Monday, October 14, 2013

Ray of Light, Part 4: Tracks 9-13

Welcome to the fourth installment of my Madonna series! For Part 1: An Introduction, click here. For Part 2: Tracks 1-4, click here. For Part 3: Tracks 5-8, click here.


Madonna even felt comfortable enough with her new knowledge that she managed to call out others in a state of denial in “Frozen.” “You only see what your eyes want to see,” she sings at the beginning of the song. Another lyric, “Give yourself to me; / you hold the key,” is a throwback to “Open Your Heart” (True Blue), which finds Madonna saying that “I hold the lock and you hold the key.” This exhortation to be a more receptive person is, in fact, a common theme in Madonna’s music, from “Stay” (Like a Virgin) to “I’d Rather Be YourLover” (Bedtime Stories) before Ray of Light and from “Get Together” (Confessions on a Dance Floor) to “Masterpiece” (MDNA) afterward. It is this more recent track that is easiest to connect with “Frozen,” when Madonna laments the pain that comes with “be[ing] in love with a masterpiece” who is the “look, but please don’t touch me-type,” which lines up with her declaration of frustration with a partner who is “frozen when your heart’s not open.”

Heartbreak, in fact, abounds on Ray of Light. After “Frozen” comes “The Power of Good-Bye,” an end-of-relationship anthem that finds Madonna declaring her freedom from another lover who is distant and closed off. She absorbs lessons from this decision, noting that “Freedom comes when you learn to let go; / creation comes when you learn to say no.” But this is not exactly a revelation, since Madonna explored similar themes in “Till Death Do Us Part” (Like a Prayer) nine years earlier. In that song, she realizes that her husband will not change, which is the catalyst for her leaving the relationship and letting go as she would again in “The Power of Good-Bye.” Sadly, this is a pattern for the singer, who would come to similar conclusions in “Miles Away” (Hard Candy) after another decade passed: “I can’t pretend to be someone else,” she insists, and then continues on to say that “When no one’s around and I have you here, / I begin to see the picture--it becomes so clear.” Even the affluent among us must endure life lessons, if these examples are any indication.

There is a moment on Ray of Light where Madonna achieves clarity, however, after the tumult of “Frozen” and “The Power of Good-Bye.” In “To Have and Not to Hold,” she comes to the conclusion that she is responsible for her troubles: “Like a moth to a flame, / only I am to blame” since she “go[es] straight to you.” But that does not mean she has let go of her frustrations. Rather, she spends most of the song lamenting the situation. Similar tactics were used on Erotica, both in “Waiting” and “Words.” In “Words,” she sings, “I don’t wanna hear your words; / they always attack,” hurting her the same way the paramour of “To Have” has eyes that “go right through.” Moreover, she opens “Waiting” with the very sentiment that permeates “To Have” by saying, “Well, I know from experience that if you have to ask for something more than once or twice, it wasn’t yours in the first place,” which declaration is echoed in the chorus of “To Have,’ where she sings, “I’ve been told / you’re to have, not to hold.”

Later, Madonna would revisit this theme in her disco-drenched tune “Hung Up” (Confessions on a Dance Floor), where she insists that she “can’t keep waiting for you; / I know that you’re still hesitating.” But a more powerful connection to “To Have” is found in “X-StaticProcess” (American Life). “Process” hinges on the singer’s frustration with an aloof, too-perfect Other, who makes her feel that “I’m not myself and I don’t know how.” This recalls her contention in “To Have” that no one, including herself, will be able to “break my fall.”

There is a brief respite from the sadness on the back end of Ray of Light, delivered in the form of “Little Star,” an ode to the infant Lourdes. A glittery, lightweight tune that is no less heartfelt for its sheen, “Little Star” immediately brings to mind “Cherish” (Like a Prayer). While that earlier tune focuses on romance, it also addresses the importance of love with the line “Cherish is the word I use to remind me of your love,” while Madonna instructs Lourdes to “never forget where you come from: from love” in “Little Star.” And although “Little Star” is more of a lullaby, it still has an influence on “Easy Ride” (American Life), a song about what Madonna wants for herself and her offspring: to “breathe the air and feel the sun on my children’s face.”

After “Little Star,” though, we realize why Madonna is so adamant about her daughter knowing that she is safe, beyond the obvious fact of maternal love. The final track on Ray of Light is, it turns out, a meditation on the early death of Madonna’s own mother. “Mer Girl” therefore negates the warm, fuzzy feeling the listener gets from “Little Star.” But Madonna had explored this territory earlier in her career, notably in “Promise to Try” (Like a Prayer). “Can’t kiss her goodbye,” she sings at the end of the song, “but I promise to try.” In “Mer Girl,” however, she admits that “I’m still running today.” And, like many people do with their childhood traumas, Madonna continued trying to process this. “Mother and Father” (American Life) was her next attempt, when she pulled together pieces of “Oh Father” (Like a Prayer), “Promise to Try,” and “Mer Girl” to create a fuller picture of what she had experienced, admitting that she was “a victim of a kind of rage,” which goes a long way toward explaining the images of decay and fear that crop up in “Mer Girl.” The track, however, is a fitting close to an album that starts with an examination of Madonna’s external life and then moves inward to explore her personal demons. This is her attempt at fulfilling a prophecy she made in an interview with Maureen Orth in 1992: “I will never be hurt again, I will be in charge of my life, in charge of my destiny. I will make things work. I will not feel this pain in my heart.”


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

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