Out There

Why's that girl?

Ray of Light
Maverick/Warner Bros.

It has been a long time since Madonna was depicted as a musician. For so long now, her albums have seemed like afterthought attempts to keep her day job alive in case the acting thing really doesn't pan out. It has been nine years since her start-to-finish perfect record, Like a Prayer; she followed it with missteps (Erotica), mistakes (Bedtime Stories), and misguided arrogance (Evita), until all that was left was Madonna the Mother becoming the last interesting peg on which entertainment writers could hang their limp stories. The radiant, cultural force had become a pale, gray landmark.

Now, with the release of Ray of Light--her midlife crisis cast in techno's dim glow--critics once again turn their pens toward Madonna the Musician, and they scramble for the hyperbole; MTV's microphone whore Kurt Loder has treated its release as though he were Edward R. Murrow reporting on the outbreak of world war. It's easy enough to understand the rush to judgment: With its themes of sacrifice and motherhood set against echoes and beats, Ray of Light seems more revelatory than her previous excursions into bedroom funk and Broadway fluff. But do not be blinded by this Ray, because the glare is all surface reflection.

Madonna has become an artist capable of commenting only on herself, a superstar who finds her fame the most interesting subject in the world; yet she's no Bob Dylan or even Kurt Cobain, unable to turn the legend's lament into the stuff of universal verity. "I traded fame for love without a second thought," she begins, and from the get-go, Ray of Light reeks of confessional without revelation; during "Nothing Really Matters," she apologizes for the pursuits of ambitious youth ("When I was very young/Nothing really mattered to me...I was the only one"), seeking penance for the celebrity she sought out so recklessly, so brilliantly. Madonna, born again in religion, wants forgiveness, which itself is a crime; to disavow her career before this moment only sells short her grand accomplishments.

It's also unfortunate that Madonna hired William Orbit when she decided to go "techno." Were Madonna truly seeking inspiration, she would have sought out Aphex Twin, someone who knows how to draw blood from a keyboard. Instead, Orbit and Madonna have concocted a dreary record that wastes Madonna's newfound vocal chops and confuses effects with affecting. This isn't the portrait of the artist as grown-up mother; it isn't even a charcoal sketch. Rather, Ray of Light is just another attempt by its creator to keep up with a Top 40 world that's always passing her by. That's not techno you hear. It's Madonna, running and out of breath.

--Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky