Welcome to episode four of Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi where we tackle a turning point album in the music icon’s career, Like a Prayer.
Her most introspective release at the time, Like a Prayer is also her most confessional and vulnerable record. Madonna described the album as a collection of songs “about my mother, my father, and bonds with my family.” The album was dedicated to Madonna’s mother, who died when she was young, and is a featured subject throughout, most directly on “Promise to Try.” It also details the dissolution of her marriage to Sean Penn (to whom True Blue had been dedicated and was filled with glowing references of love) and being the victim of his emotional and physical abuse.
Jumping off the religious controversy from True Blue’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” the title song from Like a Prayer (and its accompanying video) found her at the center of a massive controversy. In combining sexuality with religion, including getting rather intimate with a black Jesus and dancing in front of a field of burning crosses, the controversy caused Pepsi to pull a spot with her. Growing up in a strict Catholic household gave Madonna the source of her ammunition and redemption for this album. But for Madonna, her battle with religion was always one of searching for answers and understanding, not simply bashing it and that struggle is threaded through the entire album.
Like a Prayer is about the influence of Catholicism in my life and the passion it provokes in me. In these songs I’m dealing with specific issues that mean a lot to me. They’re about an assimilation of experiences I had in my life and my relationships. I’ve taken more risks with this album than I ever have before, and I think that growth shows.Madonna
But, the album is still peppered with gorgeous confections of empowerment in “Express Yourself,” with its iconic, Metropolis-inspired David Fincher-directed video and the bubbly “Cherish,” which would have felt right at home as a track on True Blue. Just as vital are the Sly and the Family Stone-esque “Keep It Together” and “Dear Jessie,” one of her most underrated songs that sometimes feels like a pre-motherhood lullaby. She also makes room for a brilliant collaboration with Prince in “Love Song” (who ended up playing guitar on three tracks) and the cheeky humor of the closing single ‘Act of Contrition’ (“…what do you mean it’s not in the computer?!).
AN: I don’t even know how to begin discussing this song or this album. It’s all… so much magic. While I have own favorite songs and albums for sentimental and personal reasons, I do believe Like a Prayer is the greatest pop song ever recorded by anyone ever and possibly the greatest pop album ever recorded. We can discuss the album in deeper context as we move forward but first, the title track. From Prince’s opening guitar to the gospel choir to Madonna plaintively telling us that life is a mystery, this song is a journey into the depths of the soul. It’s sad. It’s joyful. It’s carnal. It’s spiritual. It’s the whole human experience in one song. In my book Like a Love Story, the Iranian teen Reza (who is very much inspired by me) first discovers Madonna when his school’s only out gay kid Art puts headphones on him and makes him listen to the Like a Prayer album. The song transports Reza to a new world of possibility and self-acceptance. It’s a perfect song, setting up a perfect album. And it’s the start of what I consider Madonna’s most important era as a social advocate, especially for queer people. She put a safety pamphlet about AIDS in the album in 1989, an album marketed to kids!! The risk she took was huge. Everything about this era, from the album to the music videos, to the Blond Ambition tour that would eventually support the album, is Madonna not only being the world’s greatest pop star, but stepping into her role as one of our society’s greatest advocates for social change and acceptance. I will forever be grateful to her for this era because it came when I was just hitting my teens, and it played a big role in my own self-acceptance. Thank you, Madonna. Fuck you, Pepsi. Like a Prayer forever.
EA: I called True Blue a landmark record for her but with her very next album, she does a full cultural reset. Where she dabbled in religious controversy before, it was that of a schoolgirl, just teasing at it. With the song Like a Prayer, she charged full steam ahead. But I think the most misunderstood element of her ‘controversies’ is that she was coming from such a deeply personal place with them. She wasn’t attacking religion for religion’s sake, she was working out her own demons and feelings having grown up Catholic and what that repression did to her and those around her. Like a Prayer is such a vibrant and vital and adult expression of anger and frustration and, as is so often with Madonna, hope. She was licking the wounds of an extremely difficult couple of years – her divorce, the critic responses to Who’s That Girl and Speed the Plow. It made her dig deep and boy, does this record do that.
AN: Oh I love that you bring up Speed The Plow, a forgotten moment in Madonna history by so many. I agree with everything you say about the way she explores religion. As I think you know, i’m also a massive Tori Amos fan, and I’ve discovered that most Tori fans also love Madonna. While their musical style is very different, they both approach religion with a similar mixture of reverence and irreverence that speaks to so many of us. I wasn’t raised religious, but I was raised with strict ideas of cultural norms in the Iranian community, and I deeply identify with Madonna / Tori’s love and rebellion. it speaks to the push / pull so many of us feel with our cultures and identities. Also, Tori does a kickass cover of Like a Prayer (and Live to Tell, and Frozen).
EA: I love that you connect Madonna with Tori Amos, even though they’re so stylistically different. What a fun collaboration that would have been. God yes, those covers! I was raised deeply religious – Jehovah’s Witness – so when Madonna starting getting deep into her feelings about Catholicism, it spoke to me in a major way.
EA: Probably her greatest anthem? She goes from Material Girl to eschewing materialism in favor of female empowerment; partly as a great message but also one for herself. It’s such a muscular and badass song.
AN: I have a fun question for you! If you could choose one of Madonna’s #2 hits and take it to #1, which would it be? For me, the leading contenders would be Express Yourself and Frozen but I’d probably go with Express Yourself by a hair. This is one of her great maximalist pop songs. It’s meaningful, playful, dramatic. As with Like a Prayer, it was accompanied by one of her best music videos, and her first collaboration with David Fincher. I want to read so much more about Madonna and Fincher. He’s among the most notoriously perfectionist filmmakers out there. She’s the most notoriously perfectionist pop star. What kind of conversations were had that led to the magic of this video and Vogue and Oh Father and Bad Girl? Also, the song has had so many wonderful live moments: the first time she vogued was singing this song at the MTV Awards, it brilliantly opened the Blond Ambition tour, she cheekily mashed it up with Born This Way during the MDNA tour, and then sang it so movingly with her girls during the Madame X Tour. An impeccable anthem.
EA: Oh God, what kind of Sophie’s Choice?! She has six #2 songs! But I would probably be with you in that this should have been. No shade to Simply Red or Martika (who kept Express Yourself at #2 for two weeks) but this song is just so legendary. But, regardless of its chart placement the legacy has far outlived anything or anyone around it at the time. As the opener of the Blond Ambition Tour, iconic. The video. Iconic. It’s wild that David Fincher is such a film bro fanboy legend but it’s Madonna that put him on the map and their collaborations are among the very best of both of their careers.
AN: It’s a testament to the quality of this album that Madonna’s duet with none other than Prince is one of its most forgotten songs. I love the song. I’m a huge Prince fan (gone four years now, RIP) and hearing their voices play off each other feels like a gift. I think I remember an interview with Patrick Leonard where he said this is the one song he didn’t get to produce the way he would’ve wanted to because it was recorded at Paisley Park, and I do feel that it doesn’t necessarily fit as smoothly as the other tracks. That said, I do feel that it’s a tonal shift from the first two anthems that lead us to one of the record’s best and most challenging tracks, Til Death Do Us Part. I wish we had more from Madonna and Prince together. Also, I really wish Madonna had performed Controversy when she did her Prince tribute. I feel like that song would be so well-suited to her. It’s one of the songs I most want her to cover.
EA: The timing of us doing this during the week of the anniversary of Prince’s death is quite something. I think Love Song is incredibly underrated and misunderstood. I’ve read things like that their voices didn’t gel enough or that their wasn’t any vocal chemistry. I rebuke that for several reasons not the least of which is that the lyrics ‘this is not a love song’ are right there! There is a perfection in the mismatch because this isn’t about two people being in love and symbiotic, it’s about falling out of love and being disconnected from each other. Madonna and Prince were even geographically apart when they wrote this. I really wish they had continued to collaborate though; I find Love Song one of Prince’s most erotic despite containing no innuendo at all.
EA: Ok, now we’re getting into the heavy stuff. But, despite this being a direct response to the physical violence from then husband Sean Penn the song is a tripwire. It’s not a somber ballad (she sets aside those for her mother and father) but this manic and kind of terrifying examination of the dissolution of a marriage. It’s so unexpected, the musical arrangement attached to a song like this but she does this throughout her career quite a bit and I respect that. Joan of Arc from Rebel Heart and God Control from Madame X are similar in that way.
AN: One of her best songs. The emotion is so palpable, and like you say, the marriage (pun intended) of lyrics and music is truly jarring. The way she takes us into the violence that can invade a relationship here is just brutal. The lyrics put Madonna in a new context for her fans. She always seemed so superhuman, but here she sings, “I’m just your little wife,” putting herself in a context that tries to make her small. Later in the song, she talks about bruises, flying vases, his drinking. This is the most overt example of Madonna telling us she’s not invincible. She’s a human being, a woman, a wife, a person who can be deeply hurt. It’s a major moment for her as an artist.
AN: Heartbreaking. I love every song Madonna has ever written about her mother (this one, Inside of Me, and Mother and Father come to mind). The loss of her mother is clearly the defining event of Madonna’s early life. She herself has connected it to her ambition and to her desire to be loved. But until Promise to Try, we weren’t let into the pain that little girl felt. Here, she sings directly to that young girl she once was. It’s unbearably moving to me, especially when she sings “I fought to be so strong. I guess you knew I was afraid you’d go away too.” This is an icon of strength telling us that she has to fight for that strength, and that underneath it all resides a fear of abandonment.
EA: Unbearably moving is right. This still is such a hard song to listen to. I’m listening to it as we talk and I’m crying now as I cry every time. The years she held on to so much pain of losing her mother at such a young age, at being unable to see her success. This album and later with Ray of Light are so raw and vulnerable and the struggle to provide a strong façade and allow yourself to truly tap into your fears and sadness in a way that’s productive is a monumental feat.
EA: You gotta love Madonna for not letting us sulk for too long. Something that is always an important element to me is an artist’s curation of their own album and track order. Sometimes a tone change can be too jarring but here, she lets us in with those three very different and very personal songs and then brings us right back with, for me, her bounciest summer song. I love Cherish. I love the beach and merman video (thank you again, Herb Ritts, you fucking legend). I love the Romeo and Juliet inspiration but this is light hearted, fun and energetic. And another #2!! But it’s impossible to hate on Janet Jackson for stopping her with Miss You Much.
AN: I agree with you about track order. I feel like the streaming era has made track order less important to artists, with very long albums that don’t feel as carefully curated as an album like this one. And yes, after the punch of Til Death Do Us Part and Promise to Try, Cherish feels like a necessary burst of sunlight. In the tradition of True Blue, she delivers an old-fashioned love song that I couldn’t be fonder of. It’s effortless and beautiful. And the video is such a perfect embodiment of the song. I love Madonna’s relationship with Herb Ritts too, and the fact that she had to convince him to direct this because he only saw himself as a still photographer is wonderful. Speaking of the divine Janet, he would go on to direct one of her best videos. He captures her joy and playfulness so well. Fun story: a friend of mine was a PA on this video and his job was to clear the beach of kelp between shots. Why couldn’t I have had that job?
EA: Madonna and Herb Ritts was such an extraordinary collaboration and I love that, like Fincher, she was instrumental in this part of his career. I would volunteer to be kelp clean up queen in a heartbeat!
AN: Madonna’s Beatles homage. I love it so much. I played this a lot when my kids were younger, and it was an early favorite of theirs. It’s warm and playful, and speaks to Madonna’s desire to have her own family someday. It was written for Pat Leonard’s daughter. What an honor, to have Madonna write a song for you. But part of me feels that it’s also Madonna singing it to her own young self, the little girl from Promise to Try who needs an escape to a land of make believe. Also, the single cover for this (Madonna with the Minnie Mouse ears) is one of my favorite Madonna single covers. I Cherish my vinyl of this.
EA: I love love love love Dear Jessie. It’s so perfect to follow Cherish because it feels like the ‘kid’ version of it. I love that opening violin, which is reminiscent of the opening of Papa Don’t Preach. I love that even though it’s a song for Leonard’s daughter it also feels like a song for Madonna’s future child, a lullaby to sing to them. I just adore it.
EA: Ok, keep it together Erik. I mentioned on Twitter in that brief thread my connection to this song. When I was young my alcoholic father used to routinely beat my brothers and I with belts, hands, anything he could get his hands on (but always spared our mother). We finally got away from him when I was 11 years old and went to live with our grandparents for a short time. Even though she knew what had happened I don’t think she had a full understanding of it. This album came out in 1989 and my father died in 1990. I played Oh Father for her as the only way that I could talk to her about what happened since I couldn’t even talk about it at the time. It was a watershed moment between her and I that cemented a bond that is now like glue. Whew, ok. But how’s the song lol? I’m sure that my personal connection to it exposes my bias a bit too much but it’s still such a gorgeous and sad ballad and another place she lets us in. I keep coming back to your Tori Amos comment from earlier because this is reminds me of her quite a bit.
AN: I’m so sorry that you and your family had to go through that. But it’s good to know this song allowed you to communicate about something so difficult. That’s what art can do. It’s certainly what Madonna did, for so many of us. This is very Tori, isn’t it? Both Madonna and Tori were (in my opinion) greatly influenced by Kate Bush, who was taking risks with pop songwriting and subject matter before them. (and they’re all Leos, fun astrological trivia!) Ok onto the song, I know we both praised Live to Tell as Madonna’s best ballad in discussing True Blue, but I’d have to put this one near the top as well. It’s so personal and powerful. The orchestrations and vocals complement each other so well. The song didn’t chart very well (it ended her streak of 17 consecutive top 10 singles), and apparently Madonna was upset with Fincher for convincing her to release it and make a video because he loved it so much (he has taste). The video is, of course, stunning. Just the image of the mother’s lips being sewn shut, which is a memory Madonna had of seeing her mother’s body that would later inform the Madame X artwork. Because of the (relative) failure of Oh Father, Madonna said Fincher owed her one, and made him direct the Vogue video. The rest is history. I’ve always loved that we have the commercial failure of Oh Father to thank for one of the most iconic videos of all time, but we’ll discuss Vogue soon enough. Also, I’m so happy this was included on the Blond Ambition setlist. Like a Prayer into Live to Tell into Oh Father is such a statement.
EA: I want to say more but I think I’ll leave it at that, I’m having a slightly harder time than I thought I would be talking about this song.
AN: I understand, and thank you again for sharing and helping people with your honesty. Okay, let’s keep it together. On most days, I would choose this as my personal favorite Madonna song. I don’t know exactly why, but there’s something about the message that speaks to me in such a deep way. I came from a very close family, and love them more than anything, and also wanted to escape my community to create my own queer artistic identity. I relate to this song so hard. I guess it may also be because of the Blond Ambition tour, which I saw twice (once with each hairstyle!) and which was the most impactful live show I’ve ever seen. For me, Keep it Together was the highlight of that show, and the best live performance she’s ever done. The sense of family that number created. The choreography. The power of Madonna standing alone on stage once she bid her dancers goodbye, repeating those words like a mantra: keep people together forever and ever. In my novel, that’s a major moment for the characters. The experience of hearing that song live and of feeling the meaning of it on a deep level, at the height of the U.S. AIDS epidemic, as homophobia and racism and sexism was dividing people. It’s so simple. Love your family, including your chosen family. Keep people together. It’s a message we need now more than ever.
EA: I love Keep It Together so much, what a perfect closer for the Blond Ambition Tour, still the greatest concert of my lifetime. I actually re-read the section of your novel Like a Love Story where Art, Reza and Judy see this show yesterday to kickstart my own feelings about it. I’m so glad she went to the wayback machine with this Sly and the Family Stone inspired song. I love the groove, I love that it connects and bonds those around you, be them born family or chosen family. And it returned her to the Top 10, where she belonged!
EA: Ok, I actually really like Pray for Spanish Eyes, despite my previous comments about some of her Spanish-inspired songs. I’m kind of obsessed with how she strains her voice with “I light this candle…” and “What kind of life is this if God exists…” It’s not one I rush to often but it’s not one I skip either.
AN: And more tears from me on this one, which I find deeply moving. She would write even more explicitly about AIDS on Erotica, but here she paints a picture of loss and love that breaks my heart. She sings of streets “paved with fear.” She sings, “How many lives will they have to take? How much heartache?” Also, in an album that deals so directly with her faith, she sings the line, “If God exists, then help me pray.” One thing I love most about this song is how raw her vocals are. There’s no smoothing over of the emotions she’s feeling, no striving for perfection. She’s just letting us feel the pain, which is so cathartic. I absolutely love it.
EA: Yeah the vocals are a highlight for me as well. I often forget how much, and how many times, she invokes the loss of life due to AIDS during this period. It was just…everywhere and she expressed it with songs like this instead of too on the nose lyrics as she easily could have. I definitely undervalue that in a way I shouldn’t.
AN: Obsessed. Obviously, she loves it too since she brings it back for Girl Gone Wild. It’s the perfect end to the album because it’s a callback to the opening song, and because in addition to showing Madonna’s heart, it shows us what I consider one of her greatest qualities: her sense of humor. I always thought the end was Madonna showing up to heaven and being told they don’t have a reservation for her, and her response is that hilarious “WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT’S NOT IN THE COMPUTER?” The image of Madonna at the gates of heaven being denied a spot is hilarious. As we near the end of this discussion, I guess I should say how appalling it is that Madonna wouldn’t win a Grammy for her music until Ray of Light. This is without a doubt one of the greatest albums of all time, and an album that would influence music for decades to come. That the music industry refused to give Madonna her due still upsets me.
EA: I SCREAM every time I think of this song and hear it. It’s so fucking bananas. The backwards Like a Prayer lyrics? People thought she was a Satanist. This is what I meant by knowing how to curate an album. This is so perfect as a closer but could have easily been left off, thank God it wasn’t. I love Prince’s maniacal guitar, I love the double meanings of ‘I reserve’ and that closing is just masterful. On the Grammy talk, it’s certifiably insane that the only nomination she got from this album was for the video of Oh Father when you have half a dozen hits and masterpieces that should have been nominated in the general and pop categories. It’s absolutely one of the greatest albums of all time, at one of the biggest turning points of her life and we all got to benefit from it.
AN: People still think she’s a Satanist (see: YouTube Eurovision comments). But fuck them. Madonna may not have a reservation to the Grammys but she has a reservation to our hearts and minds and souls which is bigger than any award or conspiracy theory. Long live this masterpiece.
LIKE A PRAYER by the numbers
- Released March 21, 1989
- Peaked at #1 on Billboard 200 album chart on April 29, 1989 (where it remained for six consecutive weeks)
- Length: 51:16
- 5M US / 15M worldwide
- Billboard Hot 100 hits: “Like a Prayer” (#1), “Express Yourself” (#2), “Cherish” (#2), “Oh Father” (#20), “Keep It Together” (#8)
- Grammy nominations: “Oh Father” (Best Music Video, Short Form), Best Engineered Album (Bill Bottrell, engineer)