Friday, March 07, 2008
Ten Years Gone: Madonna - Ray Of Light
This entry will be the first in what I hope will become a regular thing on this blog. I'm going to take a look back at certain albums and movies on their 10 year anniverseray and examine the impact they've made. First up is Madonna's Ray of Light.
So why Madonna as the first entry? Well, after looking at the list of '98 albums and films that I enjoyed, Ray of Light's release date was the earliest and I want these entries to coincide with their respective 10 year anniversaries.
So you still might have the question: Why Madonna?
Ray of Light is a very special album in the catalogue of one the world's most beloved pop icons. Madonna's work has always been provocative and ever-changing, but never before had she let us this deep into her personal life. A lot of Madonna songs have a narrative that could be ambigiuosly biographical ("Papa Don't Preach", "Secret"), but there is no confusion that Madonna herself is the subject for most of Ray of Light. The leadoff track, "Drowned World/Substitute For Love", was Madonna's most personal song up to that point and lets the listener know that the album will come with more depth than the usual Madonna album. By the time we get to line in the second verse, "I had so many lovers/Who settled for the thrill/Of basking in my spotlight", a flash of images consisting of numerous celebrities will likely run through your head. Madonna's love live has never been secretive, but she's never really been this open about it in her music before. To turn tabloid fodder into a conduit for sympathy could have been a risky move for an icon as huge as Madonna. In the hands of other superstars, it could have been viewed as desperate or laughable, but with the recent birth of her daughter, there was no escaping the fact that she was no longer the young pop strumpet she used to be. She was now a regular woman with relatable experiences. The downtempo flow of "Little Star" is the obligatory "I'm-proud-to-be-a-new-parent" song that a lot of artists tend to do, but it's unique this time around with its electronic atmosphere and it fits perfectly right before the last track so as not to disrupt the flawless sequencing. The personal approach on these songs cause an effect that has never been felt on any of Madonna's previous records.
The sound of the album is also mature while keeping a pulse on the latest trend, something Madonna had perfected on the three albums prior to this one. Electronica was popular at the time and the production from William Orbit of Bassomatic and Torch Song helped to keep the album's sound current. His most notable contribution and the most popular song from the album is the title track, "Ray of Light". It's a relentless throbbing 4/4 tecnho beat that is as equally pulsating as it is hypnotizing. The track perfectly sums up the album's adventurous turn and Madonna's newfound spirituality. The Kabbalah thumping Madonna that we know now in 2008 had its roots on this album. Songs like "Sky Fits Heaven" and "Shanti/Ashtangi" find Madonna at her most enlightened while still making sure the dancefloor stays filled.
But the album isn't all navel-gazing and New Age musings. Madonna still knows how to enjoy herself. Coming off her voice lessons from Evita, Madonna's voice was stronger than ever. This new strength added to the overall mature sound of the album. No longer would there be chirpy cuts like "Material Girl" or "Like A Prayer". Instead, tracks like the slinky "Candy Perfume Girl" and the house heavy "Nothing Really Matters" proved that Madonna could still create pop with the best of them and still sound seasoned. Those Evita voice lessons also paid off when she wasn't trying to keep the dance floor busy, especially on the somber lead single, "Frozen". Having a downer of a song like "Frozen" as a lead single was also a risky move, but there was a big risk factor with the album overall. While Madonna's past lead singles have been exemplary of the sound and tone of that forthcoming album ("Like A Prayer"'s mix of pop and ambition, "Erotica"'s overt sensuality, "Secret"'s R&B tone), "Frozen" is no exception, but it is far from a typical lead single. Lines like "You're so consumed with how much you get/You waste time with hate and regret" are more likely to put top 40 listeners in a funk instead of a groove, but the moody tone and serene production were powerful enough to make it a #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100. It was probably the perfect lead single since the rest of the album is as serious. It also might have been laughable if pre-Evita Madonna tried to carry this tune.
Ray of Light's multi-platinum success is probably one of the highest points for electronic music in the United States. While few will ever mistake Madonna for being in the same category as The Orb, Massive Attack or The Chemical Brothers, Ray of Light wasn't just an cheap electronica cash-in (see: William Orbit's pedigree), but a serious step forward by one of the more daring mainstream acts in the world. While electronica never took off like critics said it would, the success of Ray of Light arguably extended it's North American shelf life. The very next year would see the release of Moby's uber-ubiquitous Play, electronica's last great commercial gasp. A few hit singles from Fatboy Slim and Daft Punk would follow in the next couple of years, but the hits have been pretty meager from that genre since then. Is she completely responsible for giving the genre a short shot in the arm? Not exactly, but she did help. Whenever Madonna takes on a fringe genre, hipsters might say she's a few years too late, but to the rest of America, the sound is fresh. Madonna has arguably been the gateway to lesser known genres for many uninformed listeners and whenever she takes on a new sound, it's automatically palatable for mainstream America. Madonna could have probably extended crunk's shelf life if she had recorded a respectable and successful album in 2005. I can't imagine a world where Madonna creates a great crunk album and there is only one major hit from the genre in the following year (Lil' Jon's "Snap Yo Fingers" had very little company in '06).
Ten years later, Ray of Light is still considered one of Madonna's best and the title track can be heard in commercials and at sporting events to this day. It seems to be mostly forgotten now, but I think it's mainly due to Madonna's consistently strong outings (2000's Music and 2005's Confessions On A Dance Floor). When an artist releases subsequent weaker albums, it's easier to say that the earlier one was better. We had that opportunity briefly with Madonna (the torrid American Life), but it has been pretty smooth sailing since then. Madonna's catalogue is so strong that it is already hard enough for fans to pick just one album as their favorite. In the face of such a varied and enjoyable catalogue, it's best not to overlook this one.