Welcome to the third installment of my Madonna series! For Part 1: An Introduction, click here. For Part 2: Tracks 1-4, click here.
It is also important to pair “Sky Fits Heaven” with its follow-up, “Shanti/Ashtangi.” The lyrics of “Shanti” are Sanskrit, precluding an immediate understanding of the song, but a translation is included in the liner notes to Ray of Light, indicating that Madonna is singing about “worshipping the gurus’ lotus feet,” something connected to the prophet mentioned in “Sky Fits Heaven.” The non-Western, boisterous aural nature of “Shanti/Ashtangi” recalls “Act of Contrition” (Like a Prayer), a track that bends some clips from “Like a Prayer” and acts as an unexpected counterweight to that tune, much like “Shanti” contrasts with “Sky Fits Heaven.” Naturally, Madonna continues to explore religious themes in her music, including in “I’m a Sinner” (MDNA), which exults in wrongdoing the way the English lyrics of “Shanti” extoll the virtues of awakening.
“Skin” is the sort of overdramatic love song that has the power to both entrance and alarm the listener, and perhaps especially the subject of the track, whoever he or she may be. Sonically, it is a descendant of “Bedtime Story” (Bedtime Stories). Both songs share an ethereal quality, largely because of their electronic basis. Years later, when Madonna recorded “Nobody Knows Me” (American Life), she would fuse “Bedtime Story” with “Skin” and punch it up a bit; moreover, she would take the same theme from “Skin”--the idea that there is one person who can solve her problems, either by knowing her “like you know me” in “Nobody Knows Me” or by saving her through the request that the person “kiss me; I’m dying” in “Skin.”
Of course, the line “Put your hand on my skin” can be traced back to “Erotica” (Erotica), wherein Madonna sings, “Put your hands all over my body.” But in this case, it seems that the singer is asking for deliverance from something, thereby subverting the expectation set up in “Erotica”--that she is constantly asking for pleasure. This slight desperation shows up again in “Forbidden Love ” (Confessions on a Dance Floor), when we hear Madonna wondering, “how we supposed to be together?” She also admits that “Just one look from your eye was like a certain kind of torture,” further echoing her sentiment from “Skin” that “you leave me wanting more.”
Luckily, not all of Madonna’s ideas about love involve desolation, as evidenced by one of the strongest love songs in her repertoire: “Nothing Really Matters,” ostensibly written about her daughter. Like the lines “They hold the keys to your heart and your soul. / Don’t forget that your family is gold” and “I wouldn’t change it for another chance” from “Keep It Together” (Like a Prayer) before it, Madonna rejoices in celebrating her family in “Nothing Really Matters.” She even matches the slight melancholy of that earlier track in the long notes and muted undertones. More importantly, Madonna brings her professional family into the fold here: this is the only track on Ray of Light employing backup singers, and the job is executed by Donna De Lory and Niki Harris, longtime collaborators and friends of Madonna’s.
The obvious legacy of “Nothing Really Matters” is “Intervention” (American Life), another song about her children. The chorus lyric “And I know that love will change us forever” hearkens back to the theme of “Nothing Really Matters,” which is the transformative power of love. But if one listens to “Nothing Really Matters” as a romantic love song instead of one of familial love, there is another strong, lasting result: the “You Thrill Me” mix of “Erotica” used on Madonna’s Confessions Tour in 2006. This version of the song takes its musical cues from “Nothing Really Matters” rather than “Erotica” and replaces some of the lyrics with those from the fan-beloved “You Thrill Me,” an early demo of “Erotica.” This results in a kinder, gentler “Erotica,” a dance jam heavily influenced by the less-combative side of Madonna that seems to have been borne of her motherhood.
Madonna’s maternity had wider implications, as well. A new sense of spirituality began to permeate her work with Ray of Light. In an interview with Barry Walters, she said, “My spiritual journey is to be open to everything. Pay attention to what makes sense, be absorbed.” For the most part, she was paying attention to Lourdes, if the lyric “Child fits mother, so hold your baby tight” is any indication. At the same time, Madonna was no stranger to spirituality. One of her biggest hits, after all, was 1989’s “Like a Prayer” (Like a Prayer), which informed “Sky Fits Heaven” with its references to flying and, of course, heaven. Both of these prophetic songs also contributed to her later tune “Isaac” (Confessions on a Dance Floor). The instructive nature of “Sky Fits Heaven,” in particular, lent itself well to “Isaac,” wherein the singer discusses “Staring up into the heavens” and learning lessons.
For Part 4: Tracks 9-13, come back next Tuesday!
For Part 5: The Conclusion, come back next Thursday!