There are many articles celebrating the 20th anniversary of Madonna’s classic Ray of Light this week. Matthew Rettenmund of Logo noted that the album not only sold 16 million copies worldwide, but won several Grammys. Lucy O’Brien of The Quietus compared the album to Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon. Everybody talks about how Ray of Light reinvented Madonna’s career, but they don’t talk about how it also became a curse for the Queen of Pop.
It’s hard to put in words just how much the album Ray of Light redefined Madonna’s career. As a small example, this author can point to the 1997-1998 school year, when teaching middle school. In November of 1997, this author’s students saw an issue of Vanity Fair, released one year earlier, on the teacher’s desk. Madonna was on the cover promoting Evita. The students described Madonna as “old,” “over,” “a slut,” a “has-been,” and many other terms that are (unfortunately) used to describe Madonna today.
As soon as Ray of Light was released four months later, Madonna was one of their favorites. When given a poetry assignment on analyzing a current pop song, at least four chose “Frozen,” a song that reached No. 2 on the charts. Another chose “Ray of Light,” the title track and a future No. 5 hit. Madonna was officially “cool” again as she joined Mariah Carey, LeAnn Rimes, and Puff Daddy (he would later become P Diddy) as the favorite artist among teenagers. More importantly, Madonna realigned with her Gen-X fans who felt alienated by the singer after the release of her 1992 album Erotica (now considered a classic) and book Sex.
This isn’t to say that Madonna wasn’t successful in the mid-1990’s. Despite suffering the biggest media backlash against any celebrity in history, she still scored with “Take a Bow,” which was No. 1 for seven weeks in 1995. Evita wasn’t a runaway hit in 1996, but produced respectable box office numbers, critical acclaim, and a Golden Globe for Madonna. But she was no longer considered groundbreaking. Madonna, who was now embraced far more on VH1 than MTV, was on her way to becoming a legacy adult contemporary act. However, that instantly changed with Ray of Light.
For the first time in years, a Madonna album was garnering hype because of the quality of the music rather than a scandal surrounding a music video. Ray of Light combined art and commercialism in a way that barely any pop album was able to do before. Madonna flirted with the combination on 1989’s Like a Prayer, but she fully realized it with Ray of Light in 1998.
“Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” which kicks off the album, takes the listener under the ocean to hear a tale about the drawbacks of fame, right before the listener is taken for a glide on “Swim,” a song about the cruelties of the world, which was written the day after Madonna’s good friend Gianni Versace was murdered.
The title track comes next and instantly blows the listener away. It combines Madonna’s post-Evita vocal range with her newly found happiness at being a mother. It has become a staple in Madonna’s career as well as one of the most successful dance singles of all-time. Perhaps “Ray of Light” should have followed (rather than preceded) “Candy Perfume Girl,” which is, perhaps, the only heavy metal/electronica song in Madonna’s entire catalog. It’s the only “WTF” song on the album, but at least it’s followed by “Skin,” an orgasmic number that might have received backlash if released just two years earlier, when Madonna was still being heavily slut-shamed for her antics from the early 1990s.
The next track, “Nothing Really Matters,” combines Madonna’s 1980s dance appeal with her new 1990s electronica sound. “Sky Fits Heaven” is another dance blast, but was probably never released as a single since it sounds too much like “Ray of Light.” The album’s eighth track, “Shanti/Ashtangi,” is a brilliant and bubbly song inspired by Madonna’s fascination with Hinduism. It’s unfortunate that the song would be dismissed as “cultural appropriation” if released today.
The ninth track, “Frozen,” was the first single released from the project, and it was one of the riskiest songs a pop artist released in the 1990s. But it definitely paid off, even if the dance remixes are more encompassing than the single. The rest of the album, which includes the popular single “The Power of Goodbye,” was aimed towards Madonna’s new VH1 audience. The final track, “Mer Girl,” has Madonna reciting poetry about a scary dream in which she visits her mother’s grave. It is arguably the most artistic song of her career and leaves you with chills and smiles at the same time.
Ray of Light instantly became the pinnacle of Madonna’s career. But it was a pinnacle that trapped the singer, who doesn’t like being stuck. Since then, almost everything Madonna has done or released has been seen as a failure in comparison. Her 2000 album Music, which is a completely different type of album, is often seen as a success just because it rode on Light‘s coattails. Her 2005 hit album Confessions on a Dance Floor earned commercial and critical acclaim, but it was “nothing like Ray of Light.” And all of Madonna’s albums since 2008 had fans and critics wishing she could make another, well, you know.
Perhaps Madonna hasn’t advanced much in terms of creativity this past decade because she knows that no matter what she does, it will always be compared to an album she put out 20 years ago. Rebel Heart, her 2015 studio album, earned some praise. But since it didn’t fare well commercially (partially because the album leaked three months ahead of its scheduled release), it became another album that’s “nothing like Ray of Light.”
Madonna is currently working on her next studio album, which is set to be released during the fourth quarter of 2018. But no matter how much effort she puts into the project, or no matter how good it (hopefully) sounds, it will be compared to Ray of Light. That album will forever chase Madonna like a dog chasing a cat. It would be difficult to blame Madonna if she now wishes that the album Ray of Light had never seen the light of day.