The singer’s seventh album was the ultimate riposte to ageism and sexism in pop
Madonna had been a superstar for well over a decade when she released Ray of Light in 1998. Her iconic status had been cemented with her first greatest hits compilation,1990’s The Immaculate Collection, which distilled her early career into one era-defining pop single after another (“Holiday”, “Like a Virgin”, “Papa Don’t Preach”, “Like a Prayer”, “Vogue”) and sold 32 million copies worldwide. The same year’s Blond Ambition World Tour had raised the bar for arena pop shows, being both more provocative and more spectacular than pretty much anything before it. She’d also celebrated her sexuality more overtly than any other comparable artist, male or female, with 1992’s stunning Sex book, which featured gorgeous, heavily stylised images of anilingus, threesomes, and BDSM. The accompanying album, Erotica, was a flawed but fascinating exploration of sex and romance.
Although Sex and Erotica are rightly being reclaimed as cult classics, at the time they brought the tang of scandal to Madonna, who was accused in the media of pushing her sex-positive agenda ‘too far’, causing her to proceed a little more cautiously in the mid-90s. After 1994’s R&B-leaning Bedtime Stories album, she released her ballad compilation Something to Remember, and landed the lead role in movie-musical Evita, which won her a Golden Globe. From the outside, Madonna was starting to look a little more like a grown-up and ‘respectable’ artist, and a little less cutting edge.
But not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, she’d been underestimated. After rejecting new tracks recorded with Bedtime Stories producer Babyface, and working on new material with her longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard and future Lana Del Rey co-writer Rick Nowels, Madonna decided to go in a more leftfield direction by teaming up with a relatively unknown British electronic producer called William Orbit. Madonna’s ability to pick unexpected and challenging co-writers and producers is part of her genius, but choosing Orbit was probably her bravest move to date. Their collaboration was sometimes difficult (mainly because Orbit’s equipment kept breaking down), but they clicked musically and he ended up co-producing all but one track on what became Ray of Light. “He comes from a very experimental, cutting edge sort of place,” Madonna told Spin magazine. “He’s not a trained musician, and I’m used to working with classically trained musicians, but I knew that’s where I wanted to go, so I took a lot more risks.”
When Ray of Light dropped 20 years ago today, it was a revelation. Britpop was on the wane and the Spice Girls had conquered the globe, but Madonna was offering something different: a sophisticated, innovative, and emotionally literate take on dance-pop. Here’s why Ray of Light remains a landmark album to this day.
IT COMBINED UNDERGROUND AND MAINSTREAM DANCE MUSIC IN A WAY NO POP ALBUM HAD DONE BEFORE
Though Ray of Light is most definitely an electronic album, incorporating elements of dub, trip-hop, techno, disco, psychedelia, and house, it also features some pretty sublime string arrangements, most notably on lead single “Frozen”, and prominent guitar parts – think of the rolling riffs at the start of the title track, before the thumping beat kicks in. When Q magazine asked Madonna why she’d decided to work with Orbit, she revealed she was a fan of his unusual Strange Cargo series of ambient albums from the late 80s. “I also loved all the remixes he did for me and I was interested in fusing a kind of futuristic sound but also using lots of Indian and Moroccan influences and things like that, and I wanted it to sound old and new at the same time.”
The result is an album that feels spiritual, elemental, and enlightened, even when Madonna isn’t singing in Sanskrit (as she does on eighth track “Shanti/Ashtangi”). Critics had been snarky about Madonna’s vocals in the past, but propelled by some of her best ever performances (all her Evita training had really paid off), Ray of Light is also an album that feels fluid and strangely aqueous in a completely distinctive way.
It would be straight-up sexism to suggest Orbit is solely responsible for this, however. “I hate it when people say I reinvented her – I find it embarrassing,” Orbit told The Telegraph in 2009. “She wanted to make this major statement and if I hadn’t come along someone else would have. She was the savvy one, to make it work. People think she was the star and I had the musical talent but we were equals. It was a real collaboration.”
IT RIPPED UP THE RULEBOOK FOR FEMALE POP STARS
Madonna released Ray of Light around six months before she turned 40, a time in a female artist’s career when a toxic combination of misogyny and ageism normally dictates she should try to ‘grow old gracefully’. Madonna had been underestimated by critics and commentators her entire career (Germaine Greer once wrote that she “can’t sing and can’t dance”), but Ray of Light challenged their perceptions of what kind of album a woman 15 years into the game could and should be making. It was sonically adventurous and inspired agenda-setting visuals: the title track’s thrilling time-lapse video, directed by Jonas Åkerlund, won the top prize at the 1998 MTV VMAs. She recruited another music video auteur, Aphex Twin collaborator Chris Cunningham, for her “Frozen” video. The result was a beautifully desolate, proto-emo clip filmed in California’s Mojave Desert with imagery (such as a pale, black-clad Madonna turning into a flock of dark birds) that still dazzles today. This era duly won Madonna the kind of critical acclaim she’d never enjoyed in the past, including four Grammy Awards.
After Ray of Light, artists as varied as Beck, Blur, and All Saints followed her lead and gave William Orbit a call. At 39, Madonna had reinvented herself once again and returned to the apex of pop culture. But of course, the cruel irony is that her ongoing battle against misogyny and ageism only got more difficult from this point on. When she ‘dared’ to show her body in 2005’s “Hung Up” video and 2008’s Hard Candy album cover, some corners of the tabloid press sneered. A 2009 Mail op-ed was even titled: “Oh, come on Madge! Isn’t it time you put it away?” With Ray of Light, Madonna proved that female pop stars don’t need to retreat as they reach their 40s and 50s, even if she still has to remind us this today.
IT SAW MADONNA DIG DEEPER THAN EVER BEFORE
Madonna’s songwriting had been strikingly personal in the past. She gave us a glimpse of her destructive relationship with Sean Penn on 1989’s “Till Death Do Us Part”, and paid tribute to friends who died of AIDS on 1992’s “In This Life.” But from the first few bars of opening track “Drowned World / Substitute for Love”, it’s clear Ray of Light is going to be her most candid and confessional album. “I travelled ‘round the world, looking for a home / I found myself in crowded rooms, feeling so alone,” she sings over dreamy electronica, rejecting the superficial trappings of her early fame and success. Later, she celebrates the baby daughter who managed to “breathe new life into my broken heart” on “Little Star”, and chides herself for living “selfishly” on “Nothing Really Matters”.
Madonna also offers some social commentary on “Swim”, wringing her hands at a world where “children (are) killing children while the students rape their teachers.” But the album’s most gut-wrenching moment is final track “Mer Girl”, a stark kind of song-poem on which Madonna confronts her mother’s death by imagining she is being sucked into her grave. “And I smelled her burning flesh, her rotting bones, her decay”, she sings quietly and matter-of-factly. Other pop stars just don’t write lyrics like this.
IT GAVE US SOME OF MADONNA’S MOST ICONIC LOOKS
Having become a star in the MTV era, Madonna totally understands the power of an arresting visual. The gossamer gothic look she rocks in the “Frozen” video and more down-to-earth, denim-clad dance diva she presents in “Ray of Light” illustrate the album’s dark and light sides. But interestingly, her Geisha-inspired get-up in the lesser-known “Nothing Really Matters” video is probably just as influential. When RuPaul’s Drag Race set a Madonna-themed runway challenge during season eight, no fewer than four queens walked out wearing imitations of her red, Jean-Paul Gaultier-designed kimono. Drag Race had to hold a “Night of 1000 Madonnas” runway challenge again the following season to make amends.
IT STILL SOUNDS MAGICAL 20 YEARS LATER
Ray of Light contains some lyrics that look plain on the page, but feel completely profound when sung by this artist over this music. When Madonna asks, “Isn’t everyone just travelling down their own road, watching the signs as they go?” on “Sky Fits Heaven”, it’s utterly life-affirming. Listening to “The Power of Good-Bye” on a gin hangover is never a good idea. Parts of “Frozen” (like “you’re frozen when you’re not open”) are almost mantra-like. It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what makes an album transcendent, but on Ray of Light, everything aligns to give you chills whenever you listen to it. It’s simply one of the most breathtaking pop albums of its generation.