Ray of Light 16 Years Later: Still a Ray of Light in a Dark Musical Void

It could partly be because I’m an aging gay man at heart, but Ray of Light still sounds like one of the most innovative and avant-garde albums out there. On March 3, 1998, Madonna released her seventh studio album, produced by the electronically inclined William Orbit. The record was a departure from Madonna’s usual fare for a number of reasons, chief among them being that she had just given birth to her first child, Lourdes Leon, and it was the most amount of time she had ever spent on recording an album.

Still from the "Ray of Light" video.
Still from the “Ray of Light” video.

While Madonna ‘s music had always been objectively “catchy,” it had never been particularly personal. There were snatches of intimacy on the Like a Prayer and Bedtime Stories albums, but never before had Madonna dared herself to be so open with the public through the channel of her music. Before Ray of Light, the Queen of Pop was consistently focused primarily on image. With Ray of Light, it seemed, like a virgin touched for the very first time, she was ready to expose herself fully–on an emotional level instead of a physical one.

On her spiritual tip at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards.
On her spiritual tip at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards.

Apart from having gone through the affecting experience of filming Evita and recording the soundtrack (which required voice lessons that championed a form of singing Madonna was previously unaccustomed to), Madonna was also transitioning to a new phase of her career–one that promoted a softer side from her former days as a provacateuse (though, ultimately, she would return to her wild child ways after leading her audience into a false sense of security).

The strategic, yet professionally satisfying career move, proved critically and commercially successful, yielding the top five singles, “Ray of Light” and “Frozen.” Not only was the music unlike anything previously introduced into the mainstream pop world, but it also proved that Madonna was more than the “helium”-voiced, substance-free pop art concept the press and the masses had tried to peg her as for so long. An accompanying VH1 special, in which Madonna frequents all of her old New York haunts with Rupert Everett, reveals the travails the pop star endured to get to her current state.

One of the most honest moments of the extemporaneous interview is when she discusses the overwhelmingness of first moving to New York and wondering, “Will I ever have any friends?” The honesty of that moment in Madonna Rising is apparent in every track on Ray of Light, an album that will forever hold a special place in this music listener’s heart–and not just because I shlepped to Tower Records in a stick shift Honda to buy the cassette tape.