What makes a person feel so invisible that he or she fashions a life in which the cameras click whenever he or she is spied? It has something to do with being seen, a necessity if one feels that his or her true self has never been recognized. When lonely Narcissus stared at his reflection, he was not only gazing at his beauty but also making certain that he existed. Madonna was not seen by her mother; she had to imagine her there. Her father’s vision of his daughter was, one might speculate, likely clouded by his late wife’s memory and his Catholic idea of what Madonnas are. His daughter was hidden behind her own name.
Throughout Ray of Light she searches for a way to fill all the voids. Truth or Dare showed us Madonna going to her mother’s grave and putting her head on the tombstone. The moment evokes loss, but it’s picturesque, like a sad postcard. She doesn’t five us the kind of detail that would make it visceral. She wasn’t ready to go there. Now she is. “Mer Girl” goes right into the hidden tears and fears she’s run from. (“Mer” refers to mermaid and is French for the sea.) She wrote the song when she visited Michigan recently for a family gathering on the occasion of her grandmother’s 85th birthday.
“I started writing it,” she tells me, “when I was at my father’s house. I went running and it started to rain, so I went to the cemetery near where my mother and I grew up. It’s not the cemetery where she is buried, but I used to go there a lot. The rain kept coming down. There was the blackest sky you’ve ever seen. I went against the instinct to run away, and just stayed there as the rain got to the leaves, and everything became heavy and muddy.
“When I got back home, I was feeling this incredible sense of melancholy. Everybody had left the house, and I was happy to have the silence. That’s when I wrote ‘Mer Girl.’ It was only six lines at the time. Later I heard teh music that William Orbit had written to go with it. I was back in L.A., and just laid on my bed playing the music over and writing and singing and redoing the song until I got it right. Then I went into the studio and did it.”
Madonna’s previous songs about her mother — “Inside of Me” and “Promise to Try” — are all preambles to “Mer Girl.” Here Madonna faces the death, and faces what it has done to her:
And I smelt her burning flesh
Her rotting bones
I ran and I ran
I’m still running away
Lourdes seems to have allowed Madonna to feel something that she started looking for years ago, when she began trying to fill the vacancy left by her mother’s death. Having a baby gave her, at the very least, what she calls “a moment of stillness” when she was forced to allow herself to slow down, step away, and surrender.
In “Swim,” the second song on Ray of Light, she sings:
I can’t carry these sins on my back
Don’t wanna carry any more
I’m gonna carry this train off the track
…Gonna swim to the ocean floor
She is definitely moving on, leaving behind the past, including the enormous burden of the myths she accumulated during the first phase of her career. She may no longer be the person her fans stereotype. “My relationship with my fans is always changing,” she says, “because I am.”
Will the new record work? Although female singers such as Jewel and Sarah McLachlan have been making the news, it’s been an uncertain year for female stars at Madonna’s level. And Madonna has always separated herself from the female balladeers whose soaring love songs are selling big. “Oh God,” she told Keshishian. “It’s so hard for me and my father to understand each other. I mean, his favorite female artist is Celine Dion.”
Several years ago, when the Hubble telescope was first used to photograph previously unseen galaxies, the romance of the unknown hit art and fashion. Images of the cosmos have become ubiquitous. With its techno productions evoking intergalactic sights and spiritual insights, Ray of Light is completely of the moment. Madonna’s ability to hear what’s up, make it pop, and take it mainstream is still unfailing. She doesn’t miss a thing. (Ingrid Casares sometimes has to go out to her car to make personal phone calls because Madonna’s hearing is so sharp.) People talk about Madonna’s visual sophistication, but I believe it is her ear for sound of what’s new and the arrangements that transform her words into vital, breathing images which have allowed her to become such a superstar.
During my interview with Casares, Tommy Mottola — the chief of Sony Music and the arch-rival of Madonna’s friends at Warner’s — stopped by our table at Moomba to declare, “‘Frozen’ is nothing less than a smash hit.” At a party, I heard Gwyneth Paltrow praising “Drowned World.” The new Madonna is definitely generating word of mouth. Recently, Madonna and Casares decided to test some remixes at the anniversary party for Liquid in Miami. “It was midnight,” Casares tells me. “There was a big cake and fire-eaters, drag queens, people on stilts — you name it. The crown was totally mixed: straight, gay, Latin, Cuban, black, white. Then, all of a sudden, you heard the very beginning of Ray of Light. Once people realized it was her, they went really crazy. Even the mayor of Miami started dancing. At six o’clock in the morning, I was still pushing people out.”
“Maybe I’ll pick up some new interest,” Madonna tells me flatly, clearly subduing her expectations for the CD. It is six P.M. The nany has brought the baby home, and her mother has calls to return. Before i know it, she’s left the room.
And she does not say good-bye.
© Vanity Fair