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The Madonna Timeline: Song #88 – ‘Ray of Light’ – Spring 1998

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

Copley Square, Boston, MA ~ On a beautiful Spring night, the very start of the season, he glides in front of Trinity Church. A flowing black coat billows behind him, and it makes him look like a night creature soaring forth from some Frozen video. The throbbing bass pumps through the headphones on his ears, and he cannot hear the drone of blades upon pavement. He flies in front of the statue of Phillips Brooks, taking sharp turns among the rockier cobblestone, then gaining speed as the space opens up before the square. Whizzing by some late-night straggler, he cuts a wide curve, approaching midnight and the expansive green that leads to the library. In the night sky, clouds hover between earth and stars, and the mottled glow of the moon peeks through the wispy blanket. A gentle wind from the West lifts him, and he is flying…

    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.

Standing in the midnight release line at Tower Records on Newbury Street a few minutes before the calendar marked March 3, 1998, I listen as her voice fills the space. From the opening of ‘Drowned World: Substitute for Love’ to the undulating guitar currents of ‘Swim’, this is the premiere of Madonna’s new album, ‘Ray of Light’ – her first since the vocal calisthenics of ‘Evita’, and a bit of a proper pop comeback. (‘Bedtime Stories’ had gone some way toward mending the implosion of ‘Erotica’ and the ‘Sex’ years, as did her turn in ‘Evita’, but it was ‘Ray of Light’ that would bring her back to the pinnacle of critical and commercial success to which she was rightfully accustomed.)

 

Along with a growing group of Madonna fans running around the perimeter of the store, I am giddily awaiting to get my hands on her first original studio album in four years. Advance word was that this record was brilliant, and as I listened to her crystal-clear tone, it felt like she had just returned home, to the place where we’ve always wanted her to be: in the music.

 

And I feel like I just got home
And I feel…
And I feel like I just got home
And I feel…

At that point, working in retail and living in Boston, I was still not sure of where my own home might be. It certainly felt like Boston, but it also felt like Amsterdam, or Rochester, or wherever I found my suitcase and my friends. Sometimes I felt most at home in a strange land, an unremarkable hotel room, an airport gate, or a pair of empty train seats. At other moments I felt home was in the arms of a stranger, a nameless body and a handsome face, a nightly delight of transitory in-between states, both the people and my mind. The ‘Ray of Light’ album informed this period of my life, becoming the soundtrack to one of the most soul-evolving transitions in my life.

 

Up until that album, I’d made a mess of things in every romantic endeavor I attempted, falling for guys who weren’t interested in me, or acting a fool with those who were. Romance was a scene of repetitive trauma, where the same obsessive mistakes and ill-fitting acts went on, without resolution or improvement, where I poured my heart again and again into situations that today I would balk at, or at the very least laugh. Back then it all seemed so serious, and I was too young to be such an earnest individual. When the opening guitar chords of ‘Ray of Light’ rang out over the speakers at Tower Records, I felt my heart on the verge of bursting ~ for regret, for hunger, for happiness and for hope. It was the moment of an audible shift in perspective. There, in that song, was an instant of sheer joy, as the bass pounded and the beat kicked in, rendering and revealing the moment as both the miniscule role we play in the bigger picture, as well as a representation of the immensity of our place in it. Suddenly it all clicked, and those years of hurt and frustration were left in the dust. I could cry over the sorrows of the past, dwell on the shame and embarrassment, and wallow in the pain of everything I could not control, but the only person who was harmed in all of that was me. In the words of another wise woman, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

 

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.

 

It was a turning point in the way I saw life. The enjoyment of the present moment could now be seen as a flower in full bloom – tomorrow it might fade and fall apart, but that was no excuse not to enjoy today – in fact, all the more reason to make the most of it. Romance, once the heavy stuff of dusty Victorian novels, the impossible-not-to-be-dashed hopes of ill-fated suitors, was rechristened into something lighter, far more fun, and thrilling in a giddy way. Men – those strange, wondrous, enchanting figures that drifted so dreamily across my mind – lost a bit of their hold over my sway. And the moment you stop the search, the moment you really and truly come into your own, when you realize that you don’t need anyone to be all right, is the moment you become tantalizing to others. No one liked a cry baby, and no one wanted a wimp. All those years of moping around and going on about losing out on love were seen at last as a foolish waste ~ the indulgent sort of pain that those in true peril instantly dismiss.

 

It didn’t happen over the course of this one song – though it played a helpful part. It played out over the Spring and Summer of that year – and the next time I entertained a relationship would end up being one of the great loves of my life. For now, though, for the summer of ‘Ray of Light’, I was light-hearted and happy and fulfilled by some light play, some unexpected cuddling, and some sexy, sultry nights. It was an awakening.

 

And I feel like I just got home
And I feel…
And I feel like I just got home
And I feel…
Quicker than a ray of light…
Quicker than a ray of light…
Quicker than a ray of light…

Far more than romance, it also affected my friendships, and, more importantly, my ability to make friends. All my life I’d been almost painfully shy, even as I pretended otherwise. My barriers were always up, emotional weapons ever at the ready, for self-preservation and protection more than anything else, but the end result was the same – impenetrable coldness. The inaccessibility of the unloved, and the self-defeating/self-fulfilling whirlpool of swallowed feelings, of a perpetually downward spiral… well, at its most basic, I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I didn’t want to be less-than-perfect. And perfection is both icy and wearying. It’s hard to love a perfectionist, and even harder to know what, if anything, about a perfectionist is real – because perfect people simply don’t exist. Once I stopped pretending, once I revealed my foibles and stumbles, admitted my ignorance, and loosened up on the hair product, I was much better company.

 

On a Spring night a few days after ‘Ray of Light’ was released, I had my friend Simon over for drinks. He was a straight guy – one of the few who worked at Structure at the time – and we shared a cocktail or two before heading out into the night. I asked if he wanted to come along while I tried out a pair of rollerblades (proof that I truly no longer minded making a fool of myself in front of people). I donned a ridiculously dramatic black coat that fluttered behind me in the breeze. I went slowly at first, as he was on foot, circling around as we chatted about work and other nonsense. This, then, was what others did – they talked with co-workers, they shared silliness, they slowed and accelerated to keep up with friends. We neared Copley Square, where Simon would get on the T, and I’d get to go as fast as I could in the open expanse of the space in front of Trinity Church. I turned my headphones up, and as the high-pitched scream near the end of the song sounded, I joined Madonna in falsetto-bitch madness, screaming at the top of my lungs. I couldn’t hear myself with the headphones on, but I saw Simon turn around, look at me like I was crazy, then bust out laughing.

 

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.

I returned to my parents’ home in upstate New York for some of that summer, and Madonna was on the Oprah Winfrey show, where she performed ‘Ray of Light’ live for the first time. She looked radiant, relaxed, and gleeful. There had been tornado warnings that week, and thunderstorms stalked the area (there was even a Storm Watch warning that got recorded during the show, somewhere on that long-lost VHS tape), but at the end of the tumultuousness came the sun. That season of ‘Ray of Light found me having fun in Rochester, and Albany, and even Amsterdam. I bounced around to several places, taking Madonna’s cue for a more relaxed and less severe stance on life. I wore the remnants of some old beads I’d had from the ‘Like A Prayer’ days, lined my arms with ratty hemp bracelets, flirting with the ease of faded denim and hippy accents like a re-born flower child. And I found a glimpse of love here and there, not allowing myself to get bogged down with it, not allowing myself to stay anywhere for too long, but just enough to sustain the heart. In that way, I learned not to settle, even if not settling had its price too.

 

A few weeks later, I found myself walking along the tracks of a train terminal, coming or going from Boston, with this song running through my head. Luggage weighed down both my hands, but the sun shone brilliantly amid the departing and arriving trains, and my heart was light as the day. Perhaps this was my home – this perpetual state of journeying, this place of transitory transit – and perhaps home wasn’t a place, but a frame of mind. If that proved to be true, then maybe we’ve always been home all along, we just didn’t know it. It may not erase the terrors of the past – and that Wizard-of-Oz-like journey will never be completely forgotten – but it makes the way of the future a little easier to bear.

 

And I feel…
Quicker than a ray of light
Then gone for
Someone else will be there
Through the endless years
She’s got herself a universe
She’s got herself a universe
She’s got herself a universe

As a song, ‘Ray of Light’ was a momentous milestone in Madonna’s creative trajectory. It was an instant classic, and a high-point on her greatest studio album to date. While live performances have occasionally been spotty (a wretched VMA’s that year, and a dismal high note at a Live Aid event), she’s performed it admirably on a number of tours – perhaps too many, as its overexposure by the time ‘Sticky and Sweet’ came around almost made it feel like filler. I still think her straightforward reading of it (without playing guitar) on the Drowned World Tour was my favorite.

The video is a hyper-kinetic sped-up view of a day in the world, the first of a relatively long line to be directed by Jonas Akerlund. For some reason, this effort always felt a bit hollow, especially for the title track of such an epic album. Madonna is almost a supporting player in the tapestry of life that moves at break-neck pace across the screen, but it works in showing that she’s just a bit player in the universe too, so I guess I’m just being selfish in wanting to see more of her.

 

And I feel
And I feel
And I feel like I just got home
And I feel…

As for me, ‘Ray of Light’ will always be remembered as the song of the summer in which I learned to let the past go, and to love and laugh and live in the moment. It will always be one of Madonna’s greatest lessons – finding the simple joy in music – and whenever I find myself bogged down by dismal dwelling or onerous worries of future events, I think of this song, it takes me away, and together we soar.

 

Quicker than a ray of light she’s flying…
Quicker than a ray of light I’m flying…
Song #88 – ‘Ray of Light’ – Spring 1998
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