From “Vogue” to “Take a Bow” to “Ray of Light,” Madonna scored some of her signature hits in the ’90s. While most of her ’80s pop compatriots struggled to stay on the radio, Madonna more-or-less maintained the same level of stardom throughout the decade, earning just two fewer Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits in the ’90s than she did in the ’80s.
But between Bedtime Stories and Evita, Madonna experienced her first real career dip. After several years of hypersexual imagery and songwriting (from the “Justify My Love” video to the Sex book) and some family-unfriendly public appearances (her 1994 Letterman interview in particular), a portion of the American public was exhausted with her by 1995. Puritanical pop listeners might be OK with a heartfelt plea for keeping a baby, but leather and whips is just too much.
While she soon got back on track with a prestige motion picture (Evita) and an elegant ballad collection (Something to Remember), there was one unfortunate musical casualty of her brief lull: “Human Nature.”
One of the few hip-hop-inflected singles in her discography (it samples a song from Main Source, the same rap group that gave Nas his first on-wax appearance), “Human Nature” has a deeply funk foundation while maintaining the spacious, thin production common to many ’90s R&B hits.
While “Take a Bow” — released just a year earlier from the same album, Bedtime Stories — was a smash No. 1 for Madge, “Human Nature” stalled at No. 46 despite a killer video and a defiant, empowering message. Lyrically, Madonna brushes off the prudes who faulted her for fixating on sex, pointing out that the “taboo” subject is simply human nature — the most basic element of human nature at that. She also correctly points out that she’d have gotten less flak for exploring sexuality so bluntly if she were a man (“Would it sound better if I were a man?” is one of her whispered rhetorical questions throughout). And it’s hard to argue with that — have any of the male directors behind sexually explicit hit movies been put through the wringer like she has?
Furthermore, the “Express yourself, don’t repress yourself” refrain is classic — the kind of line built to be repeated decades later. So why didn’t “Human Nature” at least knick the top 10?
Part of the reason may have been the fact that previous single “Bedtime Story” isolated too many radio programmers and casual fans. The Bjork co-write, while adventurous and exhilarating, didn’t make sense on radio in the mid-’90s, and it was just too weird for most of her younger fans (and in 1995, she still had plenty of those).
Ultimately, though, it’s the content of the song itself that prevented it from penetrating mass culture like previous dancefloor-ready singles. “Human Nature” is crafted as a challenge to those who thought she went too far by releasing an entire book devoted to erotic photos, and those are the people who don’t want to discuss sexuality — they just want to chastise you for talking about it. Even though the “I’m not your bitch/ Don’t hang your shit on me” line was excised for radio, the message of “Human Nature” was still too much for those who hated her Dita Parlo persona.
“Human Nature” is the original “Unapologetic Bitch,” but it came at a time when the idea of an unapologetic woman was far too threatening for most — not just radio programmers and parents, but even many of her fans. To a Puritan, the only thing worse than a woman wearing a scarlet A is a woman proudly wearing a scarlet A.
Regardless, “Human Nature” holds up as one of her finest ’90s singles, and today we’re saluting this anthem to not apologizing when you know you were right in the first place.