Madonna, Like A Prayer


I never actually knew a Madonna that hadn’t released Like A Prayer – I was 7 years old in 1989 when it was released, and it was always as equally available to me as a kid as Like A Virgin or True Blue was – my family had all the tapes, despite my mother’s protestation that Madonna was “so weird.” 


She wasn’t that weird, she was hot – uncomfortably hot.  In that video for “Like A Prayer, that low-cut tank top and her flowing brown hair, I think Madonna was the sexiest she’d ever been before or since – but this, of course, was not the thought of a 7-year-old.  Now with the benefit of being able to put these things in context, it was a bold move of Madonna’s to cap a decade long string of hits with something that had the ability to be more controversial, darker, and sexier than she’d already been – in fact, it’s amazing to think Madonna even courted any controversy in a pre Like A Prayer world (well, there was that thing about humping MTV’s stage in a wedding dress…).


Regardless, Madonna’s cleavage in a field of burning crosses, and making out with a black Jesus was only the beginning for Madonna.  Those iconic video moments in the video for “Like A Prayer” just helped capitalize on that single’s desperately anxious sexuality.  “Like A Prayer” is, I think, Madonna’s best single, and it’s because it’s the clearest she ever was about the exalting power of love and desire, the apotheosis of love and sex being transformative, life altering.  More than that, it was Madonna’s religious call to arms – did God and religion account for everyone standing alone?  For hearing a lover’s voice and having it “feel like home”?  Posing these questions with the help of a gospel chorus was quite a bold move by any standards.


I think about these things because they get dotted along like power lines across the record, a perfectly crafted pop record.  She sings of a desperately failing relationship in “Till Death Do Us Part” (of course, at the time, this must have been Madonna’s answer to tabloid questions regarding her marriage to Sean Penn), of child abuse in “Oh Father,” and – quite gorgeously – takes the perspective of a woman praying to and questioning God to spare the life of her lover, who may get killed, in “Pray For Spanish Eyes.” 


“Spanish Eyes,” with its aching Spanish guitar and elliptically sacrilegious lyrics is, in its way, the most beautiful song Madonna ever performed, and it caps off the boldness of Madonna’s ability as a pop star.  Sure, the album is loaded with a sly bit of empowerment in “Express Yourself,” and a giddy love song in “Cherish,” but there’s no getting away from the snarky seriousness of the material.  Even in a shockingly blasé duet with Prince called “Love Song,” the chorus sings “This is not a love song.”  This is also not a love album.  It fits as a pop record, but it’s the sort of pop touchstone that 80’s music can’t be imagined without – like Thriller or Purple Rain, the pop was perfect, but it was also just the beginning (like those mega records, Like A Prayer was a hit machine with 5 Top 20 hits).


Her boldness climaxes with that gospel chorus picking up again in the final song of the record, “Act Of Contrition,” which is sort of a joke – the gospel chorus now sounds like angels at heaven’s gate.  But it’s also a bold reaffirmation of everything she is.  Madonna hums along her song of contrition and forgiveness, climaxing in “I reserve, I resolve, I reserve… I have a reservation,” and finally yelling, “What do you mean it’s not in the computer?!”  Madonna kicked from the gates of heaven?  It must mean what we get of her on earth in Like A Prayer is far riskier and far more worthy.  Such a banishment has justified 20 additional years of Madonna superstardom and remains the crown jewel of her catalog.


3 Responses to “Madonna, Like A Prayer”

  1. wallernotweller Says:

    Back to 1989:

  2. Maya Love Says:

    I love this post! Like A Prayer is by far my favorite Madonna song ever. You have good taste. I love that you post about everything from Madonna to Murakami!

  3. junkieintheattic Says:

    Yeah, I didn’t expect to read about Joni Mitchell’s jazz-folk weirdness and then Madonna’s Like A Prayer in the same blog. Kudos. It probably is her best.

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