Beginning with a reverse striptease, Madonna’s Take a Bow enhances her usual sexual-romantic provocation. This video is all about the aftermath of a great passion. I dive into it now in response to readers’ demand after my earlier Madonna video overview. Take a Bow is the most mature of all Madonna’s videos, a major affair.
Real life torero Emilio Munoz performs as one of Madonna’s most memorable music video co-stars. (Dark-eyed, hawk-nosed Muñoz must have made quite an impression considering the bullfighting imagery repeated in Madonna’s recent Living for Love video.) Madonna pines for Muñoz’s uncommitted stud image — in person, in bed, in the corrida, and on TV. Director Michael Haussman’s cool imagery, spiked with red lipstick and blood, contrast physical remembrance (sex) with psychological delicacy (a filigreed bodice) and emotional violence (break-up, loneliness).
Take a Bow premiered in 1994, back in the days when music videos insisted that viewers notice details (such as Muñoz twirling his pink cape like a bedsheet or shifting his hip to the right, a sexual feint to tease/confuse his bovine opponent). Today, pop editing is crude, fast, incoherent. Media-makers tailor their work to ADHD dysfunction but Madonna still believed in coherence and (unlike Lady Gaga) symbolic meanings that can be interpreted.
Superior to Alan Parker’s film of Evita (1996) which was largely scuttled by Madonna’s total miscasting, Take a Bow shows Madonna in an ideal creative partnership. She’s aided by Babyface’s lovely melody, written within her vocal range so that her pleading has never been as affecting; it suits the high-tech, soft-core visual montage. Haussman uses Madonna’s typical porno teasing but adds a melancholic undercurrent. A viewer can easily believe that Haussman and Babyface, imagist and songwriter, collaborated from the start.
The video’s Spanish details fulfill Madonna’s fascination with Latin culture (the Evita movie was truly fake). She graduates from street pick-ups (Borderline) and ersatz cultural imitation (La Isla Bonita) to indulging Continental tradition. The video’s concept was timely; derived from Pedro Almodóvar’s bullfighting melodrama, Matador (1988) which had recently burst upon global pop culture. It also referenced the great Anna Magnani’s characterization as Camilla, the love object in Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach (1952), who winces when an arrogant lover slays a bull in tribute to her. Madonna doesn’t impersonate Magnani’s commedia dell arte characterization so much as assume a modern version of the timeless, symbolic wounded: the love-wounded (depicted in shots of a fashion pin pricking her finger and blood droplets falling into a Catholic holy water fount). Take a Bow not only illustrates Madonna’s art consciousness (her appreciation of pop history from Renoir to Almodóvar), it advances those totems of classical pop art to postmodern complexity.
Thrashing languidly in her lonely bed, Madonna sinks under, and out-of, bedcovers. She eventually masturbates to TV images of her proud aloof lover slaying a beast as dispassionately as he used-then-discarded her carnal submission. (“How was I to know you’d break my heart?”) All the images of penetration, climax, sorrow, and abandon come together in Haussman’s imagistic flow, evoking menses and a woman’s heartache.
Take a Bow’s visual and musical effects are so delicate yet so piercing, they linger like a fragrance—way before Madonna initiated a perfume brand in 2012 (a scent desperately titled Truth or Dare). But the sentimental pull and memorable beauty of Take a Bow combine intimate confession with an artist’s challenge to her audience. Telling her fans to honestly bear their romantic pain is a lesson in gay solidarity.