How Madonna's 'Ray of Light' reignited a pop icon's career and brought a generation of gay men together

More than two decades later, the Queen of Pop's 1998 album remains the most savvy reinvention record of all time, writes Neil Symons.


This article was first published in February 2018 to mark 20 years since the release of Ray of Light.

Words: Neil Symons

As 1997 moved into 1998, change was in the air. Pop music was becoming cool again. Spice Girls, Steps and even Gina G had put pop back on the radio. For a generation of gay lads, 1997 also ushered in the G-A-Y and Heaven glory era.

A year or so before Queer As Folk debuted and drove gaggles of hen parties to Soho, we discovered the gay super-clubs, we discovered club remixes of our favourite songs, and most of us will remember what part of G-A-Y we were dancing in that cold February night in 1998 when the DJ dropped the Victor Calderone Club Mix of 'Frozen', the moment when the violins hit, the moment when the place exploded as loud as it did when Madonna herself finally hit the stage at the venue in 2005. 

It had felt like a homecoming of sorts. Those of us who were old enough to have gone to the Girlie Show had a tough few years after that - Erotica had put Madonna out of favour with the public, her music wasn’t cool enough for school - although Evita and ballads album Something To Remember had reset her credibility with the mums - and it was with a degree of trepidation and hope that we welcomed the news of a new Madonna album, Ray Of Light.

In these early days of the internet, most of us would rely on radio stations or TV for our Madonna news - in the era of information starvation, and with no social media to fill our immediate need, the wait for details was like Christmas.

After a long day of standing in the cold, a handful of us were led into the TV studio to watch Madonna perform 'Frozen' on the National Lottery show. At the time it was the most-watched programme on TV. For many of us, this was the closest we’d seen Madonna whilst she was performing.

The reaction was fantastic from all quarters - the critical acclaim that she’d never tasted before was everywhere, from NME to Smash Hits, from BBC to Billboard, but more importantly, from people our own age.

The friends that were mocking me during the Evita period were buying 'Frozen' because it had a Stereo MCs remix. The older fans were being eased into the new era because 'Frozen' was still a ballad, albeit with a future-proof sound. It was like our loyalty had been vindicated as we sat next to the radio on Sunday evening, recovering from last night at G-A-Y to hear the news that Madonna had knocked Celine Dion’s epic 'My Heart Will Go On' from Number One.

The week after that when many of us stayed home from work to listen to Ray Of Light on its day of release was equally memorable - hearing loud guitars on a Madonna record combined with the electronic melodies was so new, so fresh. The album was just hit after hit.

My dear friend Tony described 'Skin', 'Nothing Really Matters' and 'Sky Fits Heaven' as ‘the most glorious 15 continual minutes of her career’. Every lyric on the album meant something. Every song told a story. Every story could be visualised. The music was as close to 3D, living and breathing as music can be, it truly was the artist at the peak of her imperial phase, where critical and commercial acclaim met with a bolt of lightning to produce music perfection. 

In the late '90s, pop was back and Madonna was spear-heading it with a sound that led the way. Whilst Steps, B*Witched, Billie Piper, Britney, Backstreet Boys, Cher and Five were also riding high in the charts, it felt like Madonna was once again leading the pack with a sound that both fitted and transcended the pop genre. 'Ray Of Light' as a single topped the charts around the world and ended up being one of the summer’s biggest songs - with remixes from Sasha and Victor Calderone ensuring that no matter what club you were in you, you’d be hearing that scream.

Since then, Madonna has elevated the track to signature song status alongside 'Like A Prayer', and it’s always the song that gets the biggest reaction at not only her concerts but also the Madonna Fan Party events. The video to the track was released as a single in its own right, her first video single since 'Justify My Love' - and is still critically regarded as her greatest pop video, winning over 50 ‘Best Video’ awards around the globe.

Triumphantly, Madonna hit the promo circuit again in the latter part of 1998 to promote 'The Power Of Goodbye', collecting armfuls of awards for the Ray Of Light album, and the single and video, where many of us got to see her up close in the the Top Of The Pops studio for the first time since 'You’ll See' in 1996.

It was during this era that many of us made friendships in the gay community that we still hold close now.

Those people who we’d go to G-A-Y or Heaven with every summer Saturday night in 1998 and dance like crazy with to 'Ray Of Light' with at 2am, then go home and put the CD on and listen to the opening bars of 'Drowned World' as the sun rose are still in our lives now - certainly we get told at the Madonna Fan Party events that many groups of friends who met during the Ray Of Light era still come together to the events, and Madonna shows, 20 years later.