Image via Maverick/Warner Bros.

In 1998, a self-proclaimed “happier, more grounded” 39-year-old Madonna made a show of change. Evolution had been constant for her throughout the preceding 15 or so years of fame, but recent milestones had suggested that this shift was different, beyond skin deep. She’d given birth to her first child, Lourdes, in 1996, just months before the release of Evita, the adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical she’d been gunning to star in for years. Intense vocal training for the role gave her voice a depth and clarity it previously seemed incapable of. Evita won Madonna newfound respect as a singer and actor, perhaps best exemplified in her victory at the 1997 Golden Globes in the Best Actress - Comedy or Musical category.

Building on this success, and the public’s gradual rewarming to her after the shunned and mocked disaster trifecta of her Erotica album, Sex book, and Body of Evidence flick, Madonna launched Ray of Light 20 years today (in Japan, that is—the U.S. release wasn’t until March 3). On the album and in its marketing, Madonna claimed to possess a newfound self-awareness—she told MTV’s Kurt Loder that what she once thought was her inner self turned out to be her “inner ego.” “The ego is all gratification for yourself alone,” she explained. “It’s not very much sharing and kindness and generosity.”


That she was renouncing her ego in a context that largely served to feed it—album promotion and brand extension—should have given us pause. After all, Madonna wasn’t performing philanthropy or even offering earth-shattering philosophy. She was just recreating her world. Behold, the power of demanding to be taken seriously.

Ray of Light was received with credulity. Going through the press for it, I didn’t see much challenging of Ray of Light’s ideas, like the expressed ambivalence toward fame expressed in its opening track, “Drowned Word/Substitute for Love.” “I traded fame for love / Without a second thought,” is how Madonna opens, going on to lament concessions that kept the two concepts conflated in her head. The verse ends with what seems like epiphany: “And now I find, I’ve changed my mind.” But what to? Certainly not to not being famous. How ambivalent toward fame are you really if you’re still fostering it? Does “Drowned World” implore you to hold two ideas about the same thing in your head or merely deliver half-baked message?


She’d tell Oprah that one of her realizations of this era was that “fame is not a goal; it’s a byproduct.” Well, sure, ideally, but that’s a lot easier to say once you’ve attained fame, which was in fact an explicit goal of Madonna’s per an interview early into her career when she proclaimed she’d come to New York after high school in search of “fame and fortune.” She wouldn’t have attained fame had she not made it her goal, and she wouldn’t have been able to denounce it as a goal had she not attained it. There’s got to be a zen koan in there somewhere, but I’m not sure this mental recasting of fame signals enlightenment more than willful revisionism, if not outright hypocrisy.

I highlight this because I don’t think Ray of Light holds up to much scrutiny as a meditation on one’s place in the universe or even forward-thinking pop masterpiece, as it is often framed. I don’t mean to piss on anyone’s prism, but in the album’s spirit of questioning and searching, it’s worth reflecting on its place in culture on its 20th anniversary.


The music, largely crafted alongside William Orbit, puts a bunch of bells and whistles and whooshes and whirrs on what was by then a fairly standard trance and trip-hop template to anyone who watched MTV’s Amp, had heard Paul van Dyk, or had a notion of what was happening on European charts. It gestured to existing electronica with the same doggedness as Madonna gestured to spiritual growth. Sure, few pop stars leaned as hard into these kinds of sounds like Madonna, but the ingenuity wasn’t in sonic invention but in the way existing forms gelled in Madonna’s hand. Even the merging of club beats and guitar riffs was just a novel method of picking back up some new wave principles from the ‘80s, albeit with sonically divergent results. Ray of Light was adventurous... for Madonna.

It’s impossible to view this album’s merits outside of the context of her career at that time, which means instead of shedding notions of the importance of celebrity, Ray of Light enhances them. The album was a stunning commercial comeback, proof to doubters that Madonna still had it and was to be dismissed at your peril. In a career context, Ray of Light could be read as a sex-free act of contrition for all the smut Madonna was peddling in the early ‘90s. She seemed almost... ashamed when she obliquely reflected on her art’s libidinous past on Oprah: “Sometimes I did and said things that probably weren’t very listener friendly, but I was working stuff out.” The album focused not on earthly pleasures but on spirituality—the enormity of the universe, the personal journey to enlightenment, the meaninglessness of everything besides love. I understand why she pivoted away from the subject matter that cultivated such public disdain, and it’d be foolish to expect Madonna to stay in one place for too long, but the sexlessness of Ray of Light and the projects that followed was kind of a bummer. I can’t help but think part of the impetus was an implicit concession of victory for those who mocked her for open sexual expression.

Instead we got wisdom that seemed not particularly wise (“Nothing really matters / Love is all we need / Everything I give you / All comes back to me”). Like a moth to a flame, so is Madonna to a cliche... including “like a moth to a flame,” which she sings in “To Have and Not To Hold.” “Frozen” informs us, “You’re frozen when your heart’s not open,” which... okay, before asserting, “You hold the key,” thus echoing her 1986 hit “Open Your Heart” (“Open your heart to me / Darling / I hold the lock and you hold the key”). Twelve years and a trip through the desert in witch-raver garb to get right back there? The following song, “Power of Good-Bye” also uses open-heart imagery, on top of a burning fortress and a lesson learned. “Sky Fits Heaven” was built upon a Max Blagg poem Madonna had heard in a commercial for the Gap. Finding enlightenment (“Sky fits heaven so fly it...Child fits mother so hold your baby tight”) in a Gap ad seems like something Bob Dylan or maybe Kathleen Hanna would sneer about in a song to show how far we’ve fallen as a culture. For “Shanti / Ashtangi,” Madonna chanted rather seriously in Sanskrit. Today it plays like a gag out of AbFab.


But 20 years ago, a white person as famous as Madonna could say, “I like to sort of appropriate things,” and not cause any stir at all. In another promo interview, Madonna pronounced herself “obsessed with India,” and showed off the mehndi on her hands. When the World Vaishnava Association publicly criticized Madonna for the tilak facial adornment she displayed while dancing with Lenny Kravitz at the 1998 VMAs, Madonna shot back, “The essence of purity and divinity is non-judgment. They should practice what they preach. If they’re so pure why are they watching MTV?”

Certainly, the worst fears regarding appropriation were confirmed by Ray of Light era Madonna, who tried on religions (Hinduism) and cultures (geisha in the “Nothing Really Matters” video; some flute-playing sampled from a Moroccan market at the end of “Skin”) and then discarded them like a crumpled outfit on the floor. In fact, so much of what she preached during the Ray of Light era clearly didn’t stick. She then talked about quitting the gym; last year, her trainer said she spends five hours a day there. She talked about never wanting to sing “Like a Virgin” again; she’s performed it on multiple tours since. In 2009, she wrote in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that all of her dabbling with Buddhism and Taoism and yoga taught her things and yet, “I still could not connect the dots and find a way to take this knowledge and apply it to my daily life.” It wasn’t until she invested entirely in Kabbalah (which in fairness she also discussed during her Ray of Light press) that she connected the dots.


By 2000, when promoting her next album Music, she was already less subdued, telling Rolling Stone that her new album’s “waiting-to-be-sprung feeling is sort of bubbling under the surface and reflects in a lot of the music.” As Alex Frank put it in a retrospective Ray of Light review for Pitchfork last year, “So much for all that.”

Singing in her prim and newly expanded voice, Madonna is the picture of self-seriousness throughout Ray of Light, but I think beyond the mystical veneer, the album is best appreciated as bubblegum that is not so much spiritual, per se, but uses spirituality as its angle. Hey, an album’s got to be about something. I don’t mean to dismiss it entirely. There are tunes! There are terrific sonic juxtapositions! I love how the slowed-down breakbeats lick the chorus of “Frozen” like flames, and how despite its gurgling bass line and pummeling insistence, “Sky Fits Heaven” opens up to something hopeful by the end of its hook.


Ray of Light, then, is not an illustration of enlightenment but the display of seeking it. It’s about dabbling as opposed to centering, flagrant dilettantism that masquerades as knowingness. It was a departure that found Madonna behaving true to form, same as she always was, different as usual.