#367: Madonna, "Ray of Light" (1998)

In moments of darkness, Madonna is my karaoke savior.

I am no karaoke superstar. I would like to have considered myself a valuable member of the South Hunterdon Regional High School Chorale, but in all honestly, I mostly just listened to the guy next to me and tried to emulate his pitch. I have no concept of how to read music, or to hit a note without scooping my way there. None of these things come natural to me.

I do, however, have a somewhat decent ear, which I use mostly to do terrible impressions of my girlfriend’s Minnesotan accent, as well as throw dance parties where I am trusted to put a sequence together of similar songs that make everyone stay out on the cleared dancefloor space in front of the dartboards for long enough that, yes, another drink does sound like a good idea, and sure, I would like a shot while you are up there.

Madonna’s game has always been emulation. She is someone who always knows what is going on and is incredibly in tune with the universe, almost like a larger-than-life mystical yoga sex champion who captivates whatever audience happens to be walking by her at the moment. This tends to work well more often than not, although as of late, it seems as if the pop trends have passed her by at this particular time: grandiose claims over vague EDM beatsMadonna has always been better served in showing, not telling.

You can’t blame her for wanting to tap into this zeitgeist, as Ray of Light (and to a lesser extent, the excellent and underrated Music) is a perfect example in grabbing hold of what is swirling around her and Madonna-izing it. Ray of Light is the most 1998 album in the history of 1998 and homegirl absolutely nails it.

It has everything you could ever want! “Candy Perfume Girl” has lots of little bloops and bleeps with a crunchy distorted guitar driving things forward! “Nothing Really Matters” is a classic Madonna track that we’ve come to expect from the Queen with flourishes that take it out of the 1990s Eurohouse House and into the palatial ice mansions that we all lived in during the late 1990s. “Ray of Light” sounds like a better version of Republica’s “Ready to Go,” with a much better and more entertaining video (although Madonna would never be caught dead playing Virtua Fighter 2 on a Sega Saturn—Madonna is the human embodiment of the mysterious uncle of a friend of yours who works for Nintendo who swears that there’s already a Nintendo 128 in Japan and he got to play Super Super Mario 128 Galaxy Zelda Kong before anyone else).

The reason that I choose Madonna as a karaoke go-to is that her songs are easily recognizable, fit into any situation perfectly, and are relatively easy to sing. The power of Madonna has never truly been in her voice, but in her ability to adapt to different trends. I would never use the term “timeless” to describe Madonna. She seems incredibly rooted in place and in era—it’s just that she’s one of those giant walking tree Ents that can plant herself into one spot like she has always been there, before slithering on over to another forest without giving anything a second thought. Even as I write this, I find myself conflicted in my viewpoints of how she exists: is what she does emulation, or has she been so ahead of the curve that it only seems like she is aping others—that she has become so synonymous with the push of electronica music toward the mainstream, that she was the one who brought us here, rather than jumping on a ship that was already well off shore and sailing toward a distant land of dancefloor liberation?

While I am uncertain as to the answer of that, what Madonna has always brought is heart: that even though she may never be the perfect singer (remember how mad everyone was for her being cast as Evita and how she had to go get vocal lessons?) she is able to bring a sensualness and vulnerability to even the coldest of William Orbit’s productions.

One particular karaoke instance stands out above all others: I was recently unceremoniously thrown out of a relationship, and needed to leave town. I drove six hours to go visit a friend of mine, and, well, get drunk. That night, we stumbled into a bar that was hosting karaoke. My friend Lisa slipped the DJ 20 dollars to put my name next, where I announced that I had just been broken up with, and proceeded to belt out “Borderline” as loud and as heart-first as I possibly could.

It probably wasn’t great (my friend Chris claims to have video, which he will never release to the public, thanks buddy), but it perfectly captured what I was feeling at the time: sometimes you just need to immerse yourself in something unfamiliar and give it all you got.

—Brian Oliu