Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ray of Light, Part 2: Tracks 1-4

Welcome to the second installment of my Madonna series! For Part 1: An Introduction, click here.


The subversion is evident from the start: in “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” Madonna mentions the trappings of stardom, including “trinkets I can buy,” a “heart to steal,” and so on, all of which prove hollow after a time. She also manages to criticize herself for coveting them and buying into the illusion. She would later refer back to this song in “American Life” (American Life), taking the criticism to a more militant and universal level. Oddly, she would also backslide after more than a decade, proudly listing acquisitions in “I Don’t Give A” while simultaneously decrying monetary greed in “Love Spent” (both tracks, MDNA). 

On a purely confessional level, there are also similarities between “Drowned World” and one of Madonna’s most enduring tunes, “Live to Tell” (True Blue); in a way, it even seems that the singer may finally be revealing the secret she mentioned in that song. Later, she would bring herself to a more relatable level when she released “What It Feels Like for a Girl” (Music), substituting personal anecdotes like “I suffered fools so gladly” with “Hurt that’s not supposed to show” and “Could you be a little weak?” To a lesser extent, “Drowned World” also hearkens back to “Survival” (Bedtime Stories), wherein Madonna admits that she has been “up and down and all around,” similar to the way she discusses “travel[ing] around the world, looking for a home” in “Drowned World.”

Swim” expands Madonna’s scope a bit and finds her looking outward, rather than inward, and commenting on the events she sees happening in the larger population. Here she advocates that the listener “Let the water wash over you, / wash it all over you […] / so that we can begin again, / wash away all our sin,” which sentiment has its roots in “Love Makes the World Go Round” (True Blue), where Madonna instructs the audience to “take a stand! / Reach out for someone’s hand.”  The purifying acts she describes may be delivered in different ways--“Love Makes the World Go Round” in a sunny fashion, “Swim” in a more frustrated one--but they are decidedly linked. Later, Madonna would revisit this theme in “4 Minutes” (Hard Candy), her duet with Justin Timberlake. In this case, music is the redemptive force, as one might expect it to be where a singer is concerned. The more cutting remarks--such as those about “children killing children”--heard in “Swim” would also be replicated in another environment when Madonna released “Hollywood” (American Life) as a single, mocking society’s tendency to be “bored with the concept of right and wrong.” All of this is in line with Madonna’s declaration in the documentary Truth or Dare that she is “interested in […] pushing people’s buttons and being provocative and being political.”

Although Madonna would not use a folk-inspired structure on an album until American Life, her political nature on “Swim,” combined with her decision to do a partial cover of Curtiss Maldoon’s folksy “Sepheryn,” which she turned into “Ray of Light,” set her on the path. Rather than stick to the acoustic guitar-based, tempo-switching tendencies of “Sepheryn,” though, Madonna chose to add her own beats and lyrics, bringing the ’60s tune up to date. In order to do this, she referred back to some of her earlier dance hits. For example, the central predicament of “Where’s the Party” (True Blue), which is that Madonna wants to “free [her] soul” and “lose control,” went unsolved until “Ray of Light,” when she finally feels that she “just got home.” She was then able to sustain this sense of belonging through her next several albums, culminating with another dance anthem, “Heartbeat” (Hard Candy), which extols the virtues of being on the floor at the club.

It is also worth noting that “Swim” and “Ray of Light” are both connected to Madonna’s early, enduring hit “Holiday” (Madonna). The earlier track makes a strong case for “[taking] just one day out of life” to recharge and re-center ourselves as well as “put[ting] your troubles down” and, consequently, ties itself to the themes of renewal on Ray of Light. Unlike “Swim,” however, the raucous joyfulness of “Ray of Light” can be heard later in “Celebration” (Celebration), which essentially serves as a sequel to “Holiday.”

Although “Candy Perfume Girl” is not as exuberant as “Ray of Light,” it too can be traced to other songs. First and foremost, it shares DNA with “Burning Up” (Madonna). Each has a rock-influenced sound, featuring electric guitars in addition to synthesizers. Later on, Madonna would refer back to this usage in “Give Me All Your Luvin” (MDNA), if in a peppier fashion. But, true to the spirit of Ray of Light, no matter the antecedent or descendant, “Candy Perfume Girl” is less accessible than Madonna’s other love songs. The lyrical inheritance shows most clearly in “Impressive Instant” (Music), with lines like “I’m in a trance” calling to mind Madonna’s mention of “The sacred nerve is magic poison” in “Candy Perfume Girl.” Additionally, previous lyrical connections can be made with “Sanctuary” (Bedtime Stories), with its dreamy imagery, references to water, and a near-obsessive subtext. Even so, “Candy Perfume Girl” is a less disturbing song than “Sanctuary,” which also has a bearing on the track following “Candy Perfume Girl.”


For Part 3: Tracks 5-8, come back on Friday!

For Part 4: Tracks 9-13, come back next Tuesday!

For Part 5: The Conclusion, come back next Thursday!

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