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post Mar 1 2018, 10:05 PM
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Gay Times: 20 incredible facts about Ray of Light even the biggest fan might not know

Happy 20th birthday to Madonna’s seventh studio album, Ray of Light!

We’re sorry if that realisation has made you feel a little old.

Now Ray of Light is no longer a teenager and is officially a grown-up, we thought we’d put together a list of 20 interesting facts about one of the most iconic albums in Madonna’s extensive discography.

01. Madonna originally considered calling the album Mantra, but chose Ray of Light because she typically names her albums after a track on them.

02. It peaked at number 2 in the American charts when it was released. It was blocked by the Titanic soundtrack.

03. In the UK, it spent two weeks at number 1 and to date has spent over 130 weeks in the Top 100.

04. It also went to number 1 all over Europe, including in Spain, Germany and Italy.

05. At the time, it set the record for the most sales in a week by a female artist.

06. Madonna worked on the album with British producer William Orbit, who played all the guitars on on the tracks.

07. Orbit says remembers his fingers actually bleeding after playing so much. Nice.

08. The album won four Grammy awards, out of six nominations – including the 1998 Grammy for Best Pop Album. It also won the 1998 MTV Europe Music award for Best Album.

09. Adele is a huge fan of the album, citing it as a source of inspiration for 25. The track Frozen had a big impact on the singer, and she admitted that it gave her the “confidence to come and do me again.”

10. The mystical lyrics and music featured on some of the tracks were a result of Madonna’s dabbling with Kabbalah and her study of Hinduism and Buddhism after the birth of her daughter Lourdes.

11. Madonna received criticism from religious group The World Vaishnava Association, after her 1998 MTV VMA performance. They weren’t happy with her wearing a Bindi while performing a simulated sex act and wearing a see-through top.

12. The title song from the album is based on the 1971 folk track Sepheryn, which was written by Curtiss Muldoon and Dave Curtis. Madonna liked the song, and reworked it with Orbit for the album.

13. It was originally over ten minutes long. Madonna said it was “heartbreaking” having to cut it down to what she called “a sensible length” of 5 minutes 21 seconds.

14. Microsoft used the song in 2001 to advertise its Windows XP operating system. An interesting pairing.

15. The song was also part of a Family Guy gag which sees Peter Griffin take on the high-pitched chorus.

16. The album came out after Madonna played Eva Peron in the hit musical Evita. The star claims it was her vocal coach, who worked with her on the movie, that was responsible for increasing her singing ability.

17. Many critics have credited the album with introducing electronica music into mainstream pop culture.

18. Ray of Light is Madonna’s third-best selling album – with an estimated 20 million copies sold. This follows Like a Virgin and True Blue which both sold around 25 million each.

19. Rolling Stone magazine said that some of her vocals on the album sounded “painfully prissy” in their review of the album.

20. The cover art was shot by legendary fashion photographer Mario Testino – who apparently kept Madonna working past 2 am to get the right shot.

Happy birthday Ray of Light!

(Source: Gay Times)

NewNowNext: Ranking All The Tracks On Madonna’s “Ray Of Light”

In honor of the seminal album turning 20, Madonna expert Matthew Rettenmund gave us his official countdown of its best tracks.

When Ray of Light was released on February 22, 1998, Madonna’s image hit the ground and shattered into a flock of blackbirds.

Gone was Madonna the preening, winking, fun-loving vamp, replaced with a woman who was aggressively insightful and daring. If Like a Prayer revealed that Madonna had depth all along, the William Orbit-produced Light showed she had breadth: The woman who initially turned to music because it was the medium with which she could grab the most eyeballs the quickest, revealed herself to be more adventurous than ever, drawing from such far-flung sources as ‘70s glam rock, Eastern mysticism, and electronica—and risking her status as the Queen of Pop.

Selling more than 16 million copies worldwide, Ray of Light won the Grammys for Best Pop Album (her first musical Grammy), and the title track nabbed Best Dance Recording and Best Short Form Music Video. (It was also named Video of the Year at the 1998 VMAs.) The album remains singular in her career—and in pop music—and seems increasingly unlikely to be topped by its architect.

But let’s hope she never stops trying.

14. “To Have and Not to Hold”
There are arguably no bad songs on Ray of Light, so it boils down to picking the least brilliant. This Rick Nowels co-creation has a pre-Dido lilt and is shimmery-pretty, but there’s that too-easy “moth to a flame” lyric.

13. “Swim”
Orbit and Ciccone’s rocky ditty is the second track on the album, hitting us with lyrics about “Children killing children / While the students rape their teachers.” It’s an undeniably catchy number (the lyrics made less disconcerting by the lolling beat), but it feels like a wind-up before a pitch.

12. “Candy Perfume Girl”
Madonna was a huge Prince fan, and collaborated here with Prince protégée Wendy Melvoin’s twin, Susannah Melvoin. The song’s impressionistic lyrics hardly get in the way of its punk-rock edge, but a company called Magnetic Poetry accused the icon of using its product—a collection of fridge magnets bearing random words—to compose this minimalist guitar grind.

11. “Shanti/Ashtangi”
Reflecting her embrace of yoga, Madonna and Orbit crafted this Eastern delight, adapted from the work of Adi Shankara. Produced before the current fervor over cultural appropriation, “Shanti/Ashtangi” remains a pure example of Madonna using her platform to expand the hearts and minds of teenagers desperately seeking cruising jams.

10. “Little Star”
Written with Nowels during the first year of Lourdes’ life, this adult-contemporary lullaby oozes maternal pride. Twenty years later, her bond with Lola is still unshakeable.

09. “Has To Be”
Never heard of it? Fake fan! “Has to Be”—the only song on the album written by Madonna, Orbit and Leonard—appears just on the Japanese import, which is inexplicable because it’s a haunting ballad as vulnerable as anything she’s ever recorded. Perfect on a mixtape with Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.”

08. “The Power of Good-Bye”
A chilly throbber that grabs you from the opening line, “Your heart is not open / So I must go,” this hit single reached Number 11 in the U.S. and Number 6 in the U.K. It showcases Madonna’s post-Evita vocal control: While some object to the formality of her new phrasing—that hard R, though!—it serves this symphonic no-more-love song well.

The video, shot by Matthew Rolston and co-starring Goran Višnjić, is a secret remake of the Jean Negulesco-directed Joan Crawford masterpiece, Humoresque (1946).

07. “Nothing Really Matters”
Written with Patrick Leonard, with whom Madge created most of her best songs, “Nothing Really Matters” uncannily incorporates her newfound interest in the profound with her dance-floor origins, melding a high-drama electronic slam with house music all night long. The album’s most cheerful song, it was nonetheless a chart dud as a single (hitting just Number 93 in the U.S.).

The absolutely bonkers music video by Johan Renck allowed Madonna to both exorcise her obsession with the novel Memoirs of a Geisha (she reportedly imagined starring in the film adaptation) and to force some subversive imagery into young eyes seeking something less challenging. The choreography owes a hat tip to Elaine Benes, in the best possible way.

06. “Mer Girl”
One of the most avant-garde songs of Madonna’s career, this intensely emo prose poem set to dissonant blips and beeps plunges into the singer’s psyche as a child whose mother died young. It’s like that Truth or Dare scene in which she lies on her mother’s grave, but if she started digging once there. “I ran and I ran/ I was looking for me” could be the title of her autobiography. Maybe more impressive than enjoyable to some.

05. “Skin”
This Madonna-Patrick Leonard scorcher undulates as it ponders her limitations as a communicator, arguing instead for the instant connection of skin-to-skin contact.

“I’m not like this all the time,” Madonna warns—and she wasn’t kidding.

04. “Sky Fits Heaven”
An urgent, upbeat track written by Madonna with Leonard, “Heaven” unfurls like a nervous heartbeat as she quotes prophets and wise men. Madge effortlessly multi-tasks, imparting wisdom while infecting us with a need to move. The most egregiously underserved track on the album, in that it was never a single anywhere. Listen for the “Bedtime Story” echo.

03. “Ray of Light”
Ranking one of Madonna’s signature singles in the context of the album from whence it sprung is tough, but “Ray of Light” is truly special. Reaching Number 5 on the U.S. charts, the song was derived from the 1971 tune “Sepheryn” by Curtiss Muldoon, adapted by Madonna as an orgiastic declaration of freedom and transition. Its primal scream is one of the best moments in the studio.

Her live take on The Oprah Winfrey Show, is unforgettable, as much for Madonna’s A+ vocal as for Oprah’s cute, B- dancing.

02. “Drowned World/Substitute for Love”
Beginning with a sample of Jesse Pearson uttering “You see” from a beatnik Rod McKuen song, this slinky, methodical deconstruction of Madonna’s rock-star life denounces fame, starf***ers, and sex in favor of family. (It’s one of her favorite things she’s ever written, and easily her best Orbit co-composition on Ray of Light.)

The song climaxes with anger before ending with what seemed at the time like an embrace of a permanent post-siren image. “Drowned World” wasn’t a U.S. single, but the Walter Stern-directed music video, which referenced the recently departed Princess Diana, has to be in the Top 10 of her work in that medium.

01. “Frozen”
The best song on Ray of Light? This career-changing hit (Number 2 in America) written with Leonard effectively turned the page on all Madonna had done before, sounding, as it did, like nothing else on the radio. “Frozen” is one of Madonna’s most beautiful tunes, contains some of her most simply insightful lyrics (“You’re frozen / When your heart’s not open”) and spawned a haunting Chris Cunningham-directed music video reintroducing the singer as a black-haired desert diva in triptych, covered in henna, undulating like Martha Graham.

“Give yourself to me,” she implored, and we all did.

(Source: NewNowNext)

Billboard: Madonna's 'Ray of Light' at 20: Her Collaborators Look Back on the Electronic Pop Milestone

When Ray of Light dropped on Feb. 22, 1998, the world was already used to the idea of Madonna reinventing herself with each album. But even so, the Madonna Ciccone revealed on Ray of Light was a breathtaking departure from everything that had come before. Instead of pushing boundaries and pressing society's buttons with the smirk of a precocious child, the then-39-year-old singer was looking inward -- and for the first time, she was admitting she didn't necessarily like what she saw. For a pop star and songwriter defined by her ferocious confidence, Ray of Light showed us that after conquering the world, Madonna still had doubts.

"I traded fame for love, without a second thought / It all became a silly game, some things cannot be bought,” Madonna intones at the start of the album over an impossibly lonely ambient soundscape. “I got exactly what I asked for / Wanted it so badly / Running, rushing back for more, I suffered fools so gladly / And now I find, I've changed my mind."

While Madonna’s previous studio album kicked off in a similar navel-gazing fashion, Bedtime Stories’ opener “Survival” was all about resilience and perseverance. “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” however, finds Madonna sounding dispirited and dissatisfied with what she’s become (hey, did you expect a song with TWO depressing titles to be an exuberant dance anthem?). But Madonna being Madonna, that doesn’t translate into self-pity -- instead, it’s a jumping off point for her evolution in both sound and spirit, brilliantly setting up the narrative of the most contemplative album of her career. On Ray of Light, she's reached the top, but she's still empty -- and she's wondering what's next.

Over the course of 13 tracks, Madonna takes us through her journey to self-realization, touching upon Eastern philosophy ("Sky Fits Heaven”), yoga (“Shanti/Ashtangi”), the birth of her first child, Lourdes ("Little Star"), regrets over her past ("Candy Perfume Girl"), and lost love ("The Power of Goodbye"). Of course “Ray of Light” remains one of the most joyous entries in her catalog, but the bulk of Ray of Light is marked by introspection. And significantly, the album’s minimalist closing track, "Mer Girl,” offers no answers or solutions as Madonna confronts mortality and a life haunted by her mother’s death: “I ran and I ran, I was looking for me… I ran and I ran, I’m still running away.” On Ray of Light, the sagacity is Socratic -- Madonna doesn’t have the answers, but she knows it; and that’s what makes this her wisest work to date. (And that maturity wasn’t just lyrical: Thanks to the rigorous vocal training she’d taken to hone her craft for her Golden Globe-winning role in Evita, Madonna's vocal control had never been more nuanced and full-bodied.)

If Ray of Light was a surprise left-field turn for listeners, one longtime collaborator didn't seem to notice any glaring changes in her behavior when working on the album. Patrick Leonard, who started working with her for her 1985 Virgin Tour and would go on to co-write and co-produce well over a dozen Madonna hits including "Live to Tell," "Like a Prayer," and "Cherish," found the songwriting process for Ray of Light to be fairly similar to what they'd done before.

After sitting out the Erotica and Bedtime Stories LPs, Leonard tells Billboard Madonna reached out to him with a simple proposition: “The premise was, ‘This (partnership) worked really well before, let’s try it again.’ It was just that, it was kind of innocent. If it goes well, we’ll do it, and if it doesn’t, fine...When you do that much collaborating, you just fall right back into it.” For Ray of Light, the process yielded several new songs: the reflective “Sky Fits Heaven,” the philosophic banger “Nothing Really Matters,” the pulsating “Skin” and the massive hit “Frozen.” (He also co-wrote the Japanese bonus track "Has to Be," but admits to barely remembering it: "I did work on it?" Leonard says with a laugh. "Well, that's nice.")

If the songwriting process was familiar, Leonard did, however, notice a change in her literal voice: “The one thing I noticed when we were doing Ray of Light is her singing. She was in a slightly different place singing-wise because of Evita, and I think that influenced some of this stuff for her. There had been a lot of focus on singing for her, and it changed things, but not better or worse, just different.”

Although Ray of Light was his first time writing songs with Madonna, songwriter Rick Nowels -- who met her at the Upper East Side Barneys in Manhattan the evening of Clive Davis’ 1997 Grammys party -- gives an account of working with her that resembles what the lion’s share of her collaborators say: She’s fast, and excessively professional.

“I had a little house up in Mulholland Drive (in Los Angeles) and I had a studio in it, it overlooked the San Fernando Valley,” Nowels says of their writing sessions. “I sat behind the keyboard and she sat opposite me in the living room. And every day she'd show up 3-7: She was always on time, always arrived at 3 and always left at 7. We'd start with nothing and she'd walk out at the end of the day with the song demoed and the vocals cut... I'd start playing and she'd start singing, and these songs happened quickly, maybe a half hour, 45 minutes."

Over the course of two five-day work weeks, the pair wrote nine songs. Three of them -- “The Power of Goodbye,” “To Have and Not to Hold” and “Little Star” -- ended up on Ray of Light, with another one, “Like a Flower,” going to Italian singer Laura Pausini (recorded in Italian under the title “Mi Abbandono A Te”).

Those songs followed a directive Madonna had given Nowels prior to their sessions as he was workshopping beats: “She said prepare stuff ‘either really radical or really beautiful…nothing in between.'"

You could apply both of those descriptors to one of Madonna’s Ray of Light tracks with Patrick Leonard, the Billboard Hot 100 No. 2 hit “Frozen.” Gossamer and gorgeous on the verses but inventive and CinemaScope-sized on the chorus, Leonard recalls Madonna’s specific instructions for that song: “She asked me if I could write something that was somewhere between The English Patient and Nine Inch Nails, and that's what ‘Frozen’ was.”

If the songwriting process on Ray of Light didn’t veer too far from her previous writing sessions, her choice in producers did make an enormous difference. After abandoning a plan to reteam with “Take a Bow” collaborator Babyface, Madonna turned to British techno veteran William Orbit -- whose Strange Cargo series she was a fan of -- to produce all but one of the album's 13 songs, and producer/composer Marius de Vries to co-produce three tracks.

"I knew it was extraordinary straightaway," says de Vries, who had previously worked with Madonna on Bedtime Stories and her Massive Attack collaboration "I Want You" (a Marvin Gaye cover). "William obviously has a very strong sound of his own, and it was coupled with her newfound confidence in both the songwriting and singing departments. Even from the early stages, I wouldn't say I knew it was going to be a groundbreaking commercial success, but I thought it sounded fascinating, compelling and creatively energized."

Orbit’s adventurous soundscapes and ambient textures gave the album a chilly cohesiveness. While Leonard did co-produce his four Ray of Light songs, he admits his presence was less involved than usual. “The other records we very much produced together, and on Ray of Light I was just watching a little bit,” he recalls. "It was pretty clear William was doing something very special and not something I would have done – it's not my wheelhouse. He works very uniquely. He has an impressive vision, for sure. At the end of the day, there wasn't anything I didn't like.”

Similarly, Nowels describes how Orbit used his demos with Madonna as “templates for his production,” noting that “‘The Power of Goodbye" was altered considerably. "Some of the chords changed and the feel of the song changed…. The demo got leaked online so you can hear the original. It was a No. 1 song in Europe. I love both versions, to me it is among her best songs.”

“I let William (Orbit) play mad professor,” Madonna told Spin for a 1998 cover story. “He comes from a very experimental, cutting-edge sort of place — 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.”

But for one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, the risk-taking stage can't last forever.

"They were in full-on experimental mode," de Vries says of joining Orbit and Madonna in Los Angeles to complete the album. "William, if left to his own devices, will keep generating ideas because he's first and foremost a profoundly creative soul. With the wealth of material they had they were maybe in need of a little perspective, and possibly I might say, discipline in the final stages." And it was an easy fit for him. "William and I come from the same generation and background, late '80s and '90s U.K. electronica. We already spoke the same language -- it wasn't a stretch for me to fit into that aesthetic, and it was easy for me to recognize that and protect it."

When de Vries hit the studio, two of his co-productions were already well underway. "'Nothing Really Matters' and 'Little Star' I had a really good head start on, I'd spent a couple weeks messing around with them in my studio near Cambridge.... finishing them off was relatively straightforward," he notes. And while he didn't co-produce it, he also contributed to one of the album's signature songs, helping push it over the finish line.

"('Frozen') wasn't finished and Guy (Oseary, Madonna's manager) in particular felt it was going to be a key track. Guy took me aside and said 'Look, there's a lot of cooks in this production kіtchen already but it's not quite finished.' I took a day or two finessing and adding to some of the drum programming and making some additional textures for it. I love the song, and it turned out to be such a key track in making the album global, though perhaps at the time it didn't scream 'obvious hit' for me. But in the end I was just happy to contribute."

Leonard, who co-wrote and co-produced "Frozen," shared a similar sentiment when asked if he knew it would be a breakout. "When you're writing something, in my career, the word hit never comes into it. You just can't say that word. Bad word to say."

For de Vries, working on the driving "Skin" was "the most collaborative from the ground up" song on Ray of Light. The U.K. producer recalls adding a little Easter egg to that song via a field recording he'd taken in the Marrakesh marketplace Jamaa el Fna while on holiday with his kids: "If you listen very carefully to the tail of the fade on 'Skin,' you can hear my son -- who was maybe five at the time -- saying, 'Daddy are they snake charmers?'"

Kiddie cameos aside, Madonna didn't turn to Orbit and de Vries for their sweetness. Talking to Spin in 1998, she explained why she tapped the U.K. electronic producers for her seventh LP: “They bring the cold. I bring the warmth.”

Nowhere is that combination of daring production and vocal depth more apparent than on the title track (speaking of bold, the original version of “Ray of Light” exceeded 10 minutes until it was edited down.) A towering achievement in her discography and '90s music in general, “Ray of Light” helped introduce techno (already popular in Europe) to the top 40 in America, cracking the door open for an eventual electronic music revolution in U.S. pop.

But “Ray of Light” is more than just Madonna’s foray into electronica. As she told Spin, there’s a warmth she brings to the then-burgeoning genre -- few electronic albums prior to Ray of Light display moments of radiant joy along the lines of “Ray of Light.” It bursts with the ecstasy of a new day and new possibilities, conveying the sense of a fresh start that's still true to oneself. And a testament to her underrated talent as a songwriter, the lyrics on “Ray of Light” (partially based on the 1971 folk song “Sepheryn” from Curtiss Maldoon) are never cloying or pandering. What might have come across as Chicken Soup for the Raver’s Soul in the hands of a lesser talent becomes a transcendent, inspirational declaration of intent from the pen of Madonna Veronica Louise Ciccone.

“It’s an iconic album. It’s Madonna in all her artist glory. William had a revolutionary energy in his record making and I think they inspired each other,” Nowels says. “I feel personally honored to have had a small role in her musical story.”

"The whole album, not just the material I worked on, has an undeniable identity to it. You can play a second of it and you'd immediately know where you were and what album you're in," de Vries says. "That's probably one of the reasons for its longevity and position in people's favorite records list -- it's unmistakable. A huge tip of the cap to William Orbit, he should look back on this as a titanic achievement."

“(Madonna and I) collaborate together well and I've always held to the mutual respect we have for each other; we worked fast and easy,” Leonard recalls. “There was a couple things (on the album) I thought didn't get the kind of attention they should have, but right now, what I know about this process, if I listened to it right now, those things that I didn’t feel that way might be my favorite things. It’s too subjective and it changes with time.”

Ray of Light would hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200, moving 371,000 copies in its first week; it earned her four Grammys and went on to sell 3.89 million copies in the U.S. (through Feb. 15, 2018) according to Nielsen Music. Just days ahead of its 20th anniversary, its ongoing relevance to pop culture was underlined when Belgian figure skater Loena Hendrickx performed to “Frozen” at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. “It’s a powerful song,” Hendrickx told Billboard. “Madonna is someone I look up to because of her strong personality and the goals she accomplished. She is an awesome example of girl power.”

But beyond numbers and Olympic appearances, Ray of Light is a laudable rarity in pop music: It’s an album that demonstrates how true happiness starts with tough self-examination, and that the path to strength lies in acknowledging your regrets and weaknesses without letting them define you. Madonna would reach higher positions on the albums and singles chart after this, but never again would a dance-pop LP, from her or another, sound so wise.

(Source: Billboard)
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post Mar 1 2018, 10:06 PM
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Rolling Stone: Madonna's 'Ray of Light': 6 Things You Didn't Know

Twenty years ago, Madonna was at a crossroads. After launching her Maverick entertainment company in 1992 with her widely but not wisely panned Erotica album and Sex book, the star entered a period of relative caution. The exuberant queerness of those works gave way to muted ballads, followed by Evita, which made her feminism palatable to Middle America. After the birth of her daughter Lourdes in 1996, she sought spiritual enlightenment in Kabbalah and Ashtanga yoga, and immersed herself in the work of songwriters who shared their secrets via meditative electronic textures – particularly Björk, Everything But the Girl and Tricky.

All these factors shaped Ray of Light, an album akin to those artists' work, but also uniquely Madonna-esque. Rooted in the underground yet heard and loved by millions, it's the multi-platinum antecedent to today's popular EDM, but considerably more personal. Twenty years later, singers and producers alike are still chasing its finely finessed fusion of anguished rumination and beat-driven bliss. Rolling Stone spoke with key collaborators on this watershed LP. Here are six things we learned.

1. Although the project's synth-centric final results earned her the passing nickname Veronica Electronica, Madonna didn't initially plan to work with songwriter Rick Nowels or producer William Orbit.
After Evita, Madonna reunited with Babyface, co-producer and co-writer of Bedtime Stories' "Take a Bow," which had topped the Hot 100 for seven weeks in 1995. But according to the smooth-soul magnate, "Madonna didn't want or need to repeat herself." Spotting her at Barney's department store when he'd come to Manhattan for the Grammys, producer and songwriter Rick Nowels – now Lana Del Rey's primary collaborator – impulsively introduced himself. "I told her I was nominated for a Grammy for Celine Dion's 'Falling Into You,'" he recalls. Much to his surprise, she replied, "Oh, I love that song." This led to a meeting at her home, where, according to Nowels, "She said she had no idea what the new album was going to be." At Nowels' Mulholland Drive home studio, the pair wrote nine songs in 10 days.

"Until then, I had only written with friends – Ellen Shipley, Billy Steinberg, and Stevie Nicks," Nowels remembers. "It was quite unnerving to write one-on-one with the biggest star on the planet. But I loved her songs and felt an emotional kinship with her music. I got a lot of DJ records and old film score records and prepared loops to write to. Once the song was written, we'd drop the loop and program our own beat. 'Little Star' and 'The Power of Good-Bye' were written over a drum 'n' bass rhythm, which was happening at the time. 'To Have and Not to Hold' was written to a bossa nova beat."

Guy Oseary – chairman of Maverick Records – phoned synth-pop veteran William Orbit, who'd previously remixed Madonna's "Justify My Love" and "Erotica." Orbit's involvement expanded as the project evolved, although core Madonna associate Patrick Leonard and British producer Marius De Vries were both called in to assist as the album's creation stretched out over four-and-a-half months – an eternity for the fast-working Madonna.

2. Ray of Light is largely about spiritual transformation, but one song deals with the perils of hard drugs.
"Candy Perfume Girl" came out of a two-week writing and recording stint between Orbit and Susannah Melvoin, daughter of top L.A. session musician Mike Melvoin, brother to late Smashing Pumpkins touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, twin sister to Prince and the Revolution's Wendy Melvoin, and former fiancée to Prince. She's no slouch herself: As member of the Family, a splinter group of the Time, she co-sang the original version of "Nothing Compares 2 U" and co-wrote one of Prince's sweetest songs, Sign o' the Times' "Starfish and Coffee." According to Melvoin, William Orbit offered her some tracks to write melodies and lyrics to and sing over for what she thought would either become her solo debut or an album by Orbit's Strange Cargo project, which she – and, it turns out, Madonna – both loved.

"I was on the floor [of Orbit's studio], just putting words together, and came up with 'Candy Perfume Girl,'" she recalls. "It was a personal track for me. At the time, I was mourning my brother [Jonathan died of a heroin overdose in 1996], and it was the allure of drug addiction. I was pretty jacked up about that record happening, and there were a couple of other songs that I had done with him there."

But Melvoin's publisher got a call notifying her that Orbit had offered Madonna the tracks they'd worked on: "Candy Perfume Girl" was going on the record, and Madonna wanted a third of the publishing. Melvoin maintains she also wrote the original lyrics to Ray of Light's "Swim," which, she says were "changed, but not significantly," as well as the original melodies, which she concedes were "manipulated." Yet in this case Melvoin didn't get credit or compensation. The songwriter emphasizes she has no beef with Madonna; she feels the superstar understood exactly what "Candy Perfume Girl" was about, and that she made a brilliant record. "But had I gotten proper publishing on Ray of Light," Melvoin asserts, "I wouldn't be worried about my financial life."

3. The album's defining techno-rock title track was based on an obscure folk oldie.
Just as Orbit offered Madonna his Melvoin material, he similarly sent her a tape featuring unreleased work with Christine Leach, an English singer who'd co-written and sang with Strange Cargo. Leach's uncle is David Atkins, who, as Dave Curtiss, had been half of Curtiss Maldoon, an overlooked folk duo that released a pair of unsuccessful albums on Deep Purple's label in the early Seventies. The first one yielded "Sepheryn," which Leach altered and sang parts of over the instrumental track given to her by Orbit, who had assumed Leach solely wrote what she sang. Madonna made additional changes, and the track became what we know as "Ray of Light," which is credited to Madonna, William Orbit, Clive Maldoon, Dave Curtis [sic] and Christine Leach.

Some elements "Ray of Light" are strikingly similar to parts of "Sepheryn": The opening vocal melody remains basically the same while the lyrics deviate only slightly. But "Ray of Light" omits the multiple tempo changes of "Sepheryn" while maintaining a steady rhythm. These changes appear in the Leach rendition leaked online. Madonna's interpretation – which adds a crucial second, goddess-centric verse – is certainly closer to it than to the Curtis Maldoon original, but Madge's way with the melody commands and sustains attention in ways that Leach's does not. Madonna and Orbit managed to turn a compelling experiment in transformation into the cornerstone of a whole album about radical personal and spiritual growth.

4. Despite the borrowing, Madonna's Ray of Light collaborators consider the icon to be a top-level musical mind.
Having co-written and co-produced significant chunks of many Madonna albums, including Ray of Light, as well as serving as her keyboardist and musical director on two major tours, Patrick Leonard has worked with Madonna longer and more extensively than any other musician. He also co-wrote and produced Leonard Cohen's final three studio albums, so when he calls her "a helluva songwriter," it means something.

"Her sensibility about melodic line – from the beginning of the verse to the end of the verse and how the verse and the chorus influence each other – is very deep," he contends. "That's not common. Say 'Live to Tell,' for example, our first big single. The melodies I wrote are still there and she sings them for the most part, but it's where she departs from them that turned it into a song. Many times she's singing notes that no one would've thought of but her. Some of it can be perceived as naiveté because she's picking a note you wouldn't choose. But who needs the 'correct' note? You need the right note that tells the story, and she's great at that. She certainly made me look better. All I have to do is look at all the other people I wrote with over the years and how that went."

Los Angeles-based cellist Suzie Katayama has worked with many big names in rock and pop including Roy Orbison, Neil Young, Prince, Eric Clapton, Björk and Beck. Her association with Madonna goes way back to 1986, and for Ray of Light, she conducted its strings and woodwinds – 20 violins, six violas, six cellos, four basses, two flutes and an oboe.

"It was a long day," she recalls. "For that album, we did the orchestra in one day, both 'Frozen' and 'The Power of Good-bye.' That's why I don't remember much except for working really hard and fast. Everything that Madonna does, she is there. I have never been to anything that's hers that she didn't have the final say on it. She's hands-on. People can say whatever they want, but I remember when she did Dick Tracy, I had never seen anyone work so hard. I was impressed, and I think everyone was because she had to hold her own with a lot of people in that movie.

"This was the record where I had more people calling me, saying, 'Whoa, this is a great record,'" she continues. "It was real musical. Ray of Light showed a side of her that I don't think most people saw."

5. One of the songs written but not recorded for Ray of Light was released years later by an Italian superstar.
If you're not European or don't listen to Spanish-language radio, you probably don't recognize the name Laura Pausini. But the Faenza-born singer is pretty much a household name overseas, having sold more than 70 million records internationally. Her attempt to crack the U.S. market, 2002's From the Inside, flopped spectacularly. So for 2004's Resta in Ascolto and its European equivalent Escucha, Pausini returned to Italian and Spanish respectively, and together those albums sold more than 5 million copies, while the latter snagged both Grammy and Latin Grammy trophies. According to Nowels, their closing song, "Mi Abbandono a Te" ("Me Abandono a Ti" on Escucha) was originally titled "Like a Flower," and was composed by both him and Madonna during their Ray of Light songwriting sessions. Having re-written most of the Nowels-produced ballad's lyrics in Italian and Spanish, Pausini makes it her own. Nevertheless, the melody's melancholy Ray of Light–ness remains: The bilingual chorus couldn't be more Madonna if it poked you in the eye with a pointy bustier.

6. None of Madonna's records won a Grammy until Ray of Light.
The Recording Academy often rewards entertainers who release hit after hit, but this hasn't been the case with Madonna for much of her long career. In her first 15 years of releasing albums, she got a few scattered Grammy nominations – including nods for "Crazy for You," "Papa Don't Preach," and "Who's That Girl" – but her only win was for Blond Ambition World Tour Live, a long-out-of-print 1990 laser disc that's never been officially reissued on DVD or any other format.

But Ray of Light significantly interrupted her losing streak: It won for Best Dance Recording and Best Pop Album, and the title track's promo clip won Best Short Form Music Video. Since then, she's won three more times out of 15 subsequent nominations – including Best Electronic/Dance Album for her 2005 LP Confessions on a Dance Floor, which features a kindred mix of rhythmic extroversion and poetic reflection.

Rather than throwing the Academy some deserved shade, Madonna, taking the stage in a flaming red Jean-Paul Gaultier kimono, merely thanked her collaborators before she yanked William Orbit – who towered shyly above her – down and toward the mic, chiding him for mumbling his gratitude: "He does speak English; you'd never know it."

(Source: Rolling Stone)

The Quietus: To The Heart Of The Nightmare - Madonna’s Ray Of Light 20 Years On

Lucy O’Brien posits that, in the tradition of the 1970s-style concept album, Ray Of Light is Madonna’s Dark Side Of The Moon

In February 1998 Madonna’s new album was literally a ray of light in stodgy UK charts made moribund by the Britpop comedown (Oasis’ Be Here Now, Stereophonics et al), and industry hits like the Titanic soundtrack. In the US it wasn’t much better, with Celine Dion and Garth Brooks at the top. The only other women on the album chart were Spice Girls, All Saints and Aqua, so unsurprisingly Madonna saw off the competition with aplomb. With its icy electronica and pulsing beats, Ray Of Light appeared as the pick-me-up for rave generation. It marked Madonna’s maturity as an artist, brought the MOJO demographic on board, and signalled to the world that a so-called pop bimbo can break down the barriers of that pop/rock divide.

However, it hadn’t been an easy journey, and despite its sunny title the album is a voyage into the darkness and terror of grief. Like Dark Side Of The Moon, it is an elegiac study of ego, mental disintegration and the fear of death. Pink Floyd’s epic drew on ‘70s psychoanalysis, R D Laing and the divided self, while Ray Of Light captures the 90s zeitgeist with its references to Kabbalah and the subconscious. Dark Side uses the sun and moon as symbols of life and death, while Ray Of Light revolves around the duality of sea and sky. Both albums require the listener to go the whole journey to get the full effect.

The album came at a crucial time for Madonna. After the high octane success of the 1980s, her 1990s were testing and difficult. $l*t-shamed over her Sex book and the Erotica album, Madonna engaged in angry attention-seeking exercises like saying “f***” 13 times on Late Show with David Letterman. She had lost confidence, and the tentative R&B of 1994’s Bedtime Stories felt like marking time. Veering off into musical theatre with the Evita project took her into safe MOR territory, but, ironically, rather than turning her into a 1980s pop has-been, those strenuous theatrical songs sung with a full orchestra gave her voice depth and tone. By then Madonna was in her late 30s and re-evaluating life, casting around for answers in study of Yogic philosophy. The birth of her daughter Lourdes in 1996 knocked out some of that infamous ego, so that when she returned to the studio in 1997 for the Ray Of Light sessions she had discovered a more intense, personal voice than the so-called “Minnie Mouse on helium” of earlier years.

Ray Of Light was created in old school prog rock fashion – with mainly one producer, over a period of months, in an intensively collaborative process. “She produced me producing her,” said William Orbit. Recorded in a modest studio in an unfashionable part of LA, the album was intentionally un-industry. Early sessions with Babyface were shelved, and Madonna’s longtime producer arranger Pat Leonard was sidelined in favour of an awkward English eccentric whose hardware kept breaking down. Although Orbit’s perceived amateurism made her nervous, Madonna knew from his dancefloor remix of 1990’s ‘Justify My Love’ that he could create the futuristic tone she craved. With Bass-O-Matic’s Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Bass (named after a Pink Floyd album), and the rave anthem ‘In The Realm Of The Senses’, Orbit had already declared an interest. Kabbalah and new motherhood opened Madonna’s mind, but it was the alchemy between her and Orbit – his trippy underground vibe and her willingness to experiment, that triggered her transformation of consciousness. With Ray Of Light they created the sonic space and musical textures for the sparse poetry that’s embedded in her songwriting. Previous hit-driven albums, with the exception of moments on Like A Prayer and Erotica, hadn’t allowed room for that potential to emerge. For the first time she could express herself in-depth.

Madonna did her background reading – everything from JG Ballard to Anne Sexton to Shakespeare’s sonnets were inspirations here – and did lengthy songwriting sessions with Leonard and Rick Nowells (“her lyric writing was poetic and intelligent,” the latter says, “she knows how to channel a song”) before she set foot in the studio. Once there, little Lourdes was installed in a playroom, and Madonna focused on the tracks that would eventually piece together a story. “I traded fame for love/ Some things cannot be bought… Now I find/ I’ve changed my mind,” she sang on opening track ‘Drowned World/Subsitute for Love’. The apocalyptic dreamscape of JG Ballard’s Drowned Worlds sets the tone. From there she moves into ‘Swim’, a low-slung electro song where Madonna delves into the religious themes of her pop past as the Sin-eater, carrying “these sins on my back”. ‘Ray of Light’ then provides a giddy moment of reawakening, with Orbit pushing her to sing a semitone higher than her comfort zone in order to stretch out that sense of hedonist abandon. This is the song, with its accompanying Jonas Akerlund video – all speeding lights, winking urbanscapes and fast motion skies – that relaunched her career, that married techno beats to cranked-up oscillators and wall-of-sound pop, and begged the question, did Madonna neck a zesty pinger?

The ecstatic moment melts into the addiction, obsession and dirty bass distortion of ‘Candy Perfume Girl’. Boy, girl, boy, girl, it’s all candy, it doesn’t matter. Aimless distraction gives way to the ghostly anime of ‘Skin’, a truly chilling track with Madonna’s voice gliding over the top of feverish psychedelic chaos, trying to catch something she can’t reach. In the same way that Pink Floyd’s ‘On The Run’ used a proto acid house pulse and electronic effects to create a feeling of unsettled angst, so Orbit’s pulverising techno suggests a dissolution of self. By the sweeping chorus of ‘Nothing Really Matters’ Madonna has found a way to slough off the feral, fame-hungry mindset that drove her to the top of the 1980s music industry, but which no longer serves her. “I lived so selfishly/ I was the only one/ …I realised that no one wins,” she sings in a moment of revelation. A sanskrit chant links into the desolate suffering of ‘Frozen’, Madonna’s big ballad ‘Us And Them’ moment. All of them pile in – from Orbit and Marius De Vries’s shifting dynamics and glacial production, to Leonard’s aching arrangements, to Chris Cunningham’s manga-inspired video depicting her as a witch goddess swooping through desert plains – perfectly capturing the sadness that kept her heart locked down.

Although Madonna’s sound is usually demarcated by simple verse/chorus pop logistics, she is also good at unresolved yearning. From as way back as 1984’s ‘Borderline’, she knows how to defer, to anticipate, to wish for, but with no resolution. The songs ‘Learn To Say Goodbye’, with every word carefully annunciated, and ‘To Have And Not To Hold’, with its brooding bossa nova beat, bear this out. She is nearly there, caught in a state of tension. There is a brief flowering of motherly love with ‘Little Star’, a skittering reflection on her baby daughter. But this, eventually, is what gets her in touch with her own mother and the source of her pain.

‘Mer Girl’, the final track on the album, is Madonna’s ‘Brain Damage’, that moment when the lunatics are on the grass. Having travelled through psychological soundscapes, here she is in a nightmare with a hallucinatory black sky, running through the rain with matted hair to a place with “crawling tombstones”. In the same way that Gilmour and Waters worked with the spaces between notes, Orbit’s ghostly glitches and fragmented synths give way to silence, and Madonna’s voice drops to a cracked little-girl whisper: “I smelled her burning flesh/ Her rotting bones/ Her decay.” And it’s that image of her mother, buried alive, that makes Madonna realise what she has been running from all these years. “When she recorded that in the booth, we sat in silence, our hair standing on end,” Orbit said.

Resisting the urge to tie it up with a neat transcendent finale, Madonna finished the album there, without resolution, “still running away.” As in Pink Floyd’s closing ‘Eclipse (“everything under the sun is in tune/ But the sun is eclipsed by the moon”) she acknowledges that even when everything seems all right the dark side will haunt you. That refusal to create a happy ending is what makes Ray Of Light a masterpiece, and why it won four Grammys, and why it is in all those canonical ‘Best Of’ lists. It wasn’t an album made by committee, in five minute blocks by songwriting teams. Like Dark Side Of The Moon’s crisis of post-war masculinity and madness, this was a painful rebirth, calibrated with emotional intelligence and electronic precision. All you create and all you destroy indeed.

(Source: The Quietus)

The Ringer: Twenty Years Ago, Madonna Was Reborn in a ‘Ray of Light’

The pop icon’s stunning turn to electronic music showed a spiritual side we’d never seen before and was the last time we learned about her interior life

Madonna wrote what would become the last song on her 1998 album, Ray of Light, after going on a run. Her feet carried her, almost unwittingly, to her mother’s grave. It was a hot summer day not long after she’d given birth to her daughter Lourdes; she was visiting her father in her home state of Michigan. “I didn’t know where I was going,” she later recalled. “I just ran, and ran, and ran. The sky opened up, I was soaking wet, and I found myself in the cemetery where my mother was buried.” The grave “was grown over,” she said. “It looked like it hadn’t been visited in a while.” She stayed in the cemetery for some time, then ran and ran and ran home and wrote the lyrics to “Mer Girl.” It is a spooked, glitchy tone poem, a little reminiscent of the beloved Anne Sexton lines that haunted Madonna as a teenager. How unsettling that these are the last words that echo out across an internationally successful album:

And I smelled her burning flesh
Her rotting bones
Her decay
I ran and I ran
I’m still running away

Madonna Sr. died of breast cancer in 1963, when she was just 30 years old, and when her restless, destined-for-stardom daughter was 5. (“My mother is the only other person I have ever heard of named Madonna,” the singer told Time magazine, proudly, in 1985.) The elder Madonna was a devout Catholic who worked as an X-ray technician, and many people believe that the cancer was a result of her work environment: “The protective lead-lined apron that is now obligatory was then rarely used,” Madonna’s biographer Lucy O’Brien notes. Madonna Sr. was pregnant with her daughter Melanie when she was diagnosed with cancer, and she postponed treatment until after the child was born — by which time it was too late. For the Ciccones’ oldest daughter, who’d grow up to become one of the most famous women in the world, motherhood was subconsciously linked with self-sacrifice, death, and rigor mortis. Maybe that’s why she’s never stopped running.

“Obviously, you could say it has to do with my childhood, if you’re going to psychoanalyze me,” Madonna said a few years ago, when asked about her fabled obsession with control. And O’Brien did just that, quoting (quite convincingly) the psychologist John Bowlby in her 2007 biography, Madonna: Like an Icon. “The most frightening characteristic of a dead animal or a dead person is their immobility,” Bowlby wrote. “What more natural, therefore, for a child who is afraid he may die than for him to keep moving.”

Another man, another analysis: When he was dating her in the early ’90s, and her body was toned taut, boy toy Warren Beatty (about 20 years her senior) used to tell Madonna that he thought she exercised to avoid depression. “And he thought I should just go ahead and stop exercising and allow myself to be depressed,” she recalled. “And I’d say, ‘Warren, I’ll just be depressed and not exercising!’”

I ran and I ran
I’m still running away

“Madonna has now become ‘toxic’ figure for millennials,” declared a headline in the U.K. paper The Independent two years ago. The evidence was a recently published USC study that polled 1,000 students about the relevance of 500 celebrities. The study’s damning research showed that she “now ranks among the lowest of 500 celebrities, when the attributes ‘honest’, genuine’ and ‘cool’ were tested.” And yet, curiously, Madonna’s was the only of those 500 celebrity names that made the headline. Even when griping about her, she strikes a nerve: We cannot stop talking about her, scrutinizing her famously on-display body, psychoanalyzing her open mind.

Especially given that generational shift in public opinion, it feels strange now, 20 years after its February 22, 1998, release, to think that Ray of Light was such a massively successful album. (It has sold 16 million copies worldwide and, though it was her seventh full-length, it was her first to win a Grammy.) Ray of Light is odd, dark, and a bit of a relic: Though it presented itself like a computer-generated transmission from the future, it did not accurately predict where pop music went. Madonna’s next album, 2000’s Music — with its compressed, cyborgy, and gloriously synthetic sound — was far more prescient. Though it came out only two years later, Music sounds far more modern than its predecessor. And yet I find Ray of Light infinitely more fascinating, challenging, and revealing than almost anything in her discography. If Music was Madonna’s first posthuman album, that must mean that Ray of Light was her final human one.

Madonna sought out the underground British producer William Orbit to coproduce the album. She liked some of the remixes he’d done for her in the past, with their fusion of electronic beats and Eastern-influence sounds: “I wanted it to sound old and new at the same time,” she told the U.K.’s Q Magazine. Over the four-month recording session in Los Angeles, there were usually more computers and machines in the room than live musicians — a novel concept for a Madonna album, at the time. (Though her name was sometimes synonymous with mass-produced pop, it’s easy to forget that Nile Rodgers and some other members of Chic were her expert backing band on Like a Virgin.) As a result, there’s a sense of isolation and loneliness to these songs, far from the gospel-choir assists of Like a Prayer. Still, Madonna didn’t want the reliance on computers to make the album sound too sleek. “Don’t gild the lily,” she would tell Orbit in the studio. As in: Keep it a little rough around the edges, but also nature is a language, can’t you read? He acquiesced, but the recording was a slow, arduous process. Madonna tends to work quickly and decisively, but Ray of Light took the longest of any of her albums to record.

The frenetic title track was the album’s biggest hit, of course, but it’s an outlier; there’s not much more sun shining on the record. Most of it is more in line with the moody, macabre lead-off single “Frozen.” “Swim” is a kind of electronic baptism, helmed by a sorrowful vocal that she recorded the day her friend Gianni Versace died. “Kiss me, I’m dying,” she sings on the aqueous, thumping fifth track, which centers on the eerily imploring refrain, “Put your hand on my skin.”

In retrospect, Ray of Light feels like a record about the anxieties of existing in a female body, in which time goes by so quickly and every tick of the second hand can be deafening. It is the sound of a woman on the brink of 40 — our culture’s unfair and arbitrary expiration date for so many things, and a decade past the age her own mother died — trying to transcend the human body, to outlast upstarts half her age, to become something eternal. Who can blame Madonna for failing to achieve her own impossibly inhuman goals?

Ray of Light was the first album Madonna made after filming Evita, an experience that turned the key to a whole new space in her throat. While preparing to play the iconic Argentine first lady in the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical, Madonna subjected herself to rigorous lessons with the vocal coach Joan Lader. “Lader taught Madonna how to sing from her diaphragm,” Lucy O’Brien writes. “Every night Madonna would go home, thrilled at the sounds she could create. She would call friends and sing to them over the phone at full volume.” Humanizing stories about Madonna in the ’90s aren’t as easy to come by as they were a decade prior, but this is one of my favorites. I love picturing it: Madonna sending her human voice over distorted telephone wires just to prove to her friends that she was still growing, newly exhilarated by the things her body could do.

It is probably sacrilege to quote Dennis Rodman in an essay about Madonna, but what better way to honor Madonna than with a little sacrilege? “Madonna’s a connoisseur of bodies,” Rodman wrote in his autobiography (which pissed her off). “She studies them and watches them closely.”

Madonna’s body: What an all-American locus of controversy and conversation! It appealed to so many women in the mid-’80s on a visceral level because, at first, there seemed to be a contagious joy in it. “She didn’t have a perfect body,” Kim Gordon (who named one of her side projects Ciccone Youth) has written of Madonna. “She was a little soft, but sexy-soft, not overweight but not sculpted or as hard as she would later become. She was realistic about her body type, and she taunted it, and you could feel how happy she was inhabiting that body.”

That carefree revelry didn’t last much past the Like a Virgin album cycle, and I wonder if the “toxic” feelings Madonna evokes these days — the stereotype of the youth-obsessed, Pilates-toned cultural vampire — have something to do with that, the fact that what she became felt like such a betrayal. There was a radicalism to the way Madonna presented her body in the early ’80s, but what she’s accused of doing now — worshipping youth, dressing “half her age” as she’s preparing for her 60th birthday — feels disappointingly conservative. “Madonna could not seem to escape the trap of America’s conventional attitudes about aging,” the critic Ann Powers wrote in her recent book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music. “Instead of using midlife as an opportunity to develop a new vision of mature sexuality, she still sought to be that material girl whose pleasure in feelings herself stimulated lust in others. That many found this stance implausible indicated that even Madonna’s dares had their limits when it came to redefining American eroticism.”

One of the most annoying, even tragic things about Madonna is that she is so often bested by (and complaining about) the very dynamics that she helped create. “I have to stay current,” she said, sighing, to some friends not long after Ray of Light came out. “God help me, but I guess I have to share radio air time with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. What choice do I have?” Madonna turned 40 the year Ray of Light was released, just a few months before a then-17-year-old, like-a-virgin Britney Spears released her debut single, “…Baby One More Time.” Madonna was suddenly forced to compete with a cadre of young, blond pop starlets less than half her age — but she was also partly responsible for the environment that created them.

I love Ray of Light and yet I blame it for a lot of bad music and terrible delusions of spiritual profundity that have plagued our modern pop stars, so maybe in the end, cosmically, its existence works out to a draw. It was the beginning of pop-star-as-guru-slash-lifestyle brand: You do not get Katy Perry’s Witness without Ray of Light, nor do you get Katy Perry thinking she could dress like a geisha, or… Katy Perry’s 24-hour livestream. We should have known that a kabbalah bracelet was not going to save Britney Spears.

And yet its anniversary is a good reason to revisit it: Ray of Light is infinitely stranger, better, and more uniquely personal than the “kabbalah album” stereotype. It is one of the rawest pop albums about motherhood that I can think of — a reckoning with death and life by a motherless new mom, a woman who seemed to have everything but was deeply haunted by the few absences in her life. Her mother’s absence helps explain, more than any of her records, who Madonna has become, and from where her obsessive and sometimes alienating quest to perfect and transcend her perpetually moving body comes. There was a blank space in Madonna’s story where a mother would have been. “Madonna did not grow up with a constant model of motherhood,” O’Brien writes, “but in the end, that gave her an alternative way of looking at the world.”

When Eva Perón was dying of cancer, at age 33, her husband decided that she would be embalmed and that her body would be put on display after her death. “Before she died,” O’Brien writes, “Evita was injected with chemicals to preserve her organs and flesh, and not allowed painkillers that interfered with the process.” The night of her death, the famed Spanish embalmer Dr. Pedro Ara performed a complicated process in which her blood was replaced with glycerine, making her seem like she was merely undergoing an “artistically rendered sleep.” The morning after she died, he proudly proclaimed, “the body of Eva Peron was completely and infinitely incorruptible.”

The movie (somewhat wisely) doesn’t focus on these grotesque details. Still, as she was gestating the ideas that would become Ray of Light, Madonna was immersed in her study of Perón’s short life and seemed to feel a deep connection with the tragic woman she was hell-bent on portraying. “I can only imagine how she must have suffered,” Madonna wrote in a diary for Vanity Fair while filming Evita. She also claimed to dream of her frequently. “I was not outside watching her. I was her,” she wrote. “I felt her sadness and her restlessness. I felt hungry and unsatisfied and in a hurry.”

(Source: The Ringer)


Matthew Barton looks back at one of the Queen of Pop most career-defining records.

In 1997, Madonna was at a career crossroads. She had just turned in an acclaimed performance in the film version of Evita, was a new mother to daughter Lourdes… and hadn’t released a new album of original material for nearly three years.

The bold and brazen sexuality of 1992’s Erotica and its sister “coffee table” photobook, Sex, threatened to derail a career that had been in the firm ascendancy since 'Lucky Star' broke Madonna out of New York City’s underground dance scene in 1983.

1994’s low-key R&B LP Bedtime Stories, 1995’s ballads collection Something to Remember, and 1996’s Evita clawed back some of the credibility unfairly lost during the Erotica era by dialling down the sexual bravado, but just who was Madonna in 1997? What did she have to say? Where else was there left to turn?

It seemed that Madonna herself didn’t have the answers. That spring, she convened with Bedtime Stories collaborator Babyface again on “'Take a Bow'-ish” new material, but, abhorring repetition, scrapped the sessions.

Soon after, songwriting sessions with Rick Nowels yielded some notable fruit, but again much of the material remained unused as Madonna struggled for direction. Sessions with long-time songwriting partner Patrick Leonard, again, provided some inspiration but not the elusive sound Madonna craved.

It wasn’t until her manager Guy Oseary introduced her to British producer William Orbit that the fundamentals of what later developed into Ray of Light came into focus. Marrying her pop instincts with a fresh, original electronic drive, a painstaking four-and-a-half month recording process produced a landmark opus, not just in Madonna’s catalogue but in the landscape of modern pop music.

Released twenty years ago this month, Ray of Light changed the way electronica and EDM was interpolated into mainstream pop; the chameleonic Madonna expertly synthesised an array of influences from alternative and underground scenes and ushered in a bold new age.

Here, we look back at each of the thirteen songs that make up this classic record:

'Drowned World/Substitute for Love'

Madonna’s audacious new sound is in evidence immediately as a soft, mid-tempo arrangement of burbling electronica, chiming guitars, and serene synth washes set a contemplative mood.

The soul-searching lyrics, where Madonna admits that she “never felt so happy” as when her “many lovers…settled for the thrill of basking in my spotlight,” are a volte-face from the bullish tone of some of her other '90s records, and sets the tenor of introspection and reflection.

Vocally, the clear diction and rich timbre developed from her Evita vocal coaching sessions is in full flight. An aggressive bridge adds a further layer to this complex song of celebrity gone sour.

It became the album’s third UK Top 10 hit in the summer of 1998 and gave its name to Madonna’s breath-taking 2001 world tour.


The oceanic imagery continues with this beautiful slice of hazy trip-hop; murmuring guitars and low-key wave effects, with some keening background vocals, provide the bed on which Madonna intones her lyric of letting go of the past, of “[washing] away all our sins.”

The water is regenerative, rather than ominous. The terrific vocal, however, is full of passion and fury and emotion - perhaps unsurprising given it was reportedly recorded on the day her friend Gianni Versace died.

'Ray of Light'

By now, the listener has settled into the Ray of Light modus operandi – melodic guitars, synth washes, mid-tempo beauty – and the title track begins similarly…but then it storms into something else entirely, a bizarre and beautiful cacophony of sounds and styles that somehow fuses into something genuinely electrifying and life-affirming.

'Ray of Light' is exquisite – it’s a bit dance, a bit pop, a bit electronica, a bit folk (listen out for 'Sepheryn' by folk duo Curtiss Maldoon, upon which 'Ray of Light' was based) and a bit mad – in a good way.

Lilting guitars, peculiar bleeps, bloops, and alarms, and rippling bass frame what is surely one of the greatest vocals of Madonna’s career. She uses all of her range, power, and dexterity of tone here, screaming and growling and exultantly crying out the blissful chorus.

And that’s before we get to the impeccable video, directed by Jonas Åkerlund, which expertly immortalises in film the high-speed joyous chaos of the song. This kaleidoscope of sounds still thrills twenty years on.

'Candy Perfume Girl'

One of the record’s most underrated songs, 'Candy Perfume Girl' is an unorthodox, off-kilter downbeat trip-hop experiment. Madonna’s enigmatic lead vocal and spectral harmonies, coupled with the understated programming, create a brightly-lit end-of-the-world vibe.

Madonna sings like an intangible woman in a secret Japanese discotheque, her stream-of-consciousness imagery detailing a “velvet porcelain boy” and a “fever steam girl” who “throb the oceans.”

There’s a strange fairground-esque break before the arrangement suffocates under the weight of squalling grunge guitars, walls of vocals, and heavier programming. It’s an unusual, eerie gem.


Once rumoured as a potential final single from Ray of Light, 'Skin' finds Madonna reunited with Patrick Leonard but in a very different setting.

The superior pop songwriting partnership that brought much of 1986’s True Blue and most of 1989’s Like a Prayer is subverted into a jungle of skittering beats, jittery electronics, stop-start rhythmic pulses, and offbeat Arabic flavours. It’s dark and synth-based, and it sounds like a wild, sweaty flight through a nocturnal city.

'Skin' is anxious and wired, and only in the minor key chorus can you hear the classic Madonna/Leonard power ballad melancholy. This trance-like song is one of the best places to hear Orbit’s complex production work.

'Nothing Really Matters'

'Nothing Really Matters' is a bit more of a traditional Madonna/Leonard composition, with a William Orbit sheen of synths and electronic gurgles for good measure.

Melodically, it’s somewhat more classic and straightforward in a traditional EDM/pop vein, and dutifully it became the album’s fifth UK Top 10 single in 1999 on the back of an iconic, sleek geisha-inspired video.

The chorus in particular has a high-energy soulful dance style, replete with backing vocals from Donna DeLory and Niki Harris, that harks back to 1990’s Blond Ambition Tour as well as the Erotica album – proving that Ray of Light isn’t an entire departure.

'Sky Fits Heaven'

“I think I’ll follow my heart / it’s a very good place to start,” sings Madonna on this gorgeous song that fits the central Ray of Light themes of rebirth, regeneration, and self-reflection.

It’s a light, airy, spacious piece that musically is more about mood, feeling, and atmosphere; but it’s not as amorphous as it may initially seem, as it blooms into a classic chorus with a soaring Madonna/Leonard melody.


If ever a song typifies Madonna’s burgeoning interest in Eastern mysticism, 'Shanti/Ashtangi' is it. A hypnotic melody sung in Sanskrit, it’s a splendid production job by Orbit and the unconventional treatment on Madonna’s vocal lends it an extra mesmerising vibe.

Madonna performed a version of this song at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards with Lenny Kravitz on guitar, and legend has it that the BBC arranged for Madonna to take elocution lessons with Sanskrit scholar Vagish Shashtri to perfect her pronunciations.


This magisterial jewel was the first missive from Ray of Light in early 1998 and became Madonna’s first UK No.1 in eight years. It’s a slow-burning, soaring Madonna/Leonard ballad with a majestic, desolate string arrangement that recalls Björk’s 1997 LP Homogenic in its lush, romantic drama.

Orbit’s glacial production is suitably spine-chilling, and twenty years later it’s still a rush to recall how fresh, different, and unexpected this song was. The exquisite Chris Cunningham-helmed video, filmed in a bleak Mojave Desert, remains a high watermark of the genre.

And who can forget the iconic BBC National Lottery lip sync performance, with this enigmatic reinvention of Madonna, with henna on her hands, braids, a black corvine outfit, and wind machine? Stunning.

'The Power of Goodbye'

The first of a trio of Madonna/Rick Nowels co-writes that appear on the album, 'The Power of Goodbye' is as close to pure pop as Madonna gets – an archetypal, insistent pop melody, smooth verse/chorus transitions, and a heartbreak lyric, it’s a microcosm of what Ray of Light as a whole deftly achieves – fusing modern synths and programming with guitars, strings, and striking melodies to stunning effect.

In another world, it could have been a late 90s Eurovision winner (and that is, of course, a compliment), such is its end-of-the-night power pop beauty. Extra points for the Joan Crawford beach scene reference in the dusky video.

'To Have and Not to Hold'

This early song from the sessions is the album’s most sensual song, a hidden gem with a gently swaying, rhythmic quality. It has a shadowy, hazy Spanish feel, like a low-lit midnight alt-'La Isla Bonita', and wears its electronic influences subtly.

It’s an unusual sort of song for both Madonna and Nowels, and Nowels told Songwriter Universe in 2015 that “working with Madonna was a career-changing experience for me.”

'Little Star'

Several songs on the album allude to new motherhood and the preciousness of new life, but “Little Star” is the album’s only explicit ode to Madonna’s baby daughter Lourdes.

“Having a child and questioning my own mortality and feeling incredibly responsible for someone else’s life and being aware of how much my behaviour affects her – you have to step back and realise that we all affect each other,” she told Spin in 1998.

Musically, it’s a quirky fusion of lullaby and late 90s video game music – parts of it sound uncannily like a Japanese Playstation game. But the softly emotive chorus – “God gave a present to me, made of flesh and bone…” – is an undeniably heavenly melody.

'Mer Girl'

Ray of Light revolves around themes of regeneration, and water is a recurrent motif. 'Mer Girl' is the album’s most inscrutable, mysterious piece, more of a sketch than a song, as Madonna’s soft-focus vocal weaves around Orbit’s restrained production.

It’s a haunting and personal conclusion to a highly personal record. “I cursed the angels, I tasted my fears,” she sings, in one of her most poetic lyrics. Understated, and all the better for it.

'Has to Be' (Japan bonus track)

Subtle, serene, beautiful, compelling – 'Has to Be' is possibly the essence of the Madonna/William Orbit/Patrick Leonard partnership and would have been a beautiful addition to the record – but Madonna insisted on only thirteen songs, as thirteen is a lucky number in the Kabbalah.

As it is, this elegant song of quiet, dignified yearning has become a justifiable fan favourite over the years.

“I wanted it to sound old and new at the same time,” said Madonna of her intentions for Ray of Light, and it is evident that she adroitly succeeded. It wasn’t a complete transformation – indeed, bringing back Patrick Leonard proved that Madonna was keen to incorporate her past into her present – but the pervading influence of Ray of Light on modern pop, by virtue of its freshness, cannot be understated.

Her long-standing reputation as a master of reinvention, a magpie collecting disparate sounds and styles and collating them and presenting them in an inventive new way, largely stems from her restless and courageous experimentation on this record.

At heart, the blissful, shimmering pop melodies were always what Madonna had done best anyway, but never had she utilised electronic production in such an integral way. Ray of Light also re-contextualises the rest of Madonna’s catalogue, and brings the significance of Erotica and Bedtime Stories into sharp focus.

What were once derided in some quarters as sub-par, wrong turns, unedifying missteps are now celebrated as beacons of pop individuality and experimentation, of brave choices, of daring risks taken in the face of public consternation.

The interest in electronic dance production and subversive genre experiments makes more sense to both the Madonna and casual music fan with Ray of Light’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but it also highlights the strength and core vision Madonna had always proudly adhered to.

The Madonna of the mid-1980s – the exuberant Madonna of 'Like a Virgin' and 'Material Girl' – subtly shifted, at 27, into the pop behemoth of True Blue, a status cemented by the artistic magnum opus of Like a Prayer where, for largely the first time, her critical stock matched her commercial fervour.

By the time of Erotica, Madonna had earned enough stripes to experiment but was roundly ridiculed, and in some cases reviled, for doing so. Ray of Light is the sound of a survivor, a pop maverick coming out the other side of a period in the wilderness at 39 with a perfect marriage of titanic pop smarts and alt-pop experimentation. It’s arguably a twin peak in her catalogue along with 'Like a Prayer', and enabled Madonna to continue her pursuit of pop innovation through the next phase of her career.

It is debatable whether Madonna has, or will, scale the artistic heights of this era again, but regardless – 20 years later, Ray of Light still sounds as fresh, assured, bold, and beautiful as ever.

(Source: Attitude)
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post Mar 1 2018, 10:47 PM
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Dazed: Revisiting Ray of Light, Madonna’s most forward-thinking album, 20 years on

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

(Source: Dazed)

Huffington Post: What Gianni Versace's Death Tells Us About Madonna's 'Ray Of Light' Renaissance

The singer was recording the album when Donatella Versace called to say her brother had just been murdered. The rest is 20-year-old history.

“Traveling, traveling / In the arms of unconsciousness,” Madonna cooed on the Björk-assisted single “Bedtime Story,” released in 1995. Overexposed and castigated after the ruckus surrounding “Erotica” and the carnal coffee-table book Sex, she’d forged a reverie about disconnecting from reality. “Today is the last day that I’m using words / They’ve gone out, lost their meaning.”

But by 1998, Madonna had awoken again. On “Sky Fits Heaven,” the seventh track from the enlightened electro-rock masterpiece “Ray of Light,” she repeated a familiar phrase ― except here it ended on an upbeat: “Traveling, traveling / Watching the signs as I go.” This time, pop music’s doyenne of reinvention was anything but unconscious.

Her footpath from the “Bedtime Story” era to “Ray of Light,” which turns 20 on Feb. 22, places Madonna at the nexus of celebrity culture circa 1997 (when she spent five months writing and recording the album) and early 1998 (when she released and promoted the album, which went on to win three Grammys and six MTV Video Music Awards). Nearing 40 and competing with a fresh generation of A&R-packaged teenyboppers, Madonna had risked aging out of mainstream stardom, one of the many sectors of society that isn’t kind to mature women. Instead, the ambient fizzes and mystical flurries on “Ray of Light” formed a cutting-edge benediction that rehabilitated Madonna’s image ― a coup few legacy acts could hope for today. She was a new mother, animated by Kabbalah and Ashtanga yoga, but uninterested in maternity leave.

Madonna’s late ’90s eminence can be further distilled through one morsel about the creation of “Ray of Light,” her seventh studio disc: On July 15, 1997, the day she recorded the gritty meditation “Swim,” Donatella Versace called Madonna to report that her brother Gianni had been shot outside his Miami mansion.

William Orbit, the English producer who helped shape “Ray of Light,” has related this anecdote at least twice. The first time was in 1998, during an interview with Music Week.

“The day she [recorded ‘Swim’] she got a call on the way to the studio that her next-door neighbor Versace had been murdered,” he said. “Lyrically it was written before that, but it is topical.”

And again in 2002.

“We were recording ‘Swim’ on the day Versace was murdered,” Orbit told Q magazine. “Madonna was very friendly with him and his sister, Donatella, who was in the street, distraught, on her cellphone to Madonna. But she did the vocal, which is probably why it has such an emotional impact.”

Earlier this month, I emailed Orbit to ask for more details. “There’s quite a story around that,” he confirmed, declining an interview in the same breath. Representatives for Madonna and Donatella Versace did not respond to my inquiries.

Madonna was famously chummy with the Calabria-born Versaces, first posing for their fashion line’s ad campaign in 1995 when, as Orbit indicates, she and Gianni both owned townhouses on 64th Street in Manhattan (though they weren’t next door to each other). A month and a half after recording “Swim,” she penned the couturier’s eulogy for Time magazine, recalling, among other lavish details, the days she borrowed his well-staffed Italian villa. “I’ve got a pocketful of memories in my Versace jeans, and they’re not going anywhere,” she wrote.

On the surface, as it relates to “Ray of Light,” Versace’s murder at the hands of spree killer Andrew Cunanan ― also chronicled in the ongoing season of Ryan Murphy’s stirring FX series “American Crime Story” ― is an ill-timed coincidence. Madonna didn’t compose “Swim” in response to Versace’s death, but she had to perform it ― an anthem about the world's "sins" ― on the day one of her most famous friends informed her that another of her most famous friends had lost his life. Madonna grieved in the studio, just like you or I must still show up to the office after awakening to bad news.

These events positioned her, however privately, at the center of an international tragedy ― just as she was throughout the AIDS crisis, when, for example, she crafted the “Erotica” balled “In This Life,” dedicated to her longtime chum and collaborator Martin Burgoyne, who’d died from the disease in 1986. Of all people, Donatella thought to call Madonna, a celebrity among celebrities, with the news of her brother’s scandalous death. And what episode of Madonna’s career better fits that narrative than the one dedicated to her spiritual fortification?

“Put your head on my shoulder, baby / Things can’t get any worse / Night is getting colder / Sometimes life feels like it’s a curse,” Madonna croons on “Swim,” which opens with a melancholic serenity and settles into a guttural anger that’s impossible to underestimate even without knowing Madonna’s mood on the day of its recording. “Swim” is one of the few “Ray of Light” tracks that doesn’t offer a glimmer of Zen in its heady rumination, so Madonna instead follows it with the glittering title song, whose lyrics become a salve: “Zephyr in the sky at night I wonder / Do my tears of mourning sink beneath the sun? / ... / She’s got herself a little piece of heaven / Waiting for the time when Earth shall be as one.”

Life will go on, despite the country’s anger at her provocations, despite Versace’s demise, despite the fact that the music industry is stacked against luminaries reaching arbitrary sell-by dates after being crowned American royalty when they were dewy teens or 20-somethings. (To that last point: Madonna had a Top 10 hit as recently as 2012. She was 54! Almost none of her peers can claim that feat at such an age.)

In fact, the entirety of “Ray of Light” feels like a renewal following some kind of death ― a tangible loss of her youth, a fleeting sense that her yearning to get into the groove had faded. (It would soon return, of course, because Madonna is nothing if not an expert in brand management.) That’s why her existential primping ― “Nothing takes the past away / Like the future / Nothing makes the darkness go / Like the light,” she sings on “Nothing Really Matters” ― further acts as a metamorphosis. Her interior life was laid bare, and the results were an extended tone poem.

But here’s something else that strikes me about this album: Even with a track that morphed into a response to a fellow artist’s death, Madonna didn’t find it as personal as the rest of us did. Because its lyrics were more sophisticated than, say, “Holiday” or “Lucky Star,” the fawning reception implied that the dance-floor invitations on which she’d built her career were too fluffy to be taken seriously ― a tired, vapid, persistent appraisal of female-fronted pop.

“But my other albums were personal too,” she told Spin magazine in a 1998 cover story. ”‘Bedtime Stories’ was personal, believe me. ‘Erotica’ was personal. Maybe I’m a better writer now. I hope so. I think on my last few records I’ve been operating from a place of anger and frustration and bitterness and feeling like a victim and being very defensive. I don’t feel that way right now.”

This quote mirrors something Madonna said when I interviewed her about her most recent album, “Rebel Heart,” in 2015: “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you’ve written so many personal songs on this record,’ but I think that I wrote a lot of personal songs on my last record, [‘MDNA’], but people didn’t pay attention to it. But anyway, it’s OK. Things happen for a reason.”

It’s verification that Madonna must forever prove herself, that because she is a woman who came to New York as a classically trained dancer chasing fame, her songwriting will often be denied the gravity afforded of her male counterparts. But the Versace tidbit tells a deeper story: the story of someone around whom the ebbs and flows of mass culture orbit, and who poured her own evolution as a human being into her contributions to that culture.

It’s as if everything Madonna had done, artistically and commercially, had been leading to “Ray of Light.” She was more conscious than ever before.

(Source: Huffington Post)
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post Mar 2 2018, 11:35 AM
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Ray of Light is a masterpiece! wub.gif

So glad she called it Ray of light and not Mantra I adore the album name and track (and all the rest).
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post Mar 2 2018, 01:23 PM
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Ray of Light does seem a more accessible title and I have to say I prefer it too. All the album photoshoots just seem to suit that title so well.
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post Mar 2 2018, 05:08 PM
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Mantra - never heard that before

But Veronica electronica was considered.

Whatvamazing articles !!

The ranking of to have and not to hold and swim has the worst tracks is criminal !!!
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post Mar 4 2018, 12:39 AM
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Glamour: 20 Years Later, 'Ray of Light' Is Still Madonna's Most Shocking Reinvention

"Absolutely no regrets," Madonna says at the end of her 1995 music video for "Human Nature," in which she wears a skin-tight black catsuit and her hair in cornrows. It was a controversial look, but then again Madonna at that time was synonymous with controversy. Remember, prior to this she released Erotica (1992), an album just as literal as its title, alongside a coffee table book called Sex. Three years prior, Madonna danced in front of burning crosses in her "Like a Prayer" video. Before that, she sang about reproductive rights on "Papa Don't Preach" and, before that, writhed around the MTV Video Music Awards stage in a wedding dress.

Madonna meant what she said in "Human Nature": She doesn't have regrets. She says to this day that her most provocative transformations—or reinventions, as the critics called them—have purpose. She pushes the boundaries of religion, sexuality, and gender to effect real change, specifically for women and queer people. Granted, in 2004 she did admit there was an element of exhibitionism to her early nineties escapades, but they weren't just for shock value.

Don't tell that to the masses, though. By the time Madonna released "Human Nature" in 1995, people had grown numb to her outrageous images. Sure, the music was good, but it was lost in the circus Madonna created herself. That was the case for Erotica too, and Like a Prayer, and seemingly every album she released prior. Madonna's style completely overshadowed her substance; she was everywhere, yet no one knew who the hell she was. Fans and critics alike began wondering how she'd keep the show going after (problematic) cornrows and catsuits. How would the queen of shock out-shock herself?

The answer was actually shocking. In 1998—three years after "Human Nature" and six years after Erotica—Madonna ushered in a new, surprising reinvention: herself. She did this through Ray of Light, her seventh studio album, which was released in the United States 20 years ago today. It's arguably her best work, full stop: a sprawling collection of earthy electronica that's vast in sonic landscape yet intimate in content. For the first time ever, Madonna was introspective, not performative—internal, not external. All the songs from the record sound like diary entries—a sharp contrast to the bombastic, declarative style of her biggest hits, like "Express Yourself" and "Open Your Heart." On Ray of Light, Madonna isn't pushing an agenda or buttons, or trying to change culture at large. She's simply self-reflecting, and because of that, it's her most shocking work to date.

"Shocking" meaning revealing, because up until that point we didn't know much about the girl behind the material. However, giving birth to her first child (Lourdes), baring her soul in the critically acclaimed film Evita (1996), and fully immersing herself in Kabbalah gave Madonna newfound perspective and purpose—something that permeates Ray of Light. At times she's wistful and contemplative, as in "Drowned World/Substitute for Love," where she bemoans, "I traded fame for love, without a second thought." She echoes this on the club smash "Nothing Really Matters": "When I was very young, nothing really mattered to me but making myself happy," she sings. No, Madonna doesn't have regrets, but she's certainly made mistakes—an incredibly human thing she hadn't admitted until Ray of Light.

Madonna hadn't explored the death of her mother, either, an event that changed her life and without a doubt formed the person she is. But she breaks her silence on this with "Mer Girl," Ray of Light's haunting final song. "I smelled her burning flesh, her rotting bones, her decay," she muses, detailing a rain-soaked run she took to her mother's grave in Michigan. These are some of the last words on Ray of Light, and they feel both appropriate and out of place. The former, because they're so deeply personal and private—but the latter because, even with all its self-examination, Ray of Light is still an exuberant album. These lyrics, however, are aggressively morbid.

But perhaps that's the point. After all, isn't humanity exactly that? We're not just one thing, and Madonna proves this several times on Ray of Light. She simultaneously celebrates the birth of her daughter ("Little Star") and mourns the loss of her mother ("Mer Girl"). She critically examines her past missteps ("Candy Perfume Girl") and looks hopefully toward the future ("Sky Fits Heaven"). She breathlessly craves the touch of another human ("Skin") but fears the idea of love itself ("Frozen"). There's a nuanced range to the emotions expressed on Ray of Light that didn't exist before in her discography. Yes, her previous albums were rich and diverse, but there was a singular motive behind them all: to provoke. To get people talking about her. To reach the top. On Ray of Light, however, Madonna has reached the top, and now she's asking, "What does it all mean?" That's a far more controversial idea than a sex book.

Baring your soul as a female artist is a controversial idea as well—at least it was back then, which is why Madonna didn't fully do it until Ray of Light. The music industry isn't kind to female artists, and it's very possible Madonna adopted a hard exterior so she wouldn't appear weak or indecisive to male executives. Madonna probably knew she had to play the game to succeed. When she reached the apex of her career, though, she had more power than those suits. And with that power she released a wildly personal, out-of-the-box record that didn't fit any patriarchal standards. Ray of Light isn't overtly sexual in the male-gaze sense, and it isn't chock-full of immediate, radio-friendly hits. It's raw. It's real. It's truly Madonna.
And it became one of the most successful albums of her career. Ray of Light topped the charts in 17 countries and has now sold 16 million copies worldwide. "Frozen," the album's first single, reached number two on Billboard's Hot 100. The title song reached number five. This commercial success matters. It just does. It proves female artists don't have to fit certain molds to succeed. They can be themselves—unapologetically—in any form that takes. Whether that's vulnerable or stripped-down or even sad: They can be it all—and still sell music.
We saw this last year several times, particularly with Lorde's Grammy-nominated album Melodrama, which topped the Billboard 200—not to mention the latest efforts from Lady Gaga, Kesha, and Katy Perry. Instead of focusing on what they thought audiences wanted, these women just spoke from their hearts. They did what felt real to them at the time, and it paid off.

Madonna was the first female artist in mainstream pop to do this—exactly 20 years ago, on Ray of Light. With this album, she didn't care about trends or charts or what was hot. Rather, she just cared about what was home. "I feel like I just got home," Madonna sings passionately on the sparkling chorus of "Ray of Light"—and, well, that sums up everything.

(Source: Glamour)
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post Mar 4 2018, 08:51 PM
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Thanks for gathering these! I don't think anyone can disagree with just how powerful and innovative an album this was.

I also love the title! In among all the pain and sorrow of the album, there is hope and that continuous ray of light <3
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post Mar 12 2018, 09:01 PM
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Just had a good read of all the articles... I love learning new things about this era, hearing about the perspectives and experiences of those involved and seeing how people describe the songs. The Billboard, Quietus and Dazed articles in particular are incredibly insightful and engaging reads - definitely give those three a read if the amount of articles seem too overwhelming.
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Lo-Fi Version Time is now: 23rd May 2019 - 08:50 PM