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.