625. ‘Like a Prayer’, by Madonna

And so we arrive at the biggest female pop star du jour, with her first big comeback. Setting herself up, in the process, to polarise and provoke throughout the 1990s and beyond…

Like a Prayer, by Madonna (her 6th of thirteen #1s)

3 weeks, from 19th March – 9th April 1989

It had been a couple of years without any new music from Madonna. In modern terms that’s a pretty normal, even fairly short, break (cf. Rihanna). But since the dawn of pop, stars had been expected to churn out several hits a year. That’s just one way in which this comeback monster hit feels like a game-changer: Madonna’s in charge from now on, setting her own schedule.

After an attention-grabbing guitar intro, a door slams shut. Life is a mystery, Everyone must stand alone, I hear you call my name, And it feels like home… Is she talking about God, or a boy? Or is God the boy? In comes the beat, and to be honest it’s quite predictable late-80s production: dance-pop synths with a squelchy bass. It’s catchy, it’s got a great hook, it would have been a big hit even without…

The video. Madonna cavorting with Jesus. Black Jesus. Burning crosses. Sexual Assault. A wrongful imprisonment. Racism… I’m not 100% sure what Madonna was going for, other than a checklist of things she knew would piss certain people off, but it did the job. The Catholic Church was up in arms, Pepsi (who used the song in an advert) was boycotted, MTV was the only TV channel to show the video… And of course it was a global smash hit.

From this distance, the controversy seems out of proportion: Madonna and Jesus barely kiss, while in the end she does the right thing and goes to the police… And the lyrics aren’t that outrageous either. Sure there’s a bit of innuendo – I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there… – but ‘love as a religious experience’ is not exactly a new and shocking theme. And yet, as the recent Sam Smith controversy has shown, certain types are always poised and ready to get worked up over a music video.

‘Like a Prayer’ peaks for me when the gospel choir take over. And I don’t mean that as a slight on Madonna’s voice, as this is one of her better vocal performances. But it’s a bit too long as ‘just’ a song, without the video to distract. I wouldn’t have this in my Top 5 Madonna songs, personally. Whether that’s harsh, or testament to the strength of her long career, I’m not sure. I’d also put ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, and ‘Like a Virgin’, above it in the attention-grabbing stakes.

But there’s no denying this song’s reach and impact. I described it above as a ‘game changer’ in terms of inventing the idea of the pop star ‘comeback’ single. Then there’s the statement video. And the creative control that Madonna was clearly exercising. There’s a clear line from Madonna to pretty much every female pop star since: Christina, Britney, Gaga, Taylor Swift have all had their big statement pieces, their ‘I’m in control now’ moments. Is it too much to suggest then, that ‘Like a Prayer’ was the moment that the modern female pop star was born?


9 thoughts on “625. ‘Like a Prayer’, by Madonna

  1. I think I can take or leave Madonna. I grant her she has had exceptional staying power, but John Peel probably hit the nail on the head after going to see her live (he was taking his daughter, I believe), and said afterwards that he thought she did very well … in making a little talent go a remarkably long way. But back to the point – I think this was musically one of the best singles she ever made, with a particularly strong hook. Also I recall Francis Rossi talking to Ken Bruce (end of an era today on Radio 2, folks) on Tracks of my Years a while ago. He chose this and said he wasn’t really a Madge fan either, but thought this single was really good.

    • I can see what John Peel was getting at, though Madonna was far from the first and/or only pop star to do this… She just seems to be a lightning rod for that sort of criticism. Put it this way, in terms of a ‘Greatest Hits’ CD that I’d be likely to listen to without skipping many songs… Madonna might be in 3rd place, behind the Beatles and ABBA. (That’s not to say I think she’s the 3rd best artist in pop music history, though, if you see what I mean!)

      ‘Like a Prayer’ is very good, but I think the controversy of the video and the imagery leaves you expecting something even bigger than just a good pop song with gospel influences.

  2. Great business person. She sells shock like retail stores sell socks. Yes I agree…modern female pop stars eat her up… to my dismay. Too bad more don’t mimick Aretha Franklin, Joplin, Sheryl Crow, Pat Benatar or hell…I would even take Cyndi Lauper.

  3. She invented women in pop in control. Even “serious” female music stars were rarely really in control. Where men were brought in it was at her picking and she had control over every aspect. Still does. Still doesnt care what men say about her. And they say a lot that they dont say to women of colour and men, especially “youre too old to do pop”.
    Like A Prayer was as you say a serious template, its stiĺl powerful and the album is varied and fab.

    For me, its sad memories attached. My lovely grandma was seriously ill in hospital around this time, and i had a car crash returning home from Liverpool. So i can never really enjoy this in the same way i can be delighted by the UK xmas single off the album, Dear Jessie.

    • That’s a good way of putting it: she was in control for sure, from this point on it seems, allowing every female pop star that followed their ‘breaking free’ moment.

      Sad to hear its got sad memories attached for you, though. Songs are signposts in our lives, I guess, for better or worse…

  4. I was a pretty big Madonna fan from her beginnings in 1984 until the late 90s, but I never cared very much for “Like a Prayer” for some reason. My favorite songs of hers are “Vogue”, “Take a Bow”, “Crazy For You”, “Papa Don’t Preach”, “Into the Groove”, “La Isla Bonita” and “Frozen”.

    • Yes I think ‘Like a Prayer’ might be a slight case of style (and shock) over substance. That’s a good list of songs – I’d add ‘Express Yourself’ to the list, which was the follow-up to ‘Like a Prayer’, I think.

  5. Pingback: 630. ‘Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)’, by Soul II Soul | The UK Number Ones Blog

  6. Pingback: Recap: #601 – #630 | The UK Number Ones Blog

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