photo & text by nacrowe
its always INTERESTING how music has a way of transporting you to a place and time. for me, MADONNA's RAY OF LIGHT (MAVERICK, 1998) came out during my final middle school year in NIGERIA. one of my classmates bought it on a class trip to SWITZERLAND and FRANCE that year as part of my french class. on that same trip i found and basically devoured RADIOHEAD's OK COMPUTER (PARLOPHONE, 1997), just for comparison. the late 1990s was an interesting time in music because on one hand everything was dominated by MANUFACTURED boy bands (BACKSTREET BOYS, NSYNC) and OVER-SINGING POP chanteuses (BRITNEY SPEARS, BEYONCE, CHRISTINA AGUILERA) as well as WHINY NU METAL bands (KORN, LIMP BIZKIT) and emerging INNOVATIVE HIP HOP acts (JAY-Z, EMINEM, THE FUGEES). ALTERNATIVE ROCK was basically dead at that point and for a moment it seemed that ELECTRONIC MUSIC had emerged as an UNDERGROUND alternative. acts like APHEX TWIN, THE CRYSTAL METHOD, DAFT PUNK, THE PRODIGY, FATBOY SLIM, THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS, BASEMENT JAXX and WILLIAM ORBIT seemingly appeared out of the ether FULLY-FORMED.
and the POP world took notice.
RAY OF LIGHT was produced with WILLIAM ORBIT during a period where arguably MADONNA was at a high point in her cultural cache, with acolytes that took after her early POP years dominating the charts. always an ADROIT industry operator (she ran the successful MAVERICK RECORDS label until it effectively folded into WARNER BROS in 2009) its INTERESTING that she chose to veer left when her contemporaries turned right at this cultural moment. but then that is what makes MADONNA, well, MADONNA. no less a cultural arbiter than DAMON ALBARN and his ICONIC BRITPOP band BLUR had ORBIT produce their landmark 13 (PARLOPHONE, 1999) album shortly thereafter the following year after RAY OF LIGHT. the tracks themselves remind me of being in the SWISS ALPS as a teenager on this RIDICULOUS trip, especially the singles "FROZEN," "THE POWER OF GOODBYE" and of course "RAY OF LIGHT." despite not being a casual fan in the slightest, i always did appreciate her choice in singing completely out of tune at the cresting EMOTIONAL peak of the title track. cant think of any POP artist that would purposefully go out of tune like that.
do i recommend RAY OF LIGHT? no. but i respect it as a cultural statement since it would have been so easy for MADONNA to make much more CYNICAL choices with regards to producers (like MAX MARTIN) and sounds (not ELECTRONICA-lite) during this period in her career.