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Ray of Light (song)

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For the album, see Ray of Light.
"Ray of Light"
Ray of Light, Madonna single.png
Single by Madonna
from the album Ray of Light
B-side "Has to Be"
Released May 6, 1998
Recorded 1997
Genre Electronic dance
Length 5:21
  • Madonna
  • William Orbit
Madonna singles chronology
"Ray of Light"
"Drowned World/Substitute for Love"
Music video
"Ray of Light" on YouTube

"Ray of Light" is a song by American singer Madonna. It is the title track from her seventh studio album Ray of Light (1998), and was released as the album's second single on May 6, 1998, by Maverick Records. The song was also included on the compilation albums GHV2 (2001) and Celebration (2009). Written by Madonna, William Orbit, Clive Muldoon, Dave Curtiss, Christine Leach, and produced by Madonna and Orbit, "Ray of Light" is based on Curtiss Maldoon's "Sepheryn" and is an electronic dance song with techno, trance, Eurodance, and disco influences, "Ray of Light" contains several sound effects such as whistles, bleeps and bells, the usage of electric guitar, and underlying synths. Lyrically, the song has a theme of freedom.

The song has received critical acclaim by music critics, for its club-friendly, electronic sound, lyrics, and "emotional warmth". The song was also nominated for three Grammy Awards; for Record of the Year, Best Dance Recording, and Best Short Form Music Video, winning the last two. "Ray of Light" debuted and peaked at number five on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming Madonna's highest debut on the chart to date. It also reached number one on the Hot Dance Club Songs chart. Internationally, the song reached the top five in Canada, Finland, Italy and the United Kingdom, and peaked at number one in Scotland and Spain.

An accompanying music video for "Ray of Light" was directed by Jonas Åkerlund and shows scenes from different cities around the world, with Madonna singing the song in front of them. The video was critically acclaimed, receiving the Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video, as well as winning five awards at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. Later, Stefano Salvati accused her of plagiarizing the concept of a music video he directed for Biagio Antonacci in 1994. The song has been performed in three of Madonna's concert tours, most recently on her Sticky & Sweet Tour (2008–09). It has been covered by a number of artists, and has been featured in several elements of popular culture, such as on the FOX show Glee, as well as different advertising campaigns.


Madonna began recording Ray of Light with English electronic musician and producer William Orbit in 1997,[1] after Guy Oseary, Maverick Records's partner, phoned Orbit and suggested that he send some songs to Madonna.[2] Orbit then sent a 13-track digital audio tape to Madonna, and "Ray of Light" was among these tracks. It is based on a track written in the 1970s, called "Sepheryn", by English folk music duo Curtiss Maldoon. In 1996, Christine Leach, Clive Maldoon's niece, recorded her version for the track. She worked for a time with Orbit. Leach said she had always loved the duo's work and "Sepheryn" had a dream-like quality. When she rewrote the chorus melody, she removed a few bits. After Madonna heard Christine's version of the track, she liked it, and reworked the lyrics. Dave Curtiss said he "couldn't believe it" after he heard the track, and was pleased with what Madonna had done with his original composition.[3] Madonna said about the song: "It's totally out of control. The original version is well over 10 minutes long. It was completely indulgent, but I loved it. It was heartbreaking to cut it down to a manageable length."[4] Its original version was set to be included on a compilation album, titled Veronica Electronica, although it was not released.[4]


An electronic dance music song, "Ray of Light" has received stylistic comparisons to rave, psychedelic and acid music.[5] The track contains strong techno elements, as well as disco, trance, and Eurodance influences, and it sees Madonna deepen her dance roots and go for a more electronic sound. According to the sheet music published by, the song is set in common time, with a moderately fast groove tempo of 126 beats per minute. It is composed in the key of B major, with Madonna's vocals on the song spanning from B3 to F5, with the latter note sung on the "ah-ah" vocalization near the end of the song. "Ray of Light" has a basic sequence of B–E–B–E–B as its chord progression.[6]

The song starts with an electric guitar riff which has been compared to English alternative rock/Britpop band Oasis, after which the fast techno melody begins, which, according to biographer Lucy O'Brien in Madonna: Like an Icon, has been described as having a "bubbling psychedelic undertow", as well as combining "melodic pop with bleep-driven techno".[5] Throughout the composition, there are numerous electronic sound effects, including whistles, bells and bleeps. Its beat has been described as "restless". Towards the middle of the track, the electric guitar riff is repeated in which Madonna sings the same line as the start of the song, until the dance section returns, and the song gradually ends. Madonna's "breathlessly"[7] delivered vocals on the song are noted to be different to the ones featured in her singles before the 1996 film Evita."[5] Lyrically, the song has a theme of freedom and it shows a more spiritual side to Madonna.[8][9] According to Madonna the track is a mystical look at the universe and how small we are.[2]

Critical reception[edit]

Madonna, flanked by her back-up dancers, performs "Ray of Light" during the 2006 Confessions Tour.

"Ray of Light" received acclaim from music critics. In a review for the album as a whole, Stephen Thomas Erlewine from AllMusic described the track as "swirling".[10] In a separate review, Liana Jonas of the same website called the track a "wickedly good club song", as well as claiming that it was "sonically progressive yet listener-friendly"; she also praised Madonna's vocals, comparing them to those of a "club diva to celestial goddess".[8] Larry Flick from Billboard described it as Madonna at her best.[11] Rob Sheffield from Rolling Stone in his review for the album as a whole, wrote that, alongside other tracks such as "Swim" and "Drowned World/Substitute For Love", Madonna is "positively ferocious".[12] Sal Cinquemani from Slant Magazine wrote that the song was a "celebratory tech-frenzy", and noted Madonna's "elation" in the song, giving it an "A" rating.[13] Sputnikmusic listed the song as the album's recommended tracks.[14] Michael R. Smith from The Daily Vault praised the song as one of Madonna's best singles, explaining:

What makes "Ray Of Light" one of Madonna's best singles is the fact that it is such a bitch to sing. Filled with multiple octave changes, it forced Madonna to push her vocal as far as it could possibly go. The song demanded she make use of her upper register and hold notes longer than she ever had before. It really is a techno gem that is always a standout at her concerts. After hearing a sample of it for the first time in the spring of 1998, I just knew that Madonna had outdone herself. The song brings the entire album of to a whole new level.[15]

In her book Madonna: Like an Icon, Lucy O'Brien described the song as "speedy acid electronica" and an "ecstatic hymn to the skies" and noted that the song was composed a semitone higher than the singer's vocal comfort zone, but claimed that "the strain really helped".[5] The A.V. Club commented that the "pumped-up title track is bound to be a deserving smash".[16] J.D. Considine of The Baltimore Sun noted that Madonna's "newfound strength is particularly apparent in pulsing, rhythm driven tracks like the title tune, which finds her soaring confidently at the top of her register on the busily percolating chorus, then whispering breathily on the brief, dream-like bridge".[17] David Browne, while reviewing Ray of Light for Entertainment Weekly, titled the song as "sirenlike techno-glitter-ball".[18] Idolator's Stephen Sears explained that Madonna's vocals throughout the album were a "game-changer", including on the song, as she strengthened her voice while working on her film Evita. He ends his review by stating "Indeed, no choir is needed to lift 'Ray Of Light' into disco heaven. Madonna supplies the highs herself in some perfect moments: the extended, spiraling way she wails 'yea-ea-ears' at 3:27 or how her vocal spins out of control at 4:14, matched by Orbit's frenzied guitar work".[19]

Accolades and recognition[edit]

In 1999, "Ray of Light" won two Grammy Awards for Best Dance Recording and Best Short Form Music Video. It was also nominated for Record of the Year, but lost to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On".[20][21] Furthermore, The Village Voice ranked it as the fourth best in 1998 in their Pazz & Jop critics' poll.[22] "Ray of Light" is also often ranked as being one of the best songs of the 1990s.[7] In 2005, the song was placed at number 401 on Blender's "The 500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born".[23] In a Slant Magazine list of the best singles of the 1990s, in which "Ray of Light" was placed 16th, it was written that the song's "beat is restless", and that "Ray of Light" is "a standout single" due to its "emotional warmth".[7]

Chart performance[edit]

Madonna performing "Ray of Light" during her 2001 Drowned World Tour.

In the United States, "Ray of Light" was Madonna's highest debuting single at number five on the Billboard Hot 100, for the issue dated July 11, 1998.[24] "Ray of Light" was present for a total of 20 weeks on the Hot 100, and placed at number 75 on the year-end chart.[25][26] The song also reached the top of the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart of Billboard.[27] "Ray of Light" was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in September 1998, for shipment of 500,000 copies of the single across United States.[28] In Canada, it debuted at number 85 on the RPM Singles Chart and reached number three in its eighth week.[29][30] It was present on the chart for a total of 30 weeks.[31]

In Australia, "Ray of Light" debuted on the ARIA Singles Chart at its peak of number six on May 24, 1998, staying there for one week.[32] It was present for a total of 17 weeks on the chart, and was certified gold by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) for shipment of 35,000 copies of the single.[32][33] At the year-end charts of ARIA, "Ray of Light" was the 57th best-selling Australian single of 1998.[34] In New Zealand, "Ray of Light" also debuted at its peak position of number nine on the RIANZ Singles Chart, and reached a peak position of number two after three weeks. It was present for a total of 14 weeks on the chart and fell out on September 13, 1998, at number 31.[35]

In the United Kingdom, "Ray of Light" debuted and peaked at number two on May 9, 1998, being held off the number one spot by All Saints's "Under the Bridge / Lady Marmalade", which also debuted the same week.[36][37] The single was the 68th best-selling song of 1998 in the UK, with the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) certifying it silver, for shipment of 200,000 copies of the song.[38][39] According to the Official Charts Company, "Ray of Light" has sold 275,000 copies in the region as of 2008.[40] The track debuted at its peak of number nine on the issue dated May 16, 1998 on the Eurochart Hot 100 Singles chart.[41] In Belgium, "Ray of Light" was moderately successful in both territories, peaking at number 25 in Flanders and 33 in Wallonia.[42] In the Netherlands, the song debuted at number 45 on the Dutch Top 40, and reached a peak of 22 on May 16, 1998, remaining there for three weeks.[43] The song reached a peak of number two in Finland, where it remained for two weeks, before spending a total of five weeks on the chart.[44] In Sweden, it reached number 14 and spent 10 weeks on the chart.[45] On the Swiss Singles Chart, "Ray of Light" debuted at its peak of number 32 on the issue dated May 24, 1998.[46] The song also reached number one in Spain on its debuting week. It stayed on the top spot for three weeks before descending the chart.[47]

Music video[edit]

Madonna seen in the Koyaanisqatsi-esque section of the music video, featuring fast-moving blurred images of daily life. This concept was subject of a lawsuit by an Italian director who accused Madonna of plagiarism.

The accompanying music video for "Ray of Light" was directed by Jonas Åkerlund, with Madonna's scenes being shot in early April 1998 at MTV's Times Square studios in New York and Los Angeles.[48][49] The images of Madonna's background include various cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, London, Las Vegas, and Stockholm. The video premiered on MTV Live on May 12, 1998.[49] Madonna stated that when she makes an album, she "puts [her] soul on it", but a music video is a lot more working with a director. With the Ray of Light album, she wanted to have videos with a fresh expression, and she wanted new directors to replace of the old ones she had worked with for years. She felt that Jonas Åkerlund has a special way of working.[48] She commented that she and the director "met on the telephone, and he sent me a whole bunch of treatments I didn't like. But he kept at it and didn't give up".[50] The singer also mentioned that the video is basically "a day in the life of the earth to show that we are rushing forward to the end of the 1900s century at full speed. I think Jonas made an excellent interpretation of the song, although he forced me to dance like crazy for two days. He's a tough director". Åkerlund stated that "It was damn good! Madonna was pleased with the quick result and [is] a dream to work with — it was probably the easiest job I've done in years!"[48] Additionally, he said:

"I had two ideas that did not fit the song. She said no even though I had a very clear idea of how she would look in the video. I worked up on another idea and brought together a featured band for her to see. I did it all in front of me. [...] In retrospect, it feels good, the video we have done much better suited to the track than the first ideas. She [Madonna] has an incredible track on everything she is doing. Style, music, business — she has a mental track of every single thing and won't give up until she is completely satisfied. And on music videos there is nothing she does with one hand on her back — she's engaged to one hundred percent".[48]

The music video for "Ray of Light" starts with the rising of the sun, until it progresses into a Koyaanisqatsi-esque section, featuring time-lapse images of daily life, from people riding a subway, ordering food, bowling, and children in a classroom to sped-up city-scapes and freeways at night. As the video goes on, night starts to fall, and high-speed images of Madonna dancing in a discothèque progress, until she is seen falling asleep on the dance floor.

On June 23, 1998, the music video of "Ray of Light" was released on VHS as a limited edition of 40,000 copies by Warner Music Vision. It had sold 7,281 copies of the following month after its release, becoming the best-selling video singles of the Nielsen SoundScan era.[51] A few days after its release, Italian director Stefano Salvati accused Madonna's Warner Bros. Records imprint Maverick Records for plagiarizing the concept of a music video he directed for Biagio Antonacci's 1994 single "Non è Mai Stato Subito".[52] According to Salvati, copies of his videos were submitted to Maverick before the "Ray of Light" video was shot and requested it to be pulled from distribution.[53] Both videos featured the respective singers performing at regular speed against a backdrop of high-speed images. However, he did not sue the singer or her companies.[52] The video received a total of eight MTV Video Music Awards nominations in 1998, eventually winning five; for Video of the Year, Best Female Video, Best Direction, Best Editing and Best Choreography, becoming her most-winning song at the show.[54] Madonna said she was grateful for MTV's regonition of the music video.[50] The video was ranked at number four on "The Top 100 Videos That Broke The Rules", issued by MTV on the channel's 25th anniversary in August 2006.[55]

Live performances[edit]

Madonna, wearing a futuristic outfit and playing the electric guitar, singing "Ray of Light" during the 2008-09 Sticky & Sweet Tour.

"Ray of Light" has been featured in the set lists of three Madonna tours – 2001's Drowned World Tour, 2006's Confessions Tour and 2008–09's Sticky & Sweet Tour. In 1998 she premiered "Ray of Light" during her surprise concert at the Roxy NYC nightclub.[56] She also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in and performed "Ray of Light" and "Little Star".[57] During the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards Madonna started performing "Shanti/Ashtangi", sporting black hair and wearing an Indian sari. Lenny Kravitz then appeared playing the guitar, which paved way to "Ray of Light". A religious group called the World Vaishnava Association claimed that Madonna offended Hindus with the performance by continuing to wear a Hindi mark on her head while performing the song. A spokesperson for the association stated that the mark is a symbol of chastity, harmony and purity, and is designed to show "dedication to God". The representative also said that because Madonna simulated a sexual act and wore a see-through tank top onstage while wearing the mark, she offended both Hindus and Yogis.[58] A spokesperson for Madonna stated that the singer did not understand why the World Vaishnava Association was upset as she had not done anything insulting, and did not wish to insult anyone.[58] However, the vice president of the World Vaishnava Association claimed that "the Hindu community and Eastern spiritual seekers the world over should be happy for Madonna personally in terms of her genuine interest in enlightened life, and grateful to her for her sincere efforts to attract others to the same".[59]

Three years later, "Ray of Light" was included as the fifth song from the opening Neo-Punk segment of Madonna's 2001 Drowned World Tour, which featured Madonna and her dancers dancing along to the song wearing punk inspired clothing, while the backdrop screens showed an extended version of the song's music video. This time, the electric guitar was played by Monte Pittman.[60] Michael Hubbard from MusicOMH noted that "things quickly hotted up with [...] Ray Of Light, a track that was quite simply as sublime as it was infectious".[61] In 2005, Madonna performed "Ray of Light" during the Live 8 benefit concert.[62] She later performed the song at the 2006 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California.[63] During her 2006 Confessions Tour, Madonna included a rock version of "Ray of Light" as the second song of the show's third act, the Glam-Punk segment. For this performance Madonna played the electric guitar and urged all the fans to jump through the song, it also featured six male backup dancers, dressed in black outfits and white ties doing a synchronized choreography.[64] Rolling Stone called the performance "hard-rocking".[65]

"Ray of Light" was also performed by Madonna during the 2007 Live Earth concert in London's Wembley Stadium again accompanied by a guitar.[66] Madonna's performance at the event was watched by 4.5 million people.[67] For the 2008–09 Sticky & Sweet Tour, "Ray of Light" was included as the third song of the show's final segment. This time, Madonna played the electric guitar again and wore a futuristic outfit with a breastplate and a short wig. She was accompanied by her dancers who were dressed in futuristic outfits and performed a robotic choreography.[68] During the 2009 extension of the tour, the song became the second-to-last of the show and also slightly edited for selected performances, with the lyrics from Michael Jackson's song "Man in the Mirror": "If you wanna make the world a better place... Take a look at yourself, and then make a change" appearing on the screens before the beginning of the song. Madonna also honored Jackson by wearing a black armband and a white glove.[69] While reviewing the tour in 2008, Jim Farber from New York Daily News called the performance of the song one of the "highest-energy" dance numbers of the show.[70]

Covers and usage in media[edit]

"Weird Al" Yankovic (pictured) was the first recording artist to cover "Ray of Light" and included it on his medley "Polka Power!" in 1999.

"Weird Al" Yankovic's medley "Polka Power!" from the 1999 album Running With Scissors includes a polka version of the chorus of "Ray of Light".[71] The 2000 compilation Virgin Voices: A Tribute To Madonna, Vol. 2 features a cover of the song by Sigue Sigue Sputnik.[72] On the 2004 compilation Platinum Blonde NRG, Vol. 2: Nrgised Madonna Classics, a Hi-NRG cover is performed by Future Force.[73] English singer Natasha Bedingfield recorded a cover version of "Ray of Light" for BBC Radio 1's 40th anniversary. Played during the The Chris Moyles Show on September 19, 2007, it can be found on the Radio 1. Established 1967 compilation album. Bedingfield commented: "I have so much respect for Madonna after learning how hard it is to sing that song. She has an amazing voice—the range you need to sing the song is incredible".[74] In 2008, Iggy Pop and The Stooges played "Ray of Light" (along with "Burning Up") during Madonna's induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.[75] In 2010, the song was played in the film Burlesque, while Ali (Christina Aguilera) was rehearsing for her new position as a dancer in the Burlesque Lounge, owned by Cher's character Tess.[76] In late 2012, American singer Adam Lambert performed a cover version on VH1 Divas, dancing through laser lights while donning a priestly black and white tunic.[77]

The song was used by Microsoft in its 2001 advertising campaign for Windows XP. It begins with a man leaping through a green field and then lifting off into a sunny sky—a landscape lifted from Windows XP's default "bliss screen".[78] There is also a series of images of people using Windows XP for real-time communications, to collaborate in an airy restaurant, to relay digital images of flying people, watch videos and listen to music. Then, a snipped from the song follows the phrase: "Faster than the speeding light she's flying... You soar. Yes you can".[78] The campaign was reworked after the September 11 attacks; the tag line "Prepare to fly" was changed to "Yes you can", to sidestep new concerns about air travel, said Stephanie Ferguson, director of the company's PC Experience Solutions Marketing Group.[78] In 2008, a Sunsilk shampoo commercial included shots of Marilyn Monroe and Shakira with songs well known by them, and ends with several video shots of Madonna to the sounds of "Ray of Light". Madonna reportedly received US$10 million for the song's usage.[79][80] The commercial premiered on Super Bowl XLII.[79] In 2010, Glee tribute episode "The Power of Madonna" featured "Ray of Light" playing in the background as the school's cheerleading team performed a complicated stilts routine.[81] In the 2011 Family Guy episode "New Kidney in Town", Peter Griffin is seen in the "Ray of Light" video after drinking his first energy drink (Red Bull).[82]

Track listings and formats[edit]

Credits and personnel[edit]

  • Madonna – vocals, songwriting, producer
  • William Orbit – songwriting, producer
  • Clive Muldoon – songwriting
  • Dave Curtis – songwriting
  • Christine Leach – songwriting
  • Pat McCarthy – engineer

Credits and personnel adapted from Ray of Light album liner notes.[98]



Region Certification Certified units/Sales
Australia (ARIA)[33] Gold 35,000^
United Kingdom (BPI)[39] Silver 275,000[40]
United States (RIAA)[28] Gold 500,000^
United States 293,000[111]

^shipments figures based on certification alone


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