“Traveling, traveling / In the arms of unconsciousness,” Madonna cooed on the Björk-assisted single “Bedtime Story,” released in 1995. Overexposed and castigated after the ruckus surrounding “Erotica” and the carnal coffee-table book Sex, she’d forged a reverie about disconnecting from reality. “Today is the last day that I’m using words / They’ve gone out, lost their meaning.”
But by 1998, Madonna had awoken again. On “Sky Fits Heaven,” the seventh track from the enlightened electro-rock masterpiece “Ray of Light,” she repeated a familiar phrase ― except here it ended on an upbeat: “Traveling, traveling / Watching the signs as I go.” This time, pop music’s doyenne of reinvention was anything but unconscious.
Her footpath from the “Bedtime Story” era to “Ray of Light,” which turns 20 on Feb. 22, places Madonna at the nexus of celebrity culture circa 1997 (when she spent five months writing and recording the album) and early 1998 (when she released and promoted the album, which went on to win three Grammys and six MTV Video Music Awards). Nearing 40 and competing with a fresh generation of A&R-packaged teenyboppers, Madonna had risked aging out of mainstream stardom, one of the many sectors of society that isn’t kind to mature women. Instead, the ambient fizzes and mystical flurries on “Ray of Light” formed a cutting-edge benediction that rehabilitated Madonna’s image ― a coup few legacy acts could hope for today. She was a new mother, animated by Kabbalah and Ashtanga yoga, but uninterested in maternity leave.
Madonna’s late ’90s eminence can be further distilled through one morsel about the creation of “Ray of Light,” her seventh studio disc: On July 15, 1997, the day she recorded the gritty meditation “Swim,” Donatella Versace called Madonna to report that her brother Gianni had been shot outside his Miami mansion.
William Orbit, the English producer who helped shape “Ray of Light,” has related this anecdote at least twice. The first time was in 1998, during an interview with Music Week.
“The day she [recorded ‘Swim’] she got a call on the way to the studio that her next-door neighbor Versace had been murdered,” he said. “Lyrically it was written before that, but it is topical.”
And again in 2002.
“We were recording ‘Swim’ on the day Versace was murdered,” Orbit told Q magazine. “Madonna was very friendly with him and his sister, Donatella, who was in the street, distraught, on her cellphone to Madonna. But she did the vocal, which is probably why it has such an emotional impact.”
Earlier this month, I emailed Orbit to ask for more details. “There’s quite a story around that,” he confirmed, declining an interview in the same breath. Representatives for Madonna and Donatella Versace did not respond to my inquiries.
Madonna was famously chummy with the Calabria-born Versaces, first posing for their fashion line’s ad campaign in 1995 when, as Orbit indicates, she and Gianni both owned townhouses on 64th Street in Manhattan (though they weren’t next door to each other). A month and a half after recording “Swim,” she penned the couturier’s eulogy for Time magazine, recalling, among other lavish details, the days she borrowed his well-staffed Italian villa. “I’ve got a pocketful of memories in my Versace jeans, and they’re not going anywhere,” she wrote.
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