Madonna Ray of Light

Madonna Unveiled Her Pop Masterpiece ‘Ray of Light’ 25 Years Ago

Madonna’s Ray of Light and dance music are unfairly underrated and dismissed, primarily due to being the cultural product of queerness and centered on femininity.

Ray of Light
Maverick / Warner Bros.
22 February 1998

As an example of the definitive Madonna album, Ray of Light will permanently impact how her discography and career will be assessed. Though she made great music before and after, this 1998 release would be a critical point in her life that would neatly cleave her career into two: pre-Ray of Light and post-Ray of Light. Longtime fans – those who followed her career from the beginning in 1982, when her self-titled debut album was released – would find themselves choosing one camp over the other: the music before Ray of Light was arguably more accessible and radio-friendly.

Though pretension and affectation were always a part of her image, the music on Ray of Light and after would be far more self-consciously arty and intellectual. Motherhood, aging, and spirituality would be significant themes found in the studio LPs after Ray of Light, which has had a lasting effect on her music. The mid-1990s European-influenced electronic dance music that she embraced with Ray of Light would find its way to all of its subsequent follow-up albums. 

Though Madonna has always been a performer who eyed commercial fortunes and mainstream success, she has also been a profoundly personal artist. It feels like a bit of a contradiction to describe the Madonna of the 1980s and early 1990s as introspective, given the sweet, sparkly pop hits like “Borderline” or “Open Your Heart”, which, while as close to perfect as pop can get, weren’t especially deep or thoughtful tunes.

However, in 1989, she turned inward for Like a Prayer which would be her most intimate record up to that point. Alongside the usual confections about love and romance, Madonna explored darker topics like domestic violence, her mother’s death, Catholicism, and AIDS. Her work after Like a Prayer seemed to take on larger social significance, and Madonna was increasingly becoming somewhat of a freedom fighter; she entered the 1990s as a significant figure in the Culture Wars that saw her work and her image dissected and condemned as the source of moral decline in America.

With Ray of Light, Madonna looked at American culture from a somewhat safe distance from her days in the early 1990s when she was regularly criticized and roundly subjected to misogynistic and sexist epitaphs. By 1998, she was approaching middle age, motherhood, and even respectability as a performer. Her 1995 compilation album, Something to Remember, was a sedate affair, collecting her biggest ballad hits. In 1996, she finally found success as a film star with the Alan Parker musical Evita. She became respectable, embracing the staid and safe work of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music.

So, when Ray of Light was released, there was a suggestion that Madonna would have ‘calmed’ down and settled down with middle age and motherhood. The first single off the record could have led many to that conclusion. Instead of announcing Ray of Light with a bass-heavy dance single, Madonna introduced the record with a ballad: “Frozen”. Written with longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard, “Frozen” would announce Madonna’s new sound and unveil an artistic ambition unseen in her career.

From the mournful strings that start the song to the drum and buzzing synthesizer that unveil a somber and heavy piece, we land on a chilly, lunar soundscape. Madonna’s voice is a focal point of the track. Due to her singing lessons for Evita, Madonna emerged as a more capable and robust vocalist. On “Frozen”, she sounds ethereal with a higher register than she had ever reached. The production is grand, cinematic, and melodramatic. There are vaguely Eastern influences in Madonna’s singing. The lyrics tell the story of a particularly devastating experience with love that’s doomed because of the lover’s coldness.

Even if Madonna had massive hits with ballads before, the strange sound on “Frozen” signaled something new. A shift of a kind. Much of that change could be attributed to the work of the song’s producer, William Orbit. Orbit was an accomplished musician and producer who became a leading figure in electronic music in the 1990s. By the time he took the producer job for Ray of Light, he had six studio albums, plus work with side projects like Bassomatic, which scored two top ten US dance hits. Orbit was the critical figure in Madonna’s then-latest musical reinvention. Though she looked to other dance outfits like the Prodigy or Goldie, Orbit was the person who would come to define Madonna’s new sound and image as well as revitalize her music.

Yet, as forward-sounding as “Frozen” and the rest of Ray of Light are, there were glimpses in Madonna’s past career that would point to the eventuality of her embracing electronica, most notably in her collaboration with Nellee Hooper and Björk on her 1995 single “Bedtime Story”. Madonna acknowledged the importance of that song while promoting Ray of Light, saying, “Working with Nellee Hooper and doing that collaboration with Björk really kind of set me off in that direction [of electronic music].”

Ray of Light made its bow in February of 1998, an appropriately fitful and melancholy response to the closing of the millennium. At that point, Madonna was the most famous in the world, but at 40, she also contended with ruling an industry (and culture) that thrived on youth. She was also incredibly famous for over 15 years at that point in her career and was starting to evaluate fame. Princess Diana was the only woman who could understand Madonna’s overwhelming notoriety. In August of 1997, Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris after a high-speed chase with paparazzi. The princess’s death profoundly affected Madonna, and the singer felt a sad kinship with the late royal. The influence of Diana’s death finds its way into the solemn “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” (released almost a year after Princess Diana’s death).

The connection to the price of fame and the late princess was even more explicit in the song’s video. Directed by Walter Stern, the film clip simulates a very familiar sight: Madonna haltingly making her way through a crushing crowd of paparazzi, her face impassive, her eyes shielded by sunglasses. Though staged, Stern’s scenario looks all too real. The film’s narrative has Madonna nestled in the back of a car driving through a dark London street, the outside of the car littered with camera flashes as pursuing photographers chase her. Though predictably, some found the video’s allusion distasteful, especially since it was only a year since the princess’ death. But it’s important to note that what Stern’s video depicted was something Madonna herself experienced regularly.

What’s so remarkable about the candor in “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” is that Madonna rarely used her pop art in such a frank and disarmingly blunt way. She has mined her personal life in the past, yet she had rarely found the kind of harmonious intersection of brutal honesty and exacting calculation. Because as empathetic and humane as so much of Ray of Light feels, we cannot forget that the introspection is as much a guise and persona as any other musical persona she adopted throughout her career. One cannot appreciate the work of Madonna without appreciating a certain cynicism in her approach to sharing her thoughts and feelings. That cynicism is intrinsically part of her art.

So much of Ray of Light is that seeming push and pull of genuine emotion and deliberate calculation. Choosing to work with William Orbit could be seen as a pop superstar ceding control to a more genuine musical talent to legitimize her career. Though her music and sound came from the clubs and the queer subculture, it could be surmised that by 1998, she had become somewhat cossetted and therefore was increasingly in danger of losing that revered grip on emerging pop trends. Even her most severe critics concede that she has an unerring instinct and ear for what will be popular.

But the sound on Ray of Light – as brilliant as it is – cannot be called ground-breaking. Madonna demurred when interviewers suggested that Ray of Light was a techno or electronic album. She had repeatedly reminded them that Ray of Light is essentially a pop record. The pop diva also commented on the connection between electronic and dance music, dispelling perceptions that she was embarking on an overwhelming artistic undertaking. Just as she had quizzical naysayers when she did Evita, some wondered if Ray of Light was simply an expensive exercise for an out-of-touch dilettante.

When describing the emergent sound of Ray of Light, David Browne put it perfectly in his review of the album: “Working with British producer, Madonna has dipped her new songs in a light batter of electronica.” Ray of Light is not a trip-hop or techno album but a pop album that owes its sound to electronica. Just as she found ways to incorporate disco, soul, R&B, rap, Latin-pop, and house into her sound, Madonna has done the same with techno and electronic music with Ray of Light. None of the songs on the record sounds radically different than the best of her previous work. More so than any other pop star, Madonna had perfected the art of the pop hook: that indelible bit of sound that bolts itself onto our collective brains, and we’re unable to shake it.

Yet even if time and distance had dismissed the myth that Ray of Light is why mainstream pop music took to electronic music, it’s still a vital record because it did lay the groundwork on which EDM and neo-house flourish. Throughout the 13 tracks, Madonna and her collaborators deliver songs that have their roots and structure in contemporary pop but are festooned and italicized by electronic flourishes.

In songs like “Sky Fits Heaven” and “Nothing Really Matters”, we can see the seamless blending of Madonna’s radio-pop with the grander ambitions of the record. It’s not a surprise that Patrick Leonard had a hand in writing and producing the songs. Leonard and Madonna worked together on some of her greatest hits in the 1980s. Until William Orbit, few songwriters or producers had the kindred understanding of Madonna’s artistry as Leonard did. Like Madonna, Leonard was a genius at pop music – so the songs he plays an important part create an essential link between Ray of Light and Madonna’s storied past.

With Leonard, Madonna created some of her most significant, enduring hits; with William Orbit, Madonna would add to her illustrious discography. Just listen to the brilliance of the title track. “Ray of Light” is easily one of Madonna’s best moments on vinyl. It encapsulates the thesis of the album but is such a great song that it manages to transcend the record and the era in which it was released to remain a classic bit of dance-pop. Based on a 1971 tune, “Sepheryn”, recorded by Curtiss Maldoon, “Ray of Light” lifts quite a bit of the mystical lyrics from the original tune and its melody, so much so that it wouldn’t be off-base to consider the song a cover.

But Madonna and William Orbit remove the original song from its baroque pop, folk-pop setting and instead smash it through a swirling, late 1990s, Britpop-inflected dance-pop. The mysticism in the lyrics reflects a particular chaos and disorder reflected in Madonna’s singing which is some of the loosest, wildest singing she’s ever done. It’s clear that those singing lessons for Evita came in handy when she was hitting sky-high notes and busting out with some impressive belting. The anarchy in the lyrics and singing is reflected in the music, as well; it sounds like Orbit had a field day in the studio, pushing every knob and button in front of him. “Ray of Light” is a kaleidoscope of sounds – synths blip and beep, guitars crash and crunch; it shouldn’t work, but it does. Instead of sounding disorganized or messy, the song sounds explosive and exciting. It’s proof that even if Madonna was entering middle age and motherhood, she was far from calmer.

It’s been 25 years since Ray of Light’s release, and its impact on dance-pop is still evident. It was a significant watershed moment in dance-pop when we saw a record of the genre be taken seriously on its musical merits. It was also a crucial moment in Madonna’s career because Ray of Light gave the singer critical acclaim and respect. Madonna and dance music are both entities in pop culture that are unfairly underrated and dismissed, primarily due to both being the cultural product of queerness and centered on femininity. With Orbit, she rebranded her brand of dance-pop with a cerebral mysticism that translated into some of the best and most beautiful music of the 1990s.