By the time Madonna’s Bedtime Stories album came out in 1994, the postmodern era was well into effect. Indeed, one might say Madonna single-handedly created its peak in the 1980s (Don DeLillo merely wrote in its style). Not just with her own career being birthed at the same time as MTV (where she became more known for her visuals than her music), but with her unapologetic commitment to “synergistic efforts” that were previously balked at by most musicians who felt their job simply ought to be making music. Madonna, in contrast, was the first truly “multimedia” icon. Even if that Pepsi commercial only did air twice in the United States. A truly profligate waste of five million dollars, which Madonna pocketed without looking back.
In fact, “not looking back” was her modus operandi for a long time. And when the 90s arrived, she was determined to change her musical and aesthetic tack with the new decade. That meant a mélange of house and R&B “flavors,” which started to manifest on 1992’s Erotica before Madonna more noticeably softened her tone (e.g., no more talk of teaching us how to fuck) on Bedtime Stories. That softness being most marked on “Take A Bow,” the second single from the record (following “Secret”). Co-produced by Babyface, the track remained at number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks, and saturated the culture so much that it was played during the season one finale of Friends. To add to the instant classic nature of the song, Madonna filmed a Michael Haussman-directed video for it in Ronda, Spain. And, being Spain, M naturally thought to incorporate bullfighting. Along with a steamy real-life bullfighter named Emilio Muñoz (Madonna never being shy about parading her enthusiasm for Latin men…or women, for that matter).
Although the internet became available for public use the year before, in 1993, it was still too “germinal” to consider in mainstream pop culture. That’s why Madonna and most others continued to suck firmly on the TV titty—wielding that as the beacon of modern life more than computers/an “online presence” just yet. Accordingly, in the “Take A Bow” video, Madonna taps into the trend-turned-way-of-life that is obsessing over a simulacrum of a person via television. Even though she might have had a love affair with The Bullfighter in actuality, their botched romance has rendered her into little better than an obsessive ex who scrolls through their erstwhile boyfriend’s social media profiles as we see her watching him on TV and caressing his Screen Face.
Despite The Bullfighter breaking her heart, she can’t seem to let go of the prototype, as it were, that she fell in love with. The “edition” of him that lured her in the first place. And that’s the trap many fall prey to after a breakup: still romanticizing a relationship by remembering the honeymoon period and wondering where it all went wrong. Why it couldn’t stay as it was in the beginning. But with screens, whether attached to a TV or, now, phones, the simulacrum is able to provide the version of a person that one wants (mainly because the public images and videos that people choose to parade tend to show them at their “best”). Or rather, the version that they want to believe in, for projections can thrive long after being disillusioned in real life by the person in question. So it is that we see Madonna both depressed and aroused in a Ronda hotel room as she touches the screen with her ex on it as lovingly as she would to his actual cheek. Perhaps more lovingly, because he can’t talk back a.k.a. say anything that might break the illusion of his “perfection.”
The rise of technosexuality in our current landscape was something Madonna foretold as well in this video, slipping under sheets in her lingerie with the TV. Where a pristine version of a person she can project all of her fantasies onto resides. If there is one single image from the twentieth century that embodies the coalescing of (wo)man with machine, it is this. For it is the indelible representation of there no longer being a real distinction between a person and an “apparatus,” with the former having made itself merely an extension of the latter. And since fetishizing the non-real version of people has only ramped up in the twenty-first century, it’s easier than ever to sexualize a simulacrum (see: OnlyFans). This then becomes a fine line between actually wanting to fuck a person versus the very machine they’re being viewed on.
To that point, Madonna places her crotch near the screen where The Bullfighter goes about his bullfighting pageantry. She wants to fuck him again so badly, that the machine with his image on it becomes an adequate enough substitute. In this fashion, Madonna builds on the so-called sci-fi element of J. G. Ballard’s Crash, which also foretold of the human “fusing” with machinery to the point of seeing it as a viable sexual outlet (this tends to include vibrators, one would posit). To boot, she appears far more satisfied with the simulacrum than the real thing when Haussman finally does cut to a scene of them “consummating” in the flesh toward the end of the video. The tryst is violent and messy—something that would never happen with a screen. Nor would an-all-too-abrupt splooge, as we see The Bullfighter orgasming from Madonna’s perspective beneath him. This shot quickly transitions to him walking away from her as she cries against a wall. Her tangible experience, ruined by his callous, detached approach, was just so upsetting compared to the imagined form of it. For whatever reason (maybe just to feel something), The Bullfighter subsequently walks through a stream of broken glass in response. Pain is pleasure for some people, after all.
Upon finishing his “glass walk,” the tables are turned on The Bullfighter as he adjusts his head to glance back at the TV where, presently, Madonna’s own image is on it. This reversal infers that it’s his turn, at last, to have no choice but to fetishize the simulacrum—because that was the last time she was ever going to give him any pussy (confirmed by the sequel to this video, “You’ll See”). So he, like her, caresses her Screen Face before the switch is made back to his Screen Face on TV, followed by Haussman panning out to reveal Madonna, once more, leaning against the wall in her room with his bullfighting image still playing on what appears to be a loop. Now, they can both be mere projections that each one can return to whenever they want as a source of pain-pleasure. Because that’s what it is to have access to a simulacrum of a person: constant self-torture thanks to the irresistible option to revisit their onscreen effigy.