Madonna’s “Ray of Light”- a risk-taking moment

Gia Bao Huynh Tan
7 min readApr 13, 2020

Looking back after 22 years since the release of Madonna’s seventh record, there are no doubts that this album is the one that everybody has to take a listen once in their lives.

In the midst of the extravaganza of boybands and teen-pop music, The Queen of Pop herself, Madonna, puts out an album that was described as her “Dark Side of the Moon” by Lucy O’Brien from “The Quietus”. “Ray of Light” deserves to be one of the most experimental moments of her discography which also marked an important milestone in Madonna’s career and her personal life.

“Ray of Light” is simply her motherhood album, as Madonna gave birth to her first daughter, Lourdes (or Lola). She reinvented herself throughout the record with the help of English producer, William Orbit, who prior to the album, had done remixes of Madonna’s raunchy singles “Justify My Love” and “Erotica”. Musically, “Ray of Light” can be compared to the literal sunbeam that illuminates deep within our souls, taking us to a journey of reinvention, as the album revolves around the duality of sea and sky which requires the listeners to escape the reality and join Madonna on the ride of self-exploration.

4 years before the release of “Ray of Light”, Madonna put out the R&B/hip-hop record “Bedtime Stories”, which were seen as a tone-down from her controversial album “Erotica”. Compared with her previous records, “Bedtime Stories” still conveys the idea of seduction, love, and loss with mid-tempo soul-pop ballads and the new direction with R&B music. With “Ray of Light”, it was a departure from what Madonna had done before. The album was made in the most “indie-styled” possible as Madonna and William Orbit — one singer and one producer, with the long collaborative process. Therefore, the album came out as coherent, with a certain connection between tracks and especially, lyrical direction.

Inspired by her own motherhood and the studies of yoga and Kabbalah, with the electronica, trip-hop and ambient genre, “Ray of Light” could have been one of Madonna’s biggest failures as she put her career at risk because the album might come out as “not for everybody” when the teen-pop was taking over the market. However, her most adventurous record to date debuted at #2 on Billboard 200, set the record for the biggest debut week for by a female artist at the time, winning Best Pop Album and Best Recording Package at the Grammy Awards. With “Ray of Light”, Madonna seemed to have found her confidence and fulfillment after decades of being a focus of attention. A calm, somehow psychical Madonna can be seen throughout the tracks of the album.

The album starts with “Drowned World/Substitute For Love”, an introduction to the transformation of Madonna within the world of spiritual discoveries. The search of the authentic meaning of love aches inside her when she sings “I traded fame for love/Without a second thought”. We have never seen Madonna as a person who is hungry for truly being loved. The ambient sounds combined with R&B/trip-hop beats are the components making “Drowned World/Substitute For Love” a welcoming track for the whole record. From there she moves to “Swim”, one of the odd turns compared to the main focus of the album. The sound of the waves emphasizes the spiritual tone of the track, with the lyrical focus about trying to find bigger things to pursue in life, without negativity and memories of the past. With the electric guitar and hip hop-blended basslines, the song reminds us of her previous record “Bedtime Stories” with tracks like “Human Nature” or “Inside of Me”. “Ray of Light” — the titled track — reflects awakening and religious exploration. The high tone of “And I feel” in the chorus leads us to the liberation of self, freedom of expression and the search for something that we can truly rely on. The uptempo electronic-fused techno record is the celebration of Madonna herself in her journey of Yogic psychology and her faiths in Kabbalah's teachings.

There are no Madonna’s albums without tracks about physical connections between lovers. In “Candy Perfume Girl” and “Skin”, the singer depicts the desire of sexuality, with both physical and mental investment from the partner. “Candy Perfume Girl” might be a bit off the whole record’s main theme, however, it belongs to the “musically odd” group with the above-mentioned “Swim”. We can tell that Madonna sings with fuller tone and breadth, a vocal improvement. With “Skin”, the song starts with yearning Madonna “Do I know you from somewhere?/Why do you leave me wanting more?” then leads to the electronic, computer-generated mixture of beats that connects us with today’s chill-hop music with the blend of trance. This song can also become the base for Madonna’s later-released dance record “Confessions On The Dancefloor”.

As “Ray of Light” is described as her “motherhood album”, Madonna got inspiration from the relationship with her daughter Lourdes. In “Nothing Really Matters” — the final single off the record, an uptempo house track covers the messages of Madonna to her new-born daughter, who did not know Madonna was the queen of Pop, a famous center of media coverage, “nothing really matters” to her. She realized deeply that the cat-and-mouse chase and the fame searching journey of the 1980s pop industry was no longer her playground. Madonna now has a bigger focus: her love for Lourdes. The later track “Little Star” is also dedicated to her daughter as the song describes Madonna’s happiness to have the little girl in her life.

The next two tracks “Sky Fits Heaven” and “Shanti / Ashtangi” are other attempts to depict the enlightenment of personal mantra. “Sky Fits Heaven” is a catchy dance record with Madonna confidently sings about traveling following her own signs and passion path, while “Shanti / Ashtangi” — a Sanskrit-language track on the base of a dance rhythm proves that Madonna’s genius and artistic traits cannot be compared with anybody else.

The first single off the album “Frozen”, a mid-tempo ballad with an orchestral background is the perfect choice to make ways for “Ray of Light”. The ambiance and chord progression of the song are added up as the song goes with the fuse of electronica makes this song feel like a message from the divine, becoming one of the most remarkable in the history of pop music. The atmospheric tone is set in the lyric, the singer stated that Hinduism and yoga studies have taught her to “step outside [myself] and see the world from a different perspective”, in that way, “Frozen” depicts the moment of cold and reluctance of human, not giving themselves to outer prospects.

The album comes to the end with three ballads with the support of trance and ambient arrangements. “The Power of Good-Bye” is a melancholy record with poetic lyrics about letting go of a relationship that feels suffocating. The song can be linked with “Frozen” as the main character does not open their heart towards romance. “Your heart is not open, so I must go/The spell has been broken, I loved you so/Freedom comes when you learn to let go/Creation comes when you learn to say no”; while “To Have and Not To Hold” is a breakdown moment when the lover is not close enough emotionally to strengthen the relationship, leading Madonna asking herself questions which measure she can take, whether to grow the relationship further or not.

“Mer Girl” — the final track of the record, a collaboration of William Orbit’s ghostly glitches and Madonna talking rather than singing. Her voice drops from wide breadth with high notes to a cracked lullaby-alike whisper. Her psychedelic journey has come to the end, but not with a full-circle moment. She is found running to the trees and the forest with her dream about her mother’s being buried. Madonna has been running to find herself, and now it seems like the journey is completed. She comes down with the dark side of her soul, ending the spiritual exploration without resolution, leaving us a haunting space in our emotions.

“Ray of Light” is forever a timeless record, one of the most risk-taking moments of pop music history. The album requires time, commitment and emotional investments to absorb it in the right way. Madonna made name for herself as the influence for later generations of artists, with the debut of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and later on, Taylor Swift. Until today, “Ray of Light” is still the peak of empowered pop music: power in experimenting, power of self-reinvention and the power of the Queen of Pop.

Check out Madonna’s 7th record “Ray of Light” and take a step to a spiritual journey with the Queen of Pop: