainty is that during the early 1990s, her lyrics showed a more personal, human side, and the songs on Bedtime Stories in particular, in response to the adverse public reaction to Erotica, depict a softer, more honest Madonna. Anyone can argue that she ripped off the poets and authors she quotes from in these songs, but poets and authors have been silently (and not so silently) lifting ideas, phrases, and verses from others since writing literature could be taken up as a career. What can be said without question however is that Madonna shows the value of literature and reading by appropriating lines and verses from certain texts for Bedtime Stories because they fit the theme of her songs. In doing this, she depicts literature, reading, and writing as powerful, understated modes of redemption, because it is in literature that one can find the true vision and experience of the self, both good and bad, dissolving our isolation by showing us we are not alone in the pleasures and sorrows, comedies and tragedies, of the human condition.

[1] “Who’s That Girl? Madonna and the Philosophy of the Self”