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Ray of Light Madonna Maverick, 1998

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adonna is numbered among the world’s most famous people: Q magazine describes her as ‘one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century’. Eminent authors and academics have pored over her tirelessly since she burst onto the pop scene in the early Eighties as the Brooklyn equivalent of an over-sexed St Trinian’s schoolgirl. The interest lay in the ease with which she seemed able to recreate herself. Who was she? The pundits hailed her as an icon of Western society, a person defined by her immediate visual appearance, not by any ‘core’ being. At times, she derived her identity from sex and religion. Her representation of Jesus and identification of herself with Mary Magdalene in the video for ‘Like a Prayer’ in 1989 may stick in Christian throats (Madonna has said that “passion, sexuality and religion all bleed into one for me”), but as a carefully crafted media construct the image – one in a long series – was highly successful. But if her past was all front, Ray of Light hints at a depth and a sense of permanence hitherto unexplored. This is mature work: the vocal training required for her role in Evita, together with her collaboration with the British ambient-dance specialist William Orbit, has led to some disconcerting musical intelligence and songs that are pregnant with more weighty, less playful religious reference. It coincides with the arrival of her baby, Lourdes. Madonna admits to experiencing an “unconditional love which I’ve never known before”. In ‘Little Star’ she sings, “God gave a present to me/Made of flesh and bones/My life/My soul/You make my spirit whole.” Motherhood has given her a sense of selfworth unconnected with commodity culture. She lives in Los Angeles where spirituality is chic and she exercises the freedom to mix a heady cock-

tail with Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish ingredients (lately she has been drawing heavily on the cabbala, the Jewish occult tradition). She asserts that “all paths lead to God,” and declares it in ‘Sky Fits Heaven’: “Isn’t everyone just/Travelling down their own road/Watching the signs as they go?” Such words suggest a naive and privileged religious sensibility which has more to do with Western ‘success’ than genuine pilgrimage. But nevertheless her songs admit a degree of personal responsibility, which suggests that this is more than just a passing fad. ‘Swim’, although it runs the risk of being banal (“Children killing children/Students rape their teachers/Comets fly across the sky/While the churches burn their preachers”), is redeemed by its wider spiritual setting and Madonna’s struggle with her own involvement: “I can’t carry these sins on my back.” Ray of Light offers a different kind of intimacy from her early material. Now 39 and quite unlike a virgin, her work transcends the controversial sexuality that fixed her status as a supremely influential teenage role-model. The opening track, ‘Drowned World/Substitute for Love’ draws attention to her more mature outlook: “I traded fame for love/Without a second thought/It all became a silly game/Some things cannot be bought.” And in keeping with this newer brand of selfexposure, the final song, ‘Mer Girl’, registers one of Madonna’s most vulnerable public moments to date. It concerns the death of her mother: “I ran past the churches/And the crooked old mailbox/Past apple orchards/And the lady that never talks/Up into the hills/I ran to the cemetery/And held my breath/And thought about your death.” So, will the real Madonna stand up? And if so, what effect will this new-found depth have on the theorists of the postmodern self who she helped to underwrite? She has already told us, “Don’t confuse physical nudity with what’s inside of my soul; they are two different things.” On Ray of Light, the revelation is of a higher order. Paul Northup

THIRD WAY APRIL 1998 (Page 1 of 1)

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Madonna, Ray of Light review  

Review of Ray of Light for Third Way magazine, April 1998

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