1998, Commentary, Flashback, Frozen, Like A Prayer, Madonna, Nothing Really Matters, Ray Of Light, Review, Secret, St. Cloud Times, Take A Bow, The Power of Good-Bye, This Used To Be My Playground, Throwback, Tribute
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Ray of Light was an album that seemed to change things, from music to fashion to pursuits of enlightenment and religious understanding. And it didn’t sacrifice the joys of life in the process.
Out of the blue came something I didn’t expect: An important, career-defining work from MADONNA.
As a teen male, my Madonna fandom was more rooted in her looks and her antics than in her music. I liked a handful of songs a lot, but I dismissed her as a dancer who got lucky with the right songs at the right time.
I’m pleased to say that I outgrew that outlook long ago.
But in 1998, I generally saw Madonna as a person who made headlines for who she was dating or what she was (or wasn’t) wearing.
So I was totally unprepared for the brilliance that was Ray of Light.
I was working at a store that sold books and music at the time of the album’s release. I remember that I was working at the front register area, rewinding some VHS tapes (wow, THAT takes me back … there were a lot of unkind folks who didn’t rewind, so our multiple rewinding decks were busy a lot of the time) when this new, different, fresh, vibrant music started playing on the store PA system.
It started with strange sounds. Is that the wind? Or am I in space? A voice comes in, and then there’s this processed club-friendly sound, but with guitars and a kind of orchestral build in sound. It had a dance beat, but wasn’t exactly light or poppy. It sounded upbeat and yet introspective. You could dance to it or meditate to it. What was it? I had no idea. But I liked it. Electronica was no longer a dirty word.
I asked the other people I was working with, “Do you know what this is? Who this is?” They shrugged, no idea.
Then the manager came up to check on something and I asked him, “What is this music?” I think he thought I was going to complain, because he responded rather defensively, “It’s the new Madonna, and I’m not gonna shut it off.”
That was fine with me.
When my shift was over, I walked over to the new release racks and saw the CD. Light blue background. Felt kind of summery. And Madonna looked different. She wasn’t trying to seduce or look rebellious. She looked … mysterious. Different. That look suited the music. She’d redefined her sound and her image yet again, and boy was it engaging.
I bought a copy, on the spot. And I probably listened to it at least three or four times that night.
Here’s the thing: My feelings on it changed, listen to listen. I’d go from thinking, “Wow, this is spiritual” to then thinking, “Wow, she just doesn’t seem to have anything to say, so she’s just throwing something together.” Then I’d be back to, “This is such a creative, rewarding experience” and then I’d think, “It feels so plastic, it feels too electronic, it feels forced.”
When each listen can provoke a different — sometimes competitive — interpretation, I find that means the album is worthwhile. Why? Because it is provoking thought and feeling. It’s making you assess not only the music and your feelings about it, but also how you think an artist should perform or sound or write. Frozen didn’t have to be another Secret or Take a Bow. Nothing Really Matters didn’t have to be a Like a Prayer, and The Power of Good-Bye didn’t have to be This Used to Be My Playground. (Insert your own favorites, the point still stands.)
Once I made peace with the fact that Madonna is an artist, that she has the same rights as every other artist, that she follows her muse, that she redefines herself project to project, that she is free to adopt and discard styles as she saw fit, I was able to put aside my sexist and one-dimensional judgments and embrace the music.
It’s kind of sad that I had to do that. I didn’t have to do that for other (male) artists. I never got hung up on the changes between the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for example. I recognized then, at that early age, that male musicians were able to get away with things that female musicians couldn’t. But I digress.
Ray of Light was one of those albums that seemed to change things. I started seeing people wearing hand and arm jewelry that I hadn’t seen before. I started seeing more clothing that was gauzier, more flowing. It reminded me in ways of Flower Power outfits from 1967, 1968. There was more mysticism. There was talk of Kabbalah. Music and fashion and art seemed — at least for a short while — to involve more spirituality and understanding and consideration. Art seemed more worldly, somehow.
But what of the music, Shields? What about the songs?
The songs showed off Madonna’s abilities as a songwriter, from the music to the lyrics. The album has this atmosphere to it, whether the songs are dance pieces or ballads or hymns (yes, I use the word hymns … the spiritual side of the music is very real, the pursuit of enlightenment and the divine is at the forefront), it’s mature and intimate, while also very fleshed out and ornate.
It’s an album of discovery. At a time when Madonna had been lauded or criticized for her sexuality, her fashion, her behavior, she redefined herself. She was a first-time mother at this point (daughter Lourdes born in 1996), and one gets a sense that Madonna was at a crossroads and trying to determine what she wanted to be, what she needed to be, what kind of world she wanted to interact with and raise her children in. Facing those questions surely led to the more spiritual, introspective material of the Ray of Light album.
Ray of Light showed that Madonna chose art AND entertainment, comedy AND tragedy, sex AND spirituality. She chose the fullness of life, and wove together an audio tapestry that excels at conjuring emotions and images that can be unsettling and comforting, sometimes right after another.
It’s a brilliant album. It’s still fresh, and that says something. Even if you don’t like Madonna, I implore you to check out the album. If you like serious music, you’ll find it here. If you just want to be able to dance, you can do that with this music. If you like putting on headphones and zoning out, this music can be your soundtrack.
The album offers a little something for everyone. That is its strength. It’s a mature album that recognizes all of life’s paths and celebrates them all.
That, in turn, deserves to be celebrated.