Sharps and Flats: Madonna

Published March 6, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I know a 15-year-old girl who calls her gym teacher "Mo." It's short for "Madonna," and as you might imagine, it's not a term of endearment. I recently asked her whence she derived this epithet, and she said, "'Cos she's just like Madonna -- she's got bleached hair and wears stretchy exercise clothes and is all '80s-ed out." To kids who were born in 1983 -- the year that Mo's self-titled debut came out -- Madonna, despite all her innovations and subversions and gender groundbreaking, is nothing more than a slightly rattled femme fatale, the kind of woman who dresses too young for her age.

Of course, this happens to everybody. But somehow I thought that with all her stylistic flexibility, Madonna, like David Bowie before her, would be exempt from the process. And in some ways, thanks in part to all those costume changes, she is. Madonna is not quite yet a caricature of herself, unlike Robert Smith of the Cure, Boy George or Michael Jackson (all of whom also had hits in 1983); nor is she a somber and wrinkly dinosaur, like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen or Bono.

After all, unlike those artists, Madonna's contributions have been more than just musical: One way or another, she's pretty much been directly responsible for the broadening of sexual mores in American media over the past decade, paving the way for things like the sight of Jimmy Smits' butt on "NYPD Blue" and Ellen coming out of the closet, as well as the more sexually explicit cheerleading routines at football games and the blatant use of the word "penis" on television news.

Now some of those things are good, some are bad and most are fairly unimportant. But an enlightened individual can see the connection between those things and the fact that the general population today is less fearful and better equipped to confront without flinching things like AIDS, teen pregnancy, condom-use and abortion -- and for that, Madonna should be proud. She always strove to be more than a pop star, and given that her chosen field of play has been dance-pop, the fact that she's succeeded at all is a pretty awesome achievement.

People sometimes question Madonna's input on her albums, citing the numerous musical collaborators cited on their sleeves as proof that she is merely some kind of manipulative conductor of other people's talents. But Madonna must contribute something beyond mere vocals, because her body of work over the years is emotionally and artistically cohesive; it sounds like the work of one artist, and "Ray of Light" is no exception. That said, where Madonna has shown the most growth in the last few years has been as a singer. On a strictly technical level, her singing on "Evita" was wonderful, and on "Ray of Light" it's even better, a pure and evocative stream of sound.

Produced by ambient artist William Orbit (who remixed "Erotica" and "Justify My Love," in addition to songs by Peter Gabriel and Depeche Mode), the record seeks to push the bounds of electronica a bit -- and does a much better job of it than similar efforts by U2, Bowie and the Rolling Stones, for whom "going electronica" meant "hire the Dust Brothers and be done with it." Unfortunately, the ideas are much more interesting than the reality. Gone are Madonna's usual indelible grooves and hooky melodies; in their place is a spooky amalgam of technical skill and sentimentality, a strangely inert combination.

"Ray of Light" is also clearly inspired by the trip-hop of Portishead and Sneaker Pimps, but where those bands match their detached musical vision with bleak, deadpan vocals, Orbit's soundscapes don't quite meld with the sweet, lyrical romance that is Madonna's forte. The single, "Frozen," is a good effort -- and I appreciate her super-literal interpretation of trip-hop's innate emotional coldness -- but elsewhere, the concept falters. "Skin" and "Candy Perfume Girl" have disco backgrounds barely diluted by lots of dubby samples, drop-outs and sporadic acoustic guitar and string additions.

"Ray of Light" seems unlikely to capture the attention of those 15-year-old girls who haven't really journeyed with Madonna beyond the "Material Girl" phase of her existence: It's simply not upbeat enough. Moreover, it's sentimental lyrics just miss being sophisticated enough for real trip-hop fans: "Give yourself to me" and "Freedom comes when you learn to let go" are pretty banal things to put into such eerie music. Likewise, "Kiss me, I'm dying" sounds like an outtake from a Garbage song.

But "Ray of Light" is certainly not garbage, by any means. It is a flawed but beautifully crafted piece of conceptual art, and it does have some highlights. One of the best songs is the title cut, which is sung in a much higher key than most of the other songs and thus lacks the pomposity that seems to be Madonna's main contribution to the ambient genre. "Shanti/Ashtangi," which uses Indian raga beats and Sanskrit, was inspired by Madonna's newfound love of yoga (or perhaps a familiarity with the trendy band Cornershop), and despite its New Age affectations, it's the song with the most compelling groove on the album.

That's about as sexy as Madonna gets on "Ray of Light"; she has removed all mentions of earthly love as the wellspring of lust and passion and replaced them with more spiritual reflections on the Power of Love. But alas, these very reflections work to negate some of the best aspects of her art. "God has sent me a gift," she sings on the LPs smarmiest song, "Little Star," "of flesh and blood." Such a corny sentiment seems terribly conventional -- but then, despite her ability to piss off David Letterman, Madonna has always been kind of conventional at heart. Indeed, her success has lain partly in the fact that she's never underestimated how easy it is to shock America. If she hadn't combined her slight subversions with the conventional imagery of Catholicism, she'd never have gone anywhere at all.

Madonna also makes being a 39-year-old woman look pretty darn good. But that, alas, is not enough. To be a truly evolved human, Madonna would have to change mentally as well. According to her most recent Vanity Fair snow job, having a child has caused Madonna to reassess her values, a process that -- according to VF's unctuous reporter -- emerges on "Ray of Light" as the inevitable "newfound maturity." But Madonna's insistence on finding herself proves to be a boring theme, and "Ray of Light" has an irritatingly saintly atmosphere. "When I was very young/nothing really mattered to me/but making myself happy," begins, "Nothing Really Matters." Guess what Madonna has learned? "Love is all we need." There is also, she says later, "no greater power/than the power of goodbye." Huh? "Mer Girl" is a lengthy and far too expository piece of writing in which Madonna twitters, "I ran through the forests/I ran past the trees/I ran and I ran/I was looking for me."

If having a child has allowed Madonna to find herself, then more power to her. But sometime around 1995, the lady began to lose me. When she began blah-ing on at length about her great admiration for and identification with Nazi sympathizer Eva Peron, I started to feel a little queasy about her intellectual integrity. I really needed "Ray of Light" to be a good LP to put the lady back on her pedestal -- but unfortunately, once that chink of doubt creeps in, it stays there, an entirely unwelcome guest. I'm not ready to recant on Madonna just yet; but I'm beginning to think that maybe, when it comes to pure pop, the 15-year-olds really do know best.

By Gina Arnold

Gina Arnold is a columnist at the East Bay Express in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of the book "Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense" (St. Martin's Press).

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