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Rain: The Story Behind The Song That Reset Madonna’s Career In the 90s
In Depth

Rain: The Story Behind The Song That Reset Madonna’s Career In the 90s

One of Madonna’s most successful ballads, Rain is a perfect pop ballad that has plenty to say about the power of love.

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The “Queen Of Pop” had much to shout about at the start of the 90s. A range of social and political issues were colliding with the AIDS crisis, and, if Madonna’s Erotica album represented anger at that toxic mix as much as it did her commitment to artistic experimentation, few could have blamed her. However, one song, Rain, issued as the album’s fifth single, offered some respite from the in-your-face theatricality of much that had preceded it. It was the calm after the storm, if you like.

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The song: Masterful pop balladry with plenty to say about love

This icy-cool Shep Pettibone composition is, for many, a highlight of a record which has become better understood over the years. Now regarded by fans as one of the best Madonna albums, Erotica sold well at the time, but many were distracted by the release of the notorious Sex book and its accompanying media storm. It’s only in later years that the album has been recognised as the bold step forward it represented for Madonna at the time, and in hindsight we can also acknowledge it for establishing a template for a credible creative direction later followed by artists such as Christina Aguilera and Miley Cyrus (that is: the dirty-pop protest album).

The layered vocals on Rain add a depth to the shimmering synths: this is masterful AOR pop balladry with plenty to say about the power of love, as distinct from the energetic energy rush of sex that it was bookended by on much of the rest of Erotica. Rain had originally been conceived for a musical version of Wuthering Heights being developed by Alek Keshishian, who had directed Madonna’s groundbreaking 1991 documentary, Truth Or Dare (aka In Bed With Madonna).

The video: A postured representation on a futuristic video set

Of course, such a theatrical pedigree would create some sense of grand performance about both the song’s lyrics (“Wash away my sorrow/Take away my pain”) and its magnificent promo video. Directed by Mark Romanek, the Rain clip premiered on MTV in June 1993 and remains fondly remembered by fans as one of the best Madonna promo videos of the era. Starring the late Ryuichi Sakamoto, the clip offered a postured representation of the “Queen Of Pop” on a futuristic video set, and it won two MTV Video Music Awards, for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. Madonna has her moments of mild introspection (check out Gone, on the Music album, and Time Stood Still, from the soundtrack of The Next Best Thing), but this was a big pop single with radio programmers in its sights.

The release: Shouldn’t have surprised anyone, even by Madonna’s high standards

Released as a single in the UK on 19 July 1993 (a US release followed on 5 August), Rain succeeded in that objective, making it to No.14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming Madonna’s 34th UK Top 10. The Girlie Show World Tour started that September in London, and its setlist would mark Rain’s only live outing to date (though the song briefly featured in a video mashup during 2008’s Sticky & Sweet Tour, in support of the Hard Candy album).

Rain won praise from the critics – with breathless incredulity, one even compared Madonna’s performance to Karen Carpenter – but this song shouldn’t have surprised anyone, even by the “Queen Of Pop”’s high standards. She has form with a stately ballad, and this one stands up against those it is matched against on the seminal 1995 collection Something To Remember.

The legacy: A strong song that enabled her to stay one step ahead

The metaphor of water is perhaps routine in pop songwriting, but Madonna uses it to fresh effect on Rain, which continues to sit among the best Madonna songs of all time. And if many felt that Madonna the sexual revolutionary was a controversial step too far, with this song she used a more reflective track to wash away some of the criticism and to remind everyone that her art was as much about the power of love as it was the compelling draw of lust or even the wider platform of sexual politics.

There’s a lush sensuality here that played well to a broader audience, while the gorgeous visuals landed with Madonna’s fanbase, too, which thrilled at her performance art and marvelled at her continued ability to stay one step ahead. It’s down to strong songs such as Rain that she has managed to do so at every stage of her career.

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