Don't Tell Me

Album: Music (2000)
Charted: 4 4
Play Video

Songfacts®:

  • This was written by singer/songwriter Joe Henry, whose wife Melanie is Madonna's sister. Henry went to high school with Madonna and has a good relationship with her, but rarely tries to pitch songs to her. When Henry's wife heard this song, she took it to Madonna, who turned it into a dance hit.
  • Henry's original version has the same lyrics, but is called "Stop" and is more of a Tango. It appears on his 2001 album Scar
  • In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Joe Henry explained: "I've got good friends who knew both versions of the song and it never occurred to them that it was the same words going by. It's been a really good lesson as a songwriter because I'm very lyric-oriented, but I realized when that song happened for her - she had a big hit with it - that it really doesn't matter what you're saying as long as the groove is convincing."

    Henry added: "I thought the song was a complete throwaway. I had just moved and set up a studio in the guesthouse of my home and was looking to record anything to make sure my things were working. I needed something to record, so I wrote that song in about 25 minutes just to give myself something to do. I was a little embarrassed by it, it starts off a little spoon-in-June and takes a cryptic turn at the end. I thought it was a trifle, but in the right hands, a trifle has turned into some very handsome shoes that I'm wearing."
  • For Henry, this was a financial windfall, as he received royalties on Madonna's recording, in the same NPR interview, he said: "It had been a complete abstraction to me to see back end on anything. But I found I'm very adaptable."
  • Speaking with Interview magazine about this song in 2001, Madonna said: "To me it is a romantic song. Just, you know, rip my skin off, do not tell me who I should love, or how I should love. Don't tell me to give up. To me, in a way it's like that Frank Sinatra song, 'If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere.'"

Comments: 5

  • Big Crow Watcher (and Eater!) from The Innermost Part Of The OuterlimitsWow! Cool, Leo Digiosia! I sadly, and embarrassingly enough, have NOT read Dickens', "...Tale...," however, I stopped reading your comment, because I hope now to read it and I love to read without any fore-knowledge of anything within a creative work. Your comment (what little I had the pleasure of reading so far, shall be returned to, by me, post said novel having been completed by me! Thanks for taking the time to write, Sir, and I look forward to completing your commentary on "A Tale..." as well!
  • Leo Digiosia from Houston Texas UsaIn Book 3, chapter 12 of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" Madame Defarge says "tell Wind and Fire where to stop, but don’t tell me". (Can be found for free on SparkNotes). This passage is a near replica of one of the lines of the chorus of "Don't Tell Me"

    Madame Defarge's character represents fate: In the novel she knits the names and descriptions of faces belonging to those traitors of the French revolution, or those sympathetic to the French aristocracy, into scarves and garments. She literally is knitting a hit list for the future Republic of France; a list and description of the heads that are destined to be severed by the national razor. There are other literary allusions to her representation of fate (she works with yarn and there are some Greek gods that cut pieces of yarn when a man is born, whose length determines how long the man will live, I forget their names). Madame Defarge represents fate.

    When Madame Defarge speaks this quoted line, a near replica of one of the chorus lines from Madonna's 2000 single "Don't Tell Me", she is implying that she herself, a mortal human, has no power to prevent the oncoming death of Charles Darnay, the protagonist, despite being the one who knit his name for the Republic.

    I am not sure how much Madonna's song has to do about fate, and oncoming events out of our human ability or prevent, like this one outlined in the Dicken's novel. Certainly there are lyrics that play with the idea that love and passion are feelings somehow outside of our control.

    Nonetheless, listening to this song with the powerful imagery of fate and destiny that this novel invokes, the melodies and chords become just that much richer. Every Madonna fan who stumbles upon this passage will read this line accompanied by the golden harmonic strings of the composition, and the literature becomes that much deeper.
  • Tommy Boy from IndianapolisMadonnas songs were controversial at the time. Remember Papa don't preach? Remember that the meaning of the song lies with the listener. Read the lyrics and you decide.
  • Leo from Westminster 1, MdI agree with Theresa! Again, as with Crazy for You, Take a Bow, One More Chance, Nothing Fails and Love Spent, Don't Tell Me is a Sad and Beautiful Country Song. When Madonna Cries in Don't Tell Me, the result is magic. Miranda Lambert, Neko Case and Lucinda Williams have nothing on this Detroit Rebel! Even when Madonna is an Alt-Country Heartbreaker, she does it with sadness, beauty-and grace too.
  • Theresa from Murfreesboro, TnThe video is so simple but it works. When Madonna works with Joe Henry - magic happens.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Annie Haslam of Renaissance

Annie Haslam of RenaissanceSongwriter Interviews

The 5-octave voice of the classical rock band Renaissance, Annie is big on creative expression. In this talk, she covers Roy Wood, the history of the band, and where all the money went in the '70s.

Mark Arm of Mudhoney

Mark Arm of MudhoneySongwriter Interviews

When he was asked to write a song for the Singles soundtrack, Mark thought the Seattle grunge scene was already overblown, so that's what he wrote about.

Scott Stapp

Scott StappSongwriter Interviews

The Creed lead singer reveals the "ego and self-fulfillment" he now sees in one of the band's biggest hits.

David Gray

David GraySongwriter Interviews

David Gray explains the significance of the word "Babylon," and talks about how songs are a form of active imagination, with lyrics that reveal what's inside us.

Name the Character in the Song

Name the Character in the SongMusic Quiz

With a few clues (Works at a diner, dreams of running away), can you name the character in the song?

Emmylou Harris

Emmylou HarrisSongwriter Interviews

She thinks of herself as a "song interpreter," but back in the '80s another country star convinced Emmylou to take a crack at songwriting.