I was looking forward to revisiting this album, the only work by Madonna that I ever liked. Back in 1998, I played it to death (bar the track Candy Perfume Girl which I never liked) and I particularly loved the William Orbit production. The album won four Grammys and universal critical acclaim.
Did it stand up? Did I dive back in and find it as exciting and engaging as I did all those years ago? The short answer is no. The more interesting answer is that I have spent time this week thinking about the album, about Madonna and why I find her problematic.
The album deserves the accolades it received on its release. It marked a sea change in Madonna’s career and changes in the pop world, particularly the advent of electronica. William Orbit’s production is sublime in places. My ‘deep listen’ happened, lying in bed in the dark, listening to it on a good quality speaker. I heard all the nuances and tricks of Orbit’s style, the subtle segues between songs and the unifying motifs of minor keys and melancholic tones. The album does have beautiful moments, no doubt, and Ray of Light, the title track is still a corker of a high octane dance number.
The album provoked nostalgia. I found myself reminded of a different time in my life when I was a different person, living a different life. I was able to sit with that difference, with some of those memories and rather than pushing them away, I stayed with them a while and then released them back to where they belong.
Madonna is problematic for me. She burst onto the music scene in the early 80s. Her presentation was provocative and sexual. She was unafraid to use sex and to be a highly sexualised performer. My feminist sensibility was burgeoning at the time and I simply did not like her or what she was doing with her image. I didn’t find watching her or listening to her empowering. I still don’t. I admire her for having had a stellar career, in which she has clearly been in charge of her creative destiny, transforming with the times, controlling her image and her business. That has to be a positive achievement for a woman in an industry that chews up and discards artists, especially women, on a daily basis. Madonna made it in a man’s world but used tactics that left many feminists uncomfortable. Madonna said of her ‘regressive’ image in Cosmopolitan that ‘they didn’t get the joke’ and told Newsweek in 1985, ‘when someone like Prince, Elvis or Jagger does the same thing they are being honest, sensual human beings,’ failing to acknowledge the persistent and pernicious objectification of women in patriarchy and the uphill fight women have to be both taken seriously and not degraded through sexual objectification.
Ray of Light marked a departure, a more interesting Madonna, at least to me, but watching the accompanying music videos again, there is a lot of preening and posing and focus simply on her. The most interesting video is for Frozen where she seems to be channeling a version of The Morrigan, goddess of death. Other videos feature erotic chess, moping, running away from the paparazzo press or vaguely Sado-erotic imagery that doesn’t really cohere and is uncomfortable to watch.
I am pleased to have revisited the album, but I won’t be going back for more or exploring any of Madonna’s other work. She is a great entertainer, a woman who has earnt her place in the canon of iconic pop artists, but she doesn’t speak to me.