Decoding the (Dream) Language of Madonna’s “Bedtime Story”By Dominick Montalto on August 9, 2011
Madonna is known to run the gamut in the type of songs she produces and performs. Some of her most psychologically honest and personal work began to appear with Like A Prayer and continued for about a decade through Ray of Light. I do not mean to say that before or after this period she did not release songs that were not expressive of her personal self, but that it was during this time that she began to reveal herself most honestly in her music. Bedtime Stories, is, in my opinion, her most personally probing album. Naturally, the R&B-inflected sounds of the album drive it throughout, until the last three songs—“Sanctuary,” “Bedtime Story,” and “Take A Bow,” whose melodies and harmonies depart from the upbeat sound of the rest of the album. “Bedtime Story,” in particular, is strikingly abstract, both lyrically and musically.
“Bedtime Story” reads as a pessimistic song with a grave lack of trust in words and language, a great irony in that it needs those very same words to convey its meaning. The lyrics can also be viewed as arguing for the transcendental benefits of drug use, with its desire to move beyond logic and reason to a plane of consciousness where one can relax and avoid the mundane reality of everyday existence. Yet, the song makes it clear that even on another plane of existence communicating one’s experience still needs words because there is no better means of expressing ideas and emotions than through language. Essentially, words, though arbitrary, go beyond symbolizing our ideas and our emotions and ultimately become them. We are the language we read, write, and speak. No matter the plane on which we find ourselves, we have no choice but to think and feel, and we have no better means of self-expression than through the double-edged sword of language, “And inside we’re all still wet / Longing and yearning / How can I explain how I feel?” That latter question is fundamental to the journey of this song, for if we give up language, how can we then best express ourselves?
Since the human condition is to think and to feel, we endeavor to find valid ways of expressing our thoughts and emotions. Language, although it seems to be our best option, nevertheless fails us, as do all our forms of art, inadequately defining our identities for others as well as the messages behind our thoughts and feelings. If language, drug use, art, even religion, do not completely liberate us from the prison-house of our own minds and bodies, then the only means that remain are sex and death. This is the undercurrent of “Bedtime Story”: the desire for sex which leads to its momentary glimpse into the void of unconsciousness/death as the only means of releasing the pressure of self-consciousness runs throughout the narrative of the lyrics and the dream of the video.
Basic Freudian psychology teaches us that all human beings have a deep unconscious desire for death, for a return to the womb, to the period before which we become burdened by human nature and consciousness. The narrative structure of the “Bedtime Story” video codes this desire in Madonna’s dream state. Our desire for death, for a state of nonhuman experience, is so engrained within us that it develops and vents itself in a variety of forms: art, religion, sex, and dreaming, to name a few. It is Madonna’s genius that incorporates all of these in a four-and-a-half-minute video. Taking what appears to be a medically induced dream state as her point of departure, she delves into the human psyche and shows us a fantastic dream vision in which we experience an allegorical narrative that unravels, begging us to decipher its hieroglyphics.
In ancient Greek myth, Sleep and Death are identified as twin brothers. One of the most profoundly symbolic moments of “Bedtime Story” is the image of Madonna lying asleep in the arms of Death, a skeleton. Not only does this image emphasize the heavily entwined relationship of sleep and death, but it also constructs a perverse, almost demonic, revision of the Christian Pietà, in which Death seems to mourn the loss of the mother goddess as the source of all life, which she ironically takes away in the act of giving birth, thereby casting her face in the mold of Death.
Interspersed throughout the dream sequence is a group of male figures, wearing golden suit jackets and long, flowing purple robes, who imitate the mystic dance of the whirling dervishes of Middle Eastern culture. This mystic dance is one of the spiritual methods of reaching unity, oneness, with the Divine center and radiant framework (the Light) of all Creation. This is a meditative dance where one abandons one’s desires (symbols of one’s self or ego) in a concerted effort to find fullness and union in God. This dance takes us a step further to understanding where the lyrics of the song seek to take us in the representative figures and actions of the dream we see enacted.
Why is today the last day that Madonna sings she is using words? She has decided to go beyond the mere form and convention of language, because it has lost its meaning and its function. She has realized that words cannot express her most piercing thoughts or deepest desires: Words are pure artifice; they live and remain on the surface of things, barely scratching the meaning of our perceptions, actions, and emotions. This is a failure, a loss, and a lack that cannot be abided. So, in a move toward finding another path through which to express herself more perfectly, she has gone to dreaming (a language without words but rife with signs, and in Freudian terms, a form of wish-fulfillment) yet her dream is riddled with the marks and symbols of death, our greatest fear and our deepest desire. Again, Death seems the only permanent answer to conquering the burden of consciousness and our flawed tools of self-expression. But in between language and death lies sex.
The sexual act is an expression of anything from lust and mindless, bestial urges to intimacy and desire to the fulfillment of love. When lovers engage in sex the ultimate goal is pleasure and a fluid experience of desire for the beloved, and in the midst of that love and pleasure is the orgasm allowing our sexual urges to flood so that they can ebb. In French, le petite mort, or “the little death,” is synonymous with the sexual orgasm. In Elizabethan parlance “to die” meant to have an orgasm. When one climaxes during sex, the mind briefly loses consciousness and recourse to logic or reason, and so when Madonna sings, “let’s get unconscious honey,” she is really saying let’s have sex. For to engage in sex leads to a numbing or temporary suspension of the mind’s mental processes and its conscious awareness of what lies beyond the pale of the physical, sexual self and its desires. The sexual act and its accompanying orgasm are the only ways for a human being to (momentarily) escape the burden of the self, short of death, outside of the creative process or the mystical methods of religious experience, as described above in the spirited dance of the whirling dervishes. Furthermore, the orgasm is the closest experience humans have to encountering the vale of death, to facing the void in which the conscious self (which makes us limited and human) is silenced and the soul is left naked in the profound darkness created by the incandescent light of God.
So when Madonna sings, “Traveling, leaving logic and reason / Traveling, to the arms of unconsciousness” she is singing about her desire to travel mentally (through sex) to the plane on which no sense of self can be felt, because this is the point of orgasm—to alleviate the burden of the conscious human ego and bring it back into the oneness of the universe and the Divine. The orgasm, in short, is the definition of the Nietzschean “Dionysian” moment wherein the self is shattered at the moment of climax to return the individuated self/ego to the natural “Apollonian” order of the cosmos.
In ancient Greek, the term psyche translates as “the soul.” Some Native American belief systems hold that when sleepers dream, the soul becomes disjointed from the body, thus able to transcend the material world and, for a time, reintegrate with the spiritual ground of the cosmos. As the video comes to its conclusion, Madonna is seen being hurtled toward waking consciousness through a background of stars and black matter, being forced back into reality. So, the image resonates on multiple levels: as a return to the consciousness of everyday reality; as the soul/psyche being forced back into the body from its time liberated from the flesh during dreaming, united with the Spirit that underlies the world; and, lastly, as the soul having glimpsed the void (death) in the fleeting moment of orgasm and being rushed back into the burden of consciousness that the torrent of a sexual climax ultimately yields. This can also be seen when Madonna begins waking in the arms of Death, reversing the Apollonian order in a startled “drowning” or submersion into Dionysian individualized consciousness. Whenever we struggle to be free of the natural order of death, we express our fear of it, and thus reaffirm our individual identities as conscious beings, and unconsciously continue to seek death when we engage in the natural act of sex, which constantly forces us to come face to face with death, albeit only for a moment.
In “Bedtime Story” Madonna explores the failure of language to illuminate our true selves, questioning how we can best express our thoughts and feelings, realizing that we cannot find any successful means, and so the quest continues in a desire to rid oneself of the Atlas-style weight of self-consciousness. She tells us this can be accomplished through sex and the orgasm that beckons us to look in the mirror at death (God is in the dark void left by our annihilation of consciousness experienced in the orgasm), and she depicts this in a dream vision as the haunting lyrics and images of the video penetrate and permeate our minds in a multimillion-dollar work of art.