Twenty Years Ago, Madonna Was Reborn in a ‘Ray of Light’
Madonna wrote what would become the last song on her 1998 album, Ray of Light, after going on a run. Her feet carried her, almost unwittingly, to her mother’s grave. It was a hot summer day not long after she’d given birth to her daughter Lourdes; she was visiting her father in her home state of Michigan. “I didn’t know where I was going,” she later recalled. “I just ran, and ran, and ran. The sky opened up, I was soaking wet, and I found myself in the cemetery where my mother was buried.” The grave “was grown over,” she said. “It looked like it hadn’t been visited in a while.” She stayed in the cemetery for some time, then ran and ran and ran home and wrote the lyrics to “Mer Girl.” It is a spooked, glitchy tone poem, a little reminiscent of the beloved Anne Sexton lines that haunted Madonna as a teenager. How unsettling that these are the last words that echo out across an internationally successful album:
And I smelled her burning flesh
Madonna Sr. died of breast cancer in 1963, when she was just 30 years old, and when her restless, destined-for-stardom daughter was 5. (“My mother is the only other person I have ever heard of named Madonna,” the singer told Time magazine, proudly, in 1985.) The elder Madonna was a devout Catholic who worked as an X-ray technician, and many people believe that the cancer was a result of her work environment: “The protective lead-lined apron that is now obligatory was then rarely used,” Madonna’s biographer Lucy O’Brien notes. Madonna Sr. was pregnant with her daughter Melanie when she was diagnosed with cancer, and she postponed treatment until after the child was born — by which time it was too late. For the Ciccones’ oldest daughter, who’d grow up to become one of the most famous women in the world, motherhood was subconsciously linked with self-sacrifice, death, and rigor mortis. Maybe that’s why she’s never stopped running.
“Obviously, you could say it has to do with my childhood, if you’re going to psychoanalyze me,” Madonna said a few years ago, when asked about her fabled obsession with control. And O’Brien did just that, quoting (quite convincingly) the psychologist John Bowlby in her 2007 biography, Madonna: Like an Icon. “The most frightening characteristic of a dead animal or a dead person is their immobility,” Bowlby wrote. “What more natural, therefore, for a child who is afraid he may die than for him to keep moving.”
Another man, another analysis: When he was dating her in the early ’90s, and her body was toned taut, boy toy Warren Beatty (about 20 years her senior) used to tell Madonna that he thought she exercised to avoid depression. “And he thought I should just go ahead and stop exercising and allow myself to be depressed,” she recalled. “And I’d say, ‘Warren, I’ll just be depressed and not exercising!’”
I ran and I ran
“Madonna has now become ‘toxic’ figure for millennials,” declared a headline in the U.K. paper The Independent two years ago. The evidence was a recently published USC study that polled 1,000 students about the relevance of 500 celebrities. The study’s damning research showed that she “now ranks among the lowest of 500 celebrities, when the attributes ‘honest’, genuine’ and ‘cool’ were tested.” And yet, curiously, Madonna’s was the only of those 500 celebrity names that made the headline. Even when griping about her, she strikes a nerve: We cannot stop talking about her, scrutinizing her famously on-display body, psychoanalyzing her open mind.
Especially given that generational shift in public opinion, it feels strange now, 20 years after its February 22, 1998, release, to think that Ray of Light was such a massively successful album. (It has sold 16 million copies worldwide and, though it was her seventh full-length, it was her first to win a Grammy.) Ray of Light is odd, dark, and a bit of a relic: Though it presented itself like a computer-generated transmission from the future, it did not accurately predict where pop music went. Madonna’s next album, 2000’s Music — with its compressed, cyborgy, and gloriously synthetic sound — was far more prescient. Though it came out only two years later, Music sounds far more modern than its predecessor. And yet I find Ray of Light infinitely more fascinating, challenging, and revealing than almost anything in her discography. If Music was Madonna’s first posthuman album, that must mean that Ray of Light was her final human one.
Madonna sought out the underground British producer William Orbit to coproduce the album. She liked some of the remixes he’d done for her in the past, with their fusion of electronic beats and Eastern-influence sounds: “I wanted it to sound old and new at the same time,” she told the U.K.’s Q Magazine. Over the four-month recording session in Los Angeles, there were usually more computers and machines in the room than live musicians — a novel concept for a Madonna album, at the time. (Though her name was sometimes synonymous with mass-produced pop, it’s easy to forget that Nile Rodgers and some other members of Chic were her expert backing band on Like a Virgin.) As a result, there’s a sense of isolation and loneliness to these songs, far from the gospel-choir assists of Like a Prayer. Still, Madonna didn’t want the reliance on computers to make the album sound too sleek. “Don’t gild the lily,” she would tell Orbit in the studio. As in: Keep it a little rough around the edges, but also nature is a language, can’t you read? He acquiesced, but the recording was a slow, arduous process. Madonna tends to work quickly and decisively, but Ray of Light took the longest of any of her albums to record.
The frenetic title track was the album’s biggest hit, of course, but it’s an outlier; there’s not much more sun shining on the record. Most of it is more in line with the moody, macabre lead-off single “Frozen.” “Swim” is a kind of electronic baptism, helmed by a sorrowful vocal that she recorded the day her friend Gianni Versace died. “Kiss me, I’m dying,” she sings on the aqueous, thumping fifth track, which centers on the eerily imploring refrain, “Put your hand on my skin.”
In retrospect, Ray of Light feels like a record about the anxieties of existing in a female body, in which time goes by so quickly and every tick of the second hand can be deafening. It is the sound of a woman on the brink of 40 — our culture’s unfair and arbitrary expiration date for so many things, and a decade past the age her own mother died — trying to transcend the human body, to outlast upstarts half her age, to become something eternal. Who can blame Madonna for failing to achieve her own impossibly inhuman goals?
Ray of Light was the first album Madonna made after filming Evita, an experience that turned the key to a whole new space in her throat. While preparing to play the iconic Argentine first lady in the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical, Madonna subjected herself to rigorous lessons with the vocal coach Joan Lader. “Lader taught Madonna how to sing from her diaphragm,” Lucy O’Brien writes. “Every night Madonna would go home, thrilled at the sounds she could create. She would call friends and sing to them over the phone at full volume.” Humanizing stories about Madonna in the ’90s aren’t as easy to come by as they were a decade prior, but this is one of my favorites. I love picturing it: Madonna sending her human voice over distorted telephone wires just to prove to her friends that she was still growing, newly exhilarated by the things her body could do.
It is probably sacrilege to quote Dennis Rodman in an essay about Madonna, but what better way to honor Madonna than with a little sacrilege? “Madonna’s a connoisseur of bodies,” Rodman wrote in his autobiography (which pissed her off). “She studies them and watches them closely.”
Madonna’s body: What an all-American locus of controversy and conversation! It appealed to so many women in the mid-’80s on a visceral level because, at first, there seemed to be a contagious joy in it. “She didn’t have a perfect body,” Kim Gordon (who named one of her side projects Ciccone Youth) has written of Madonna. “She was a little soft, but sexy-soft, not overweight but not sculpted or as hard as she would later become. She was realistic about her body type, and she taunted it, and you could feel how happy she was inhabiting that body.”
That carefree revelry didn’t last much past the Like a Virgin album cycle, and I wonder if the “toxic” feelings Madonna evokes these days — the stereotype of the youth-obsessed, Pilates-toned cultural vampire — have something to do with that, the fact that what she became felt like such a betrayal. There was a radicalism to the way Madonna presented her body in the early ’80s, but what she’s accused of doing now — worshipping youth, dressing “half her age” as she’s preparing for her 60th birthday — feels disappointingly conservative. “Madonna could not seem to escape the trap of America’s conventional attitudes about aging,” the critic Ann Powers wrote in her recent book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music. “Instead of using midlife as an opportunity to develop a new vision of mature sexuality, she still sought to be that material girl whose pleasure in feelings herself stimulated lust in others. That many found this stance implausible indicated that even Madonna’s dares had their limits when it came to redefining American eroticism.”
One of the most annoying, even tragic things about Madonna is that she is so often bested by (and complaining about) the very dynamics that she helped create. “I have to stay current,” she said, sighing, to some friends not long after Ray of Light came out. “God help me, but I guess I have to share radio air time with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. What choice do I have?” Madonna turned 40 the year Ray of Light was released, just a few months before a then-17-year-old, like-a-virgin Britney Spears released her debut single, “…Baby One More Time.” Madonna was suddenly forced to compete with a cadre of young, blond pop starlets less than half her age — but she was also partly responsible for the environment that created them.
I love Ray of Light and yet I blame it for a lot of bad music and terrible delusions of spiritual profundity that have plagued our modern pop stars, so maybe in the end, cosmically, its existence works out to a draw. It was the beginning of pop-star-as-guru-slash-lifestyle brand: You do not get Katy Perry’s Witness without Ray of Light, nor do you get Katy Perry thinking she could dress like a geisha, or… Katy Perry’s 24-hour livestream. We should have known that a kabbalah bracelet was not going to save Britney Spears.
And yet its anniversary is a good reason to revisit it: Ray of Light is infinitely stranger, better, and more uniquely personal than the “kabbalah album” stereotype. It is one of the rawest pop albums about motherhood that I can think of — a reckoning with death and life by a motherless new mom, a woman who seemed to have everything but was deeply haunted by the few absences in her life. Her mother’s absence helps explain, more than any of her records, who Madonna has become, and from where her obsessive and sometimes alienating quest to perfect and transcend her perpetually moving body comes. There was a blank space in Madonna’s story where a mother would have been. “Madonna did not grow up with a constant model of motherhood,” O’Brien writes, “but in the end, that gave her an alternative way of looking at the world.”
When Eva Perón was dying of cancer, at age 33, her husband decided that she would be embalmed and that her body would be put on display after her death. “Before she died,” O’Brien writes, “Evita was injected with chemicals to preserve her organs and flesh, and not allowed painkillers that interfered with the process.” The night of her death, the famed Spanish embalmer Dr. Pedro Ara performed a complicated process in which her blood was replaced with glycerine, making her seem like she was merely undergoing an “artistically rendered sleep.” The morning after she died, he proudly proclaimed, “the body of Eva Peron was completely and infinitely incorruptible.”
The movie (somewhat wisely) doesn’t focus on these grotesque details. Still, as she was gestating the ideas that would become Ray of Light, Madonna was immersed in her study of Perón’s short life and seemed to feel a deep connection with the tragic woman she was hell-bent on portraying. “I can only imagine how she must have suffered,” Madonna wrote in a diary for Vanity Fair while filming Evita. She also claimed to dream of her frequently. “I was not outside watching her. I was her,” she wrote. “I felt her sadness and her restlessness. I felt hungry and unsatisfied and in a hurry.”
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