When Ray of Light dropped on Feb. 22, 1998, the world was already used to the idea of Madonna reinventing herself with each album. But even so, the Madonna Ciccone revealed on Ray of Light was a breathtaking departure from everything that had come before. Instead of pushing boundaries and pressing society's buttons with the smirk of a precocious child, the then-39-year-old singer was looking inward -- and for the first time, she was admitting she didn't necessarily like what she saw. For a pop star and songwriter defined by her ferocious confidence, Ray of Light showed us that after conquering the world, Madonna still had doubts.
"I traded fame for love, without a second thought / It all became a silly game, some things cannot be bought,” Madonna intones at the start of the album over an impossibly lonely ambient soundscape. “I got exactly what I asked for / Wanted it so badly / Running, rushing back for more, I suffered fools so gladly / And now I find, I've changed my mind."
While Madonna’s previous studio album kicked off in a similar navel-gazing fashion, Bedtime Stories’ opener “Survival” was all about resilience and perseverance. “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” however, finds Madonna sounding dispirited and dissatisfied with what she’s become (hey, did you expect a song with TWO depressing titles to be an exuberant dance anthem?). But Madonna being Madonna, that doesn’t translate into self-pity -- instead, it’s a jumping off point for her evolution in both sound and spirit, brilliantly setting up the narrative of the most contemplative album of her career. On Ray of Light, she's reached the top, but she's still empty -- and she's wondering what's next.