It would be fair to say that Madonna’s Imperial phase came to an end pretty much with the 80’s. Her chart success in that decade was practically without parallel but nobody’s Imperial phase lasts forever. The 90’s were decidedly more hit and miss – there was movie success (Evita) and movie failure (the quite abominably frightful Body Of Evidence). There was music success – “Vogue” and “Justify My Love” most notably in the singles charts – but though the album before Ray Of Light, Bedtime Stories, had sold in predictable boatloads because, well, Madonna has a lot of fans, neither it nor its singles really impacted the public consciousness outside of her fandom all that much. There was a four-year gap between Bedtime Stories and Ray Of Light – not quite unprecedented for Madonna but still matching the longest period between albums she had ever taken. And, in truth, her public image was slipping.
Endless scandals, mostly manufactured to keep the tabloids frothing at the mouth, had kept the publicity machine rolling but after a point it all started to look a bit silly and, eventually, desperate. Her very public embrace of Kabbalah was mostly laughed at, a rich white Western woman playing at spirituality. Evita has started to right the ship – she won a Golden Globe for it and got an Oscar nod, though not for acting – but no matter how successful Evita was it wouldn’t ever quite be enough because, in the end, it wasn’t Madonna’s music, it was someone else’s. Sure, she shined. Sure, it was well received, and not in a “isn’t this good for Madonna?” sort of way. But if it’s not her music it’s not going to be enough. What Madonna needed was something to really put her where she belonged, at the front of the pack.
Hello, then, Ray Of Light. The most striking thing about both the album and the single is just how different they were to Madonna’s standard fare. The single, in particular, is shot through with an energy that had been in absentia for simply ages, and the upbeat, electronic and dance production both seem like a logical extension of what Madonna has done before and also like nothing what Madonna had done before. Even the opening guitar strums, which don’t seem like a completely logical fit for a song so committed to driving electronica, suggest a bridging, the move from one style to another. And it works well – it’s a nice lead into the song and it’s a motif that’s repeated a couple of times throughout it.
“Frozen” was the lead single from Ray Of Light, and it’s a good song – great, even – but it’s a ballad and it’s fairly traditional in style, despite the electronics going on under the surface. “Ray Of Light” by comparison is practically exploding with energy and it’s that energy that makes it such a captivating song. William Orbit, who’s one of the five credited songwriters on this track including Madonna herself, had the song a semitone higher than Madonna was used to singing as a way of getting her to really reach for the song, and it absolutely works. The energy that the song is suffused in can absolutely be heard in Madonna’s performance – “Frozen” has an excellent vocal as well but it’s comfortable in a way the singing on “Ray Of Light” isn’t. This is a performance that sees her really striving for the best she can get out of the track and it makes a big difference – the straining and effort really help capture the feeling of momentum that’s carried through in both the lyric (“quicker than a ray of light”) and the relentlessness of the instrumentation. The song was originally meant to feature a live drummer but because of scheduling clashes that got dropped in favour of electronic percussion, but that’s to the benefit of the song. While it would sound OK with real drums, the electronic drums, thoughtfully placed and carefully arranged, give the song a much firmer root in proper dance music and makes it feel like it belongs in any given club (which it does). Real drums would make this sound like dabbling – electronic drums make it sound authentic.
The other thing that’s worth mentioning, not just about this single but also the album in general, is that this is an incredibly easy version of Madonna to warm to, and that makes the material much easier to receive. There’s no dreary “scandals” here, no faux-outrage or sexually explicit teasing to try and drive up sales and keep Madonna’s name in the papers. After the Sex coffee-table book and “Justify My Love” there really wasn’t much more that could be done in that direction short of making actual pornography (although see Body Of Evidence for how close an escape we had), and the fact that this version of Madonna seems like a much more rounded person smooths off the air of desperation that had been starting to gather round her. Madonna herself has attributed that to becoming a mother, and the shift in perspective is incredibly welcome.
Ray Of Light obviously owes a huge debt to William Orbit as collaborator in general and a producer in particular, and while his influence is all over both the album and the single of the same name, it would be a mistake to put all the credit there. Because what this single really shows is that Madonna is capable of actually evolving. She’s never been a pop chameleon in comparison to the likes of (for example) David Bowie, even though she’s embraced a raft of different styles, but even while her style changed the attitude and approach was fairly consistent. Not so with Ray Of Light, and what’s remarkable is how well this new approach worked. Madonna had plenty of previous albums which had been well received but nothing like the virtually universal acclaim that Ray Of Light garnered on its release. The album demonstrated a maturing artist, someone who was capable of deepening and expanding on what she had already done while still being very much of a piece of what had come before. There’s a very clear line, musically, between this and something like “Vogue”, yet this is noticeably more sophisticated and developed. Artists like Madonna simply didn’t do songs like “Ray Of Light” in 1998 and while you couldn’t claim that it was cutting edge, exactly – anyone from Orbital to The Chemical Brothers could produce something musically similar – it was at least genre stretching for an artist that hadn’t often stepped outside her pop-music comfort zone. What it marked, more than anything else, was progress. In the end, Madonna didn’t really need all those scandals and headline-grabbing antics – stripped of all that nonsense the music spoke clearly for itself.
It wasn’t to last. The next album, Music, would find a move to country music that felt more calculated than progressive – especially in light of Shania Twian’s success – and made her look like she was following the trends, not setting them. A lacklustre cover of “American Pie” suggested that the huge vigour and likeability of Ray Of Light might have been a one-and-done, and the title track of Music already felt derivative of the Ray Of Light style though with rather less panache (and not everyone call pull off putting the word “bourgeoisie” in a song). Not that Music was badly received – it wasn’t – but it didn’t quite have the same animating energy either. And Madonna would gradually drift back to the scandals which as a younger woman she could get away with but as an older women started to look decidedly unseemly. There was that James Bond theme, which wasn’t exactly well-received either. And stupidly named albums designed to court controversy. Ray Of Light gave us a glimpse of an artist that really looked like she was going to develop but instead ended up falling back on increasingly tired props. There will be some successes, both commercial and artistic, in Madonna’s future but the likeable, warm and genuinely progressive artist that Ray Of Light gave us would mostly remain a feature of the late 90’s. And “Ray Of Light” itself is arguably the best example of that. Fast, fun, frenetic and with a lightness of touch that makes the whole track sing. On the video, Madonna lip-synchs while various cities flash by behind her in time-lapse, creating the perfect synthesis between video and music. It’s rather captivating, rather hypnotic, rather enthralling, and easy to just fall into – exactly like the song itself.
What Else Happened in 1998?
Next up for a knighthood is Elton John, who gets the Big Letter-opener Treatment in February. George Michael is arrested for “lewd conduct” in a Los Angeles public restroom – he gets community service and a single out of it. Geri Halliwell bails out of the Spice Girls for good, and Britney Spears arrives with “…Baby One More Time”. Biggest-selling-singles-wise things are little improved from last year – the biggest is warble-maniac Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, followed closely by RoboCher with the hideous “Believe” and rock dinosaurs Aerosmith with the asteroid-worrying “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing”. Linda McCartney dies from breast culture aged 56 and R.E.M. come back from the departure of their drummer with the much under-appreciated Up. Irish boyband Westlife are formed – sorry about that – and Faith No More quit. Lauren Hill releases the landmark The Miseducation Of Lauren Hill and Massive Attack are hanging out on the Mezzanine. In yet more terrible singles news Robbie Williams’s sacrilegious “Millennium” is released, and for fans of English football Baddiel, Skinner and The Lightning Seeds’ “Three Lions” becomes the national team’s semi-permanent anthem. Will Smith has Big Willie Style, Neutral Milk Hotel are In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Muse and Godspeed! You Black Emperor (format as required) both debut, but overall it’s a pretty tough year to get worked up about.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Madonna again. “Frozen” peaked at Number 2 in the U.S., which means she gets the pleasure of being twice-eligible. The Beautiful South’s “Perfect 10” would have made a nice choice had they not been covered already, and George Michael’s ode to cottaging, “Outside”, got to Number 2 in the UK towards the end of the year. Stardust’s weirdly-inescapable (and also not very good) “Music Sounds Better With You” made it to Number 2 with some late-summer vibes that very much signals The Way Things Are Going To Go, T-Spoon wanted to have “Sex On The Beach”, and Mousse T wishes to inform us that she is, in fact, horny. Horny, horny, horny tonight, as it goes.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Kylie Minogue – “Confide In Me”
7. Ultravox – “Vienna”
8. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
9. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
10. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
11. Pulp – “Common People”
12. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
13. The Beautiful South – “Song For Whoever”
14. The B-52’s – “Love Shack”
15. Luciano Pavarotti – “Nessun Dorma”
16. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
17. The KLF with Tammy Wynette – “Justified And Ancient (Stand By The JAMs)”
18. Madonna – “Ray Of Light”
19. James – “Sit Down”
20. Natalie Imbruglia – “Torn”
21. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
22. Suzanne Vega-DNA – “Tom’s Diner”
23. Manic Street Preachers – “A Design For Life”
24. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
25. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
26. 4 Non Blondes – “What’s Up?”
27. Queen, “Killer Queen”
28. Blondie, “Denis”
29. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
30. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
31. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
32. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
33. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
34. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
35. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
36. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
37. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
38. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
39. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
40. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
41. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”