A Personal History of Music, Day 11: “Ray of Light,” by Madonna

John Scalzi

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.

— JS

16 Comments on “A Personal History of Music, Day 11: “Ray of Light,” by Madonna”

  1. My high school choir director got to spend a day shadowing Madonna (sometime in the early 90s) and said she was the hardest working and most energetic person she’d ever met— non-stop work.

  2. I’m leading edge Gen X and yeah, that’s a triumvirate inescapable in our generation. I enjoyed his music, but was never especially drawn to Michael Jackson (or Uncle Jackman as my 4 year old granddaughter currently insists on calling him when she wants to watch Thriller again).

    I love Madonna in pretty much all her incarnations, but out of the three my heart will always be with Prince. I’m not sure I could precisely define the reasons, but it was my immediate and unhesitating reactions.

  3. Ray of Light is the only Madonna album I ever bought, and it was definitely worth it. I’d liked the occasional song or two of hers but never enough to buy a full album until Ray of Light.

  4. I’ve always been a fan of Madonna (who is exactly two weeks older than I), but this album transcends all the rest of her work. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that William Orbit had a large hand in freeing her to make this album. Prince (exactly 12 weeks older than I) Is probably my favorite of the three you mention, but Michael Jackson the eternal tortured child (exactly one day older than I) also has a special place in this boomer’s musical heart. We Are The Children, after all.

  5. Thank you for making me listen to this!

    I’d heard it before, ofcourse. It’s a Madonna track, you hear ’em unless you take great amounts of effort to prevent yourself from doing so.

    And I had dismissed it. Madonna does loads of different things, some of them work for me but most don’t. I immensly disliked the backing track to her singing before. And I still do!

    Which I now believe she did on purpose. Setting a fragile little song against a REALLY harsh background is a trick one of my musical heroes, Tori Amos, has also used on multiple occasions. And it’s not like she invented it either. We’d have to get back to Bertold Brecht and his Vau-Effekte in 1930’s german stage plays and get historians argue from there…

    But that’s what she’s doing. And here I thought “Frozen” was the best track on that album….

  6. As someone who was already a fan of Madonna and William Orbit before this came out, I was blown away by how well they complemented each other and, frankly, elevated each other in the making of this album.

    William Orbit was always 100% vibes but could be really meander-y in his solo work; Madonna’s songwriting tightened that up into a laser-focus of solid pop. On the other hand, William Orbit brought a lushness to Madonna’s solid but reasonably straightforward production that took her style to the next level.

    Ray of Light is my favorite of each of their repertoires, and remains a fantastic album I go back to somewhat regularly.

  7. It’s interesting to see how carefully she managed her career and her publicity. For example, listen to ‘Lucky Star’ then listen to this track. She got a lot of vocal training early in her career, and you can hear how it paid off on tracks like ‘Ray of Light’ and ‘Like a Prayer’.

  8. I just found this series and backtracked and missed the window where you were talking about Sarah McLachlan’s “Sweet Surrender,” and I wanted to share this remix of the song by Roni Size: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZ2oeEXY5J4

    One of my college roommates had the vinyl of this remix and used to play it in our apartment late at night and it was very much my introduction to that kind of urban electronic cool that was super popular in the 2000’s. It always makes me think of driving around LA at night as a college kid, exploring the world. Still slaps after all these years.

  9. Totally with you on “Ray of Light.” For me, Madonna peaked (musically, anyway) with the album & this single. My favorite by far, with “Material Girl” a close second. The affirmation, joy, and sheer strength were wonderful.

    For those into such things, Sasha’s Ultraviolet remix is an incredible take on the original.

  10. I always thought, in a good way, that Madonna was the most intentionally commercial of the three. In a way, I think that’s something you have in common with her as well, in that you seem to make a conscious choice for the art you spend the most time on to be commercially viable as well. Her refusal to be static, to evolve, was something I always admired about her, and was proof that the commercial aspect was a conscious choice that didn’t constrain her. It’s not being a sell out if you are making art that interests you WHILE making a ton of money. Even when the work didn’t appeal to me, I could APPRECIATE it as being the work of someone who excelled at their craft and was constantly working to get better at it. I also thought her business sense was unparalleled in the pop music world.

  11. Snarky comment from an “OK Boomer”…one of only a few artists that can bridge gap but she has moved on, alas, with good impulse beat but babbling lyrics. Oh well, I didn’t like my parents Lawrence Well!

  12. It’s nice to get your perspective on this song, because it helps counter my association with it being one of about five songs my freshman year roommate (whom I did not like) played over and over and over and over and over and over and over . . .

  13. Bit of a meta comment, but I am very surprised that the “Personal History of Music” entries haven’t been more popular (as measured in terms of comments). I really thought people would have been much more engaged.
    Looking forward to the rest of Mr. Scalzi’s entries.

  14. I loved the Ray of Light album. I think it was her best songs on that album. I used to have it.

  15. Ray of Light is underappreciated. It’s my favorite song from Madonna far above most others (except maybe Frozen which comes near). 1998 was a strange year for me. End of my degree, young adult doubts, trying to find my way independently in life. Ray of Light came at just the right moment.

  16. Favorite Madonna song is ‘Music’


    And while I agree of the 80s trimvurate, I would say the Prince is king. With a decade of basically undancable music (80’s dancing was mindless head bobbing), Prince kept the funk, and knew the importance of, as James Brown put it, keeping it “on the one”.

    And with that, i give you the best song of the 80s decade:


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