A Personal History of Music, Day 11: “Ray of Light,” by Madonna
For nearly all Gen-Xers, there are three artists who can reasonably be said to have been universal experiences, i.e., they were in the soundtrack to your life whether you went out of your way to listen to them or not: Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. They were everywhere, the musical air that one breathed, there in the malls, in the schools, on MTV and radio. Even if you dove deep into heavy metal, goth or rap to escape their presence, sooner or later they were there, leaving you flabbergasted that, somehow, they found you. I’m not saying they were necessarily your favorite musicians (although they certainly were the favorite musicians of a great number of our contemporaries), or even that you liked them. I’m saying that no matter where you went, there they were.
In the fullness of time, it’s come as a little bit of a surprise to me that of this universal Gen-Xer triumvirate, it’s Madonna that I ended gravitating toward the most. I think if most people had to guess which “team” I was on of these three artists, they’d probably pick Prince. He was the most obviously restlessly creative of the three, who did his own genius thing however he chose and didn’t care if you liked it or not. This is clearly in line with who I would like to think I am as an artist and how I run my creative life — not a genius, and not on Prince’s level (who is), but happy to do my own thing without regard to anyone else’s preferences. Michael Jackson was a monstrous talent with a chip on his shoulder; it’s no secret that he was so incensed that his Off The Wall album was (relatively) overlooked at the Grammys that he designed Thriller to Win Everything, Everywhere, All the Time — and it did, carrying off eight Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year, for starters.
Madonna had the stubbornness of Prince and the drive of Michael Jackson, and added something of her own to the mix — a reinventiveness that proved critical to her longevity. Prince would always do his own thing, and Jackson could always make the world look at him. Madonna knew that for her, fame was something more of a moving target, and that she had to keep shapeshifting to keep the spotlight on her. She went from spangled club kid to seductress to chanteuse, and so on, every step made to remind us all that we haven’t seen all of who Madonna was or could be. At every step of Madonna’s career she dropped essential music: “Lucky Star,” “Like a Virgin,” “Like a Prayer,” “Express Yourself,” “Vogue.” Every step a hit, as it were. Ultimately I think that’s why I gravitated toward her as a fan: with every step, I heard a new side of her.
For me, the biggest step of her career, and the one she and I intersected best at, was the album Ray of Light. In 1998 I was used to the idea of Madonna reinventing herself on a regular basis, but I still wasn’t expecting this particular reinvention, which leaned heavily into the more ambient and dub sides of electronica. This was an album in many ways closer to, say, U.F.Orb than Like a Virgin. It wasn’t a repudiation of what Madonna had done before — Madonna doesn’t work that way, as far as I can tell — it was her saying that what she had done didn’t need to be immediately revisited. It freed her up to do and be something else.
And in “Ray of Light,” the song, that thing she was freed up to be was… joyful, in a way her music hadn’t expressed before, or at least, I hadn’t heard before. It’s not that she hadn’t done giddy or effervescent pop in her career to that point — “True Blue” and “Cherish” come to mind — bit to make a food comparison, those are bon-bons of pop songs, and “Ray of Light” is full meal, from vibe to instrumentation to lyrics. Madonna has made the point that Ray of Light was the first album from her after she had become a mother, and part of the goal of the album was to incorporate some of the changes in perspective that event and others had placed in her life.
I don’t want to say Ray of Light is Madonna’s first “adult” album, because that’s belittling to adult life experience minus children. I will say that the album came out when I and Krissy were expecting our own child, and the song “Ray of Light” then and now captured some of what I felt as we were waiting for Athena to arrive, and immediately after she did: A wonderful wrenching of the world, a feeling of happy potential, everything upended in the best way possible. It was music for a new era, for Madonna, and for me.
Madonna hasn’t stopped doing her thing, and of the Gen-Xer universal triumvirate, she’s the one that’s still with us, now in the Grande Dame phase of her career, putting out albums and singles that still chart. She doesn’t have to — it seems likely that Madonna will be remembered as long as anyone in pop music ever was — but I like that she does. She’s still reinventing herself. I like hearing where she goes next.