23
Aug 10

MADONNA – “Like A Prayer”

FT + Popular147 comments • 10,167 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. 1
    Tom on 23 Aug 2010 #

    Other points:

    1. This review was written while listening again, and again, and AGAIN, to the 7″ mix of LAP. I was not expecting to give this song a 10: a decade of listening to the Immaculate Collection remix – which now sounds almost impossibly cack-handed and stupid – had dulled it for me. The album mix is pretty close to the single one, so go for that (or the video I assume!) if you want to hear it again.

    2. I’m really sorry this entry was so late!

    3. I wasn’t really listening to the charts that much when this came out so its initial cultural impact, controversy etc. didn’t make a huge impression on me (which is why I’ve not addressed it in the review). It also explains why any sense that Madonna was courting or manufacturing controversy has never really bothered me.

  2. 2
    MBI on 23 Aug 2010 #

    Just about the only song Tom has given a 10 to that I actually like.

    Completely untouchable. One of the best songs of the entire decade.

  3. 3
    MikeMCSG on 23 Aug 2010 #

    I’ve never been a great fan of this. I was looking forward to some proper Madonna stuff after the fag-end “Who’s That Girl” singles but I just couldn’t warm to this. Tom’s acknowledged the artifice here; it is meant to be a BIG single (a la River Deep Mountain High) and it achieves that but I prefer her more low key stuff.

  4. 4
    Tom on 23 Aug 2010 #

    I think it’s probably the first record I’ve dealt with since “Good Vibrations” (maybe “Bohemian Rhapsody”) which you feel is self-consciously aiming to be the greatest single ever. (I don’t think it’s that! It’s around the middle of my 10s, if we’re counting ;))

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 23 Aug 2010 #

    Doh! I was all ready to condemn this, and then Tom points out that I’ve been listening to the wrong version for *twenty whole years* – No wonder I was always disappointed when I heard it. There’s a lovely density to that instrumentation, and then the “like a prayer”s lift the singer and listener above it, like Madonna flying in the video.

    I had been thinking of it as being a gallumphing effortful monstrosity, trying too hard to attain significance, through imagery and attempts to sound overly contemporary. Making me realise how good this actually is may be the most useful service that Popular has yet served!

  6. 6
    Mark G on 23 Aug 2010 #

    ‘If this isn’t a 10, ‘ I thought to myself, ‘then nothing is’

    Favourit part of the video for me was the bows at the end: It’s OK everybody, we’re just a creative bunch of actor people, no need to get upset, no-one’s died….

    Also, that she’s clearly not ‘inviting controversy’ because the area that she works in regards this as free expression of ideas, and no-one else within the troupe of players is either uninvolved or subordinate.

    All that, from the closing seconds of the video…

  7. 7
    anto on 23 Aug 2010 #

    Excellent review of a song which isn’t the easiest to find an angle on. I find it’s one of those tunes that sounds a bit different every time you hear it as your ear picks up on another facet.
    The phrase “event single” seems right. I recall when it raced into the charts (at #4 I think) it was almost as if the rest of the top five was manouvering to let it through. The first new release in two years from a genuine star with a song to show up the wannabes.
    Can I also add the best she ever looked was in the Like A Prayer video.

  8. 8
    ciaran10 on 23 Aug 2010 #

    This was one of the first obvious “10” records that I thought of when i stumbled upon this over a year ago.

    Didnt care for it much then but like it now.

    History would recall this as “Golden Age” Madonna I assume.

    I thought Cherish was better but LAP still a fine record.10.

    More magic to come from Madge later on.oh hello bunny didnt see you there……

  9. 9
    23 Daves on 23 Aug 2010 #

    Oh damn. I never, ever really understood the fuss about this one, and having listened again I’m still not getting it now, although the intro may be the most interesting one I’ve heard on a number one record (so I’ll add one point for that – seriously, I’d forgotten all about that, and it’s damn odd. Some demonic guitar scrapings followed by a few seconds of whooshing ambient noises). Otherwise, there’s an utter lack of subtlety about the entire thing which slaps you in the face like a million dollar fizzy drink advert, or a very finely sculptured charity single. There again, I’ve never been one for gospel choirs being tacked on to pop records, even if in this instance the subject matter deems it more appropriate than most.

    But I’m making it sound as if I really don’t like it, which is unfair – the reality is I can take it or leave it, and find the overblown finish to the record to be slightly self-conscious, overly literal and gaudy. It’s never been my favourite Madonna single.

    Unlike Tom, though, I remember the build-up to this. The ITV Chart Show actually used to count down the weeks at the end of each show before they could play it – “Only three weeks until you can see the new Madonna video here!” they’d boast in flashing letters. Then there were the news stories about the blasphemy in the video (which may have shocked some conservative Americans in the end, but I don’t think it caused any British people to bat an eyelid). Then rumours came out that she’d “gone psychedelic”. The expectations built and built, until in the end a single arrived which sounded like a quite good Madonna record with an overblown production and a choir on the end. The problem with media hype is that it can cloud judgement and ruin the end result – it felt as if nothing could have survived that kind of attention. But even listening to it now, the earth isn’t moving. I just keep getting the urge to skip on to some of her other material.

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 23 Aug 2010 #

    The single actually came into the charts at number two, and I would imagine would have gone straight in at number one most other weeks at this time – Jasonmania was a commercial force to be reckoned with, hence ‘Too Many Broken Hearts’ sticking at number two for all of Madonna’s three weeks at the top.

    I was 16 in 1989 and can attest that Madonna’s period of silence – fifteen whole months since her last record! – felt like an eon away from the limelight at the time, and made her comeback feel like a major cultural event, even without the controversy that surrounded this record. Thinking back, I can’t remember just who was offended though. I think that Pepsi abandoned their sponsorship. Perhaps Mary Whitehouse had something to say. Looking back, part of my retrospective misplaced hostility towards this record has been as its key place in the wearisome repeated cultural ritual of “Madonna’s latest controversial comeback!” (silliest example: ‘Erotica’. Or perhaps ‘American Life’), a tri-annual exercise in semiotics and marketing that one is supposed to have a position on.

  11. 11
    Hofmeister Bear on 23 Aug 2010 #

    She’s around the peak of her powers here but this is a song I’ve found myself caring less and less for over the years. It’s so huge and self-consciously aspiring for greatness that it soon fatigues. The chorus is great admittedly. A decade ago I would have gladly given it 9, now it’s a 7. On the other hand I’ve grown increasingly fond of the other singles off LAP, especially ‘Cherish’ and ‘Oh Father’.

  12. 12
    Paulito on 23 Aug 2010 #

    As Tom alludes to (which is why I’m so surprised he gave it a 10), this record is calculating, bombastic, overambitious and overproduced. Madonna’s vocal is overly mannered, and the song’s central conceit doesn’t move me (perhaps because I’ve never experienced religious fervour?). Yes, it’s very slick – while also sincere in its own way – but for all its hooks, its crescendos, its ebbing and flowing, it leaves me, if not exactly cold, then lukewarm.

    @#9 – 23 Daves expertly pinpoints the big problem with LAP, namely “an utter lack of subtlety about the entire thing which slaps you in the face like a million dollar fizzy drink advert, or a very finely sculptured charity single.” Touché…

  13. 13
    Tom on 23 Aug 2010 #

    #11 What of “Dear Jessie” eh? (Actually at the time I really liked that, it was tweepop! Now it feels like a bit of a failed experiment.)

    Totally understand the ‘epic fatigue’ on this one, and it’s a reason I’ve cited for giving sub-10 marks to ‘obvious’ choices before now so I can hardly complain!

    #5 The remix changes SO MUCH that’s good about the song – all the drive vanishes, most of that lovely Salsoul-y rhythm in the gospel section, which you really NEED to stop the gospel soloist sounding like a belting house diva… it’s kind of horrifying that the single mixes of these records aren’t readily available TBH (unless they are somewhere – Madonna is overdue a career-spanning double or triple it seems, but it’s possible I just missed it.)

  14. 14
    Tom on 23 Aug 2010 #

    #12 I think one of the reasons I like it is *because* I’m an atheist! It’s one of the few songs to make religious epiphany sound really exciting and awesome (if she’s intending to criticise religion in the song this makes it a kind of reverse Narnia effect). I sort of feel this is in the record too – the cathedral settings is what religion is “meant to” sound like, and then by the end it actually sounds like an amazing party with Prince playing. Actually this makes it sound like an awful evangelical wedding so I’ll stop now before someone breaks out the bongoes.

    “Calculating, bombastic, overambitious and overproduced” – naturally I would never give a 10 to such a record. ;)

  15. 15
    Hofmeister Bear on 23 Aug 2010 #

    Tom, it’s always seemed to be a bit embarrassing to admit anything but mockery for ‘Dear Jessie’ but I have vivid memories of it’s release during the Christmas of 89 having just turned 9 years of age. Because of this you’ll never hear me lay in the boot although your probably right about it sounding twee now. It’s hardly ever heard on the radio anyway so isn’t a major irritant. ‘Cherish’ as similar tendencies and apparently Rolling Stone described it as one of her ”most retarded singles”. They can bollocks! that bass keyboard that bobs along is genius.

  16. 16
    flahr on 23 Aug 2010 #

    I don’t like her voice on this one as much as previous records. Also I have an unfortunate allergy to gospel choirs on anything, even if there’s a good reason for their appearance :(
    Still there’s obviously something pretty good here – the chorus melody is damn catchy, for instance.

  17. 17
    Tom on 23 Aug 2010 #

    Cherish is great BTW, I agree. And “Express Yourself” is marvellous too.

    The NME gave LAP (the album) a 10 which impressed me at the time (more that the NME had done it than that Madonna had released a record worthy of their attention – I wasn’t TOTALLY under their spell). I don’t remember the letters page reaction, I suspect it wasn’t that pretty.

  18. 18
    Hofmeister Bear on 23 Aug 2010 #

    Yep, the gospel choir and hugeness of this thing makes it Madonna’s equivalent of Foreigner’s ‘I Want To know What Love Is’.

  19. 19
    lonepilgrim on 23 Aug 2010 #

    For me ‘Like a Prayer’ manages to embody both the sense of appeal and repulsion of religious epiphany. Consciously I know that the experience has been carefully contrived to provoke or simulate that experience and yet despite myself find myself getting sucked in. I know the gospel choir has been added to add extra ‘authenticity’ to a performance which is, as the video acknowledges at its end, pure theatre. With her Italian American heritage I’m sure that Madonna was well aware of the theatre of excess in both the Catholic and Black Gospel tradition so the song is ‘Like’ a prayer – but a prayer made on her own terms. It’s quite an achievement for a 5 minute pop song and for that deserves a 10

  20. 20
    thefatgit on 23 Aug 2010 #

    I’m so glad this gets a 10. This is by far my favourite Madonna single.

    Harder, rounded, so sure of herself and her place within the pop canon, Madonna comes to us with a statement of self. The pop starlet came of age with “Live To Tell”, but we know that arriving at a new place and actually knowing it are not the same thing. LTT addressed her past, her secrets. Never really giving away much, but allowing us a glimpse into the world of Madonna. LTT flirts with economy, by saying so much but revealing very little. “Like A Prayer” expertly plays with economy. How do you reveal so much by saying so little? “Life is a mystery/Everyone must stand alone” encapsulates the fundamental argument between faith and atheism in 8 words. Beat that Dawkins! Madonna has questioned her faith and continues to do so. She skips along that narrow margin between the divine and the profane, which brings us to the video.

    Madonna collaborator Mary Lambert (Holiday, Like A Virgin) directs the video.
    The common misconception with the video was that Leon Robinson’s character was a black Christ. The truth is that he portayed St Martin De Porres, the patron saint of mixed race people and television among others. Madonna displays stigmata and dances in front of burning crosses. Who is she provoking? Those who deserved to be provoked: the closed minds of racists and religious fundamentalists. A brave step in a conservative America. Controversial enough to force Pepsi to pull their campaign using LAP in their advert.
    Accoring to Wiki: “The video features Madonna as a woman who witnesses the murder of a white girl by three white men, and the arrest of a black man who attempted to intervene and save the victim, but was falsely accused of the crime. After his arrest, Madonna flees to the church for safety, and she prays to Saint Martin de Porres, then she kisses him and he, crying, comes to life. Madonna joins a gospel choir singing and dancing the song and afterward, she testifies for the black man’s innocence which ends with him about to be released. In the end of the video, we can tell that it was all a theatre play.”
    Of course this is a huge distraction from the song’s overall message: the blurred boundary between sex and religion, which Tom nails above.
    Personally, the song has been niggling away at my attitude towards spirituality for 21 years. Even when I have questioned the validity of religion or have been seduced by the cold logic of atheism (Dawkins again) LAP has been merrily cropping up on the radio or MTV, reminding me I LOVE THIS SONG! How could I buy into a world without mystery or the concept of a divine influence, even if I doubt organised religion is a legitimate conduit for belief. Madonna say it’s ok to believe and that’s enough for me.

  21. 21
    Hugh on 23 Aug 2010 #

    Vivid memories of ‘action dances’: ‘I hear YOU [points at you] call MY [points at me] name and it feels [crosses arms over torso] like hooooome [makes thatch above head]’ etc. etc. Would it be unfair to say her enunciation is a little Michael Crawford?

    And it’s her worst album of the 1980s. It’s a 7, you are totally correct about the Immaculate Version, the original version gets better and better as it goes on.

  22. 22
    ciaran10 on 24 Aug 2010 #

    # 1 (2) – this one took a while to post alright Tom.

    Let’s leave the long silence and big comeback to Madonna eh.

  23. 23
    loomer on 24 Aug 2010 #

    I was going to say, Tom, that many fans prefer the 7″ Mix. It’s very similar to the album version, just beefed up somewhat and when you mentioned the Prince guitar I knew you were referring to it since it’s more prominent.

    It’s not my favourite Madonna #1, I’d probably go for “Into the Groove” or maybe “Open Your Heart” from her US #1s. Sometimes I think it’s overrated but I only have to hear it again for the magic to return, like when she finally started doing it live again with the On The Stage & On The Record performance.

    #17 here is that NME review – http://madonnascrapbook.blogspot.com/2009/08/nme-like-s-prayer-review.html

  24. 24
    swanstep on 24 Aug 2010 #

    Very nice essay Tom. Well done, esp. about alerting people to the lifelessness of the Immaculate Collection mix of LaP (which is *still* better than the Immaculate versions of Into the Groove and Holiday – that collection is really a horror, systematically draining away peak pop moments).

    The hype/controversy about the vid. really did seem to overwhelm the song a bit if you were in the US. And while Madonna came out of that looking like a very sharp manipulator of all around her (maximizing her publicity, while pocketing Pepsi’s $5 million, while hardly having the ad. shown so she was never tainted by the association – ‘that’s some kind of evil genius at work’ is how it felt IIRC), I for one definitely kept my distance from the whole LaP album for quite some time as a result (I think it was a great soul-II-soul-y single mix of Keep It Together that finally won me over – the album version of that track is lame).

    Anyhow, I think I’m typical in finding that LaP has really grown on me. The self-importance and theatricality of the ‘Life is a mystery…’ opening irritated me at the time, but I like, even love it now (and I’m more sympathetic to people’s spiritually questing sides than I used to be. M. as f’ed up girl just trying to find her own peace of mind – I buy that sentiment from her now I guess.).

    I still find the stop-starts of the first minute or two of the song fumbling and somewhat musically unnatural (I think that when the drums cut out each time we need the ‘one’ at the beginning of the next bar to close the musical phrase.), so this can’t be a 10 for me, but the head of steam the thing builds up by the end is v. impressive. So, for me, LaP (single version) starts great, and ends (last 3 minutes really) brilliantly but has some wobbles in between. A solid:
    9
    p.s. I’ve been listening to a lot of v.early ’70s Labelle for the last few days. Those guys and their unbelievable bands could have *killed* LaP. But they’d never have figured out a way to screw Pepsi out of 5 mill and come up smelling roses. M.’s a dominating, fascinating, so-big-and-famous-that-the-music-almost-doesn’t-matter pop presence at this point, so, really, it’s impressive that the music holds up as well to scrutiny as it does. LaP is a v. good song and record, one that’s grown, improved, acquired depth as time has passed. That doesn’t happen often.

  25. 25
    Alfred on 24 Aug 2010 #

    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.

    Not least because of the juxtaposition of that delicious synth bass against acoustic drums and the black choir. A miscellany of the decade’s musical tropes, from Scritti Politti’s of brittle electro syncopation to Eurythmics’ horrible indenturing of soul.

    It’s impossible to write coherently about this single, which is, after “Open Your Heart” and “Into The Groove,” the reason why Madonna is an essential part of my life. Madonna the Songwriter and Madonna the Vocalist achieves an enviable symbiosis as Madonna the Producer with Patrick Leonard: note how the thing builds confidently — the first couple of times I heard it, almost tentatively — to the moment at the 3:00 minute mark when her voice adds ballast to the guitar’s urgency (“Life is a myyyy-ste-rrry…”).

    As a Catholic with Cuban roots, there was no mistaking St. Martin of Porres for Christ. Watching the video with my great-grandmother in ’89, it was precisely Madonna’s appropriation of the saint (venerated by many Cubans) that offended her.

    (as a sidenote the only part of the video that turns my stomach is the moment when Maddie grabs the chubby black kid’s face at the 4:32 mark. Luckily it looks spontaneous, as if moved by the Spirit).

  26. 26

    […] is a mystery By humanizingthevacuum Another excellent Ewing review. This one, part of his years-long project of dissecting every British number one single: […]

  27. 27
    Izzy on 24 Aug 2010 #

    This is a great record. A worthy 10.

  28. 28
    punctum on 24 Aug 2010 #

    Maybe the idolators understand the magic of pop better than anybody else, even, or especially, the idols they worship; since where the idols can get rattled, depressed, uncertain, pig out on drugs, turn up four hours late for a concert, become negligent with regard to their duties to the Inland Revenue, make crappy records, or die, the idolators will happily accept and embrace all of it; because they are dizzy with unquestionable and unquestioned love for those they choose to idolise, whatever their idols may do, and however painfully they might hurt them. If the new album’s substandard, it’s because we aren’t quite worthy of it, we’re not advanced or close enough to appreciate what drove the artist to extract ten-year-old rejects from their bottom drawers and pass it off as new music. As with football teams, or parents, we stand by them, regardless. Not for idolators the exhaustive, exhausting schemata of the open to and sceptical of everything “critics,” those who can securely classify the differing degrees of their love for different aspects of the same anatomy, the people who just know that the Verve lost something vital when they gained that auxiliary definite article, who are fully aware that Morrissey or Björk are career variables whom the rational would only approach every five years or so. But then, what truck has pop ever had with rationalism, especially when it comes to adding up the total bill for territories gained or souls lost? After all, we idolise idols precisely because of their superhuman status; they can do things we can’t, or won’t. They are never like us; even with the alleged democratisation of punk it quickly became clear that only John Lydon could ever hope to be John Lydon.

    From her name upwards, Madonna knew that she had to be worshipped if she were to mean anything, and that another couple of years of “La Isla Bonita”s would lower her perspective to a curious over-shoulder gaze from newly disinterested consumers. So she had to come back with a blockbuster, something that Debbie or Gloria or even Belinda couldn’t have achieved, for all their various reasons. When the single of “Like A Prayer” came out it seemed to stop the rest of pop, momentarily but vitally; as with “Two Tribes,” it made everyone else in the Top 40 at the time seem like trespassers on newly privatised land.

    The perspective of Madonna aspiring to God(dess)hood on “Like A Prayer” – she gives a barely perceptible whisper of “God” at the beginning of the track before the backwards guitars flood in and immediately slam, smashed, into a decisive wall of steel in order to suggest that all “rock” had been leading to this – has to be considered in balance with the rest of the Like A Prayer album, which focuses, at times very sorely, on the fallacies and mortalities of mothers (“Promise To Try”), fathers (“Oh Father”), errant husbands (“’Till Death Us Do Part”) and Prince (“Love Song”). Along with Erotica it is Madonna’s most palpably human record.

    From the intro onwards – and the song may or may not have involved his active participation, as musician, writer and/or producer – it is also hard to imagine “Like A Prayer” without the immense precedent of Prince to inspire it; here is the dayglo Dadaism familiar from Sign ‘O’ The Times, mixed with peculiar logic into that brew of unquenchable spiritual faith (“The Cross”), although the influence of the Pet Shop Boys (especially “It’s A Sin”) can hardly be discounted. “Like A Prayer” is perhaps the only pop single of the late eighties which could use a gospel choir and get away with it; Andrae Crouch and his Disciples are an indispensable part of the song’s architecture, rather than a tacky addendum. The use of the church organ is as unarguable and definitive as, say, Scott Walker’s “Manhattan” or Arcade Fire’s “Intervention.”

    The song itself is all about worship, and Madonna seems intent on arguing passionately against the opening proposal of “Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone” since she goes on to demonstrate how impossible it is to live a life of any description on one’s own. As the video depicted the tableau of the black saint and the sinner lady, so does Madonna blend spiritual and carnal with a recklessness comparable with the Spencer of Cookham; thus the line “When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer” could have been sung by the Ronettes or the Shangri-Las a generation earlier, but then we get the more explicit “In the midnight hour, I can feel your power” – and the question here is: who is worshipping, and who is asking to be worshipped? Note that it’s the “you” who is calling Madonna’s name but this is enough to get her “down on my knees.” And later, there’s the ambiguous “You’re in control, just like a child/Now I’m dancing” – so again the idol here could be parent as well as, or instead of, lover or God; and really the three (the Holy Trinity!) all merge into one (“Just like a dream, you are not what you seem”).

    The record really takes off immediately after the second verse, when the dual basses of Randy Jackson and Guy Pratt make their dramatic entrance underneath the church organ and the intensity of the “Life is a mystery” couplet is doubled; eventually it resolves into an epic call-and-response between Madonna and choir and absolution, or orgasm, is reached – but then recall the end of the video, after the burning crosses and the stigmata, when the black Christ figure is revealed merely to be a prisoner in a police cell; the curtains draw and reopen as Madonna and her cast take a bow (another clue to the future there). Illusion, a six-minute diversion – or can it be mistaken for transcendence?

    Despite the hopped-up controversy of the video and Pepsi’s precipitous cold feet, all that Madonna really does with “Like A Prayer” is amplify the age-old conflict between spiritual and carnal in art and attempt to resolve it by sheer force of will and personality. Of course, throughout the record we are kept aware that this worship is “like a prayer” rather than a prayer in itself, rather than, say, “My Prayer” by the Platters – a song and group whose roots both go back deep into an unreachable church. If finally “Like A Prayer” has to take second place to “Running Up That Hill” – not simply because Kate Bush is, in the end, the greater and profounder talent, but also because where “Like A Prayer” compares to God (passive), Bush is intent on making a deal with God (active). And it was far from the only radical single in the charts of the period. But it was, by necessity first and desire second, the biggest; it possesses a grace which “Hey Jude” couldn’t quite grasp, it drops the mask, just as Madonna drops the blonde in the video, and reveals its singer as someone who feels, breathes, cries and shits just like the people who idolise her. Pop was obliged to take a breath, and count again.

  29. 29
    Tom on 24 Aug 2010 #

    Great stuff Punctum! (My guilty confession is that the “Just like a child / Now I’m dancing” segue currently and inescapably brings to mind Old Spice Guy and his “I’m on a horse” antics. Understandably I did not find room for this in the review)

  30. 30
    The leveller on 24 Aug 2010 #

    After being over-exposed for almost the whole period of 1984 to 1987, she went away and came back as ‘artist’, hence this single and the album was an Event back in 1989. I remember the hippy rumours : the album sleeve smelt of patchouli oil and she did a few hippy-ish photoshoots (long Woodstock red hair).

    This is where Madonna began fusing her media manipulation savvy with a Bowie-esque set of identities over the decade – she started hanging out with Sandra Bernhard etc, doing an ‘are we/aren’t we?’ interview on Letterman. I remember Martin Amis, at the time the ‘Sex’ book came out on 1992 commenting how, given the nudity, the stuff about her marriage etc, the one thing Madonna never revealed about herself was the creative process – as someone else said above, the music was something to hang the star persona on.

    But this is about the music: it’s a great pop song, off a great album, which maybe in retrospect seems just a little too calculated, with not a chord, word or beat out of place, so I give it a 9.

    Btw that link/comparison with Running Up That Hill (which came out 25 years ago this month…) is inspired.

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