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.