Before you read that headline and get all “Reductive Writer” on me, know that I’m a huge Madonna fan and a big admirer of “Ray of Light,” the closest thing Madonna’s ever had to a comeback album—the label lacks because, while she dipped out of favor for a time, she never really went away.
And I remember with melancholy the ‘99 Grammys, when “Ray of Light” got Best Pop Vocal Album but not the big prize, Album of the Year, an honor bestowed upon Lauryn Hill for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” A disappointed friend said, “Which album will they still be talking about ten years from now, Lauryn’s or Madonna’s?”
However, with the lead up to today’s 20th anniversary of “Ray of Light,” and the huzzahs and hoopla and “BEST MADONNA ALBUM EVER MADE EVER!” celebrations, it’s time to get a little kabbalah humble and reflect on the merits and demerits of the album and how its above the ether praise has unfairly overshadowed her other work.
The Feels like Home Highs…
“Ray of Light” has, by far, the best three-track opening of Madge’s career: “Drowned World (Substitute for Love),” “Swim,” and the title track, a psychedelic, swirling synth threesome of love over fame, existential heartache, and dance, damn it, dance, all ending up with the “ROL” head voice scream heard around the world.
… And Lows
Quicker than a mismatch, though, it hits “Candy Perfume Girl,” a fine, guitar-infused track that never quite fits the album’s feel or themes. While we later get treated to the sublime “The Power of Goodbye” and the thrilling, ballad-on-acid “Frozen,” we also have the dopey “Little Star” and, heaven help me, “Mer Girl”—Madonna’s attempt at Serious Performance Artist is about as successful as her attempt at Serious Actress. “To Have and Not to Hold” is delicious, but “Nothing Really Matters” is on a par with “Love Makes the World Go Round”—scratch that: The “True Blue” closing track is a lot less forced and lot more fun.
Now THAT’S a Package!
From a philosophical and marketing standpoint, “Ray of Light” is genius, and that’s where some of the musical over-appreciation kicks in. Madonna, the sex goddess who wasn’t just famous but who defined fame, was now an observant mother who traded the blond ambitious curls in favor of tangled brown locks, less makeup, and no bra—cone or otherwise.
The Importance of Being Earnestly in Earnest
After “Erotica” and “Sex” and soft, soft tunes, Madonna had finally done something important. And “importance,” in all art forms, is always given more credit than just having fun. There’s a reason why comedies only win the Oscar about once every 30 years and it’s not because Melissa McCarthy’s last couple of films have sucked.
“Ray of Light” is often cited as being Madonna’s last great, or even good, album, and that’s absurd. It usually comes with an asterisk that she was on her way to becoming a serious—there it is again—artist but backtracked into childish prank pop. Madonna did do serious again, in the highly underrated “American Life,” the album that, post-9/11 war fever, derailed her radio career.
The (Un) Holy Trinity
Whether by choice or caution, she went on to confess that she’s a disco goddess, and “Dance Floor” had some great tracks and a lot of outside applause. Since then, she’s been lambasted repeatedly, with “Hard Candy,” “MDNA,” and “Rebel Heart,” most of it underserved. Each one of those albums has fantastic tracks that rival anything the Queen of Pop has produced before.
Of the trio, “Rebel Heart” got the most underserved bad press and word of mouth, in part because of a really screwed up release (bloggers actually reviewed the leaked demos); a stilted Grammy performance didn’t help. “Ghosttown,” “Joan of Arc,” and the title track are as good, or better, than anything she’s ever done.
The Terms of Our Endearment
But there are other influences at work, and it’s not just the Max Age Factor. Madonna, Billboard’s “Flash in the Pan” artist, has always been loved by fans for being the winner; for getting the last laugh. Against all odds, she shed her first look to even more success, survived Body of Evidence by securing the coveted Evita role, and came back to number one with the 2000 album and single, “Music.”
When her later albums stopped producing hits, it had to be the records’ fault: They were either stripped of good singles, good songwriting, good producers, or—yes—seriousness. We hated the fact that she wasn’t winning, and we blamed her. In the process, we were separating the fact the she was still working her heart out with wonderful tracks like “Incredible,” “Turn Up the Radio,” and “Living for Love” from the fiction that Madonna is invincible … not yet. Never mind that no one but Cher gets a number one hit over the age of 50, Madonna disappointed us and we took it out on the material.
And Bad Mistakes…
Yes, she’s made mistakes since “Ray of Light,” just as she made mistakes before that release. “Spanish Lesson” makes me cringe, as does the “Don’t forget that I was the first sacrilegious chick” production of “Girl Gone Wild.” The over-the-top ridiculousness of “Bitch I’m Madonna” and the awful lyrics of “S.E.X.” probably overshadowed the rest of “Rebel Heart,” which should have been her slam-dunk chart-topping return.
Touched for the Very Best Time
As for her best album, don’t even say it’s “Ray of Light” when, a decade previously, she made “Like a Prayer,” an album that is, simply put, pop perfection. With the title track, “Express Yourself, “Cherish,” and a whole lot more, Madonna entered a whole new stratosphere of fabulousness—and she did it at light speed.