Some of the biggest icons in history have totally rocked the single moniker. Jesus, Bert – and Ernie, Vegemite … to name just a few.
Aside from those equally important categories of religion, Sesame Street and breakfast foods, the world of popular music has been the most fertile breeding ground for one-name wonders – they got it covered from A-aliyah and B-eyonce to Y-azz and Z-edd.
Still, I can’t think of anyone who has quite owned the single-name brand quite like Madonna.
She’s has done it all, even conquering all of the non-music categories above without even seemingly trying. Religion, c/o her name (I doubt we’d be having this conversation if her parents had just called her Mary) and, course, Like a Prayer.
She even infiltrated Sesame Street … and did it through a breakfast food. I meeeeean!
I believe that is one of the many ways her character in A League of their Own would use the term ‘home run’.
Madonna’s career has been a sequence of home runs, fouls, strikes, change-ups, diamonds and power hitting. They are all apparently real baseball terms, according to the internet.
It’s easy to think of Madonna as ‘just’ a massive selling singer and controversial cone-breasted performer. Since 1981 she has released new music just about every year and sold more than 300 million albums in the process.
What might sometimes be forgotten, particularly as the years pass us by, is that she was also a once in a generation – perhaps even a lifetime – songwriter, visionary and artist.
6 of Madonna’s first 7 albums – Ray of Light being the last of them – all deservedly achieved immortal status on the dutifully researched All Time Top 1000 Albums by Colin Larkin.
Madonna is the woman with the most albums on that list, matched only by Joni Mitchell. Sure, there are 17 male-fronted acts ahead of her/them, yet surely that only makes the feat that much grander.
I can’t tell you how appropriate it feels that Ray of Light was the last album of Madonna’s to make that list. It wasn’t just her last great album, it has somehow become her most enduring among a generation of devotees.
While there have been patches of brilliance since – Music and Confessions of the Dancefloor – Ray of Light was the ultimate swansong for the impeccably consistent first half of Madonna’s career.
It was a checkmate from someone who always had a new surprise move up her sleeve to steal the game once more.
Never has Madonna’s musical credibility been on display and found a way to shine so bright as on this album, the most bold and subversive of her collection.
On paper, Ray of Light was just like any other Madonna album. An idea and a carefully selected producer to help craft her sound and deliver her vision and next reinvention.
Only this wasn’t disco man Nile Rogers (Like a Virgin), nor was it trendy-taste makers Dallas Austin and Nellee Hooper/R&B legend Babyface (Bedtime Stories).
This time it this was the underground electro-pioneer, William Orbit.
Madonna’s transition from material-to-maternal-girl and the renewed spirit of her music meant things to me I couldn’t even describe at the time. Going through my own growing as a 17 year old, my taste in music wasn’t quite grown but is was certainly grow’n, if you know what I mean. And Ray of Light was like fertilizer packed with steroids.
It’s almost impossible to think that Madonna’s last release of original material before Ray of Light was Bedtime Stories, which you might recall had followed her book Sex. It would be remiss not to mention this infamous appearance on Letterman from the same ‘era’, which earned her the scorn of America (yet they flocked to it and and made it one of the highest rating episodes they’d seen).
Sure, she’d had an apparent attempt at some brand redemption in the interim with the release of Something to Remember, a compilation album of her classiest ballads. Yet Madonna the sex-crazed provocateur was still the image that lingered.
This all only made Ray of Light so much more … unexpected. It was a wow moment from someone who’d already worn out all her shock value.
It was so perfectly poised that it felt for the first time you weren’t getting Madonna the persona, the artist or any other fabricated label. You were getting … Madonna.
Up until the birth of her first child, Lourdes, Madonna had been all outrospective. With her new role as a mother and her new found spirituality, Madonna went all introspective. The channel for this awakening resulted in the gift to the universe that was – and is – Ray of Light.
The lyrics on this album are some of her best and easily her most sincere. Just listen to the Power of Goodbye at the tail end of the album. It’s allegedly about Sean Penn, because we all love a side of celebrity gossip with our brutally honest music, right?! BUT GOD DAMN, I LOVE THIS SONG.
Or Nothing Really Matters, which turns her priorities to Lourdes. With this song, she joins the likes of Lauryn Hill, Nelly Furtado and the Dixie Chicks who have all released postnatal musical beauties for their bubbas (see more odes to mother’s, including my own, here).
Ray of Light is probably best known for its title track. A genius trance-pop anthem that always felt like an anomaly on the album yet still finds a way to fit in perfectly.
Yet, as beautifully cohesive as this soothing album that became my actual bedtime-stories for many years is, they are all outshone by track number one, Drowned World/Substitute for Love.
In a field of gold, it’s an ambient diamond with a maximum score on all the CCCC’s:
“Should I wait for you/my substitute for love?”
After the trip-hop opening sets the mood, it gently awakens at the halfway mark when those blissful guitar strings kick in. OH GOD IT’S VIBRANT. Then it all crescendos when she builds up to the blooming bellow (see bolded CAPS letters below):
No handsome stranger, heady danger/ Drug that I can try
No ferris wheel, no heart to steal/ No laughter in the dark
No one-night stand, no far-off land/ NO FIRE THAT I CAN SPARK
My official Madonna correspondent (shout out to my big sista, who could totally kill Jeopardy in the category of ‘Madonna’s first six albums’), heard Ray of Light for the first time only a few days ago when I forced her into the unpaid job of being my official Madonna correspondent.
Her mission was to listen to the Power of Goodbye and Substitute for Love. This was her reply.
“I LOVE them both. Then I got carried away listening to the rest of the album.”
Of course she did.
The best part of Ray of Light is it could be released today and feel just as relevant. Sure, we all get those nostalgic feels when we hear Vogue, Like a Prayer, La Isla Bonita (yeh, I see you Geri Halliwell, and Lady Gaga) but I can listen to Ray of Light now (and am) and it is truly timeless.
The production has become the favorite talking point about this album over the years. It just couldn’t have been more perfect.
When Madonna went into William’s Orbit, all the planets aligned. They both reached their pop-pinnacle. He did go on to treat us to the joyful moment that was All Saints’ Pure Shores (and Black Coffee), but this is a long form masterpiece.
Over her subsequent albums Madonna still went on to collab with different unexpected producers – Timbaland, the Neptunes, Diplo. Unlike her earlier albums, she was late to the party. Their sound was already at the forefront of the charts and the popular culture psyche. It looked like she was playing catch up, rather than being the one to whom people had to catch up to.
Madonna was always best when she was ahead of the crowd. Aside from her work on Confessions on a Dance Floor with house-music man Stuart Price (aka Jacques Lu Cont, the Thin White Duke) Ray of Light was truly the last time that happened so profoundly.
But how many moves can one person have up their sleeve in a lifetime? How long can they find new bases to cover? Especially when they’ve already done it all, like Madonna has.
Madonna was doing things in the 80s and 90s that today may seem insignificant but at that the time were so bold and deemed so wild. She was the original IDGAF girl and those home runs she hit helped other females – musicians and the everyday girl – feel they could make a cleaner slide onto the next base.
Ray of Light must have been one of the most satisfying pieces of work she has done. It makes you wonder if she feels the same way and that’s why everything after hasn’t reached quite the same heights.
But, how could they? Ray of Light was legit perfect. And still is.
It’s an iconic moment in legacy full of them.