Looking Back at My Own ‘Ray of Light’

Twenty years ago today, Madonna’s seventh studio album, Ray of Light, debuted and was instantly praised as her best work to date. Spiritual, reflective, and nurturing, three words the world had never really associated with the Queen of Pop prior to the album, were the most common points made by media critics and fans alike. It broke the mold, brought electronic music into mainstream pop, and produced truly great works of music-video art.

But this post isn’t really about the history and impact of the album as a whole. For that, I highly recommend the following posts:

No, this post is about how this gem influenced me. As I’ve written before, I love Madonna. You might even call me a student of Madonnaology. I love studying the context in which albums and videos were released, how her sound has evolved, etc. Since day one, she’s been in charge of her image and sound and is intimately involved in every aspect of production. Every step of the way, she’s rubbed traditionalists the wrong way and sparked discussions on sexuality, censorship, and what it means to be famous in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In short, she’s a badass.

Maybe it was this unapologetic sense of control and empowerment that drew me to Madonna. Having grown up in the safe and sheltered world of conservative Christianity in a relatively safe and sheltered city in rural California, my world was a bubble. Nearly everything – religious faith, ideas of sexuality and gender, politics, music – was programmed and prepackaged for my consumption. Questions were encouraged, but only if they resulted in a deeper appreciation of approved orthodoxy. As I entered adulthood, I was asking the “wrong” questions and burying the answers in the back of my mind.

By 2009/2010, I couldn’t bury any further. Unless I discovered what I really believed and accepted myself, I knew I’d end up an unhappy, bitter fraud. So, I started doing my philosophical homework and consuming media that both affirmed and challenged me. I popped the bubble and never looked back.

Even though I had first gotten into Madonna’s music a few years before (shout-out to 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor!), I started diving in deeper and discovered why Ray of Light had received universal critical acclaim. It had debuted over a decade before, but I was in love with the still-relevant sound and feel. It was, and still is, a pulsating, raw example of self-reflection.

The lyrics focus on Madonna’s own spiritual journey from mega-pop star to metaphysical mom. To me, these lyrics resonated with my own journey from sheltered, closeted kid to ever-curious, established adult. Like the title track, I also felt like I had “just got home.” I was beginning to experience life on my own terms for the first time. It was as if I was starting over from scratch. “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…” I feel ya, girl.

I, too, was “traveling down my own road, watching the signs as I go,” doing my best to stay true to myself and establish my own unique identity. Through experience, my college education, and befriending people from diverse backgrounds, I came to understand that change was life’s one true constant. I could stay in the past and box myself in or embrace the future and continually improve. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a sucker for nostalgia and reminiscing about the good ‘ole days. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I can’t stagnate and become complacent. Indeed, “nothing takes the past away like the future” because “freedom comes when you learn to let go.” I’ve experienced that truth.

Her music – Ray of Light specifically – is a source of strength and empowerment. As I near my 30s (I turn 29 in August), I credit my curiosity and appetite for knowledge for where I am today. But it’s safe to say that things would have turned out a little differently had I never gotten into the Queen’s catalog. I can look back and remember specific moments when I felt like giving up, moments when I felt defeated and deflated. In those moments, one of my coping/morale-boosting strategies was, among other things, Madonna.

“Express yourself, don’t repress yourself.”

“This is who I am, you can like it or not. You can love me or leave me ’cause I’m never gonna stop.”

“I want to let go of all disappointment that’s waiting for me.”

“Don’t let it get you down. Keep the fighting spirit and turn your head around. Don’t let it take you in, keep the fighting spirit and you’ll begin again.”

“I have no regrets, there’s nothing to forget. All the pain was worth it. Not running from the past I tried to do what’s best. I know that I deserve it.”

I could go on, but I’ll end with this: Find your ray of light and challenge yourself. You won’t regret it.

 

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