“Absolutely no regrets,” Madonna says at the end of her 1995 music video for “Human Nature,” in which she wears a skin-tight black catsuit and her hair in cornrows. It was a controversial look, but then again Madonna at that time was synonymous with controversy. Remember, prior to this she released Erotica (1992), an album just as literal as its title, alongside a coffee table book called Sex. Three years prior, Madonna danced in front of burning crosses in her “Like a Prayer” video. Before that, she sang about reproductive rights on “Papa Don’t Preach” and, before that, writhed around the MTV Video Music Awards stage in a wedding dress.
Madonna meant what she said in “Human Nature”: She doesn’t have regrets. She says to this day that her most provocative transformations—or reinventions, as the critics called them—have purpose. She pushes the boundaries of religion, sexuality, and gender to effect real change, specifically for women and queer people. Granted, in 2004 she did admit there was an element of exhibitionism to her early nineties escapades, but they weren’t just for shock value.
Don’t tell that to the masses, though. By the time Madonna released “Human Nature” in 1995, people had grown numb to her outrageous images. Sure, the music was good, but it was lost in the circus Madonna created herself. That was the case for Erotica too, and Like a Prayer, and seemingly every album she released prior. Madonna’s style completely overshadowed her substance; she was everywhere, yet no one knew who the hell she was. Fans and critics alike began wondering how she’d keep the show going after (problematic) cornrows and catsuits. How would the queen of shock out-shock herself?
The answer was actually shocking. In 1998—three years after “Human Nature” and six years after Erotica—Madonna ushered in a new, surprising reinvention: herself. She did this through Ray of Light, her seventh studio album, which was released in the United States 20 years ago today. It’s arguably her best work, full stop: a sprawling collection of earthy electronica that’s vast in sonic landscape yet intimate in content. For the first time ever, Madonna was introspective, not performative—internal, not external. All the songs from the record sound like diary entries—a sharp contrast to the bombastic, declarative style of her biggest hits, like “Express Yourself” and “Open Your Heart.” On Ray of Light, Madonna isn’t pushing an agenda or buttons, or trying to change culture at large. She’s simply self-reflecting, and because of that, it’s her most shocking work to date.
“Shocking” meaning revealing, because up until that point we didn’t know much about the girl behind the material. However, giving birth to her first child (Lourdes), baring her soul in the critically acclaimed film Evita (1996), and fully immersing herself in Kabbalah gave Madonna newfound perspective and purpose—something that permeates Ray of Light. At times she’s wistful and contemplative, as in “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” where she bemoans, “I traded fame for love, without a second thought.” She echoes this on the club smash “Nothing Really Matters”: “When I was very young, nothing really mattered to me but making myself happy,” she sings. No, Madonna doesn’t have regrets, but she’s certainly made mistakes—an incredibly human thing she hadn’t admitted until Ray of Light.
Madonna hadn’t explored the death of her mother, either, an event that changed her life and without a doubt formed the person she is. But she breaks her silence on this with “Mer Girl,” Ray of Light‘s haunting final song. “I smelled her burning flesh, her rotting bones, her decay,” she muses, detailing a rain-soaked run she took to her mother’s grave in Michigan. These are some of the last words on Ray of Light, and they feel both appropriate and out of place. The former, because they’re so deeply personal and private—but the latter because, even with all its self-examination, Ray of Light is still an exuberant album. These lyrics, however, are aggressively morbid.
But perhaps that’s the point. After all, isn’t humanity exactly that? We’re not just one thing, and Madonna proves this several times on Ray of Light. She simultaneously celebrates the birth of her daughter (“Little Star”) and mourns the loss of her mother (“Mer Girl”). She critically examines her past missteps (“Candy Perfume Girl”) and looks hopefully toward the future (“Sky Fits Heaven”). She breathlessly craves the touch of another human (“Skin”) but fears the idea of love itself (“Frozen”). There’s a nuanced range to the emotions expressed on Ray of Light that didn’t exist before in her discography. Yes, her previous albums were rich and diverse, but there was a singular motive behind them all: to provoke. To get people talking about her. To reach the top. On Ray of Light, however, Madonna has reached the top, and now she’s asking, “What does it all mean?” That’s a far more controversial idea than a sex book.
Baring your soul as a female artist is a controversial idea as well—at least it was back then, which is why Madonna didn’t fully do it until Ray of Light. The music industry isn’t kind to female artists, and it’s very possible Madonna adopted a hard exterior so she wouldn’t appear weak or indecisive to male executives. Madonna probably knew she had to play the game to succeed. When she reached the apex of her career, though, she had more power than those suits. And with that power she released a wildly personal, out-of-the-box record that didn’t fit any patriarchal standards. Ray of Light isn’t overtly sexual in the male-gaze sense, and it isn’t chock-full of immediate, radio-friendly hits. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s truly Madonna.
And it became one of the most successful albums of her career. Ray of Light topped the charts in 17 countries and has now sold 16 million copies worldwide. “Frozen,” the album’s first single, reached number two on Billboard‘s Hot 100. The title song reached number five. This commercial success matters. It just does. It proves female artists don’t have to fit certain molds to succeed. They can be themselves—unapologetically—in any form that takes. Whether that’s vulnerable or stripped-down or even sad: They can be it all—and still sell music.
We saw this last year several times, particularly with Lorde’s Grammy-nominated album Melodrama, which topped the Billboard 200—not to mention the latest efforts from Lady Gaga, Kesha, and Katy Perry. Instead of focusing on what they thought audiences wanted, these women just spoke from their hearts. They did what felt real to them at the time, and it paid off.
Madonna was the first female artist in mainstream pop to do this—exactly 20 years ago, on Ray of Light. With this album, she didn’t care about trends or charts or what was hot. Rather, she just cared about what was home. “I feel like I just got home,” Madonna sings passionately on the sparkling chorus of “Ray of Light”—and, well, that sums up everything.
Christopher Rosa is Glamour’s entertainment staff writer.