SPIN"Getting the shit kicked out of me on a regular basis is a very humbling experience. From the very beginning of my career, people have been writing shit about me and saying, “She’s a one-hit wonder, she’ll disappear after a year.” Maybe that’s all been a good thing, because I’ve never felt like my shit didn’t stink.
I was guilty of buying into this culture that thrives on ripping other people up, and I regret that, I truly do. People always think that they have to humiliate and denigrate others in order to make themselves appear stronger or better or smarter or cooler, but in the end it has the opposite effect. I’m much more aware now, and when you’re aware you have a responsibility.
It’s just a process of asking questions, making mistakes, and being hurt. Having a child and questioning my own mortality and feeling incredibly responsible for someone else’s life and being aware of how my behavior affects her — you have to step back and realize that we all affect each other."
Boston PhoenixThe biggest Madonna fan I ever met was a 50-year-old Colombian immigrant
named Manuel. When I knew him back in the early '90s, this upright,
good-natured, rather lonely bachelor was working at a shoe warehouse in the
South End, and all around his work station hung Madonna posters he had
acquired through the various stages of her career. Her latest stage,
however, had shaken Manuel's devotion. He was turned off by the aggressive
sexuality of the new album, Erotica, and simply dumfounded by rumors he'd
heard about a book of pornographic pictures she'd just made. "She's too hard
now, too cold," he'd say. There was no anger or annoyance in his voice, just
a touch of bewilderment and sadness.
He wasn't the only one who felt that way. Madonna was the most controversial
and analyzed pop star of the 1980s because she combined New York club
culture with her Catholic, suburban background in ways that rang meaningful
- -- not just to clubgoers and suburbanites, but to pop fans everywhere. Yet
though this process placed her at the center of our wonderful, hegemonic
American pop culture, it worked only because both she and her music remained
enigmatic, open to more interpretations than you could shake a doctoral
thesis at. The magic couldn't last forever, and when it came time to make
herself known, to choose an identity by choosing sides, she chose New York
City. The Truth or Dare documentary, the Sex book, and the Erotica album all
revealed Madonna more explicitly than any pop artist has ever dared, yet it
alienated her fans and earned the dismissive and disgusted censure of the
media, making the early '90s the nadir of the pop queen's heretofore
Her recovery has taken years of contrition. The reviews improved and sales
picked up in 1994 when she released Bedtime Stories, the putatively
unrepentant yet in every way softer follow-up to Erotica. Both press and
public seemed to pardon her further when she put aside her own music for her
film role as Evita Per=F3n and then for her real-life role as mother to her
first child, Lourdes.
Now, with the release two weeks ago of Ray of Light (Maverick/Warner Bros.),
the fourth estate is calling for the full restoration of the monarchy. In
Sunday papers, national music magazines, and major newsweeklies, reviewers
have hailed Madonna's first album in four years as a breakthrough of new
seriousness and depth, a true and painful portrait of the superstar's
internal life, and more. It "blazes with pure emotion unflinchingly
expressed," raves the Houston Chronicle; it's "among the freshest-sounding
discs by a mainstream pop performer in the '90s," declares the Chicago
Tribune; it's the artist's "most radical, most mask-free work," says Spin.
Even some of her detractors are giving it backhanded props: it's "the most
human music she's ever made," sneers Newsweek.
I can't help wondering whether this mightn't all be for naught. Madonna's
new suite of dark electronic beats, straightforward moral declamations, and
pensive, flowing melodies is certainly Something New for the one-time
Material Girl -- call it an act of musical and philosophical soul searching,
if you will -- but what many of these reviews have missed is how her
exploration fails to connect with the external world. If Ray of Light is
Madonna's turn as the Disco Diva with Depth, it plunges far beyond any place
most pop fans would be interested in going. Although I haven't seen Manuel
in years, my guess is that once he and thousands upon thousands of other
Madonna fans around the globe get a taste of this new phase, they will again
just feel slightly bewildered and saddened.
Not that I can speak for the multicultural masses who have made this disco
diva the most famous female performer in the world. Neither would I care to
join a critical backlash that many journalists and Madonna herself are
surely correct in predicting will come. Indeed, I think most of the reviews
so far have the right idea -- if some, like the Chronicle, are a little over
the top, others, like the Tribune, are dead on. To judge the album in its
own little nutshell, Ray of Light reconfirms Madonna's ability to claim
cultural trends as her own, and it once and for all proves her tremendous
musical ability. Nay-sayers may continue to insist on the paucity of her
God-given talent, but this time her truly superhuman work ethic and
willpower have generated an artistic payback that even they will have to
admit is impressive (that is, if the nay-sayers could ever learn to admit
For starters, the rave reviews are right about Madonna's voice: her
39-year-old pipes have never sounded so good. The hard work she put in with
her big-shot vocal coaches during Evita has paid off, not only in the
high-culture realm of breath control and ar-ti-cu-la-tion but in terms of
range, fluidity, raw power. Usually she holds this strength in tensile
reserve, as befits Ray of Light's meditative mood, but when she lets loose
it'll raise your neck hairs, if not your dead relatives. Just check out the
high-stepping and hard-rocking title track, with its compacted, swooping
choruses and effortless glissandos.
What's more, these vocal heights often befit the new lyrical depths. As
countless heartbreaking divas have known for centuries, there's something
almost subconsciously rewarding about the contradiction of hearing
insecurity expressed with supreme vocal control. Madonna has tended to save
the sad stuff for understated slow ones like "Live To Tell" or simple power
ballads like "Rain," but here she joins the exalted ranks of opera stars,
jazzbos, and first-class dance-club mavens with the complex, brooding
songcraft of "Swim" and "Skin," with their concomitant declarations of
weakness and doubt: "I can't carry these sins on my back"; "Why do all the
things I say/Sound like the stupid things I've said before?"
Then again, this combination is also the stuff of which high-grade schmaltz
is made -- Jeanette MacDonald films, Celine Dion albums, Evita. As you may
have already heard, Madonna avoids this fate by recasting her sound with the
help of a distinguished ambient techno specialist, the British producer and
remixer William Orbit. The machine-generated musical backdrop he devises
includes sinewy synth washes, hard jolts of electronic bric-a-brac, even
occasional doses of high BPM junglese. Together these effects toughen and
deepen even some of her most touchy-feely meditations, like the otherwise
simpish "Sky Fits Heaven."
But don't believe the hype -- Orbit's production hasn't transformed Madonna
into a technohead ("Veronica Electronica," she calls herself in Spin). As
most reviews have noted, Ray of Light also features Madonna's most languid
pop melodies ever, many concocted with long-time collaborator Patrick
Leonard (the co-writer of "Like a Prayer" and "Cherish," among other hits).
There's nothing either novel or forced about this contradiction. The high
degree of artistry may make the strange tension between the cosmopolitan
club beats and the mainstream pop tunes more palpable, but this has been
Madonna's trademark style since "Borderline" (that would be back in 1983,
kids). Furthermore, as Ann Powers writes in her excellent Sunday (March 1)
New York Times piece, much of the album also "gracefully connects current
dance music sounds to older ones; its tracks recall early techno, Detroit
house, disco, and new wave, elements that Madonna used to create her own
body of work."
And there begins our tale of woe. If the music of Ray of Light isn't as
radical as the album pretends, neither are the themes so daring. Certainly
it's startling for a brazen sex goddess to question her superstar role and
scandalous past, to look for peace and higher Truth in quotes from the
Cabala and the Autobiography of a Yogi, to reveal herself by serenading her
new daughter, to mourn the premature loss of her mother, to chastise a
former lover. Yet to claim that these musings are more objectively "honest"
than her previous output is to be stupendously naive about the nature of
both art and human psychology -- especially when talking about a Type A
control freak like Madonna. As Powers points out, Madonna's new outlook fits
in perfectly with "the uncertain maturity of the 1980s yuppie class."
Whether by instinct or design, the sex goddess has become one with a culture
that gives us Lilith Fair sensitivity, rampant angelmania, and the
high-tech, cosmic cultism of Heaven's Gate.
So why has it struck critics as such a radical departure? My guess is that
this has more to do with changes in us than with changes in Madonna. If the
music and the mission of Madonna's new album place her firmly in the
mainstream, well, the American mainstream at the end of the 20th century no
longer has a center. Take a look at those Heaven's Gaters, normal in every
outward regard that mattered. It just goes to show: anywhere we situate
ourselves, we sit off to one side. That's certainly the case in popular
music. "Pop" still exists as some acultural capitalist behemoth, R&B flaunts
its stuff in ways that make Erotica now seem quaint, and rock stumbles on,
looking for a good place to lie down and die.
In many ways, there's plenty of fun to be had in this curious dilemma. But
the thrilling mixture of all the above that allowed Madonna to become The
Greatest Pop Artist Of Our Time simply no longer exists. In lieu of that,
she has chosen just to become just a Great Artist, something many of our
putative pop critics have a much easier time comprehending. Given the
natural arc of her career, this move may have been inevitable. But it leaves
me a little saddened and bewildered all the same.
(Gary Graff)Madonna: Ray of Light
Through all her chameleon-like changes during the past fifteen years, there have been certain constants to Madonna's comport; the wink, the leer, the lascivious underpinnings, and the somewhat self-righteous veneer that posits the idea that there's nothing really wrong with all of this, anyway. But as she sings on Ray of Light's opening track, "Now I find I've changed my mind."
Coming four years after she regaled us with Bedtime Stories, Ray of Light finds the Material Girl living in the spiritual world. This is not Madonna on the altar, mind you, but it is a substantial change in direction; Ray of Light is a deeply personal and involving album on which introspection is clothed in some of the best singing of her career, within a restrained, ambient tonal wash that's more about illustrating moods than scoring easy pop hits.
It's not hard to ascertain the antecedents to Ray of Light; Madonna's music and vocal work has been evolving and maturing steadily since the fluffy days of "Holiday." But the twin personal and artistic zeniths of the birth of her daughter, Lourdes, and her starring role in the film version of Evita have clearly drawn out of Madonna a more contemplative view of her life and her artistry. Ray of Light is nothing less than a shucking off of every one of the more winsome personae or personality traits that made her an unparalleled pop phenomenon in the eighties in favor of the lessons of motherhood and ideas drawn from her studies of yoga, Hinduism, and Jewish mysticism. There's no Sex book sequel coming from this Madonna, who reveals at one juncture, "Now that I am grown/ Everything's changed/ I'll never be the same." It's particularly telling that when the girl does try to have fun on Ray of Light's lone sex paean, "Skin" she winds up practically laughing at herself as she wonders, "Why do all the things I say/ Sound like the stupid things I said before?"
There is a price for Madonna's newfound seriousness: Ray of Light really isn't much fun, except perhaps for the coolly detached guitar hook of "Swim" or the synth-pop froth of the title track. Instead, it's a work of earnest self-discovery, a coming to terms with the past and future, as well as the present^both on personal and musical levels. What makes it a gripping and ultimately satisfying affair is the sound crafted by Madonna and chief collaborator William Orbit. The album's base is electronic, a cinematic, headphone-friendly swirl of synthesizers, sequencers, and drum-and-bass rhythms. But those mechanical trappings are humanized by the lyrical themes of the songs and Madonna's own vocal performance, which is strikingly confident, relaxed, and unaffected.
"Drowned World/My Substitute for Love" starts things on an ambient tip, with a spare drone that frames both the vocals and the touches of guitar that Orbit laces through the song. "Candy Perfume Girl" rides along a foreboding synth pulse that gets some heart from dusty drum and guitar sounds. "Skin" and "Sky Fits Heaven" strike frosty Euro poses, while "Little Star," Madonna's song to her daughter, is an electro-lullabye filled with gurgling synths and busy drum patterns. And "Shanti/Ashtangi" offers a yoga mantra sung in Sanskrit which sounds better than if she was singing the translation, with lines such as "I worship the gurus' lotus feet." Try imagining that as the B-side to "Like a Virgin."
Problems? There are a few on Ray of Light, most prominently a dynamic sameness that results in too many songs that begin with Madonna singing over a spare synthesizer bed for a minute or so before the beat kicks in. And a piece like the album-closing "Mer Girl," which finds Madonna being sucked into the earth as she contemplates her mother's grave, is mannered almost to the point of contrivance. But those are merely foibles of creative growth stumbles rather than falls. Ray of Light is as soulfully engaging as Madonna's first few albums were fresh and fun, a kind of reinvention that's been gradually coming, but still seems striking and new.
(Rebecca Paoletti)Okay, first there was the birth of baby Lourdes. All we heard about was happy mama. And then Ms. Ciccone disappeared behind the golden gates of her mansion, to be the doting mother - -- we all assumed -- away from paparazzi flashbulbs and zoomed-in hawk-eyes. But, as we expect from the artist formerly known as The Material Girl, she always comes back, a rejuvenated Phoenix rising from the last trend's ashes. To lead, to amaze, and to never, ever be altogether understood. Or appreciated. Her new album is no exception. Just weeks after Vanity Fair published exclusive photos of rosy-cheeked ex-Evita with her angelic child, her next baby, Ray of Light, hits music stores world-wide, and the hip-holy mother herself is on a whirlwind tour, from Paris to London to Toronto and all kinds of places in between, to promote its successes.
For months, the debate has been raging about what she'd put out. Would it be new, old, a retrospective? Would it break new ground, serve as the pole height for the young running women to attempt to vault? Or would it signify the end of a chaotic career, show her age, prove that once you stop, you're out of it forever? Her fans held out hope; her critics cynically expected less than nothing. Her critics will have to reevaluate. And the sound? If you guessed electronica, you were right. Sort of. If you guessed soft lullaby ballads, you were also right. Sort of. If you guessed that this would sound nothing like her earlier works, you win. This album sends her off into the galaxy as a chameleon constellation. It absolutely sparkles.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about Madonna knows that she can reinvent herself and her sound quicker and more easily than any shape-shifter. Let's face it, she's the master of recognizing the void and filling it. From "Frozen," the sweet yet pulsing love song that was the first to hit the airwaves, to "Sky Fits Heaven," to the soulful spirituality of "Shanti/Ashtangi," Madonna has found a new voice. A new strength. And an evident inner peace. "Little Star" is not the only song that pays tribute to her child; the whole record encompasses life fulfillment, pure love, and an often religious devotion. Motherhood seems to suit the former Sex model/writer. And her days of voguing are over over over. This is about heaven, freedom, blessings, all the things that you can "Have" that are "Not to Hold." All the ethereal happiness that has given her a new voice, a quiet fire. As the words of "Sky Fits Heaven" go, Madonna is "travelling down [her] own road." And her lucky star has never shined brighter.
Madonna's publicist confirms that two lines in the chorus of "Sky Fits Heaven," a song on Madonna's new "Ray of Light" album, are taken from a 1993 TV ad for the Gap starring poet Max Blagg. Blagg's poem included the lines, "Sky fits heaven so fly it, Child fits mother so hold your baby tight." Madonna's song includes both lines, changing the first to "Sky fits heaven so ride it." Representatives for Madonna say Blagg agreed to a deal where he was paid for the use of the lyrics, but gets no credit on the track. Blagg was unavailable for comment.
Meanwhile, manufacturers of Magnetic Poetry -- those magnetic word bits usually seen gracing refrigerators and file cabinets -- are claiming that the Material Girl could have used one of its boxed kits to write "Candy Perfume Girl," another song off "Ray of Light." An employee for Magnetic Poetry noticed the similarities between the lyrics for "Girl" and the words included in one of their products, and the company noted in a press release that less than 4% of the song's words are not found in one of their poetry kits. A spokesperson for Madonna said the singer denied ever having heard of Magnetic Poetry.
At any rate, Madonna generally gets what she wants, even if it's not what she expected, and she recently talked with MTV Asia about the grueling shoot for her video for "Frozen"
"Because the song is called 'Frozen'," Madonna said, "the original idea was to go someplace where it's really cold and where there's snow, and we were thinking of shooting it in Iceland. But then I thought, 'You know what, I'm going to be freezing. I'm going to be miserable, I'll be complaining all day, I'll be sorry that I ever chose a cold place. So I said, 'Let's do it in the desert, it'll be warm,' and it would be sort of the opposite, because even though you think of deserts as being hot, they're still sort of frozen in terms of there's no vegetation and they're very desolate."
"I thought that that would still work as a visual," Madonna continued, "but then we got there and it was like 20 degrees below zero, it was bitterly cold, and I was barefoot. I was barefoot for the entire video, and then it started pouring rain and everyone got really sick, and it just actually turned out to be a really miserable experience"
(Steve Morse, The Boston Globe)A slave to fame. That role, above all others, has defined Madonna, the singer-actress-video-queen who has relentlessly chased the spotlight since her first No. 1 hit, ``Like a Virgin,'' in 1984. And yet, after an infinite variety of poses and controversies, there's a new Madonna in our midst - a Madonna into yoga, meditation, motherhood, and peace of mind. It's a rite of passage shared by many of her 39-year-old peers, @one @many Madonna watchers thought they would never see.
``I now realize that fame is not as important as I thought it was,'' Madonna says from her home in New York.
Fame, as she sings on her new album, ``Ray of Light,'' is a ``substitute for love.'' Fame is that ``feeling of where you keep waiting to be fulfilled, but you never will if you're looking for it in that area,'' she adds during an hour@long conversation.
Madonna's new album just entered the Billboard charts at No. 2 and includes the 31st Top 10 hit of her career in ``Frozen'' (only Elvis Presley with 38 and the Beatles with 34 have more
. But this album is a true watershed record for Madonna, who also sings that ``when I was very young, nothing really mattered to me but making myself happy. ... Now everything's changed, I'll never be the same.''
``I totally feel like I'm starting over,'' Madonna says. ``I feel like I've grown so much in the past couple of years. It's been an incredible journey. It's like a light just got turned on, which is one of the reasons I call the album `Ray of Light.'
``I look at everything I've done in the past and just say, `Wow, I accomplished a lot, and there was goodness there and I could see the struggle in my search.' But I just feel like I'm looking at life differently now.
``Yoga has definitely changed my outlook on life,'' says Madonna, who started doing yoga postures two years ago when she was seven months pregnant with her now-17-month-old daughter, Lourdes. She's since been unable to return to her previous gym workouts
``Suddenly I couldn't walk inside a gym,'' she says. ``I was horrified by it. I had reached a burnout level or something. It felt wrong emotionally and mentally, and it felt wrong physically.''
After giving birth, Madonna enlisted Los Angeles-based yoga teacher Denise Kaufman for private lessons in Ashtanga yoga, a very physical brand of yoga known for its flowing postures.
``It was the hardest thing that I've ever done, but it was really focused and there was a great simplicity to it as well,'' says Madonna. ``I'm a total perfectionist who beats up on myself when I don't get things right. And so I had to learn to a) not judge myself; and b) to let go of the idea that I had to accomplish this and master it in one day.
Because you can't do that in yoga. So it taught me patience and judgment. It also taught me that you have to earn things, that just because you want to conquer something doesn't mean you're going to.
``Now I feel that yoga is a total metaphor for life,'' she says. ``I had this notion that it was going to be easy, but it wasn't. And I also got really infuriated with my teacher because she would only teach me a little bit every time. And that was a huge lesson for me. I'd only get to learn the sun
salutes, then the next day I could only learn one position. If you're in a hurry, you can't embrace or enjoy yoga. So that was another lesson for me - to enjoy the stillness of it.''
Madonna now takes Ashtanga yoga classes in New York - and ``I love how anonymous I feel when I go to the class. And I love how everybody's in one room ... and no one's judging anyone. It's a wonderful feeling - and very inspiring.''
Madonna has not been to India, where Ashtanga yoga started, but ``I'm going to go when my daughter is a little bit older,'' she says.
She insists that her yoga pursuit is genuine and is distressed by a few reviews of the ``Ray of Light'' album that question her purpose (most of the reviews have been raves).
``I read one review that said, `Oh, that's all we need is one more celebrity complaining about how awful it is to be famous.' But [the reviewer] didn't listen to the record. That's not what I was saying at all. There's no bitterness in the record, period. For me it's all about acceptance and letting
Yoga isn't the only change in Madonna's life. ``There have been other things as well. The birth of my daughter has been a huge influence. It's quite different to look at life through the eyes of your child, and suddenly you have a whole new respect for life and you kind of get your innocence back,'' says Madonna, who laughs that little Lourdes has lately been doing typical kid things like ``stuffing dolls and toys into the VCR.''
Another major change came from making ``Evita,'' in which Madonna starred as Argentinian icon Eva Peron.
Many skeptics criticized her for even trying. ``I went through a real metamorphosis when I did that movie,'' she notes. ``People were constantly attacking me and misunderstanding me and using me as their whipping girl in the press. I'd become this target, and I was feeling really sorry for myself. And suddenly, when I started playing [Eva] in the movie, I could get outside of myself and I realized that I wasn't a victim at all. To a certain extent, I had invited a lot of things. I hadn't really taken responsibility for my role in the whole thing. So I let go of a lot of bitterness.
``I thought of all the people who were upset at me for playing Evita and why they would have been upset and how their feelings were all intertwined with what she actually did in their country. And I suddenly saw how people could get confused. And then I had more compassion for everybody. It helped me have a whole new outlook.
``You have to work through the layers. That's what the whole creative process is. If where you're at is anger and rage, then that's what comes out of you. That's what informs everything you do. It might provoke people and get them to have discussions, and it might turn a few people's heads, but I don't know if it inspires anyone.''
While Madonna now talks openly about her search for enlightenment, she adds that she's not about to get sucked into any destructive cults. ``I don't want to be a member of any group or anything. I'd like to go on my own spiritual journey,'' she says. ``When you start calling someone a guru, and everybody flocks to them and worships them, they are only going to fall, because they are human beings. They're not divine avatars.''
Madonna's search even led her to sing in Sanskrit on one song on ``Ray of Light.'' She took a crash course in Sanskrit - four hours a day for a week - and found it fascinating. ``The thing is, you don't speak it, you chant it. And I like that musical quality of it. I have a very good ear for languages
anyway, so I really liked it.''
Musically, the new album is Madonna's latest foray into the world of electronica, which started on her last album, ``Bedtime Stories,'' when she worked with @producer Nellie Hooper. The new record has a few pulsing dance tracks sure to be embraced by her original pop-disco fans, but also haunting, ambient soundscapes created by co-producer William Orbit, a techno pioneer.
``I have always admired his work and have given him lots of records to remix, but I had never met him until now,'' says Madonna. ``I knew that he kind of worked like a hermit in his studio in London, that he never really has produced anything but his own records and that he never really collaborated with anyone before.''
An executive at Madonna's label, Maverick Records, recommended Orbit, who then sent a sketchbook of musical ideas, which Madonna loved. ``He is very open and very flexible, and he's spiritual in his own way,'' she says. ``And he was very supportive of everything that I wanted to do. Every lyric, every idea, he was right there with me, never doubting, kind of carrying me on in a way.''
Madonna is thrilled with the sales of ``Ray of Light'' so far ("I'm surprised, because some people told me they didn't think it was commercial"), but she has no plans to tour behind it. She likely won't tour until next year, because she first wants to make a couple of movies she's been dying to do. One is ``50 Violins,'' based on a true story of a New Yorker who teaches violin to children in inner-city schools. The other is the musical ``Chicago,'' in which she'll star with Goldie Hawn.
SOME PEOPLE suggest that Madonna's
new "spirituality" and softer approach to life
is really just a smart star striking another
pose. But those who encountered Madonna
at last week's Rosie O'Donnell show taping
had to agree she seems subtly altered.
Madonna was giggly, girlish, relaxed - open
to having a good time. The wary veneer is
gone. I have always sensed that Madonna
has been afraid to let the softer side out. It's
always been there.
On the New York set there was concern
over the dress Madonna wore to perform
her hit "Frozen" - lots of cleavage. Too much
cleavage, opined one of M's entourage, who
said it was "too subversive" for
early-morning middle America. Madonna
laughed, "Look, I want to remind people:
I'm not just a mother. I'm still a woman!"
(And what a woman, but baby Lourdes was
backstage and kissed the screen when her
"Mommy" came on.)
(Dave Ferman, Fort Worth Star-Telegram)The first thing to do in trying to appreciate Madonna's new `Ray of Light' CD is to ignore the single `Frozen.'
The string-laden, too-long tune, burdened with throwaway lines like "Love is a bird she needs to fly et all the hurt inside you die" is easily the worst track here. Why Madonna picked it as an introduction to the CD, I have no idea.
`Ray,' the first solo CD by Madonna in four years -- includes 13 songs over 66 minutes. And though much of it is totally in step with what we've come to expect from her (a mix of sweeping, dramatic ballads with confessional overtones and vibrantly uptempo cuts), it also has the sound
of the new.
Madonna's music has always been a great barometer of popular dance music. And this time around, she has fused her own style with the current techno/electronica styles that pulse in clubs from New York to Miami to London.
We might have expected her to do this -- but how well she does it is often startling. Working with English producer/mixer William Orbit and longtime songwriting partner Patrick Leonard, Madonna has convincingly bridged the gap between her old self and the relentlessly buzzing,
blipping, rushing sound of modern dance.
She sounds absolutely reinvigorated again -- more open, more willing to deal with a variety of emotions. And more, well, mature.
A few cuts, to be sure, such as `Skin' and `Candy Perfume Girl,' deal with attraction and sexual need -- it wouldn't be a Madonna CD without 'em.
But Madonna's deeper songs strike a realistic chord. She covers the past (the aftermath of her mother's death and some unsatisfying romances) and the present (motherhood in `Little Star' and `Nothing Really Matters;' hope for spiritual renewal in the title track.)
Such songs give a sense of a woman pushing harder and harder against despair, moving away from a troubled, confused past.
Naturally, it doesn't always work. Besides the disappointing `Frozen,' several other cuts -- `Shanti/Ashtangi, Power of Good-Bye' and `To Have and Not to Hold' -- derail the momentum built up by `Ray of Light' and `Skin.'
But it isn't fatal -- and some of the best stuff here comes at the end. `Little Star' (a sort of electronic lullaby to her daughter, Lourdes) is a lovely song, and exactly the sort we thought Madonna-as-mom would do. And it sets up the stunning `Mer Girl,' a soft recalling of a childhood spent grieving over her mom's death and how it molded her.
She recalls running up a hill, running to a lake (there's that water thing again) and looking for some sort of solace and understanding of why people leave and the odd, unbroken bond between mothers and daughters. It's a delicious, delicately melancholy but hopeful pop music moment, one that tells us volumes about not only her past but also her present, and just why being a mom is so important -- not to just anybody, but to `her' specifically.
"I ran and I ran/I'm still running today" are the last words on `Ray,' and then the CD is over. It is, considering what has come before it, the perfect ending. And Madonna is, make no mistake, back.
Madonna, `Ray of Light' Maverick Records
THERE'S going to be a lot of talk about Madonna's new disc, "Ray of Light." You'll hear that the Material Girl has found her religion, that motherhood has mellowed her and that she has transcended her superstardom by revealing herself to be as vulnerable as any citizen of Skyscraper Park.
After listening repeatedly to her 13-song collection, all of the above is true. But where "Ray of Light" is at its most brilliant is how Madonna chooses substance over style whenever she comes to the crossroads.
Unlike Lady Madonna's early work, which kept its razor's edge with music that was absolutely of the moment, "Ray of Light" (in spite of its many nods to electronica) is an old-fashioned pop album that'll stand time's test because of its simplicity.
Take the adventure of motherhood. There, Madonna translates the mother-and-child experience with the zeal of a monk who has gotten whacked in the noggin and has attained enlightenment. The sense of getting "real" about life is clearly what M has in mind in the album's opening track, "Drowned World," in which she laments that her checkered past may have been a little shallow, that she "traded fame for love" and that she has changed.
In her metamorphosis, Madonna rips open her icon's cocoon to reveal something most adults can more readily relate to: a thinking woman who has normal doubts, yet is passionately devoted to living. This disc isn't as lusty as "Erotica," but in its new direction, Madonna is just as sexy.
The music here is by adults, for adult ears. It steers clear of the bloated orchestration, "easy" arrangements and the rest of the mush-minded pop conventions that pollute the radio waves.
On top of that, Madonna sounds more convincing than she has in years. She's singing as if the lyrics she has written are a declaration of the dependence we humans share with each other. These will grab even the casual listener because they resonate with basic life truths and are performed with sincerity.
While moving your brains, Madonna doesn't forget about your hips. The music is almost all snap-crackle pop made edgy with electronic whirls and whines. After her ready-for-the-rocker "Evita," her embrace of knob-twirling, trance-inducing electronic repetitions is a rush. Still, the electronic arrangements always yield to Madonna rather than serve as the main feature of any single tune.
The title track to "Ray of Light" is one of the highlights of the disc, combining acoustic guitars, Madonna's pure, middle tones and an eventual throb of dance rhythms. There is a joy to the song when M chants the chorus "I feel like I just got home." The powerful sense of safety and elation that the word "home" evokes in this tune is matched by the melody's mood swings from calm to storm.
Sex, lusty desire and satisfaction are stripped bare in "Candy Perfume Girl," but in spite of the song being a prime candidate for a club mix, and having the best charge of youth appeal, it is the one song that sounds as if it was from Madonna's past. The current lightweight single, "Frozen," and her advice to her daughter, "Little Star," are the weak links on the disc. On both compositions, the themes are so important to Madonna that she mistakenly allows the lyrics to get in the way of the beat.
The album's best songs are "Power of Good-bye" and "Shanti/Ashtang," in which Madonna sings in Sanskrit. Both tunes mirror Madonna's newfound attitude that focuses her on the importance of family and following what you find true. Although the exotic Eastern references of "Shanti" sound mysterious, the translation is as easy as a yoga lesson at the Y - free yourself from the weights that anchor you to the trivial.
In her first album in nearly four years, Madonna has managed to again reinvent herself with an adult collection that has the style you expect from one with plenty of smarts under the blond ambition.
https://www.glamour.com/story/madonna-r ... nniversary"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.