We’ve reached the halfway mark, the 7th of Madonna’s 14 studio albums and a turning point in her career and her personal life, Ray of Light.
Ray of Light was a comeback, of sorts (not her last) after the strong, but more modest numbers turned out by Erotica and Bedtime Stories. Coming off the heels of her Golden Globe-winning success in Evita (for which she took singing lessons for the first time in her career – no jokes, bitches), delved into Kabbalism for spiritual guidance and, most importantly, the birth of her first child, Lourdes. While primarily a pop album, its infusion of dance, electronica (the influence of producer William Orbit) as well as rock, trance and classical, they all contribute to give Ray of Light a bigger, more evolved sound all while remaining surprisingly cohesive and Madonna herself with a newfound breadth and register in her voice.
From the opening double song “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” where Madonna examines her place in celebrity, the price of it and the importance of it in the face of being a new mother to the high-tempo fun of the title single to the richly layered arrangements of “Frozen” and “The Power of Good-bye,” Ray of Light exists in a place unlike anything she had done before. “Shanti/Ashtangi,” taken directly from Shankaracharya in traditional Sanskrit, spoke directly to Madonna’s spiritual place at the time. Reflection on family ends the album with the ode to her daughter in “Little Star,” a maternal piece that sounds like a rhythmic lullaby and the somber “Mer Girl,” about (again) the death of her mother. This time though with lyrics of depth and creativity that her life experience has brought her.
Not just one of her biggest commercial hits, Ray of Light remains her biggest critical hit to date and the album also gave Madonna the Grammy love her career had been lacking. It garnered her first Album of the Year and Record of the Year nominations and won Pop Album, Short Form Video (“Ray of Light”), Dance Recording (“Ray of Light”) and Package Recording.
EA: We’ve talked a lot about reinventions and revolutions in Madonna’s career on our album retrospectives and as we land right in the middle, with her 7th studio album, we can add a few more words: landmark and comeback. Between Bedtime Stories and Ray of Light were the biggest life-changing years for Madonna. After working tirelessly to get the role of Evita Peron in the feature film adaptation of the musical she got it. And she was PERFECT. After Razzies and film flops it was a validation of her acting career and efforts. She won a Golden Globe! She took singing lessons for the first time and used her new voice for an album that was a 180 of most of her previous work. But the biggest thing that happened was the birth of her first child, Lourdes. After songs and throwaway lines in multiple songs, motherhood finally came to Madonna and in the Ray of Light’s first track, “Drowned World/Substitute” for Love, she embraces the failings of fame head on by recognizing that it’s Lourdes that is her new religion. It’s a monumental song and with new producer William Orbit, pushed Madonna into the age of electronica in a major way. It also showed how much impact Bjork and “Bedtime Story” had on her own songwriting and focus.
AN: SO much happened between Bedtime Stories and Ray of Light. Evita (brilliant). Something To Remember (brilliant). And the birth of Madonna’s first child. So it’s not surprising that Ray of Light begins with one of the most important songs in Madonna’s discography. In many ways, this song marks the end of one Madonna era and the beginning of a new one. So much of this song feels like a direct break from the Madonna of the 1980s that people were still clinging to (and some still do, I really wish they’d stop expecting her to repeat herself). “Some things cannot be bought” is telling people that “Material Girl” is not what defines her. Calling her desire for fame into question feels like it’s questioning so much of her own maximalist work. Madonna said she wanted to rule the world, and once her blond ambitions were realized, she moved on to brilliantly questioning those ambitions. As my goddess Tori Amos (who beautifully covered “Frozen” from this album) sings in “Spring Haze,” “my only way out is to go so far in.” Back to Madonna, these are some of the best lyrics she’s ever written. Deeply personal and yet universal at the same time, because we’ve all found substitutes for love, haven’t we? Far-off places and trinkets. It’s funny, listening to this song from quarantine feels even more emotional than usual. Because being quarantined has really revealed how little of the life we used to live is necessary. All the distractions we surround ourselves with when what really matters is love and creativity. Nothing really matters, love is all we need! I know we’ll get back to those distractions soon enough, just as Madonna did herself in subsequent albums, but there’s peace that comes from moments of clarity. Moments when we feel connected to the core things that matter. And this song feels like it’s running from something, toward that peace. Also, the music video is rarely seen and so moving, and the title (taken from a novel, ‘cause she’s a literary queen) is gorgeous.
EA: It’s impossible to talk about “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” and not talk about the video. Despite a ‘new’ Madonna, the video doesn’t shy from her button pushing by featuring sequences of her being chased by paparazzi in Paris, exactly as Princess Diana was only a year before. It’s a devastating commentary, a gorgeously sad video (the contorted faces of the people in the hotel, the maid that takes the photo). You’re absolutely right that in the age of quarantine that this song resonates even more. I could probably do an entire conversation about this song alone!
AN: “Swim” is a heartbreaking song, with lyrics that still feel sadly prophetic in our world of hate and violence. For me, the song only gains in power when I think of how she laid her vocals down on the day her friend Gianni Versace died. For those who weren’t of this era, Versace’s death (like Diana’s which you mention plays into this era as well) was a very dark moment, especially for the gay community. Finding out later that Madonna left the Ray of Light recording to meet Donatella in Versace’s house wrecks me. Here’s some of what Donatella has said about that night: “After identification, I drove to Gianni’s villa on Ocean Drive. Madonna was waiting for me inside. I will never forget that she was trying to comfort me during these hours. There were FBI agents everywhere in the house. They interrogated each of us and opened all the drawers, a nightmare. My brother had just been murdered, and we were being treated like suspects. But that’s probably what FBI agents have to do.” The great writer Sydney Urbanek wrote a brilliant deep dive recently on the ghost of Madonna’s mother in her work, and she discusses the role that grief and death plays in some of her videos. In discussing “God Control,” which some criticized, she points to Madonna’s personal experiences with gun violence, including Versace, Caresse Henry, and Tupac. Maybe that’s a discussion we’ll have when we get to Madame X, but the point is that Madonna has experienced real loss, from her mother to her friends who died of AIDS to those lost to gun violence. The way she turns loss into art, pours those emotions into song, is evident in a song like “Swim,” which both paints a bleak picture of a world that can’t get any worse, while somehow also giving us the solace and strength we need to keep swimming. I’m emotional just talking about the song, let alone listening to it.
EA: As with the whole album being a turning point, this was also when she really expanded her world view to examine tragedies both as an artist and from a deeply person point of view. She’s always known her potential impact and the ability to use her stardom and this song, highlighting such an increase in violence big and small is a crucial part of that. I didn’t remember the timing of this with Versace’s murder being so precise but it gives it even deeper meaning and historical context that it might not otherwise have.
EA: This is a great time to also highlight that among the landmark elements this album provides, it and the title track, finally gave Madonna Grammy street cred. While Bedtime Stories was nominated for Best Pop Album she had never broke into the general field despite being the most successful female artist of all time. That all changed here with “Ray of Light” the song being nominated for Record of the Year and Ray of Light the album being nominated for Album of the Year. She won Pop Album, Short Form Music Video and Dance Recording, again a breakthrough. But let’s talk about the song! Easily one of her most energetic, frenetic songs ever, the combination of tech and guitar, wailing vocals and club dominating beat it’s hard to match in terms of Madonna’s huge canon of dance songs. I’m obsessed with the fact that it was brought to her by Orbit from a 1971 British folk song that he massively reworked. There’s a great podcast on its origin that I’ll link here.
AN: Oh yeah, I love the origins of the song. Where and what Madonna pulls from in her work is always so fascinating. And thank God she finally won some Grammys, though she deserves so many more (and deserved them much earlier). Anyway, I love this song so much. Veronica Electronica in full effect. The video is a masterpiece, of course. Jonas Akerlund is a master. For me, the song brings back memories of the album’s release. I lived in New York at the time. The Ray of Light era starts toward the end of my New York days and then takes me to my move to Los Angeles, which feels very right. LA for me was a place of yoga and sunshine, whereas New York was nightclubs and rain (feel it on my fingertips). Speaking of nightclubs, Madonna was rumored to be performing songs from her new album at the Roxy, but you had to be a member to get in. Me and our mutual friend Jeni (she figures into a lot of my Madge memories) went on a MISSION to get into that club, which was hard in the pre-internet era. Eventually we found a someone to sell us their membership card or something like that. If memory serves, Madonna performed very, very late. Like 2am or something like that. I remember her wearing a cape, and removing it to reveal her new look (which I still am obsessed with). And of course, she sang the title track which is a gift to dance floors. My other memory of that night is that there was a drag queen with a Marie Antoinette wig that was blocking people’s view of our diminutive diva, and some other angry queens either demanded the wig be removed or removed it themselves. Do not block a Madonna fan’s view of the queen, especially when she’s performing incredible new songs.
EA: Off with her head! One of the things I really love about Madonna bringing William into her orbit is how he pushed her. Never wanting to be reductive or repeat herself, he knew that with her newfound vocal ability that he could get her to stretch, even past her comfort level. I love that he set her register for the song higher than she was used to, forcing her to strain her vocals and in doing so, created a lasting impact of the song. “She got frustrated when we were recording but you want that bit of edge with singers, that thing of reaching. You can’t fake it, and you can hear it when she cracks it on the record”
AN: Absolutely, this is the beginning of a new era of vocals from her.
AN: I honestly don’t have a very personal response to this song. I like its moist warm desire a lot, but it somehow doesn’t speak directly to my soul. Since I don’t have anything deep to say, why not take this chance to mention the stunning Drowned World tour that the song was performed in? I was eighth row center for the first show after 9/11. It was, as I’m sure you remember, a time of collective trauma in this country. If you were Middle Eastern, it was hard to navigate that trauma. There was devastation, and on top of it there was ignorance. At one point in the show, the whole crowd starting chanting “USA. USA.” It was a strange moment at a Madonna concert, and I’ll never forget her response. She quieted the audience down, and gave an impromptu speech that stunned me. I found it online and will just cut and paste it here: “Any of you who purchased a ticket to the show tonight will be contributing to a fund that will be for children orphaned by this tragedy, so thank you all. Now on a personal note I think that each and every one of us should look inside our own hearts and examine our own personal acts of terrorism, hatred, intolerance, negativity, the list goes on and on, we’re all responsible. If you are homophobic or racist or hate, you contributed to this disaster. It’s not just Bin Laden, it’s all of us, we’ve all contributed to hatred in the world today. And I would like to have one minute of silence to say a prayer for those who have died; to say a prayer for the friends and families of those who have died; to say a prayer for the rescuers who have worked night and day to rescue people from the rubble. And most of all say a prayer for anyone who thinks that it is right to kill in the name of God. Where there is violence, there is no God. Let’s have a moment of silence. Hold hands with those around you. Or stay still and reflect/ One more thing–if you want to change the world, you must first start with yourself!” It’s hard to understate how bold this speech was at the time. No one was willing to say these things then. She would double down on some of this in the American Life era, but honestly, that night at the Staples Center for the Drowned World tour is one of the moments when Madonna cemented my eternal respect and admiration.
EA: I mean, it’s hard to top that, right? I like the song and it’s a great example of how much working with Bjork and Nellee Hooper impacted her songwriting style. It’s weird and evocative and metaphorical instead of straightforward. Interesting too that it’s co-written by Susannah Melvin, sister of Wendy Melvin, harking back to Prince.
EA: Many of Madonna’s songs linger on the need for basic human connection; physical and emotional non-sexual intimacy. “Skin” is a plea and such a fantastic return to her collaborations with Patrick Leonard. “I need to make a connection,” she says and we can feel it. Her vocals on “put your hand on my skiiiiin” give me goosebumps just thinking about them.
AN: One of my favorites on the record. I love the trancelike magic of it, and I appreciate it for being the most sexual song on the album. I guess it always bugged me a little that the album Madonna was most rewarded for is the one where she stepped away from being a sexual provocateur. Obviously, I love the album, and I identify deeply with her journey from provocateur to parent, since in my own small bubble I went through that same journey. But I wish people would also reward the rebellious Madonna, the in-your-face Madonna. I guess in some ways, this album was a provocation in its own way though, making people see spirituality in a new way. Anyway, “Skin” is magic.
AN: One of the things I love most about this album is that so many tracks – this one, included – feel like both ballads and dance tracks. This one has the soul of a ballad with a beat that makes you move. The lyrics are so simple, but also deeply moving. It’s also the song that gave us Madonna’s Memoirs of a Geisha moment, which would then give us the many kimonos lazy queens wore on RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Night of a Thousand Madonnas. Of all the things that feel unlikely about this era, it’s Madonna’s geisha phase, inspired by a book written by a white man no less. The world has changed in some very positive ways since then.
EA: I’m still so bitter that this was a chart flop. While it’s another ode to motherhood, the uptempo counterpart to “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” the song and the video are again borne out of “Bedtime Story” and also produced by Marius de Vries. “I’ll never be the same, because of you…” is such a great lead-in and that red Gaultier kimono is to die for. I love that she opened the Grammys with this song and then went on to win later in the evening. I don’t even want to talk about that Night of 1000 Madonnas though, what a disaster!
AN: Well, Drag Race redeemed its Madonna record with the fantastic Madonna Rusical which involved NO kimonos.
EA: That was indeed a redemption worthy of Madonna’s name.
EA: This song has such a strange history, with being inspired by Max Blagg’s What Fits? and utilizing two lines from it. Minor controversies aside, it’s a cool non-single that throbs and hits the right get you on the floor beats.
AN: Well, leave it to Madonna to take the words immortalized for a generation in a Gap ad of all things, and turn it into a high art pop song. I love this one so much. The production mirrors the lyrics, giving us the sense that we’re traveling through sky and space. And of course, the “traveling” lyrics bring “Bedtime Story” to mind, which is a nice reminder that while Ray of Light is a new sound, her evolution is always pulling from what came before and connecting back to who she is. And traveling to new sounds and universes speaks to one of the Madonna qualities that has served her work best: curiosity.
EA: Absolutely. It also opens us up another change in Madonna’s life at this point and that was a new spirituality. She began to follow yogis and study the Kabbalah before this record and it’s all over the album. Most clearly on the very next song…
AN: Nice transition, Erik! I started doing yoga before this album thanks to a lovely teacher at my high school who made eighth period yoga an athletic option, so maybe this is the only time in my life I was ahead of Madonna on something. It’s an interesting song, but not as interesting to me as some that didn’t make the album, like “Has To Be.”
EA: I feel like she probably had to fight to keep this song in even thought it’s a collab with Orbit. Although musically it fits in quite easily, it wasn’t a simply accessible song and feels a bit like…dress up? I do really like her lower register vocals though but I’m with you, I’d rather have Has to Be here.
EA: If I could live inside this song I would. It’s Gothdonna. Madeficent. I love it. Another lush and gorgeous Leonard collaboration (which honestly are my favorite). Even without its perfect music video the song is positively cinematic. The sweeping strings. Opera. Grandeur. It’s an all-time favorite ballad of mine, possibly her best #2 song ever. BRB I’m going to get some henna tattoos.
AN: I mean, what can I say about one of her best songs and number two hits. Obviously, should’ve been number one. Was it the Celine Dion Titanic song that held it back? I think so. I guess I’m partially to blame for that, ‘cause I saw that movie five times in the theater and cried every time. On a side note, Kate Winslet in Titanic has a very Ray of Light look to her. The late ‘90s were all about Pre-Raphaelite hair, I guess. This song is stunning. The video is one of her best. My kids loved it when they were very, very young. They used to request it by demanding to watch “Madonna turns into a bird.” The live tour performances of it – Drowned World and Madame X especially – are stunning. In Drowned World, the song’s operatic grandeur comes through, and the geisha fascination quite literally takes flight. And in Madame X, Madonna destroyed the audience emotionally by performing it behind the huge projection of her daughter Lourdes dancing. Given the fact that this is the album she wrote after Lourdes’ birth only made that moment more impactful. Like Live to Tell, it’s one of the songs that most resonates with my experience as a queer person. This song came out as my college years were ending. I was out to all my friends, but not to my parents. There was still so much homophobia in the world (as there is now sadly). Lyrics like “you only see what your eyes want to see” brought to mind all the people who wouldn’t truly see queer people for who they were. And my favorite lines in the song, “love is a bird, she needs to fly” felt like they were about the empowering flight that happens when you love openly instead of in a closet. I’m sure others find ways to insert themselves into this song. It’s the power of a truly great pop song. Being just specific and general enough to allow everyone to access it.
EA: Titanic kept the album from hitting #1 but it was the K-Ci & JoJo song “All My Life” that stopped Madonna here. I’m with you on the queer element and identification here. Even though this came out long after most of my ‘phases’ when I was younger it tapped into those years for me and how we move through the world in disguises sometimes. That she’s a shapeshifter in the video is a perfect representation of that; where we have to be one thing for others and one thing for ourselves and how we trick ourselves into believing it until we can break out of it.
AN: Ooh I love that read of the video. “All My Life?!” Well, okay then. “Power of Goodbye” is one of her strongest and most emotional ballads. I especially love that the song connects Madonna directly to two of my other favorite artists: Joan Crawford and Lana Del Rey. Joan, having been inexplicably ignored in the “Vogue” rap in favor of Joe DiMaggio (this comes up in my novel LIKE A LOVE STORY), is given an even bigger honor when Madonna recreates her best film Humoresque (imho) in the music video. And Madonna co-wrote this song (and the next two) with Rick Nowels, who has written songs for countless artists but perhaps most significantly has co-written the bulk of Lana Del Rey’s work with her. I’ve always felt Madonna and Lana share some musical DNA, and this song is one that definitely could exist in the Del Rey universe. Anyway, I love it.
EA: Did I say lush before? Because THIS is lush. It’s like “Rain” and “Frozen” had a baby. I feel like I’m underwater when I listen to it. It’s so gorgeous and yet another perfect co-production with Leonard. I love Madonna’s sad romanticism so much and of course it comes as a collaboration with LDR’s writer. LDR is the queen of that genre. That Humoresque call out is incredible! I love it.
EA: As we near the end of this album it’s quite something to realize how cohesive it is. Not all of her albums have been, especially if there are too many producers in the mix but the 1-2-3 punch of “Frozen,” “The Power of Good-bye” and “To Have and Not to Hold” might be one of her greatest ever. One just transitions flawlessly into the next. And why shouldn’t it, it’s Madonna-Orbit-Leonard working together at their very best. “To Have and Not to Hold” is another yearner, of love just out of reach. It’s also the thing that Madonna does best; make sad ballads that aren’t depressing. It’s longing in the best way.
AN: SO cohesive. This is my favorite song on the record, along with “Skin.” Apparently, it was a toss-up between this one and “Has To Be” making the album, which is a brutal toss-up because “Has To Be” is so gorgeous. This song has the lushness of my favorite Bedtime Stories tracks, but with production and backing vocals that are very Veronica Electronica. I just connect to the song. It could be read as a song about a lover you can’t have, but to me it’s about more than that. It’s about all the things we want to possess – be they people, material objects, or accolades – that we cannot truly hold because they’re not meant to be possessed. It’s a continuation of the themes she started with in “Drowned World.” And the “only I am to blame” line once again looks inward. Soon enough, especially in American Life, Madonna will find people to blame, but here she’s looking inward at the part she has to play in her own destiny. And she would inspire others to look inward as well.
AN: It’s such a sweet song, with a message that any parent can relate to. I remember her performing it on Oprah, and it playing so movingly. It’s not the standout of the album, but it’s a song with massive heart.
EA: I love Little Star so, so, so, so much. It always makes me think of “Dear Jessie” which, even though it wasn’t about a future child of hers, is still a lullaby but now that Madonna had her own little star she was able to craft a special piece specifically for Lola. While the song hits easy and familiar platitudes the thing that makes it really special is “Never forget where you come from, from love” as its detailing that Madonna and Carlos Leon (Lola’s dad) had split and trying to explain to a child why you’re not with their parent is a complicated conversation.
AN: That’s a beautiful observation. I really love that.
AN: This is how you close an album. Poetry. Once again, she’s exploring her mother’s death, but unlike “Promise to Try” and “Inside of Me,” we get a dark, disjointed meditation on mortality. Rotting bones. Burning flesh. Decay. Madonna forces us into hearing every word. The running is so evocative. The idea that she’s been running away all this time, from her pain, from her grief, and that she’s finally facing it. It’s how you end an album. Also, it makes me wish there weren’t multiple editions of albums these days. The great albums have definitive closing songs that underline its themes. A movie shouldn’t have two endings. I wish albums didn’t either. Gimme one edition, one cover, one track list.
EA: It’s astonishing to me that she follows up a song to her daughter with “Mer Girl.” It’s perfect and so intense. Absolutely as you say, the opposite of “Promise to Try,” and most certainly showing the evolution of her lyrics and of her grief management. How do you ever actually get over the death of a parent? I’m still figuring out 30 years after my father’s own demise. But this is such a breakthrough for her. She understands her place, its place in her life and now being a mother herself understands it in a way she couldn’t before. Sometimes artists use their music as a personal therapy and we see it evolve over time in a way that not only brings us in closer but helps us figure out or own trauma, feel less alone and come out on the other side. This song, this album marked the biggest emotional and artistic breakthrough of not just her career but her life.
RAY OF LIGHT by the numbers
- Released March 3, 1998
- Peaked at #2 on Billboard 200 album chart March 21, 1998
- Length: 66:52
- 4.35M US / 16M worldwide
- Billboard Hot 100 hits: “Frozen” (#2), “Ray of Light” (#5), “The Power of Good-bye” (#11), “Nothing Really Matters” (#93)
- Grammy nominations and wins: Best Pop Album (win), Best Dance Recording (win), Best Short Form Music Video (“Ray of Light,” win), Album of the Year (nomination), Record of the Year (“Ray of Light,” nomination)