In honor of the 2017 American Music Awards, Billboard is counting down the best performances from the awards show’s history. Here is no. No. 8.
Sometimes the hardest act to follow is yourself.
Throughout the early to mid-’90s, Madonna leaned into the concept that sex sells. But by the time she doled out the 1992 coffee table book Sex — complete with nude images of herself — her sexualized image had reached its peak. At the same time, the shock factor of the Erotica era had lost its impact.
Before rebranding became a thing, the chameleon-like “Material Girl” had a way of reinventing her image. This time, she chose to dial it down on her next album, 1994’s Bedtime Stories. The autobiographical elements of her poetic balladry exhibited a newfound vulnerability that felt more revealing than her sexual gimmickry. The album’s second single, “Take a Bow,” ended up becoming Madonna’s longest running No. 1 on the Hot 100 with a seven-week run at the top.
Two months after that song stormed the charts, Madonna and Babyface delivered their only live performance of the track at the American Music Awards on Jan. 30, 1995. The presence of a live orchestra added a lush texture to the song. Madonna’s distinctive vocal colors were given new life through the prism of Babyface’s R&B-style vocal runs.
Looking at Madonna’s sartorial decision from a 2017 perspective, the cultural appropriation of a white woman wearing a cheongsam (a Chinese dress) might not fly — but it was not entirely random, as the song’s pentatonic strings were intended to evoke Chinese opera. The stage production was relatively barren as Madonna and Babyface stood in place while elevated on their respective pillars.
Babyface previously spoke to Billboard about his appearance onstage with Madonna. “I was nervous as hell,” he said. “But you couldn’t actually see my legs shaking under the suit. When we finished, she told me she had never been that nervous before. That was crazy to me — I was thinking, ‘You’re Madonna, you’re on stage all the time!'”
But the stage fright never showed up on Madonna’s theatrical facial expressions, complementing lyrics like, “You deserve an award for the role that you played.”