Aug 10

MADONNA – “Like A Prayer”

FT + Popular148 comments • 11,930 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.



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  1. 121
    swanstep on 26 Aug 2010 #

    @lex. I believe that it is the single version. Yay. So it’s really just the Immaculate Collection that’s the problem for ITG.

    BTW, I know that for some people the differences between Immac Coll Crazy for You and the single version are minor, but even setting aside the host of small timbral differnces, the IC version being 20 sec shorter omits the genuinely lovely fade out, extended ‘baby’ from Madonna (this was a famous one-take vocal performance that nobody really expected from her) as the killer backing vox also resolve underneath. This isn’t *quite* as bad as omitting the most urgent ‘now I know you’re mine’ from Into the Groove (which the IC ITG staggeringly does), but it’s in the same ballpark, so I take the single version to be clearly preferable (this is a single I bought and adored, so I understand I’m more fussed about it than most are!). At any rate, ahem, there are 192 Kbps copies of the single version of CFY around on the web, e.g., here. And of course you can always just watch the vid.!

  2. 122
    Rory on 26 Aug 2010 #

    I’d forgotten to note the Australian chart performance for this, which was the first number one we had in common with the UK in 1989. Number one for a week in mid-April, then dropped down for three weeks to make way for Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” (yay) and Mike + The Mechanics’ “The Living Years” (er, nay), then went back to number one for a further three weeks in May.

  3. 123
    lex on 26 Aug 2010 #

    @121 thanks! That’s definitely better than the TIC mix. I think that’s the last of the Immaculate Collection tracks that I hadn’t replaced with a superior version – sometimes I think it was a deliberate ploy by Madonna to get people to shell out for the original albums as well as just TIC, which I guess is worthwhile just for “Justify My Love”.

    Did they botch the ’90s hits in the same way on GHV2? The only track I have directly from it is “Beautiful Stranger”, and I’m SURE it’s a lot muddier than the single I remember from the time.

  4. 124
    Izzy on 26 Aug 2010 #

    #112 – The Immaculate Conception – omg! I had never got this until now.

  5. 125
    swanstep on 27 Aug 2010 #

    @londonlee, 96. Diamond Dogs’ Track 11 “Chant of the ever-circling…” ends with about 10s of bruh-bruh-bruh-bruh at full volume, then slowly fades out for another 15s. Not quite the same impact as the locked grove you mention, but a reasonable approximation. The Rykodisc version of the cd that I have then continues with Track 12 ‘Dodo’ (a great unreleased track that really looks forwards to Young Americans), and Track 13, a demo version of Candidate (which is great too, but which makes you appreciate just how many sonic chances Bowie took on the original record – the version of Candidate that’s Track 4 on DD is genuinely abrasive and avant-garde, certainly when compared with the demo).

  6. 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.

  7. 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.]

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 130
    flahr on 28 Aug 2010 #

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

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 133
    wichita lineman on 1 Sep 2010 #

    H-h-hold your horses, SS!

    Tom, sounds grim, get well soon.

  14. 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.

  15. 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”.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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

  20. 140

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

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 143
    hectorthebat on 28 Feb 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Arizona Republic (USA) – Madonna’s 30 Best Singles of All Time (2013) 1
    Beats Per Minute (USA) – The Top 100 Tracks of the 1980s (2011) 27
    Blender (USA) – Top 500 Songs of the 80s-00s (2005) 6
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 34
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 300
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 306
    San Antonio Express-News (USA) – Rock ‘n’ roll timeline (2004)
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s (2012) 7
    Spin (USA) – Nominations For the Best Songs of the Last 25 Years (2010)
    Steve Sullivan (USA) – Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (2013) 401-500
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 80s (2011) 169
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    Washington Blade (USA) – Top 10 Madonna Songs (2004)
    Freaky Trigger (UK) – Top 100 Songs of All Time (2005) 4
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of NME’s Lifetime (2012) 19
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 33
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 47
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 70
    Q (UK) – Top 20 Tracks from the Lifetime of Q (1986-2006) 16
    Sunday Times (UK) – Top 10 Madonna Songs (2007) 6
    Wanadoo (UK) – The 20 Best Songs of the 80s
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The 500 Best Songs of All Time (2004) 362
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – The Top 100 Songs from 1984-1993 (1993) 40
    Cameron Adams (Australia) -The Best Songs from the 100 Must Have Albums (2013)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 7
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year 23
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 16
    Record Mirror (UK) – Singles of the Year 10
    Dagsavisen (Norway) – Single of the Year 1
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – Songs of the Year 15

  24. 144
    Neil C on 2 Apr 2016 #

    Chalk me up as another poor soul (like Billy S at #5 and Lex at #44) who only realised, after reading this page, that I’d been “doing Madonna wrong” with The Immaculate Collection for the last 17 years! I have since obtained the US Singles Collection  (Vol 1) which contains the 7″ versions of all TIC tracks (12″ for Into the Groove), and have created an Immaculate-r Collection for myself – much better! But it still leaves me with the niggling feeling that I might not have the “right” versions – how appalling that one of the biggest artists in pop history should have her legacy treated so shoddily.

    Swanstep at #24 is bang on about the stop-start drums in the first minute – that really put me off this version for a good while. But it’s great to finally get away from Mr Whoo! Yeah! on TIC …

    A fantastic single but I can only go up to 9 – got to leave something in reserve for Into the Groove!

  25. 145
    Girl with Curious Hair on 5 Apr 2016 #

    I adore this song, but for some reason I can’t quite articulate why. There’s just something about it that sweeps me up and has done since I was a little kid. I’ve never really considered the religious angle before – I’m not Christian (not even culturally, like presumably most of the other commenters are), so I suppose it never occurred to me*. But I do like the idea that a transcendent Catholic experience sounds like this.

    As I say, I wish I could articulate why better, but this gets a 10 for me. Plus, Oh Father from the LaP album is a really underrated song. Sia did a pretty good version of it too, back in the days before she decided to grow out her fringe.

    *On this note, slightly embarrassingly, I used to love the bit in the video, near the song’s peak, where Madonna is dancing in front of the burning crosses. It just seemed like an abstractly beautiful image. It wasn’t until years later that I realised what the burning crosses actually signified…

  26. 146
    Adam Grylls on 30 Dec 2017 #

    This is possibly the Madonna’s best track. It’s a sassy little number that sweeps across you with a romping aplomb. The chorus has such a catchy hook, which, as far as I’ve ever seen, has never failed to get people on their feet, gin aloft, shouting the lyrics at the top of their voices. The choral arrangement
    as backing vocals creates an almost euphoric sound. It’s quite the journey of a pop track.

    Also, as a bit of a wrestling fan. Scottish fan favorite, Grado, uses this as his entrance song. Seeing 10,000 drunk and sweating men embracing each other in an arena chanting this while an overweight, undersized underdog dances his way to the ring… is a strangely beautiful sight.

  27. 147
    Ospero on 23 Nov 2019 #

    Whenever I re-read this particular piece, one phrase leaps out at me: “that long ‘home’ in the intro”. I think that might be because it reveals how the song tricks you into believing it’s even more epic than it already is: there is no long ‘home’ in the intro – not on any version I’ve heard, at least. By the time the beat starts to come in, Madonna’s voice has already faded into the background. But it does feel like there should be, doesn’t it? It feels like Madonna should have drawn out the vowel sound of that word until it fades into the background by itself, getting ever quieter while the percussion fades in.

  28. 148
    Gareth Parker on 2 May 2021 #

    Just one of those fantastically uplifting singles for me. A worthy #1 hit and a 9/10 in my opinion.

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