Deep Dive: Madonna, RAY OF LIGHT

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Tuesday, February 22, 2022
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RAY OF LIGHT

Even though the new millennium had yet to arrive, pop icon Madonna was already kick-starting a personal and professional vibe shift. In 1996, she surprised and delighted audiences with her starring turn in big-screen feature Evita, earning the singer her first Oscar when she took the prize for Best Original Song ("You Must Love Me") at the 69th Academy Awards in March 1997.

It was the summer of '97 when Madonna hit the recording studio with electronic artist William Orbit to make her next original album, the proper follow-up to 1994 full-length, Bedtime Stories: seventh studio LP, Ray of Light.

"I look at more musical chances. I let William [Orbit] play Mad professor," Madge told SPIN in 1998. "He comes from a very experimental, cutting-edge sort of place — he's not a trained musician, and I'm used to working with classically trained musicians — but I knew that's where I wanted to go,so I took a lot more risks. Oftentimes the creative process was frustrating because I wasn't used to it; it took a lot longer than usual to make this record. But I realize now that I need that time to get where I was going."

Madonna officially kicked off the Ray of Light campaign with icy lead single, "Frozen," released February 23, 1997:  "For 'Frozen,' a song I wrote with Pat Leonard, I was obsessed with the movie The Sheltering Sky and the whole Moroccan/orchestral/super-romantic/man-carrying-the-woman-he-loves-across-the-desert vibe," Madonna revealed to SPIN. "So I told Pat that I wanted something with a tribal feel, something really lush and romantic. When he started playing some music, I just turned the DAT on and started free-associating and came up with the melody." The sweeping ballad was an immediate hit, soaring to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week of April 4, 1998. The song that blocked Madonna from #1: K-Ci and Jojo's "All My Life."

The album's euphoric title track served as its second single, released on April 27, 1998. Another chart and radio hit, the dance tune reached #5 on the Hot 100 for the week of July 11, 1998. The song was a hit at the Grammy Awards, snagging nominations for Record of the Year, Best Dance Recording, and Best Short Form Music Video, taking the prize in the latter two categories.

While Madonna issued "Drowned World/Substitute for Love" as the third Ray of Light single around the world, in America, the singer opted to drop "The Power of Goodbye" as single number three. The melancholy electronica track just missed hitting the top 10 in America, peaking at #11 on the Hot 100 in November 1998. 

The final single from Ray of Light: atmospheric dance track, "Nothing Really Matters," a song that shares commonalities with "The Power of Goodbye," according to Madonna: "In 'Nothing Really Matters' and 'The Power of Good-Bye', I want people to have a visceral and emotional reaction to things, rather than to have in their mind where all my stuff comes from," the singer explained in the book Madonna: An Intimate Biography. "With the songs, I wanted to say that it does not matter really what you think or do, just think by yourself, and not judge and dissect others. You know if I see a bug crawling across the floor and it inspired me to write the most incredible love poem, I don't want people to be thinking about their relationship, and then think of my bug crawling across the floor. It's then that the power of good-bye becomes better than the power of acceptance."

Released on March 3, 1998, Ray of Light heralded the new Madonna, and fans responded in rapturous fashion, snapping enough copies to send the record flying up the Billboard 200 to peak at #5 on the Billboard 200 for the week of March 21, 1998. The album that blocked Madge from #1: the soundtrack to blockbuster movie Titanic.

"But my other albums were personal, too," the singer countered when Ray of Light was personified as "more personal" than her previous work. "Bedtime Stories was personal, believe me. Erotica was personal. Maybe I'm a better writer now. I hope so. I think on my last few records I've been operating from a place of anger and frustration and bitterness and feeling like a victim and being very defensive. I don't feel that way right now."