“Zephyr in the sky at night I wonder
Do my tears of mourning sink beneath the sun?
She’s got herself a universe gone quickly
For the call of thunder threatens everyone
And I feel like I just got home and I feel…
Faster than the speeding light she’s flying
Trying to remember where it all began
She’s got herself a little piece of heaven
Waiting for the time when Earth shall be as one…
Quicker than a ray of light she’s flying
Quicker than a ray of light I’m flying
These lyrics are from one of the best pop songs ever. Like most of her work, Madonna’s “Ray of Light” brilliantly infuses larger themes and stories of personal triumph with catchy-as-hell melodies co-produced with the best creative masterminds in the music industry.
It’s one of the reasons why she is still relevant.
For those who aren’t familiar, Madonna isn’t only the Queen of Pop, a title she earned by becoming the top-selling (and touring) female artist of all time. She’s also a hard-working, intelligent, and innovative entertainer whose work spans different sub-genres and eras. She burst onto the scene in the early ’80s and altered the course of pop history. Her unapologetic self-expression has kept her one step ahead of the crowd and inspired generations of entertainers for 33 years.
There’s a reason why younger singers are constantly being compared to her – she’s done it all. She was one of the first female artists to control her own image and style. When music industry bigwigs wanted her to go with a more punk, Pat Benatar sound early on, she defied them with her own signature, neo-disco sound that propelled her to superstardom. When critics would declare her career over (1984, 1992, etc.), she would keep making music, churning out hits, and having “comebacks” despite the fact she hadn’t “gone” anywhere. When those same critics thought she was just a shallow pop star, she proved them very wrong by releasing deeply personal, substantive works-of-art – albums like Like a Prayer, Ray of Light and American Life are just a few examples.
Whether she’s experimenting with different sounds and lyrics in the studio with legends like Nile Rogers and Diplo or pissing off self-righteous blowhards on social media, she keeps going forward and personifying self-determination. In “Like It Or Not,” she defiantly croons, “This is who I am, you can like it or not. You can love me or leave me ’cause I’m never gonna stop.”
She echoes the sentiment in “Iconic“:
Tell me I’m no good and I’ll be great
Say I have to fight and I can’t wait
Standing in the wings
A butterfly that stings
I will rise above ’cause it’s my fate
As I wrote back in 2012, after seeing her incredible MDNA Tour at its Los Angeles stop, this is the woman who spoke up for the LGBT community at the height of the AIDS crisis. When Jerry Falwell and the moral crusaders of the 1980s and ’90s were denouncing gays, feminists, and everyone else who wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian for a laundry list of societal ills, she broke taboos and forced the culture to re-examine issues it had always swept under the rug. Empowered female sexuality – ever a touchy, controversial subject throughout American history – was and remains to be a centerpiece of her artistry. She doesn’t care if you think she’s “gone too far” or if you think “she’s old and desperate.” If you tell her to stop, she’ll go even further. It’s what makes her Madonna and at 57 years old, she shows no signs of slowing down.
It’s the main reason why I love her.
Of course, my love of Madonna goes beyond her incredible career. I can look back and listen to specific songs and albums (of which I own all) and remember where I was in my life when I first heard them. Even though “Ray of Light” was released in 1998, I didn’t discover its beauty until the late 2000s, a time when I was coming to terms with my sexuality and thinking about what my place in the world was going to be. In fact, I’m always thinking about where I fit in the grand scheme of things and what my legacy will be. “Quicker than a ray of light she’s flying,” really resonates with me: Life goes by fast and our only chance to make the most of it is right here, right now.
“Hung Up,” one of her chart-smashing singles from 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, piqued my interest in disco while I was in high school and, I’d argue, set the stage for the current disco revival in pop. “Human Nature,” possibly the best “f*** you” track of the mid ’90s, reminded me to stand strong and with purpose while I was re-evaluating my life’s direction in 2010. “Oh Father” seemed to loosely describe what I was going through as a young, gay twentysomething – “Oh, father, if you never wanted to live that way, if never wanted to hurt me, why am I running away?” (My father and I have a great relationship, by the way)
Her ambition and drive to get every last drop of meaning and satisfaction out of life that she can is a constant source of inspiration. Hell, it’s infectious. Yes, I’m a naturally driven person myself – I don’t “owe” that to anyone, including Madonna. My curiosity and sense of awe of the universe around me are the two main engines of my ambition.
But there’s something about her music that not only makes me want to dance but encourages me to never back down, to never allow another person to determine the outcome of my life. For that, she’ll always hold a special place in my playlist-for-every-occasion heart. It sounds sappy and cliché but it’s true. It’s why I love her and, frankly, why you should, too. “Bless yourself and genuflect.”