Listen to this track by self-professed Material Girl turned duchess of adult-oriented dance pop, Madonna. It’s the William Orbit-abetted track “Drowned World/Substitute For Love” as taken from 1998’s Ray of Light, as close as Madonna ever got to confessional singer-songwriter self-reflection, albeit in an ambient electronic dance milieu. Yet, this song is not without a sizeable portion of melodic gravity. Let those who dismiss her work as lightweight and uninteresting aural confectionary take note.
Madonna started off in the New York dance club subculture, and built herself up with the help of several people on the scene. Even from those early days, she seemingly possessed a savant-like skill for marketing in the video age. As a result, Madonna became what many would consider to be a cultural icon.
Along with that keen eye for the market, she understood well that the pop world is constantly shifting, changing, deking out even the most savvy of artists. As audiences age, and as musical trends morph over the decades, many artists have been left behind. When considering such a position, the smartest artists can read the writing on the wall even before it fully materializes. And they know who to turn to when it does.
By the end of the 90s, such a person to turn to for Madonna was British dance producer/artist William Orbit, who would help Madonna deliver a mid-career masterpiece, with both critical and commercial acclaim. But, even if it is very tempting to look at the resulting album Ray of Light solely as a tactic to stay in the charts, what a song like “Substitute For Love” reveals is that Madonna wanted to close the distance between herself and her audience in more ways than just record sales.
With this song, she decided to shed her courtship with controversy, and embraced candour instead. In this sense, the fact that the audience was growing up became less of a problem to be overcome. After all, by the summer of 1998, Madonna was about to turn 40. She was maturing, too. So, her audience getting older became more an advantage than a liability where writing a confessional song was concerned. She was telling her story up until that point. Perhaps more importantly, she was telling her audience’s story at the same time, they who had grown up with her music.
In this song, Willam Orbit contributes heavily here on the technical, instrumental, and production side, complete with a sample from “Why I Follow The Tigers” by songwriters Rod McKuen and Anita Kerr. Her voice, strengthened perhaps by her appearance in the motion picture Evita, released a year previous to the recording of this song, is unadorned yet strong, perfect for the material.
Thematically, Madonna the icon becomes Madonna the woman, with hints of regret and with keen perspectives on her journey as a person who has pursued fame, found it, and found it lacking. In many ways, especially when considering the video for “Drowned World/Substitute For Love”, this song is something of an indictment of the levels of fame Madonna had reached by the end of the 1990s.
This song would become a live staple for the Madonna stage show, even a title track to the tour supporting Ray of Light. Musically speaking, a new romance with the guitar proved to be another foray into new territory on that tour, which Madonna herself learned to play, and would play on stage for years afterward.
The best part was that the song, and the other tracks on the record were still Madonna songs. They represented a progression from confessional songs like “Live To Tell”, “This Used to Be My Playground”, “Rain”, and “I’ll Remember”, yet embraced the chillout, ambient dance with trip hop overtones zeitgeist of the day. The result was applause from all quarters, and a record that is looked upon as being one of the artistic highpoints of the 1990s.
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