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post Mar 20 2019, 11:11 PM
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Albumism: Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ Turns 30 | Anniversary Retrospective
March 19, 2019 / Justin Chadwick

Happy 30th Anniversary to Madonna’s fourth studio album Like A Prayer, originally released March 21, 1989.

Madonna’s Like A Prayer is “as close to art as pop gets,” Rolling Stone’s J.D. Considine opined in his review of her fourth studio album published nearly thirty years ago in April of 1989. Though I don’t doubt that Mr. Considine likely meant well, his declaration is borderline asinine, if you ask me. His insinuation is that pop music can never actually be considered art and is forever destined to fall short of warranting this qualification. That pop music is somehow inherently less than other musical forms. Um, yeah, I’m calling bullshit.

Indeed, it is precisely this type of myopic perspective and critical snobbery that has plagued Madonna since she first emerged on the public stage back in 1982. Despite her millions upon millions of loyalists worldwide, and arguably due in large part to their preoccupation with her unabashedly iconoclastic persona, a sizeable contingency of critics and listeners still refuse to take her seriously as an artist and songwriter. But let’s not waste any more time lamenting the naysayers, shall we? Like A Prayer is, in fact, art. And arguably matched only by Ray of Light (1998) released nearly a decade later, it remains her artistic pinnacle to date, in my opinion.

Other more discerning interpreters of Madonna’s musical repertoire often cite Like A Prayer as her first serious album, following the more whimsical fare—or “brassy dance-pop” as the New York Times’ Stephen Holden likened it—found on her first three studio albums: Madonna (1983), Like A Virgin (1984) and True Blue (1986). “Serious” is a relative term, open to interpretation, mind you. For I know I took Madonna very seriously when I first heard “Everybody” back in ’82. I was five years old. But I knew a perfect pop song when I heard it, even then.

Perhaps more accurately, Like A Prayer is Madonna’s first personal album, throughout which she balances the fictional with the autobiographical more than she ever had up until that point. Joined once again by True Blue co-producers and fellow Michigan natives Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray, she began recording the album in September 1988. One month prior, she had turned 30, the same age her mother—to whom Like A Prayer is dedicated—had been when she succumbed to breast cancer in 1963, when Madonna was just five years old. The following year, her four-year marriage with Sean Penn—to whom she dedicated True Blue—dissolved and ended in divorce. Meanwhile, Madonna’s attempt to cross over to film and seize upon the modest success of Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) hadn’t gone too well, with two back-to-back box office mishaps in Shanghai Surprise (1986) and Who’s That Girl (1987).

So, suffice to say, Madonna was in a particularly reflective state of mind when recording sessions commenced. Hence it’s no great surprise that amidst all of the other turmoil in her life, she also reawakened all of her conflicted feelings about her Catholic upbringing. These sentiments ultimately informed the title of the album and the controversial, gospel-tinged title track and lead single “Like A Prayer,” the video for which caused an irrationally disproportionate amount of attention and rebuke by more rigid segments of the American populace. It also ruffled the robes of the Vatican brass, due to its religious and racial imagery, coupled with the song’s perceived sexual double entendres.

“It's me struggling with the mystery and magic that surrounds it,” she confided to the New York Times around the time of the album’s release. “My own Catholicism is in constant upheaval. When I left home at 17 and went to New York, which is the city with the most sinners, I renounced the traditional meaning of Catholicism in terms of how I would live my life. But I never stopped feeling the guilt and shame that are ingrained in you if you are brought up Catholic.''

When the dogmatic dust finally settled from the bombastic, bible-thumping brouhaha over the video, listeners were able to devote more of their attention toward the ten other songs that comprise Like A Prayer. The next two official singles lifted from the album reinforced Madonna’s penchant for pop perfectionism, beginning with the anthemic “Express Yourself.” Echoing the clarion call tone heard on the Staple Singers’ 1971 black empowerment mantra “Respect Yourself,” the kinetically crafted song finds Madonna encouraging women to affirm and articulate their own needs, while deconstructing the superficial dependence on materialism in relationships. The buoyant, wistful love song and third single “Cherish” bears the closest resemblance to her radio-friendly fare of previous albums, introducing some warmer, winsome fare to the otherwise ruminative affair.

For my money, the album’s most powerful and memorable moments can be found in its more understated and introspective moments. The plaintive, piano-driven “Promise to Try” revisits the emotional impact of her mother’s death, while the symphonic, strings-laden swell of “Oh Father” is one of the most stirring moments, as Madonna examines her fractured relationship with her father in the wake of the loss they’ve shared. While she harbors resentment toward him for unspecified discretions, she also expresses empathy and understanding, reflecting, “Maybe someday / When I look back, I'll be able to say / You didn't mean to be cruel / Somebody hurt you too.” It’s a refreshingly candid and compassionate moment for Madonna, who has remained relatively taciturn when it comes to discussing her father publicly.

The sobering “Till Death Do Us Part” explores the dissolution of her marriage to Penn, with Madonna fluctuating between playing the real-life role of the victim (“I think I interrupt your life / When you laugh, it cuts me just like a knife / I'm not your friend, I'm just your little wife”) and assuming the voice of the observer (“They never laugh, not like before / She takes the keys, he breaks the door / She cannot stay here anymore / He's not in love with her anymore”). Her second verse is a particularly brutal reproach of her ex-husband, as she declares, “The bruises they will fade away / You hit so hard with the things you say / I will not stay to watch your hate as it grows / You're not in love with someone else / You don't even love yourself,” while her conflicted, vulnerable heart surfaces in the verse’s closing line, “Still I wish you'd ask me not to go.”

Other standout moments include “Keep It Together,” an upbeat ode to family solidarity that lobs another presumed dig in Penn’s direction: “blood is thicker than any other circumstance.” And of course, the lush, leftfield soul of “Love Song”—co-written and co-produced by Prince (whose uncredited guitar work also appears on “Like A Prayer,” “Keep It Together” and “Act of Contrition”)—is notable for being a once-in-a-lifetime songwriting collaboration between two of the most influential figures in the past 40 years of popular music.

"If it had not been clear with True Blue, Like A Prayer staked Madonna's motive to master the album format,” Quentin Harrison, Albumism contributor and author of Record Redux: Madonna, explains. In retrospect three decades on, the album signaled not just Madonna’s emboldened commitment to crafting cohesive albums, but also a pivotal, transitional point in Madonna’s recording career.

As the new decade arrived, and with the expansive, career-to-date compendium The Immaculate Collection (1990) neatly synthesizing her most popular songs to date, Madonna turned to exercising more creative freedom than ever before. In the ensuing years, she continually redefined and reinvigorated her musical footprint, beginning with 1992’s Erotica, which found her exploring not only new and bold thematic territory, but previously untrodden sonic paths as well. She moved on from her longtime partnership with producers Bray and Leonard, and gradually forged stronger connections with dancefloor-friendly collaborators like Shep Pettibone (Erotica), Nellee Hooper (1994’s Bedtime Stories) and William Orbit (Ray of Light). And together with these and other musical kindred spirits along the way, Madonna created art—yes, art—of the most thrilling caliber.
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post Mar 20 2019, 11:12 PM
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NME: Sex. Religion. Death. Conical bras. Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ and Blond Ambition Tour at 30
El Hunt / Mar 20, 2019

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’.

‘Like A Prayer’ seizes back the narrative, and yet, it’s not bound to being firmly autobiographical. Sure, it’s confessional, but in a sexier, more abstract way that plays with conventional ideas of sin. “Catholicism’s such a dramatic religion,” Madonna told NME in 1995. “There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance and ritual and punishment and when you’ve sinned you go to a dark curtained booth and tell the priest all the bad things you’ve done and it’s all so… kinky!”

Which brings us onto ‘Like A Prayer’s sardonic closer. ‘Act of Contrition’ starts out earnestly, reciting solemn prayer atop yowls of guitar; listing various sins and asking for forgiveness in husky tones. Hamming it up for the tabloids, Madonna’s repentance is short-lived. “I have a reservation!” she growls fiercely, parodying the entitlement and pettiness of superstardom. “What do you mean it’s not in the computer?!?!”

On its release, ‘Like A Prayer’ caused almost immediate controversy. Its title track infamously debuted during a Pepsi commercial, with a visual helmed by Space Jam director Joe Pytka. The fizzy drink super-corp paid Madonna $5 million for her appearance, eager for one of the world’s biggest superstars to endorse their brown beverages. To sweeten the deal even further, they also slapped a sponsorship stamp on her forthcoming world tour.

The next day, Madonna’s iconic and controversial ‘Like A Prayer’ music video was released. Against a barren landscape of flaming crucifixes, Madonna wanders into an empty Catholic church. There, she’s immediately drawn to a weeping statue of a black saint, and kneeling before him, she anoints the statue’s feet and finds stigmata on her hands; playing a Mary Magdalene type figure and drawing on blatant religious iconography, Madonna’s interested in how the Bible’s “sinful woman” actually represents something sacred and worthy of celebration.

Later, the video depicts the saint statue coming *ahem* to life, and things get very raunchy. The song itself draws parallels between intense sexual pleasure and transcending to a higher spiritual plane. Basically, no prizes for guessing what variety of moaning Madge is on about when she’s down on her knees, telling the Messianic figure that he’s “like an angel sighing”.

Predictably, conservative Pepsi-gluggers everywhere were outraged by Madonna’s audacity: how dare this wanton woman taint innocent viewers with her alternative explorations of sin, sex, and religion. In response, they began to boycott Pepsi’s products. The global corporation swiftly cut ties, pulling the original ad, along with their brand-stamping of her tour.

As for Madonna? Well, she didn’t give a shit, first of all, because Pepsi let her keep the fee anyway. Cracking on with her artistic vision for the record’s roll-out, she renamed the live run. The ‘Like A Prayer’ tour became Blond Ambition tour. It’s no exaggeration to state that every pop production you’ve ever seen since is indebted to the show’s immense vision. And far from being knocked by the headlines around her, Madonna thrived in the face of controversy.

Divided into five distinct segments – Metropolis, Religious, Dick Tracy, Art Deco and Encore – Blond Ambition was far more like theatre production than conventional concert; with elaborate costumes and intricate sets that referenced everything from A Clockwork Orange and Fritz Lang to high fashion and performance art.

And at the same time as she opened up a dialogue around sex, Madonna also chose to use her huge platform to bring the AIDS epidemic to the forefront. Each copy of ‘Like A Prayer’ came with a ‘The Facts About Aids’ information card. At live shows, she spread clear messages about practicing safer sex, and chose to dedicate her final American date to her friend, the late Keith Haring. Her New Jersey show alone raised $300,000 for The Foundation for AIDS Research, at a time when the disease was widely feared and misunderstood by the public, and LGBT+ people were disproportionately discriminated against. “Put a condom on your willy,” Madonna would tell the audience.

“What Madonna said to me was this’” recounts Luis Camacho Xtravaganza, who toured the world as a backing dancer on the Blond Ambition tour. “‘There’s no such thing as bad press, honey, there’s no such thing as bad press,” he remembers with a cackle. “‘Worry when they’re not talking about you’”

A member of New York City’s legendary ballroom leaders House of Xtravaganza, Luis choreographed the ‘Vogue’ music video with fellow voguer Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, and he quickly become drawn to Madonna’s total lack of artistic compromise. Born and raised a “kid from the projects” on the Lower East Side – “I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth,” Luis says – the whole experience of touring the world was dizzying enough. And as rehearsals went on, he realised he was a part of something truly historic.

“Madonna wanted to take things further,” Luis says. “Her vision was elevating the concert formula to a level of theatre. Inserting art into that, too, she really wanted to give the audience an experience, rather than them just going to a concert and seeing somebody sing into a mic. I really think she was a pioneer in that. She set the stage for concert shows and experiences, for any show that followed.” he says.

“She is good at pushing boundaries and buttons and making people feel something from what she’s doing, whether that feeling is good or bad,” Luis observes. “She’s fearless – I love that she knows what she wants, and will bring it to the forefront, regardless of what people might think. An artist should be true to her platform, and she was true to hers. And very unapologetic about it. I love that about her.”

The Pope, Vatican State, and several other Catholic groups begged to differ, taking issue with Madonna’s ‘blasphemous’ use of religious iconography. Meanwhile the Toronto police force threatened the star with arrest, claiming that her notorious performance of ‘Like A Virgin’ – which featured Madonna joyously simulating masturbation atop a luxurious velvet bed placed centre stage, flanked by two men with enormous stuffed breasts – was in breach of obscenity laws. “Do you think that I’m a bad girl?” Madonna asked the endless crowds at her final show in the Canadian city, as police looked on. “Do you think that I deserve to be arrested?” she goaded them.

“I hope so,” she decided, before promptly launching into the full, uncensored routine. Ultimately, the threatened arrest never happened, but Madonna was fully prepared to take the risk.

Ian Cottrell – who now runs the long-running Dirty Pop club night at Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach – went to see Madonna’s show at Wembley Stadium show when he was 17, and halfway through sixth form. “I just remember the pure excitement of her coming on stage and opening with ‘Express Yourself”” he says. “The dancers, the industrial set, Shep Pettibone’s beats, and then Madonna, appearing at the top of the stairs in the iconic suit from the [song’s] video, with the bra poking through. She asked “DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE?!” And we we all went crazy.”

Marching down the stairs in a business suit, Madonna soon rips off the jacket to reveal a golden corset with those infamously cartoonish, pointed breasts; designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Straddling helpless male dancers on the floor, grabbing her crotch, and thrusting – to ear-piercing screams – this was a strong, athletic woman taking full ownership of her sexuality, and her own pleasures and desire.

“Bloomin’ heck, we were new Christians at the time, and I didn’t know what to do with myself!” says Janet, now 56, who was at the Wembley Stadium Blond Ambition show with her husband in 1990. The pair had recently found faith. “There was this whole thing about sex on the altar: that was very out there, and at that time, shocking. I don’t say the f-word, and so this one woman getting everyone to chant it was shocking for me [Madonna asked Wembley to chant the word in order to reclaim it]. All these male dancers were utterly in bondage, submitting to Madonna. And the outfits! Nobody dressed like that.”

“It was hilarious in some respects because we’d gone from seeing [Evangelist preacher] Billy Graham there, to seeing Madonna,” Janet laughs. “She’s had a Catholic upbringing, and she didn’t seem to be denouncing it, but I remember I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to like it, in some respects,” Janet admits. “I will always remember those very hard, stiff conical bosoms,” she exclaims. “They were fascinating for me, as somebody who sews! The whole conical bosoms business, incredible…“

Think of the whips and chains of Rihanna’s ‘S&M’, Ariana Grande’s ‘Side to Side’ (according to Ariana, it’s a song about feeling a bit, um, sore after a vigorous night of pash) Christine and The Queens’ macho-femme articulations of desire, and countless other pop greats who emerged post-Madonna, and traces of ‘Like A Prayer’ and Blond Ambition linger in their every move.

Watch a pop show now, and you may well take the sheer scale of production for granted. From Troye Sivan rising onto the stage of Hammersmith Apollo while reclined on the sofa of a full living room set, to Lorde performing ‘Melodrama’ inside a floating box with a rotating cast of characters within, pop’s motto has become go big, or go home. When Olly Alexander gyrated steamily behind a floodlit curtain on Years & Years recent ‘Sanctify’ tour (the group were supported, no less, by London vogue house Kiki House of Tea) the nods to Madonna were clear and deliberate. ‘Like A Prayer’ – and the genius of the Blond Ambition tour – led the way to all of this bold, visual expression, making room in the pop landscape for artists with ambitious, conceptual ideas that provoke discussion and nimbly tread the line between euphoria and danger.

“As with everything that involves something that is a hot button – the [masturbation] simulation on stage, stuff like that – you’re always gonna have people who root for it, and others who aren’t enthused,” Luis says. “If it fits, then do it regardless – it’s expression.”

“I think it was a great forerunner for what we have now,” Ian concludes. “Blond Ambition definitely raised the bar, and where Madonna led at that time, people had to follow.“
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post Mar 21 2019, 11:43 AM
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post Mar 21 2019, 12:18 PM
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2019-03-21 / Words: Matthew Barton

It may be hard to believe, but Madonna’s fourth album, Like a Prayer, turns 30 today (21 March). Madonna, who was 30 herself at its time of release, had crafted a modern classic that solidified her status as perhaps the leading pop artist of her generation.

Here, we take a look at ten reasons why Like a Prayer continues to influence and enthral listeners today...

Thou shalt kiss the feet of a saint: 'Like a Prayer' – the video

If Madonna, resplendent in natural brunette curls and black cocktail dress, dancing on a hill of burning crosses and kissing the bare feet of a black saint in front of a gospel choir doesn’t float your boat, who are you?

Madonna was no stranger to racy videos, having writhed in a Venice gondola for 'Like a Virgin' and performed to an underage boy at a peepshow in 'Open Your Heart', but the Mary Lambert-directed promo clip for 'Like a Prayer' married all of the controversies swirling around her – outspoken sexuality, religious appropriation – into an intoxicating and iconic mix.

It speaks to a deeper examination of racism, bigotry, and the equating of religion with sexuality, and predictably the fallout was immense. The bit where her hair falls over her face as she dances in front of the fiery crucifixes… chills.

Thou shalt issue the lead single to end all lead singles: 'Like a Prayer' – the song

A fade-in, scratchy guitars, a slamming door, silence, and then an organ and a gospel choir. 'Like a Prayer' as a song is still utterly captivating and utterly mesmerising, a true modern pop classic. It confirms Madonna’s talents as a singer and a songwriter, and is a song of beauty and redemption, of power and ecstasy that endures to this day.

Isn’t “I’m down on my knees, I want to take you there” just one of the greatest lyrics of Madonna’s entire career, spiritual fervour doubling as sexual innuendo.

The original version, featuring the verses where the rest of the music drops out of the mix, is the best, for its dynamics and its courage in not following a traditional radio-friendly pop formula. And it worked – it was an international chart-topper.

Thou shalt reinvent the role of the modern pop star: The influence

Like a Prayer is a textbook example of how to take a pop career to the next level; where Madonna and Like a Virgin heralded a brand new kind of pop star, and True Blue exploded into international superstar status, Like a Prayer made Madonna an icon.

Not only was it commercially appealing, it was artistically refined – “as close to art as pop music gets,” wrote Rolling Stone. The combination of the music, the art direction, the videos, and the controversy (Pepsi commercial anyone?) became a blueprint for artists to follow, and albums like these, at these points in a career, make lasting legacies.

Thou shalt make a generation’s feminist anthem: 'Express Yourself'

The album’s second single 'Express Yourself' is a strident feminist anthem; it betrays a soul influence Madonna would expand on later with 1990’s 'Rescue Me' and some of the material on 1992’s Erotica, and it used the funk of Sly & the Family Stone as an inspiration. It was one of two Stephen Bray co-writes for this record, along with 'Keep it Together', keeping the exuberant pop smarts of their prior collaborations.

'Express Yourself” is also known for its stunning (and expensive, at $5million in 1989 money) Metropolis-inspired video, directed by David Fincher.

“Don’t go for second best baby,” Madonna instructed her listeners, and she gave people the courage and the permission to not settle – “second best is never enough, you’ll do much better, baby, on your own.”

Thou shalt work with the Purple One: The collision of two '80s icons

If you ever wondered what a duet between Madonna and Prince may sound like, look no further – a funky, skeletal, weird R&B pop crossover, the mid-tempo jam 'Love Song' definitely bears all the hallmarks of a Prince Rogers Nelson song but also features some of Madonna’s best and most impassioned vocals.

Madonna decamped to Paisley Park to work with Prince, and it’s a rare look at what a collaboration between two modern pop icons would sound like. Also, listen out for the lyrics that Madonna resurrected 16 years later on 'Hung Up'.

Thou shalt make songwriting gold: Madonna & Patrick Leonard

Madonna first began working with songwriting partner Patrick Leonard in late 1985 as sessions got underway on her True Blue LP. 'Live to Tell' from that album proved it was a match made in heaven, and Like a Prayer is the sound of a deepening and strengthening partnership.

Leonard’s beautiful music proved the catalyst for some of Madonna’s most memorable vocal melodies and gave her carte blanche to write from her heart; would we have got 'Like a Prayer', 'Oh Father', or 'Spanish Eyes' with any other collaborator?

Thou shalt bathe your album sleeve in patchouli oil: The artwork. Patchouli oil!

For a woman whose album and single artwork had been so inextricably linked with her face, Like a Prayer announced a new kind of Madonna: the cover art features not her face but her bare midriff, with denim jeans on show, accessorised with jewels. (But for face enthusiasts, the back cover does also feature an iconic black and white Herb Ritts photo of a sultry Madonna praying.)

The insert expanded the image to show a blurred Madonna, dancing, her purple chiffon top billowing around her sinewy frame. The lyric sheet was, rather wonderfully, bathed in patchouli oil to simulate incense, while the accompanyingS advice leaflet 'The Facts About AIDS' was further proof of Madonna’s commitment to, and understanding of, LGBT issues.

The leaflet, comprising an introduction and three-point fact list, referred to AIDS as an “equal opportunity disease,” sufferers of which “deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry.” An advocate of AIDS awareness from the start, it further marked Madonna out as a passionate supporter of LGBT and human rights.

Thou shalt (eventually) strike a pose: In a roundabout way, it brought us 'Vogue'…

Like a Prayer can, in part, be held responsible for bringing us the bewitching classic that is 'Vogue'.

Madonna was working with producer and writer Shep Pettibone ostensibly on a b-side for the album’s final single 'Keep it Together' – and what was initially conceived as a b-side went on to become one of the defining hits of her career.

Even indirectly, Like a Prayer is awesome (hello too, Blond Ambition Tour.)

Thou shalt pour out thine heart: The lyrics

Like a Prayer represents peak Madonna vulnerability. In addition to your more confident 'Express Yourself', there are familial tensions in 'Keep it Together' and romantic and emotional yearning in 'Spanish Eyes', crucially it was the first Madonna referenced through music the death of her mother as a little girl ('Promise to Try'), her difficult relationship with her father ('Oh Father'), and her tempestuous marriage to Sean Penn ('Til Death Do Us Part').

This was a real insight into Madonna the person as much as the artist, and set out her stall for future soul-searching endeavours. She matched her soul-baring lyrics with some of the most beautiful vocal melodies of her career. “It was a real coming-of-age record for me emotionally, I had to do a lot of soul-searching, and I think it is a reflection of that,” she said at the time.

Thou shalt prove the naysayers wrong: The voice

Not enough is made of Madonna’s skills as a singer. Like a Prayer shows Madonna’s chameleonic style; every performance is full of emotion, and each song highlights her vocal versatility.

There is the throaty soulfulness of 'Love Song', the alternately emotive sung verses and ice-cold spoken word parts of 'Till Death Do Us Part', girlish vigour in 'Cherish', pure (and not cloying) emotion in 'Promise to Try', maternal warmth in 'Dear Jessie', and soaring belting in 'Spanish Eyes' that reaches high and swoops down low.

She had really come a long way since the helium bursts of her debut...
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post Mar 21 2019, 02:16 PM
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Uproxx: Thirty Years Ago, Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ Cemented Controversy As A Pop Star’s Greatest Weapon
SASHA GEFFEN / 03.21.19

If released in 2019, Madonna‘s “Like A Prayer” video would have ignited a different controversy than the one it stirred up in 1989. Throughout the clip, broadcast in advance of the album of the same name, the singer dances in a field of burning crosses, the instantly and viscerally recognizable motif of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s not exactly her symbol to appropriate. A generous reading of the video suggests she is deploying the inflammatory image toward a commentary on racism in the United States. In the video’s narrative, a black man is arrested by white cops for a crime he did not commit. It’s the same old story: He witnessed a gang of white men assault a white woman, ran over to help her, found himself the one in handcuffs. The stories nursed by white supremacy insist he must be responsible for the violence, so into the can he goes. And then there’s Madonna, dancing in front of the KKK’s crosses, hinting at a link between the racists in uniform and those cowering under white hoods. She presages Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 refrain: “Some of those who work forces / Are the same who burn crosses.”

Thirty years ago, Madonna came under fire not for flashing the burning cross and not even for suggesting that the police are racists but for being horny for God. Before you see the video’s instigating event — the assault, the arrest — you see Madonna rushing into a church, distraught. She finds a wax saint in a cage. He weeps and comes to life, and she falls for him, taking him into her arms until he becomes a real boy. By today’s metrics, it’s a benign enough image, but in 1989 it was enough to send the American Family Association into a tizzy. Madonna had an advertising deal with Pepsi, and the AFA, along with other right-wing Christian groups, furiously called for Pepsi boycotts. Reagan had just left office, succeeded by Reagan-lite (George H.W. Bush). Pop stars couldn’t simply f*ck saints without repercussions.

“The Most Rev. Rene Gracida, bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas, called for a boycott of all Pepsi products in South Texas Catholic, a magazine distributed to more than 40,000 people. He said he acted after watching the music video and said he found the song to be sacrilegious,” reported the Associated Press in April 1989. At no point does the Most Rev. Gracida pinpoint which aspects of the song and its video he took as sacrilege. It’s as if he expects his critique to be self-evident, and yet Madonna is only tamely acting out events already enshrined in Catholic lore: The stigmata, the statue coming to life, the unbearable sensuality of loving a punishing God. Christ’s love for his flock was never meant to be chaste; just ask Saint Teresa.

More likely religious leaders were offended by the gall of the whole gesture: A woman calling herself Madonna penning her own hymns and scripting her own ecstasies. Never mind that it’s the name her mother gave her, and never mind that on the album Like A Prayer she maintains a deep and fearful reverence to her parents and her God just like the Bible says she should. She’s a woman wielding power, a pop star usurping the pulpit, and so good Christians must pour her soda of choice down the drain.

The controversy only inflated Madonna’s celebrity, and in the 30 years since, controversy has become a standard metabolic process in the life cycle of the pop star. Try imagining Britney Spears, who zoomed out the cover of Like A Prayer on her 2000 sophomore record Oops!… I Did It Again, without a tearful Chris Crocker rushing to her defense. Try divorcing Miley Cyrus from the nude swing on the wrecking ball, the vanilla attempt at twerking. The pop machine devours backlash. It’s as sure to sell records as it is to crystallize a pop singer’s identity. She is who she riles.

As a megastar of the eighties, Madonna had plenty of audience to offend. She worked before the dawn of the stan, the web native who treats their chosen idol as both deity and bestie, taking to Instagram to defend the celeb with intimate and religious fervor. The stan takes root in Madonna’s conflation of singer and patron saint. But before the internet, the lives of celebrities stood further apart than they do now, tabloid fodder rather than social media drip. You had to buy a paper to read about their troubles; they weren’t nestled in the feed among people you knew in real life. Information flowed in one direction. Fans could read about Madonna’s allegedly abusive marriage to Sean Penn but they could not cancel the aggressor.

In interviews shortly after her divorce, Madonna declined to comment on the assault charges she filed and then withdrew against her husband. Though the rumors are bad, she has not commented since, except to deny the allegations in court papers. Thirty years ago, reports that a successful actor brutalized his wife couldn’t dent his career. It was not quite a sin to hurt a woman. It was just marriage. In most cases it still is.

On “Till Death Do Us Part,” the fourth song on Like A Prayer, Madonna sings from the perspective of a woman in a fractured, torturous marriage. The beat clatters and falls, anxious. It’s an upbeat number in a minor key, an urgent missive from hell iced over with a pop sheen. “He starts to scream / The vases fly,” Madonna sings in one of the interludes where she shifts from first to third person, hovering over the scene as an omniscient narrator. It’s not quite autobiography: The woman in the song never leaves. “I would never want to continue a terrible relationship forever and ever and ever until I die,” Madonna told Rolling Stone. This is all she concedes: “Like most of the songs on my album, it’s very much drawn from my life, factually speaking, but it’s fictionalized, too.”

She leaves her interviewer in the blur between the fact and fiction of her life, declining to articulate the boundary. It’s the same place she leaves her listeners. From the playful duet with Prince, “Love Song,” to the mournful recollection of childhood trauma, “Oh Father,” Madonna maintains her right to a constructed persona. She is and is not the speaker in her songs. These are not confessionals belted from the depths of inner turmoil. They are pop songs, which means they are unspecific, which means there is more truth to be found in them.

Consider the contradiction in the first measures of the album’s title track: “Life is a mystery / Everyone must stand alone / I hear you call my name / And it feels like home.” Madonna asserts cast iron solitude as the inevitable condition of life, and then she allows it to break with a single cry of her name. Alone and united, she finds grace in the impossibility of her position. Her words take the logic of ritual, of transubstantiation. The communion wafer is the body of a man two thousand years dead. The wine is his living blood. It’s funny how bitterly religious leaders reacted against a woman who spread their thinking further than they ever did. Is there anything more Catholic than transforming wax into flesh through sheer, unbridled desire? Let the choir sing.
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post Mar 21 2019, 10:05 PM
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Gay Times: 10 reasons why Madonna’s Like A Prayer is the greatest pop record of all time
21st March 2019 / Words: Barry Bryson

Is Like A Prayer the greatest pop record of all time? As Madonna’s masterpiece turns 30, here are 10 reasons why Barry Bryson thinks so.
1. The opening title track is quite simply the greatest five minutes and 39 seconds of pop ever. It sounded like a game changer then and it still does now. The video, the Pepsi commercial, the incredible Blond Ambition live performance all add to its legacy but really all you have to do it put it on, close your eyes and let her take you there.

2. Often referred to by Madonna and her co-producer Pat Leonard at the time as the “divorce album” following the end of her marriage to Sean Penn, lyrically on Like a Prayer she delves deep. Till Death Us do Part combines heartbroken acceptance with steely resolve and in the process she created one of her finest songs.

3. This album is essentially what all her live tours came to represent, a journey from darkness into light. It is unflinching and often uncomfortable but punctuated with joy (Cherish) and fantasy (Dear Jessie) as well as empowerment and guts (Express Yourself).

4. It’s an album to listen to in its entirety, you can stream tracks from it yes, but I think you need a full 47 minutes for this. It deserves it.

5. There are no super producers at play on Like a Prayer (Price aside, more of which later) just Madonna, Pat Leonard and Stephen Bray creating something that by today’s standard seems incredibly simple. Vocally most of what is heard on Like a Prayer is first take. It makes it feel spontaneous and emotional and not overly though through meaning it’s her first “real” Madonna record.

6. Issued at the time with every copy of this album was a leaflet called The Facts About Aids, intended to educate but also to de-stigmatise the myths that so much of the 80s were awash with. It seems like nothing now but at the time it was hugely political and potentially damaging to its commercial success.

7. I am married to a man who seriously hates the smell of patchouli but not me. Every sleeve of the vinyl album was scented and 28 years later my original vinyl still carries it thus taking me there once again.

8. Watching Madonna pay tribute to Prince early last year I was struck by what contemporaries they were, far more alike each other than they were the other pop behemoth Michael Jackson. Apparently Madonna and Prince dated, feuded, made-up and fell out again but much more than that is the fact they both fiercely embodied a musical independence and a sexual liberalism and on Like a Prayer you get the greatest non-song ever in the form of their duet Love Song.

A sparse production heavy duel that culminates in Prince pushing Madonna to go vocally hoarse at the end and then it fades off as you imagine them both tired yet happy. In 2015 shortly before his untimely death Madonna sat front row at a small private gig Prince performed. Friends and rivals make the best music.

9. The real pull of Like a Prayer is ultimately its emotional punch. A song like Promise To Try where an adult Madonna talks to the five-year-old bereft Madonna in the aftermath of the death of her mother feels like one of the most honest grief sentiments ever committed to song, but it finishes looking ahead with strength and from the darkness emerges the light. This track alongside Oh Father define this album as something way beyond losing yourself on the dance floor although it is a Madonna record so she’s never one to keep you away from that for too long.

10. Try listening to Keep It Together without grabbing a chair and saying “Hi Hi Hi, Hello love” the Blond Ambition finale was THE moment you knew that Madonna had not only owned the 80’s but was likely to hang on the following decades too and it was right here all along. On record a funky ode to loyalty and love transformed live into the something most female pop stars would spend a career trying to emulate. It hasn’t happened yet.
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post Mar 21 2019, 10:06 PM
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Billboard: Madonna's 'Like a Prayer' at 30: Here's Where She Goes From Superstar to Artistic Great
03/21/2019 / Joe Lynch

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).

The song was a smash, becoming her seventh Hot 100 No. 1 (reigning for three weeks) and establishing that Madonna was capable of expanding her sound well past mall pop without sacrificing any of her commercial success. The structurally complex, multi-part epic melded an earnest Gospel choir, funk-pop riffage and searing guitar lines (some from Prince), culminating in a transcendent sing-along that established her as a pop chameleon, not just a Danceteria alumnus content to regurgitate old trends. The lyrics were similarly bold; by blurring the lines between the divine and the profane (“I’m down on my knees / I wanna take you there”), she began an unflinching conversation on human sexuality that would reach its apex in her ‘90s output.

The comparatively straightforward follow-up single “Express Yourself” -- a buoyant, defiant declaration of self-worth -- was certainly more in the dance-pop realm, but even here, the song is punctuated by irrepressible, warm Motown horns that throw back to an earlier era. Third single “Cherish” was similarly crafty. On its surface it reads like a frothy ‘80s pop tune, but its bones are in ‘50s doo-wop, and it contains a lyrical reference to The Association’s 1966 hit “Cherish.” Both singles sounded contemporary and were still aimed at the youth market, but they existed within a context the previous generation would understand and appreciate as well.

This move past dance-pop and synthpop (for the time -- she would return to both at points) was hugely important for Madonna in 1989. Around that period, if you wanted to be taken seriously by your industry peers and the critics, you could make pop, sure -- but it had to be grown-up pop with elements of genres the powers that be did take seriously, i.e., guitar rock, Motown, Gospel, baroque pop. And she did. She expertly stretched into the latter genre with “Promise to Try” and the stately-yet-personal “Oh Father,” a solemn ballad about her life after the loss of her mother at age five. The fact that “Oh Father” became her first Hot 100 hit since “Holiday” to miss the top 10 really didn’t even matter (it peaked at No. 20); with this song, Madonna established herself as a serious balladeer who could tackle cross-generational, mature material, and that opened numerous doors for her in the ‘90s.

The rest of the album, easily her most eclectic up until that point, flirted with a variety of flavors befitting a pop star looking to establish their versatility: “Dear Jessie” is nursery pop/psychedelia for co-writer Patrick Leonard’s daughter; “Keep It Together” is hard-slamming ‘70s R&B influenced by Sly Stone; “Spanish Eyes” is her Flamenco-tinged lament to those lost in the AIDS epidemic; “Till Death Do Us Part” is a harrowing account of domestic violence set, unexpectedly, to an anxious bubble of runaway synths; and the impact of Prince is all over their funky, slow-grinding not-a-love-song love song “Love Song.” He also pops up for album closer “Act of Contrition,” which is built around one of his guitar solos and segments of the gospel choir played backward. As these noisy tape loops build to an unsettling climax, Madonna retices the Catholic prayer of repentance, but loses her way before finishing it, veering from the sacred to the secular with a full-throated rant about a lost restaurant reservation -- and just before it ends, Prince’s guitar noodles off into the stratosphere.

It’s a strange, arty way to end an album, and a far cry from the crystal-clear message of “Love Makes the World Go Round” that Madonna used to wrap True Blue, her previous studio album. But that’s the point. Here is where Madonna planted her flag not just as a superstar but as an Artist, someone willing to take risks, push into unmined territory and still come out with a chart-topper, two No. 2 hits and the best reviews of her career up until that point. With callbacks to previous eras and forays into revered genres, Madonna began to expand her fanbase into the ‘adult pop’ realm without sacrificing her youth culture bona fides.

It was a deft balancing act, and one that certainly couldn’t last forever, but on Like a Prayer, Madonna established that she was a pop star who happened to come from the ‘80s, not a product of the ‘80s -- and that she would remain relevant long after her peers faded into memory like a Rubik’s Cube or Teddy Ruxpin.
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post Mar 21 2019, 10:08 PM
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Noisey: 'Like a Prayer' Was Madonna's First Masterpiece

By the time it was released in 1989, Madonna was already a bona fide superstar. Thirty years after its release, we look back at the album that established her as a meaningful artist.

Madonna was already a superstar before she released Like a Prayer, which turns 30 years old this week. She had produced at least half-a-dozen era-defining hits (“Holiday,” “Like a Virgin,” “Material Girl,” “Into the Groove,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” and “La Isla Bonita”), and her previous album, 1986’s True Blue, had sold more than 25 million copies. But, in a way, she was also strangely underrated. When Like a Prayer came out in 1989, six years after she hit the ground running with her infectious debut single, “Everybody,” critics lauded Madonna for changing our conceptions around how a female pop singer could present herself and conduct her career. But they didn’t necessarily regard her as a “great artist.”

"Critics flock to her uneven product the way liberal arts magnas flock to investment banking," Robert Christgau, the self-styled “Dean of American Rock Critics,” wrote in his review of True Blue. "So desperate are they to connect to a zeitgeist that has nothing to do with them that they decide a little glamour and the right numbers add up to meaningful work, or at least 'fun.’”

Like a Prayer certainly confirmed Madonna’s flair for fun; with its kindergarten-friendly lyrics about “pink elephants and lemonade” and treacle-sweet, Beatles-y psychedelia, “Dear Jessie” remains one of her most charming singles. But the album as a whole, Madonna’s first undisputed masterpiece, also proved once and for all that she was a meaningful artist, not just an uncommonly savvy and driven pop star. She bared her navel on the album’s cover, and her soul in its songs.

Even three decades later, it’s difficult to separate the album from the scandal that surrounded its release. When the brilliantly provocative “Like a Prayer” video debuted in February 1989, just a day after the release of a high-profile Pepsi commercial starring Madonna, the Vatican and various religious groups condemned the clip for including allegedly blasphemous imagery. Here was Madonna dancing in front of burning crosses, kissing a Black Saint, and displaying what looked like stigmata on her palms.

As the video continued causin’ a commotion, Madonna stood by it, telling the New York Times that “Art should be controversial, and that's all there is to it.” Pepsi bosses were so keen to distance themselves from the button-pushing singer that they pulled the commercial without trying to take back her $5 million fee.

Today, Madonna still seems fabulously unbothered by the whole thing. She breezily celebrated the anniversary of the “Like a Prayer” furor on Instagram earlier this month, writing: “Happy birthday to me and controversy.” Atta girl!

But where the “Like a Prayer” video controversy captured Madonna at her most bullish and brazen, the album that followed a few weeks later revealed new depths of honesty, vulnerability, and cathartic emotion. “Oh Father,” one of eight Like a Prayer tracks that she co-wrote with regular collaborator Patrick Leonard, is a glorious, classic-sounding ballad about taking back control from male authority figures, including her father. "I lay down next to your boots and I prayed for your anger to end / Oh father, I have sinned," she sings, extending the title track’s conflation of religion and real-life experience.

Funk workout “Keep it Together,” one of two tracks she co-wrote with another frequent collaborator, Stephen Bray, explores how family ties can feel suffocating and comforting at the same time. “Promise to Try,” another stellar ballad, finds Madonna grappling with the memory of her mother, who died when she was just five years old. "She's a faded smile frozen in time," she sings achingly. "I'm still hanging on, but I'm doing it wrong."

Meanwhile, the sad and aromatic “Pray for Spanish Eyes” is a seeming eulogy for lives lost to America’s worsening AIDS crisis. The man Madonna still describes as her BFF, former Studio 54 bartender Martin Burgoyne, had succumbed to the disease in 1986. “How many lives will they have to take? How much heartache?” Madonna sings, pleadingly. It’s certainly worth remembering that Madonna included an AIDS fact sheet with Like a Prayer in a bid to reduce the stigma and ignorance surrounding the disease, one the recently departed President Ronald Reagan had ignored for as long as possible. "People with AIDS—regardless of their sexual orientation—deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry," the sheet stated matter-of-factly.

But the album’s most shocking track is probably “Till Death Do Us Part.” Underpinned by a deceptively perky keyboard riff, the lyrics hint at domestic abuse ("The bruises they will fade away / You hit so hard with the things you say") and violent rows ("He starts to scream, the vases fly"), offering a devastating summary of a dysfunctional relationship: "You're not in love with someone else / You don't even love yourself / Still I wish you'd ask me not to go." Coinciding with the end of Madonna’s first marriage to Sean Penn (she’d filed for divorce in January 1989), it’s one of the most affecting moments in Madonna's discography, though she’d later go on the record denying allegations that she had experienced physical abuse during their relationship.

Still, the album never becomes too introspective to work as stadium-ready pop. The Romeo and Juliet-referencing “Cherish” is a retro melodic gem in the vein of “True Blue.” The Sly and the Family Stone-inspired funk missile “Express Yourself' offers a feminist rallying cry that would inspire generations to come: Christina Aguilera and the Spice Girls have both hailed it as influence. When Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” debuted in 2011, many pop fans and music critics noted its distinct resemblance to “Express Yourself.” Madonna said Gaga's song sounded "familiar" and felt “reductive,” but Gaga insisted she didn't intentionally reference the Madonna anthem, telling NME in 2011: “If you put the songs next to each other, side by side, the only similarities are the chord progressions. It’s the same one that’s been in disco music for the last 50 years."

The accompanying video is a queer classic that's been likened to "Tom of Finland meets Fritz Lang's Metropolis," with Madonna presiding over a futuristic city fueled by shirtless male workers. And the immortal title track mixes religious and sexual ecstasy so thrillingly, it could make a celibate atheist want to dance.

Weirdly, the album’s most throwaway moment is probably be “Love Song,” a collaboration with one of the few artists of the time on Madonna’s level: Prince. It’s a vaguely experimental extended flirtation that mainly seems notable now because Madonna later re-used lyrics from its bridge ("Time goes by so slowly for those who wait / And those who run seem to have all the fun") on her Abba-sampling 2005 comeback banger, “Hung Up.”

Then again, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Like a Prayer's most heavyweight track on paper turns out to be its frothiest in practice. Like a Prayer is a rare beast: an iconic pop album that retains its ability to surprise you, using richly evocative songcraft to explore deeply personal themes—sometimes spiritual, sometimes socially conscious—from a woman’s perspective. With it, Madonna had once again remodeled people's expectations of what a female pop singer could achieve. Decades before Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next, it laid the foundation for the deeply persona pop blockbuster, auteured by a strong woman at the peak of her creative powers.
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Lo-Fi Version Time is now: 25th January 2021 - 08:28 PM