As 1989 began, there was no question that Madonna was already a decade-defining superstar. But no one knew if she, like Bee Gees to the ‘70s or Beach Boys to the ‘60s, would prove a decade-constricted artist whose relevance would wane as a new decade turned over.
Like a Prayer, the magnum opus of her first decade and arguably her defining creative statement, came out 30 years ago today (March 21, 1989) and established that Madonna was not a pop star for her time, but for all time. And in the process, it gave us one of the most unlikely No. 1 smashes of her (or any career) and forced the world beyond her teenage fanbase to acknowledge her formidable vision.
Since history is written by the victors, Madonna maintaining her pop culture dominance well past the ‘80s seems like a historical inevitability these days. But in 1989, that was hardly the case. While she’d netted six Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s prior to Like A Prayer and released five smash albums (three studio LPs, a soundtrack and a remix album), her sound had remained decidedly of the era up until this point. Even as her subject matter deepened on 1986’s True Blue(dedicated to husband Sean Penn, from whom she’d file for divorce in Jan. 1989), the sonic palette was unmistakably ‘80s: bubbling dance-pop for the high-energy numbers, pounding beats and widescreen production for the ballads, and her voice only occasionally stretching for maturation (as on “Live to Tell”).
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. These were sounds that had served her Madgesty well for five years, and the three studio albums that precede Like a Prayer are unmistakable classics in their own right. But Madonna has always been a savvy tealeaf reader, and in 1989, she must’ve seen the wind of change coming. As she wrapped the decade and prepped her career for phase 2, Madonna moved in a direction that was simultaneously more ambitious and yet more traditional, pushing boundaries while courting an adult audience for the first time.
As the lead single and first track, “Like a Prayer” was the opening salvo that catapulted Madonna into a controversy she emerged virtually unscathed from. Although religious backlash to its Mary Lambert-directed video -- which depicted white supremacists, cross burning and an erotic encounter with a saint in a dream -- would push Pepsi to can an ad they’d already paid $5 million for, the wider world seemed to side with Madonna that her video was an artistic statement and its critics were mere pearl clutchers (not long after, however, the tide would start to turn against her when she began simulating masturbation in performances).
Provocative and – at the time – shocking, Madonna's fourth album 'Like A Prayer' rocked the establishment, and set a new template for self-empowered women in pop. The Blond Ambition world tour that followed, meanwhile, changed the face of live music forever. On the 30th anniversary of the album's release, El Hunt tells the story
Some albums are worth judging by their cover. With two thumbs poked defiantly into a denim waistband – like a bedazzled answer to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ – the artwork for ‘Like A Prayer’ is the perfect visual for Madonna’s audacious, unflinching fourth record. Released on March 21, 1989, this daring exploration of catholicism, desire, bereavement, superstardom and pleasure is an unparalleled totem of pop music 30 years on.
Arriving three years after ‘True Blue‘, a record of bright, loved-up bubblegum pop gold, ‘Like A Prayer’ is abrasive and raw. Moving the focus away from presenting a collection of immediate wall-to-wall bangers, Madonna’s 1989 release feels more concerned with exploration instead. Hulking great ballad ‘Oh Father’ cleverly alludes to her fractured relationship with her father and god at the same time; not your typical album fodder. ‘’Till Death Do Us Part’ also nods toward her split from her then-husband. “I’m not your friend, I’m just your little wife,” Madonna sings, atop jaunty, fidgeting melodies
While ‘True Blue’ talked vaguely about lust – the “desire burning inside of me” on ‘Open Your Heart’ – here the door is flung overtly off its hinges. Madonna was brought up a Catholic, and ‘Like A Prayer’ unpacks how self-pleasure and sex can stack up next to devout faith. In Madonna’s world, desire is holy.
“In Catholicism you are a born sinner and you’re a sinner all your life,” Madonna told Interview Magazine in 1989. “No matter how you try to get away from it, the sin is within you all the time. It was this fear that haunted me; it taunted and pained me every moment. My music was probably the only distraction I had.”
In the tabloids, Madonna was treated like music’s most sinful villain. A copy of The Sun, from November 1989, derides the singer for having a “whore’s foul mouth” (charming!) and takes great pleasure in tearing apart her revealing outfits. The gossip papers rabidly followed her every move; reporting joyously on the breakdown of her marriage to Sean Penn, and gleefully branding her movie project Who’s That Girl a ‘flop’.
O The Huffington Post faz uma matéria sobre o aniversário de Like a Prayer e afirmando o óbvio, que é o álbum mais importante já feito por uma artista mulher, analisa o clipe e os fatos da época.
The Most Important Album Ever Made By A Female Artist
28 years ago this week, Madonna released what is not only her best album to date, but also what could be the most important release ever by a female artist. That’s not to say that Like a Prayer is the best album ever by a female artist, but it’s pretty close. After six years of being considered pop fluff and a disco dolly, Madonna was finally taken seriously by most music critics in 1989. Still, Like a Prayer deserved even more than bewildering critical acclaim.
If Madonna and misogyny weren’t practically synonyms, Like a Prayer would have not only won several Grammys in 1990 (it didn’t even earn any major nominations), but it would be widely praised for its songwriting and production 28 years later. If a man delivered the same type of vocals Madonna did on Like a Prayer, critics would note that his voice isn’t technically perfect, but distinct, melodic, and full of emotion. When it comes to Madonna, who certainly could never hit the notes of Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston, it’s just easier for people to say that she “can’t sing.”
For people (especially millennials) to understand how important Like a Prayer is to culture and music, they have to comprehend the repressive environment Madonna’s album arrived to in March of 1989. The late 1980s was ruled by the religious right, who believed AIDS was a curse God gave to the gay community. Women who were outspoken or wore revealing clothes were referred to as sluts, whores, bit**es, etc. Police brutality among African Americans was still widely accepted without much of a backlash. And interracial dating was still considered a taboo.
With all of this in mind, let’s analyze why Like a Prayer is such a milestone of an album.
Madonna's iconic song 'Like a Prayer' was released 30 years ago this week, and it remains one of the greatest pop moments ever.
But what inspired the song, who wrote it and where was the video filmed? Here's all the important and fascinating facts:
Who wrote 'Like a Prayer'?
Madonna wrote the song with her long-time collaborator Patrick Leonard, and was included on her album of the same name in 1989.
What inspired the song?
Madonna had not recorded any music throughout 1988, and following the critical and commercial failure of her films Shanghai Surprise and Who's That Girl and the Broadway production Speed-the-Plow, she was in a creative crossroads.
Her marriage to actor Sean Penn ended, and she had also turned 30, the age at which her mother had died.
She said in the March 1989 issue of Rolling Stone that her Catholic upbringing gave her a feeling of guilt all the time: "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."
She was also aware that her fanbase was growing up, and felt the need to record something totally different. She wanted her next album to dictate what could be popular in the music world going forward.
Madonna wanted to write about personal matters on her mind at the time, and for 'Like a Prayer', she chose topics she had never shared with the general public. She looked into her personal journals and diaries, and later recalled:
"What was it I wanted to say? I wanted the album to speak to things on my mind. It was a complex time in my life."
How was the song written?
Producers Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray were experimenting with instrumental tracks and musical ideas, and both wanted to bring their style to the album and composed music for the title track.
Madonna felt that what Leonard presented was more interesting, and she started to work with him.
She then wrote 'Like a Prayer' in about three hours, writing and producing it with Leonard.
Like a Prayer meaning: What is the song about?
Madonna described 'Like a Prayer' as the song about a passionate young girl "so in love with God that it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life."
Inspiration for the track also came from the Catholic belief of transubstantiation, the change of essence by which the bread and wine offered in the sacrifice of the sacrament during the Mass, become, in reality, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
She later changed the context of the song so that the lyrics had dual meaning. While the song may have seemed superficial and about sexuality and religion on the surface, the song actually had different meanings intended to provoke reaction from her listeners.
Leonard later explained that he was not comfortable with the lyrics and the sexual innuendos. Giving the example of the first verse 'When you call my name, It's like a little prayer, I'm down on my knees, I wanna take you there', he felt that this could also refer to someone performing oral sex.
However, Madonna refused to change the line, as she was adamant about keeping it in.
Who else features on the track?
The gospel vocals were recorded by The Andraé Crouch Choir, who also appeared on Michael Jackson's 'Man in the Mirror'.
For the intro, Leonard used guitar recordings by Prince, who had been asked by Madonna to contribute to the track. In 2014, he said that no other music by Prince was used, but some effects around the choruses might have been his.
How did it perform in the charts?
The song topped charts around the world, including the UK and US.
It went on to sell over five million copies worldwide, and is one of the best-selling singles of all time.
Like a Prayer music video: Where was it filmed?
The music video was directed by Mary Lambert and was filmed at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, California and at San Pedro Hills in San Pedro, California.
Madonna wanted the video to be more provocative than anything she had done in the past, and wanted to address racism by having the video show a mixed-race couple being shot by the Ku Klux Klan.
However, she later settled on another theme in keeping with the song's religious connotations.
Actor Leon Robinson (best known for playing the lead role in Cool Runnings) was hired to play the role of a saint, which was inspired by Martin de Porres, the patron saint of mixed-race people and those seeking interracial harmony.
The video was shot over four days.
Lambert had originally taken casts taken of Robinson's face, hand and feet to create the statue of the saint, but later found that the statue did not look like him, and so he was asked to re-shoot the scenes.
He had to act as a statue, which he said was difficult since "first of all, I didn't realize how hard it is on the back to stand absolutely tall and straight and not move. Secondly, as a performer you have this nervous energy—and my requirements here were total antithesis of that.
Like a Prayer music video: What is it about?
The video shows Madonna witnessing a young woman being robbed and murdered by a group of men, but isn't able to help. A black man walking down the alley also sees the incident and helps the woman, but the murderers run away.
The police mistakenly suspect the black man of being the killer and arrest him. Madonna flees the scene and escapes to a church. There, she sees a caged statue of saint who resembles the black man.
Madonna then lies down on a pew and has a dream in which she is falling through space. A woman, representing power and strength, catches her. She tells Madonna to do what is right and sends her back up.
Still dreaming, she returns to the statue, which transforms into the black man she had seen earlier. He kisses her forehead and leaves the church, as she picks up a knife and cuts her hands.
After seeing scenes of Madonna singing in front of burning crosses, erotic scenes are shown between her and the saint, and the singer being surrounded by a choir inside the church. Madonna wakes up, goes to the jail and tells the police that she had witnessed the crime and that the black man is innocent; and he is released.
Why did it cause so much controversy?
Religious groups worldwide including the Vatican, immediately protested the video, saying that it showed blasphemous use of Christian imagery.
They called for the national boycott of Pepsi (after she performed it in a Pepsi commercial) and PepsiCo's subsidiaries, including KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.
Pepsi explained the differences between their advert and Madonna's artistic opinions in the video, and later gave in to the protests and cancelled the campaign.
Pope John Paul II also got involved, and encouraged fans to boycott the singer in Italy altogether.