Aug 10

MADONNA – “Like A Prayer”

FT + Popular147 comments • 10,556 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. 61
    Kat but logged out innit on 24 Aug 2010 #

    My sister didn’t play this to me as much as ‘True Blue’ – as my main Madonna conduit I relied on her for all this stuff, but by now she was listening to De La Soul instead and Madge wasn’t hogging the stereo as much as in 1986. I remember asking her what Madonna’s natural hair colour was and not getting a satisfactory answer. Hmmm. Maybe I found it hard to get excited about late-80s Madonna as she was a bit too grown-up for me (if she’d had a cameo in Neighbours I might have thought differently). All the imagery stuff went over my head at the time and I only really understood what she was trying to achieve with that aspect of her image a few years later.

    Anyway, I appreciate there’s a lot going on in ‘Like A Prayer’ and it’s been very rewarding to listen (and dance) to over the years without getting boring. But it’s not in my top three Madge songs and definitely not my top Madge #1! I’d give it an 8, but mostly for the video.

  2. 62
    tonya on 24 Aug 2010 #

    In America, going blonde is also a way to divorce oneself from one’s ethnic roots. Madonna said she felt more Italian with dark hair; I feel less Jewish with blonde hair. Blonde is the color of the striver, the immigrant girl fleeing her roots to run music (or Argentina).

    My boyfriend at the time said “this sounds like Abba” and I replied “that’s a bad thing?” I think this chorus starts the Abba revival.

  3. 63
    George Tait on 24 Aug 2010 #

    This single and its accompanying album mark the end of Madonna’s imperial period as well as the moment where Madonna wished to be regarded as a serious artist. It’s all a bit studied and self-indulgent and has none of the charm of her earlier, more naive work. I lost interest in her after this album which, apart from the open letter to Sean Penn(‘Til Death do Us Part’) I never play anymore. Indeed, my vinyl copy of the album still smells of patchouli oil 21 years after I bought it. The smell has lasted longer than the songs, as far as I’m concerned.

    I read almost everything on here. A lot of my friends do too. I rarely contribute because I feel slightly intimidated by some of you who are obviously writers and very well-informed. I find myself agreeing with most of what Tom writes but I confess that I’m genuinely disappointed by the top mark that he’s given to ‘Like A Prayer’. Each to their own, I suppose, but I would have given a much lower mark(5) because, in my opinion, the song’s overproduced, self-indulgent and with wince inducing lyrics that would shame The Lighthouse Family. This is the first time I’ve read one of Tom’s reviews and not understood where he’s coming from.

  4. 64
    Steve Mannion on 24 Aug 2010 #

    I think Like A Prayer marks the start of a remarkable run of singles for Madonna in terms of the stylistic range represented. Gospel Rock, House, brassy big band/jazz melanges, orchestral tweefests and Hip-Hop beats all featuring over the next 18 months. What’s more remarkable is how well most of those dalliances came off.

    I’d suggest no other pop artist has matched that thematic variation in such a relatively short period while maintaining consistent success in the process. How much of this was down to the timing – digitalisation boosting genre-hopping for chart stars? Plus Madonna already being huge enough to take relative risks in that regard, maybe legitimising the concept of constant re-invention (sonically as well as visually) outside Rock (which can include Bowie and probably Prince who, being the more versatile virtuoso musician, went about this in a different way I think – not so much temporarily inhabiting scenes like Rap and House but mapping them onto his music and personality more organically and conditionally).

    Alongside everything else going on (the potent sex/religion issues and whatnot) this liberal adaptability puts the true Pop chameleon at her peak.

  5. 65
    Paytes on 24 Aug 2010 #

    Can I also echo the dislike for the Immaculate Coll’s awful mixes of this, Holiday and Into The Groove (the original 12″ mixes of the last 2 being particularly sublime – why not use them or edits thereof?)…

    Oh and TIC was mixed in the oh-so-late 80s/early 90s “Q Sound” too – yuk

    Did the recent Madonna dbl best of use the original 7″ mixes?

    It’s an 8 for me …

  6. 66
    Paytes on 24 Aug 2010 #

    Just checked – they did use the original 12″ mixes on Celebration

  7. 67
    Hofmeister Bear on 24 Aug 2010 #

    I believe alot of serious Madonna fans were disappointed with the recent ‘Celebration’ best of which wrapped up her contract with Warner’s. I don’t know what mixes were used but the hope that it would be a deserved career overview ended up sounding more like a contractual obligation (which is what it was essentially).

  8. 68
    Alfred on 24 Aug 2010 #

    So are we ready to posit or 1984-1987 or 1989-1992 as Madonna’s Imperial Phase?

  9. 69
    loomer on 24 Aug 2010 #

    Yes it’s very frustrating that her work has been marred by bad mixes, the Immaculate Collection in particular caused the most problems. A few IC mixes turned up on Celebration, but everyone breathed a sigh of relief that the greatest offenders LAP and Into The Groove were restored to the originals.

    If you look at the back cover of GHV2 it lists the exact single mixes used, in contrast to TIC, perhaps because of complaints. But even some of her official single mixes such as “Holiday” are in sloppy edits with bad cuts – only audiophiles would spot the mistakes, but it’s annoying when you do hear it. There are some great fan made edits that correct and improve some of them.

    In the terrible book The Complete Guide To The Music Of Madonna, the one good point the writer made was that Madonna’s work has been damaged by overlong song times, which you could also say for Michael Jackson. Pop songs shouldn’t be long – apart from epics a la “Like a Prayer” – so her single mixes are pretty important.

    This blog post lists some of the problems with Celebration (the DVD is also in shoddy quality) in mind boggling detail – http://requiem4adream.wordpress.com/2009/09/19/celebration-a-retardation/

  10. 70
    Tom on 24 Aug 2010 #

    #68 when I was doing that piece the main thing I was dreading was someone going “what about Madonna eh” (I may even have claimed she had several)

    84-86/7 for pop, 89-92 for iconicness? (This seems to me the heyday of Madonna Studies, “I Dream Of Madonna” etc.)

  11. 71
    thefatgit on 24 Aug 2010 #

    Just a quick one on the 12″ cover art. Christopher Ciccone designed the simplistic image of the naked behaloed Madonna beneath the legend MLVC. The letter P (Penn), fallen, dislodged from the heart of Madonna. Chris reclaiming his sister back into the bosom of the family? It’s a simple image, but conveys so much and can be seen here:


  12. 72
    Tom Lane on 25 Aug 2010 #

    Of course, an easy 10. This was a great record when first released. But a couple decades later and it has rightly earned its classic status.

  13. 73
    punctum on 25 Aug 2010 #

    #69: Every pop song is as long as it needs to be.

  14. 74
    MikeMCSG on 25 Aug 2010 #

    #73 But surely not to the point where people switch off in boredom ? This is apposite to me at the moment as I’m currently in the middle of reviewing Paul Young’s “No Parlez” (a long time before you’ll get to that one of course ) for my blog and several of the songs on that (incl all the singles) are extended to ridiculous lengths. No wonder so many copies went to second hand shops (cf Tom’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat” review).

  15. 75
    punctum on 25 Aug 2010 #

    All including the “limited” bonus 12″, “Sex.” TPL 1983 is going to be right royal socko fun, that’s for sure.

    It’s all relative though, innit? For instance L & I have scientifically proven that the seven-inch of “Still” by the Commodores actually runs for a total of 45 mins 23 secs, just beating out Dr Hook’s “More Like The Movies” by 1 min 2 secs.

  16. 76
    thefatgit on 25 Aug 2010 #

    Wasn’t there a trend for singles with locked in grooves, which theoretically could play forever?

  17. 77
    Billy Smart on 25 Aug 2010 #

    I once broke the pick-up mechanism of a record player in order to listen to the end of Sgt. Pepper properly…

  18. 78
    punctum on 25 Aug 2010 #

    There are a few albums which do that – Escalator Over The Hill, Atom Heart Mother, the first Was (Not Was) album – but as far as singles are concerned the only one which instantly springs to my mind is “I Am The Beat” by The Look, from 1980.

  19. 79
    Tom on 25 Aug 2010 #

    I had (still have somewhere) a single by a band called Cinema on Domino Records with 7 different lock-grooves on the B-Side, each of them supposedly some kind of spooky looped sound effect. I couldn’t actually get it to work though.

  20. 80
    Steve Mannion on 25 Aug 2010 #

    This format-based mischief may be the best argument I’ve read against mp3s.

  21. 81
    Tom on 25 Aug 2010 #

    The US noise underground dudes LOVED them in the 80s too


    (This is the first time FT’s linked to kempa.com in about a decade! In the first year of NYLPM we used to link their/his stuff all the time)

  22. 82
    Tom on 25 Aug 2010 #

    (The use of lock-grooves just one of many connections between ABBA and Sonic Youth.)

  23. 83
    swanstep on 25 Aug 2010 #

    Heaven 17’s Penthouse and Pavement ended with ‘We’re going to live for a very long time’, which grooved endlessly (at least if you got a good pressing). Very droll. (update – as covered in tom’s link at #81)

    There were lots of similar cd shenanigans in the ’90s with various sorts of ‘hidden tracks’ (even on Nevermind, right?), e.g. people like NIN and marilyn manson always seemed to stick stuff on tracks 98 and 99. Did anyone not in high school actually play those tracks in their supposedly intended way, i.e., returning after 20 minutes+ of silence? (I never did except v. occasionally by accident.)

  24. 84

    Boyd Rice and Lee Ranaldo both — separately — put out avant-gardy type drone singles utilising this idea in the mid-80s. Ranaldo’s was a multi-track 12″ 45 called “From Here –> Infinity”; Rice’s was a 7″ with several off-centre holes drilled in it, which was hell on needles and pick-up mechanisms.

  25. 85
    Tom on 25 Aug 2010 #

    #83 almost always by accident, man those annoyed me. Useful knowledge when it came to CD jukeboxes though! The godawful fake “hoedown” on the Stone Roses’ Second Coming was my favourite in that context.

  26. 86
    Billy Smart on 25 Aug 2010 #

    Re 83: Its always irritating how on iTunes both ‘Something In The Way’ and ‘All Apologies’ take up half an hour of space with five minutes of amazing song, twenty minutes of silence and five minutes of squalling dirge.

  27. 87
    Billy Smart on 25 Aug 2010 #

    I really like the apocalyptic siren that comes at the end of U2’s ‘Zooropa’, though.

  28. 88
    Steve Mannion on 25 Aug 2010 #

    I’ve been known to edit ‘secret’ tracks when ripping CDs in order to liberate this bonus material. I can’t think of any particularly good tracks in this vein tho (“well if they were that good they wouldn’t have been secretly stuck in the end” etc.).

  29. 89
    Billy Smart on 25 Aug 2010 #

    Ah! I’ve remembered the exception to the rule of substandard hidden ‘bonus’ tracks – ‘Running The World’ on the first Jarvis Cocker solo album.

  30. 90
    punctum on 25 Aug 2010 #

    Cases where hidden tracks may be my favourites on the album: “Propaganda” and “The Pistol” on Let’s Get Free by Dead Prez, and “Sir Sir Sir” from Tiga’s Sexor.

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