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Aug 10

MADONNA – “Like A Prayer”

FT + Popular142 comments • 7,325 views

#625, 25th March 1989

A wonderfully simple, wonderfully dense record. “When you call my name / It’s like a little prayer / I’m down on my knees / I want to take you there”. That’s just the chorus: 21 words, and what’s happening in them? A pun on Madonna’s name, setting up her dual role as divinity and supplicant, receiving a prayer while on her knees, drawing a parallel between the (apparently) fixed relationship of worship and the mutual shifts of self and role in sex. Which is all “Like A Prayer” is, even before you look at the video: sex and religion, entwined like lovers all through the song, their identities melting.

The choice of “little” in that chorus isn’t accidental – it’s an Aretha call-back, Madonna putting herself in a tradition of women who steer a way in pop between the devout and the earthy (before exploding the idea of that ‘between’). She’s also inviting direct comparison between her stuff and the soul and pop canon 80s tastemakers have spent the entire decade working to sanctify. It’s easy enough to sit down and try and make a ‘classic pop single’, though – we’ll see plenty of examples of that, mostly hamstrung by caution. “Like A Prayer” bears some of the trappings of the intended masterpiece – hark! a choir! – and occasionally I play it and it feels too detached, missing the snap and bite of even a weaker early single. But those times are outweighed by the times I come back to it and end up transported. (My instinctive reaction as “Like A Prayer” starts to peak is to raise my eyes to heaven.)

Her voice has lost some of its rough, snarky hunger, but that was on the way out in any case: the roleplay of “Papa Don’t Preach” aside, none of her True Blue hits had much venom. One of the things “Like A Prayer” is doing is inventing a new voice for Madonna – contemplative, compassionate, but distant too. It’s the voice she’ll use on her ballads for the next decade at least. Here, working with the wash of organ and choir, she uses it to sound iconic in a literal sense – like a colour-saturated picture of her namesake on a mantelpiece, lips suddenly moving in miraculous benediction: “Life is a mystery…”

From that beginning “Like A Prayer” builds then falls back, establishes space then fills it – it’s perhaps the only pop song which actually deserves the term “sonic cathedral” – then breaks out halfway through to reveal an even larger scale. In the Immaculate Collection mix most of this build and release is ruined by a galumphing house beat: I love house music and all its works but on this occasion the hi-hat is the devil’s trick and the righteous should avoid it. (And let’s not even consider the “whoa – yeah!” guy.)

The danger of making something ‘epic’ is that the details get lost, but “Like A Prayer” avoids this. Take, as one touch of many, the way the beat comes in for the first time under that long “home” in the intro: faintly latin, all disco, discreetly dispelling the aura of kitsch the intro has teased us with. It’s also a hint that ‘home’ might mean the club, the party, the world that the song finishes so triumphantly in, with the gospel soloists and Prince’s guitar and a horde of imaginary dancers all joining in together. Or the way the rhythm guitars switch between low-end grind to high-end skip and jangle during that climax. By then the song is romping home, triumphant, and the switch is a memory of its undertow, a reminder that this release was earned.

Very few of Madonna’s other hits are quite so obvious in their ambition, very few as clearly personal. But if “Like A Prayer” was only interesting in the arc of her own life and career it wouldn’t be so good. It feels immense not just because it’s long, or addressing big themes, but because it manages to pull together the strands of a pop decade as rich and confusing as itself. New pop’s sense of the pop single as event; the rediscovery of soul and gospel roots; the power of celebrity; the continued evolution and relevance of club music; even and especially the skyscraping portent of stadium rock. Pop stars are always having to prove themselves – they rarely earn the right to coast, and while this is the most renowned of Madonna’s event singles it’s not the first or last. But it’s the best, even though I’m usually suspicious of great singles which seem designed intentionally to be that: “Like A Prayer” pulls off everything it’s trying to achieve, and it’s trying a lot.

10

Comments

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  1. 126
    lonepilgrim on 27 Aug 2010 #

    @swanstep, #125. I assume that you’re familiar with Pushing Ahead Of The Dame the site that is working it’s way through Bowie’s back catalogue (there’s a link towards the top right of this page) and which has just reached Dodo.

  2. 127
    swanstep on 27 Aug 2010 #

    @lonepilgrim. No, I hadn’t heard of that site. It looks interesting. Thanks. [I confess that I haven't given Bowie himself much thought for many years, except for Low. But between (i) recently discovering Jobriath (ii) like everyone else, trying to make sense of the Gaga phenomenon, and (iii) trying to make sense of what the great decline/recession we're now in is feeling like, I'm definitely finding myself attracted again to that troublesome 1973/4 period with Bowie as its presiding, fast-fluxing, musical genius.]

  3. 128
    LondonLee on 27 Aug 2010 #

    I was watching a lot of old Roxy Music clips on YouTube the other day and came to the conclusion that they were the presiding musical geniuses of the period. Though perhaps Bowie reflected it better.

  4. 129
    loomer on 27 Aug 2010 #

    #112 There’s a site that lists all the various mixes of every Madonna song which is a useful for reference for knowing exactly what’s out there – http://web-o-rama.net/madonnaremixology/

    #113 I think I found that Steve Hoffman forum thread – http://www.stevehoffman.tv/forums/showthread.php?t=189547

  5. 130
    flahr on 28 Aug 2010 #

    This was Number One on the European Hot 100 for twelve weeks.

  6. 131
    Tom on 31 Aug 2010 #

    Just to say that having said “no more impromptu Popular breaks” I’ve gone and done exactly that – basically I’ve been bed/chair-ridden since the start of the weekend with a vile sinus-busting monster cold: I’m now capable of coherent thought to the extent I can write a guardian column so hopefully the intellectual everest that is “Eternal Flame” can be conquered tomorrow.

  7. 132
    swanstep on 1 Sep 2010 #

    @Tom. The Bangles did one of those (infamous/endlessly parodied/whiny)’Behind the Music’ specials for VH1 in the US. The whole thing’s up on youtube, but Part 3 covers how the band fell apart and has some good lines from band members about Eternal Flame’s (ironic) role in that.

  8. 133
    wichita lineman on 1 Sep 2010 #

    H-h-hold your horses, SS!

    Tom, sounds grim, get well soon.

  9. 134
    thefatgit on 1 Sep 2010 #

    I can beat that Tom! Took a tumble at the weekend and dislocated my right patella and snapped my infra patella tendon…I’m in for surgery tomorrow. Thinking of a line from a bunnyable song from certain Aussie movie director.

  10. 135
    anto on 1 Sep 2010 #

    Re 130: Get well soon Mr.E. What’s that line from Chinatown -
    ” yeeaah summer colds are the worst”.

  11. 136
    swanstep on 4 Sep 2010 #

    On the off-chance that anyone’s interested, I’ve written a couple of long-ish posts on Madonna’s Holiday: one on music and lyrics, and one on performance.

  12. 137
    Billy on 4 Sep 2010 #

    I FINALLY have a proper copy of this song, having bought the 2-disc ‘Celebration’ for a criminally low three pounds in HMV. Before then, the one that was sounding out from my iPod was a remix from a CD single I found at a charity shop a few years ago, which starts similar to the original (certainly more so than the Immaculate Collection), but ruins it with a load of extra drumbeats over the breakdowns, and replaces that great “Just like a prayer, your voice can take me there” ending with a really dull instrumental for two minutes.

    A deserved 10, one of my fave Madonna tracks along with Vogue.

  13. 138
    Erithian on 9 Sep 2010 #

    Coming fairly late to this one, pretty much everything’s been said. I agree with anto back at #7 that Madonna never looked more beautiful than in this video, and (perhaps not coincidentally) her dancing was never so free-spirit and unchoreographed – in major contrast to her next number one. The message is that the religious (or sexual) rapture is taking over her body and the expression is all there in the unfettered movement.

    She’d always played, of course, with the overtones of the name she was blessed with and the religious iconography, but this was taking things a step further. More so in the more overtly religious USA than the UK, there were hot-button topics aplenty here, none more so than the burning crosses borrowed from the KKK and the seemingly black Jesus (not that great a percentage would have realised the St Martin de Porres link or its significance) – and I guess even an interracial kiss was still daring in certain states? If the message, or one of them, is that religion should be a conduit for joy and integration, then maybe they should play this video at the Koran-burning event in Florida this weekend.

  14. 139
    Billy Smart on 27 Dec 2010 #

    MMWatch: Ian Gittins awarded single of the week to ‘Like A Prayer’. March 11 1989;

    “She’s back! And it’s as if she’s never been away. After films, bust-ups, the works, Madonna slips back to music and finds her stage all set. There’s a huge Pepsi tie-in this time, so with all copies of ‘Like A Prayer’ locked in a secret London vault at the time of writing, it’s to the TV advert launch for any quick-thinking hack. Two minutes and a can of Pepsi-Cola. *There’s* how to return.

    And ‘Like A Prayer’ is one more great dance trifle, the latest in a line of unruffled classics. It’s just the same formula; chorus, hooks, all the greats, and that superbly innocent yet *carnal* voice at the centre. The song’s about not being in control. As if! Every *breath* is meticulous. Even the gospel choir can’t upset her balance, can’t compete with the airy precision. And the video shows Madonna, as a tiny girl, watching her grown-up self as a STAR. There’s no better symbol for her. Really. Business as usual. Madonna’s back! The game goes on.”

    Also reviewed that week;

    New Order – Round & Round
    Ice T – High Rollers
    The Wonder Stuff – Who wants To Be The Disco King?
    Gene Pitney – It’s Over
    Guns ‘N’ Roses – Paradise City
    Ellis Beggs & Howard – Big Bubbles No Troubles
    The Stone Roses – Made Of Stone

  15. 140

    [...] Ewing, “Madonna – ‘Like a Prayer’”, Freaky Trigger, August 23, [...]

  16. 141
    DJBobHoskins on 5 Jan 2014 #

    #112 et al – the single version of LAP (7″ pop edit 5:19, as on the original single), is undoubtedly the greatest for me. Just like the album version, except they really ramp up the background production to reach something approaching aural ecstasy. Unfortunately very hard to find (not on any official CD release at the moment) but floating about on the web. Key inclusion is Prince’s guitar solo at the end.

    As others said, can’t stand TIM remixes. Awful, what was Shep thinking. The original singles, along with LAP, can still be found. The difference is noticeable straight away. I remember reading they took some of the production off even those that resemble the original to save space on the CD (?!). Anyway hopefully one day they will release an original singles collection, remastered etc etc.

  17. 142
    Billy Hicks on 5 Jan 2014 #

    141 – Thanks for that, just listened to it and makes my previous comment 137 instantly redundant. The version on ‘Celebration’ is the album version, better than the Immaculate remix but without the extra production the single gives it. Pushes it even further into the 10 zone.

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