The Number Ones: Madonna’s “Like A Prayer”


According to one of our preferred musical sources:

What do you do with Catholicism? I’m asking because I don’t know. Those of us who grew up practicing the arcane, druidic rituals of this ancient cult are born into confusion, and in confusion we will remain. No matter how much we might distance ourselves from that particular sect, that sect will remain with us, reinforcing hang-ups and enshrouding us with guilt.

Questions of sex become particularly fraught under Catholicism. The religion brings a certain erotic fetishism to its rites — to the priests, for example, washing the feet of the parishioners. But under Catholicism, eroticism itself is haram. The church promises rapture, and it also warns against taking part in the one earthly pleasure that can bring you closest to that rapture. All those messages, drilled into your brain from infancy with numbing repetition, can fuck you up. Madonna knows this.

In March of 1989, after Rolling Stone‘s Bill Zehme asked Madonna whether she’d “forsaken” Catholicism, Madonna patiently explained that Catholicism is not the kind of thing that allows itself to be forsaken:

Once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic — in terms of your feelings of guilt and remorse and whether you’ve sinned or not. Sometimes, I’m wracked with guilt when I needn’t be, and that, to me, is left over from my Catholic upbringing. Because in Catholicism, you are born a sinner, and you are a sinner all of your life. No matter how you try to get away from it, the sin is within you all the time… Catholicism is not a soothing religion. It’s a painful religion. We’re all gluttons for punishment.

Madonna had a particular reason for discussing these matters with the magazine. She had just released “Like A Prayer,” one of history’s greatest works of lapsed-Catholic art. “Like A Prayer” takes all that guilt and fear and longing and confusion, and puts that whole mess in service of something resembling physical ecstasy. “Like A Prayer” works as an act of transubstantiation. It’s a miracle.

By 1989, Madonna was a dominant pop force and a frustrated would-be movie star. Her first two real cinematic vehicles, Shanghai Surprise and Who’s That Girl, had both been critically detested flops, but she was able to flip those failures into successes, reaching #1 even with a relative throwaway like the soundtrack song “Who’s That Girl.” In 1988, Madonna didn’t have any new music or movies. Instead, she starred in David Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow on Broadway. She got bad reviews, and she didn’t like the job. Her chaotic marriage to Sean Penn also fell apart. At one point, she filed an assault complaint against Penn, though she withdrew it a few days later. In January of 1989, the couple officially divorced.

Madonna’s first divorce was a cause for contemplation. So was her 30th birthday. Madonna’s mother had died of breast cancer at 30, when Madonna was a little kid. Madonna spent much of 1988 working on Like A Prayer, her fourth album. As with its predecessor True Blue, Madonna co-wrote and co-produced everything on Like A Prayer. For most of the album, she did both alongside Patrick Leonard, her collaborator on the previous #1 hits “Open Your Heart,” “Live To Tell,” and “Who’s That Girl.” The one big departure was “Love Song,” a slinky duet with Prince, another titan who knew about the overlap between the sacred and the erotic. Just one year earlier, Prince had refused to work with fellow foundational ’80s pop superstar Michael Jackson on “Bad.” Prince didn’t refuse Madonna, though. Madonna dedicated Like A Prayer to “my mother, who taught me how to pray.”

Like A Prayer is a genuine pop masterpiece, a personal work of doubt and anger and horniness that still works as a collection of down-the-middle bangers. The album ends with Madonna reciting the Act Of Contrition over Prince’s guitar feedback, a nice summation of the mode she was in at the time. It opens with “Like A Prayer,” which does the same work as that outro while also functioning as the kind of shimmering jewel that could pack dancefloors for decades.

Madonna imagined “Like A Prayer” as a gospel song when she started writing it, and it is a gospel song. It would be a gospel song even without the Andraé Crouch Choir, which had also sung on Michael Jackson’s pop hymn “Man In The Mirror.” (Crouch listened carefully to “Like A Prayer” and decided that it was religious enough for his choir to participate. When he saw what would happen in the video, though, he and his choir elected not to appear.) A few years ago, Leonard shared the “Like A Prayer” demo on YouTube, mostly to keep fans from bidding on the demo tapes that a former Madonna friend sold at auction. On the demo, we can hear that “Like A Prayer” was mostly complete before the choir got involved, though Madonna and Leonard later ditched the bubbling Latin percussion that runs through the track.

Choir or no choir, “Like A Prayer” is ecstatic, ebullient dance-pop; the demo version, in particular, could’ve fit just fine on True Blue. As dance-pop, the song is great, with hooks stacked on top of hooks. But the lyrics and the subject matter give “Like A Prayer” a whole new charge. As the title implies, “Like A Prayer” almost functions as a spiritual sequel to “Like A Virgin,” Madonna’s first chart-topper. On “Like A Prayer,” though, the fusion of sexual and the religious happens on a deeper level.

Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” narrator might be in love with God, as she’s suggested herself. But I hear “Like A Prayer” as a sex song so joyous that the sex itself becomes something akin to a religious awakening. When you call Madonna’s name, it’s like a little prayer. She’s down on her knees. She wants to take you there. She hears you call her name, and it feels like home. She hears your voice, and it’s like an angel sighing. She hears your voice, and it feels like flying. Oh God, she thinks she’s falling out of the sky. She closes her eyes. Heaven help her.

To me, “Like A Prayer” is just a terribly romantic song. It’s beautiful, too. The track opens with dazed waves of echo-drenched guitar — an uncredited Prince — and with Madonna moaning, over church organs, that life is a mystery. But when the endorphin-rush beats kick in, that mystery becomes a whole lot less terrifying. Unlike virtually every other white pop musician who’s ever hired a gospel choir, Madonna doesn’t use those Black voices as some kind of gesture at authenticity. Instead, the feeling she’s interested in capturing is the pure, dizzy joy that gospel music can reflect so beautifully. (That dizzy joy, it’s worth noting, is not part of the Catholic tradition. The music in Catholic churches almost always sucks farts.)

All the colliding elements on “Like A Prayer” — the organ, the bubble-funk backbeat, the busy bass-popping and percussive clatter, the echoes of Prince guitar, the shouts of the choir, the icy aching poise of Madonna’s own voice — works to transcend all the heavy symbolism of the song itself. “Like A Prayer” doesn’t have to function as high art. Heard on a car radio in the middle of a summer day, it’s a cause for simple celebration, and it’s a celebration itself. But those layers are there, and those layers make the track bang that much harder. For the “Like A Prayer” 12″ single, Madonna brought in Junior Vasquez and Shep Pettibone for an absolutely ferocious eight-minute remix, which gives the song that extra push and transforms it into a full-on disco monster. On that level, “Like A Prayer” works like something more effective than a prayer.

Madonna could’ve sold “Like A Prayer” as a straight-up pop song, without drawing attention to all its messy layers of overlapping meaning and allusion. For a brief moment, that’s what she did. When she was getting ready to release the Like A Prayer album, Madonna signed a year-long endorsement deal with Pepsi for $5 million. She acted in a commercial, set to the song, where she danced through city streets and Black churches and toasted her own eight-year-old self. In that commercial, “Like A Prayer” is just a pop song — nothing more and nothing less.

The “Like A Prayer” commercial debuted on the 1989 Grammy telecast and then aired on The Cosby Show. A week later, though, the “Like A Prayer” video premiered on MTV. That video is a classic of the form. It highlights all the complicated stuff from the song, and it piles more complications on top of those. It’s a heady stew of sex and God and race and murder and unjust policing, and it has aged like the blood of Christ.

Madonna’s initial plan was for the video to tell a story of a white woman in love with a Black man who sings in an old-timey Southern church choir. In her version, they would’ve both been murdered by the Klan. That would’ve been trite and maybe hokey. But director Mary Lambert had other ideas. Lambert had directed many of the videos for past Madonna hits, including “Like A Virgin.” The same year that the “Like A Prayer” clip came out, she also made Pet Sematary. Lambert suggested more ideas and themes to Madonna, and “Like A Prayer” became operatic in scope.

The basic story of the “Like A Prayer” video is pretty simple. Madonna watches as three snarling white guys stab a woman to death. (Rape isn’t depicted, but I think it’s implied.) As that woman is dying, a Black man, played by future Cool Runnings star Leon Robinson, rushes to her aid. Police, arriving on the scene, arrest the wrong man as the white thugs exult in getting off scot-free. But Madonna testifies on the Black man’s behalf, and she hugs him when he steps out of a courtroom cage.

As all this is happening, though, though, Madonna plays out her own internal story. She enters a dreamspace church, imagining that same Black man as a Christlike saint statue who comes to life and who kisses her on the cheek and the forehead. By the time the song ends, they’re down on the floor together, getting busy. Talking to The Hollywood Reporter a couple of months ago, Lambert said that she wanted the video “to explore the correlation between sexual ecstasy and religious ecstasy” and that the idea of the Black saint “came from Madonna telling me she wanted to ‘fuck a Black guy on the altar.’ I said, ‘Well, why not have it be a Black Jesus? Let’s just go all the way.’ She liked that.”

There’s more. Madonna dances in front of burning crosses, an age-old symbol of American racism that looks oddly beautiful here. (Lambert: “The Ku Klux Klan could take a cross, which is a holy symbol to a lot of people, and appropriate it in a way to instill fear and horror and promote race hatred. I wanted to turn that on its head.”) Also, Madonna magically manifests a Black gospel choir in the church, and she dances alongside them with awkward abandon. She finds a knife on the church floor and accidentally cuts her own hand, giving herself the stigmata. As the video ends, the entire cast — gospel choir, murderous white guys, cops, everyone — turns to the camera and takes a bow, as a curtain falls. That ending serves as a grace note, calling attention to the artifice of the entire enterprise. It’s an altogether stunning piece of work. Naturally, people got pissed.

Soon after the “Like A Prayer” video aired, Pope John Paul II himself denounced Madonna, calling for a boycott of her shows in Italy. Other religious groups threatened to boycott Pepsi and all of its various fast-food subsidiaries, to the point where Pepsi pulled its Madonna ad and ended its campaign. Madonna still got to keep the $5 million, and she got more publicity from the entire saga than the ad itself would’ve granted her. She won. Accepting the Viewer’s Choice Award at the VMAs later that year, Madonna thanked Pepsi “for causing so much controversy.”

In the wake of all that noise, Like A Prayer spent five weeks at #1 on the album chart, and it ultimately went quadruple platinum. That was a step down from the sales of True Blue and Like A Virgin, but the controversy didn’t come anywhere near killing Madonna’s career. None of the album’s other singles reached #1, but the next two, “Express Yourself” and “Cherish,” both made it to #2. (“Express Yourself” is a 10. “Cherish” is an 8.) Madonna’s chart-topping days were far from over. She’ll be back in this column again soon.

GRADE: 10/10

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