The Two Faces of Madonna’s ‘Forbidden Love’

When Madonna released Confessions on a Dance Floor in late 2005, there was a track on it entitled “Forbidden Love.” Eleven years earlier, in late 1994, she released Bedtime Stories, which also included a track called “Forbidden Love.” The earlier “Forbidden Love” speaks to me more deeply because Bedtime Stories was released at a time when I was experiencing forbidden love and was rejected for my desire. It is almost a dozen years later and the song still speaks to me, evoking memories of when I was seventeen and first listened to it. The latter “Forbidden Love” is a different type of song, and it is what I call “the two faces” of Madonna’s “Forbidden Love” songs that is the subject of this article.

“Forbidden Love” (from Bedtime Stories) is a first-person narrative exploring the internal experience of desire, rejection, and the eroticism beneath them in the human mind. The singer knows “it’s not right / To have [her lover’s] arms around [her]” but still she can’t help how she feels, singing, “I want, to feel what it’s like / Take all of you inside of me.” This verse literalizes the experience of desire, the oral nature of desire that is equated with an intense hunger, which must be satiated at any cost even though the object of desire may be taboo or forbidden. In this view, a typical Freudian one, the singer’s desire is so great, indicating a lack, for that is what all want reveals, seeking fulfillment of its own selfish needs without thinking of the other’s needs; to take another inside of you is to only temporarily stem the flood of desire, which after a short period, will return to its heightened fever pitch. Desire keeps us fettered to the wheel of human bondage.

This version of “Forbidden Love” is extremely and overtly sexually and stimulated by physical or sexual attraction. It crosses the line between love and lust; essentially, the song is about sexual desire and its gratification, but this desire is caused by the physical beauty of the other and the chemical reaction to that beauty and the shared physical, sexual experiences that occur between the singer and her sexualized lover: “In your eyes / Forbidden Love / In your smile / Forbidden Love / In your kiss / Forbidden Love.” And, what makes this desire all the more fierce is that it is forbidden, it is being denied and the listener never knows exactly why. Yet what the listener does know is that the singer is so eroticized by the fact that this love is off-limits, clearly indicated by the whispered phrase “Rejection, is the greatest aphrodisiac” and the verses “If I only had one wish, / Love would always feel like this.” This perception of rejection is a key to the song: to be rejected by a lover is only going to stoke the fire and create an even stronger, forceful attraction toward that lover that can almost make the situation dangerous if the rejected lover doesn’t let go.

In the second stanza, the singer gives us a hint as to why this love is forbidden, and that she is being rejected because she knows her lover is no good for her, and will only mistreat her:

I know, that you’re no good for me
That’s why I feel I must confess
What’s wrong, is why it feels so right
I want to feel your sweet caress

But yet even this, the idea of being hurt by her lover, is not enough to make her ignore this attraction, this desire; for her, the fact that this is forbidden love and that it is perceived as wrong and bad for her, is why it feels so right, so good to her, and she still wants to feel her lover’s touch.

But yet there is a lingering question, compelled by the verses “If I had one dream, / This would be more than it seems.” Is the singer’s “forbidden love” really forbidden or is all of this just a fantasy? Has a relationship between her and her “lover” really ever existed, or is the relationship very real, but the “forbidden” nature of it a fiction, a ruse to inspire the torrent and passion of sexual desire and intimacy? Naturally, all of this reverts back to the subject of desire and the element of fantasy as a player in the human mind dictating one’s perception and real experiences of the true nature of love and desire.

Confessions’ version of “Forbidden Love” is quite a different story. It really is about falling in love with someone that we aren’t meant to be with; it’s the story of two people crossing paths and falling for each other when it wasn’t their destiny, “Forbidden love, are we supposed to be together?” It’s “forbidden love” because, as will be shown below, there are external forces that want to prevent these two lovers from being one, not just personal skepticism. It is about the intimacy of desire leading to love, not to sexual lust that recurs and burns the mind and the flesh. This “forbidden love” is right because it brings two lovers together, making “hearts that intertwine”, and whatever physical intimacy attends this only serves to show how natural, beautiful, and romantic the love that exists between this boy and this girl is: “they lived in a different kind of world.”

This version of “Forbidden Love” speaks of the love between these two people as fated, a destiny meant to be, and only momentarily questioned, because as the singer makes us understand, her lover’s appearance, touch, and words have assured her that this is their destiny:

Just one kiss on my lips
Was all it took to seal the future
Just one look from your eyes
Was like a certain kind of torture . . .
Just one touch from your hand
Was all it took to make me falter . . .

Just one smile on your face
Was all it took to change my fortune
Just one word from your mouth
Was all I needed to be certain

The singer’s words seem to say that she believed her life was moving along one path until her lover came along and kissed her, causing her future to turn in a different direction, and that his smile changed her fortune. Many of us believe that it is fated when we meet a certain someone whom we fall passionately, deeply in love with, because it looks, feels, and tastes so right. And for all the questioning the singer may be doing about the certainty of this love, her lover’s words reassure her that it is meant to be. Ultimately, the singer is questioning fate and the validity of believing in such a concept. But love itself seals her lips with its beauty and its “different kind of world” in which we view the world and all things in it differently because we have fallen mysteriously, unmistakably in love. But what marks the love in this song as forbidden? It seems that the love here is “forbidden” because it seems too good to be true, and the singer wants to forbid herself from believing in it and the power it has shown in changing her life and her future.

On her Confessions tour Madonna performed that album’s “Forbidden Love.” On each side of the stage a set of shirtless young men stand together; one has the Jewish Star of David on his chest while the other’s chest bares the crescent of Islam. They are doing a choreographed dance with their hands and arms intertwining and releasing while Madonna sings in the center, who later joins them in this routine before the performance ends. A large cross hangs behind her from where she descends to the stage, and so one readily reads a religiously inspired context for the performance of the song.

Here, this version of “Forbidden Love” sends the message that religious creeds, political persuasion, sexual and racial prejudice, and the violence that often accompanies the ignorance and exclusionary tactics of these agendas, have no power over love and desire. Love knows no color, no belief system, no agenda but its own, and that is to break the ego of its self-centeredness and show it the beauty of sacrificing the self’s own needs and wants for those of another greater than oneself. True love conquers all, defying all boundaries that anyone puts in its place; in the eyes of love no embrace, no kiss, no touch, no expression of desire is forbidden or taboo because love is blind to the differences in others which humans see with the clouds and dust of ignorance and hatred in their eyes and their minds. It is ironic that the cliché “Love is blind” has lasted so long, when truth be told, Love is the only thing in the world that truly sees.

Madonna’s two versions of “Forbidden Love” are unique in their musical and lyrical differences but quite astonishing in their similarities. They both question how we perceive the meaning and power of love, and how they affect our relationships with others by examining the human psyche’s interpretation of the reality before our eyes. Each song presents us with how love transforms our beliefs, causing us to question the nature of what it means when something is “forbidden” to us, who made it so, why, and what happens when we fight against these prohibitions and taboos whether compelled by love to break these restrictions or not.

“Forbidden Love” from Bedtime Stories