This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #286: Ray of Light by Madonna.
The Hopi Peoples have a word, “Koyaanisqatsi” which roughly translates into English as, “Life Out of Balance”. Indigenous Peoples hold a worldview that says that balance is critically important to living a happy, healthy life, to keeping our environment thriving and, living in harmony with others. In 1982, a movie was made about this philosophy and the impact humans are having on the world. The movie was part of a trilogy of movies entitled, “Koyaanisqatsi”, “Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi”. All three movies followed the same format; time-lapse photography was used, no dialogue uttered and original music created by Philip Glass was used to augment the cinematography.
In 1998, Madonna had just become a mother for the first time and had just received Tony and Grammy awards for her role on Broadway in the musical, “Evita”. 1998 was a time of change for her. As she surveyed the musical landscape around her, she noted that electronic or house music was increasing in popularity. So, in order to centre herself, she decided to record a new album. The album she recorded was called, “Ray of Light”. Making music brought balance back to her life. The album was heavily influenced by Electronic Dance Music (EDM) and was well-received by critics and fans, alike. One of the first releases from this album was a song on the same name as the album, “Ray of Light”. While the dance-oriented grooves of the song were a hit, it was really the unique music video which helped to raise this song up above many others. The music video for “Ray of Light” was mirrored after the movie, “Koyaanisqatsi”. There is much use of time-lapse photography and stop-motion photography. The effect is to create frentic energy and constant movement. The message of the song being an examination of meaning and purpose of one’s life, as we all seemingly get swept along the currents of the day. The song, “Ray of Light” is about balance and harmony and purpose and joy. “Ray of Light”, the song, won two Grammy awards (“Best Dance Recording” and Best Short Form Music Video”) and the video, itself, won multiple awards, including five MTV Video Awards.
“Ray of Light” is one of the last albums/songs from Madonna that became award winners. She is now 63 years old, as I wrote these words….two years away from officially being a senior citizen. But, using record sales, #1 hits and winning awards as a barometer, it can be argued that Madonna is the single-most successful female music artist of all-time and, not only that, that she belongs in the same rarified company as “The Beatles”, “Elvis Presley” and “Michael Jackson”, in terms of a career marked by artistic excellence and cultural significance. For her career, Madonna has sold over 300 million albums worldwide. She has had a string of #1 hits such as “Holiday”, “Like a Virgin”, “Material Girl”, “Into the Groove”, “Live to Tell”, “Papa Don’t Preach”, “Open Your Heart”, “La Isla Bonita”, “Who’s That Girl?”, “Like A Prayer”, “Vogue”, “Justify My Love”, “Nothing Really Matters”, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, “Beautiful Stranger” and “Ray of Light”. She has won acting awards for her work in “Evita” and praise for films work in “A League of Their Own”, “Desperately Seeking Susan” and “Dick Tracy”. She has written a series of children’s books and, quite quietly, has become a major philanthropic donor to causes around the world (which is financed, in part, by the 1.5 Billion dollars she has earned touring, which makes her the highest grossing solo performer ever!).
Despite her success, Madonna tends to be a polarizing figure in cultural circles. On the surface, many of the barbs aimed at her revolve around her aggressive take on sexuality, as well as, her refusal to honour an organization that she feels is undeserving of her support….the Catholic Church. If only she were more “lady-like” some folks say. If only she knew her place and was more respectful, they say. Well, Madonna has been nothing, if not, consistent in working hard to avoid placing herself at the mercy or whims of anyone else; including organizations like the Catholic Church. Madonna lost her mother when she was a child; instilling in her the fervent belief that Life was meant to be lived in the moment and that one couldn’t always trust relationships to always be there for you. This belief has manifested itself in several ways:
1- She has wanted to be as in charge and in control of her life and her career, as possible. This has meant forming personal relationships with men who could further her career (such as artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, actor, Sean Penn and producer, Guy Ritchie, among others).
2- This has meant changing her on-stage persona to meet the Times. She has gone from her lace and torn punk outfits of her early days, to her Marilyn Monroe phase, her erotic Kink clothing phase, to her sharp-dressed “Vogue” styling and then, her “Earth-Mother” casual, natural look in “Ray of Light”. In many ways, her astute, chameleon nature reminds me of how David Bowie constantly re-invented himself in order to stay creatively fresh.
3- Madonna has always wanted to be in charge of how she interacts with the world, sexually speaking. When you get right down to it, sexual acts are political acts. Madonna has always wanted to push the narrative of what is appropriate for a woman to expect, sexually. In her world, consent is key and, beyond that, demanding satisfying sexual experiences is something all women should be able to enjoy, without fear or condemnation. For every critic who slams Madonna for being sexually provocative, I can supply them with dozens of male celebrities who are hailed as conquering heroes for their sexual “achievements”.
Madonna has achieved much success in her career; success that is well-earned. Madonna has shrewdly adapted to the cultural environment that she has found herself in. At times, she has even driven the conversation as to where the personal and professional boundaries exist for women in our society. She has lived her life on her own terms; earning her own money as a result of her own efforts, spending it according to her own wishes, squiring mating partners as she saw fit, refusing to buckle under to society’s norms when she disagreed with them. In short, she has acted, almost like a man. When I think of Madonna, I see someone who exudes power and confidence and is passionate about achieving her goals. Nothing wrong with that. If being in control is a form of bringing balance into her life then, she has achieved her dreams.
Without further delay, here is the award-winning video for “Ray of Light”, based upon the Indigenous-inspired movie, “Koyaanisqatsi”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Ray of Light”, can be found here.
The link to the trailer for the movie, “Koyaanisqatsi”, can be found here. *I am including this link so that you can compare Madonna’s video to the one from the movie.
The link to the official website for Madonna, can be found here.
The link to the official website for radio station KEXP< who helped inspire the writing of this post, can be found here.