23
Aug 10

MADONNA – “Like A Prayer”

FT + Popular147 comments • 10,086 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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Comments

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  1. 91
    lex on 25 Aug 2010 #

    I’m so glad the itunes generation has put paid to the kind of hidden track that made the final track of an album, like, 20 minutes long, 10 of which were silent – annoying if either the last proper track was good but you were saddled with a 20-minute mp3, or if the hidden track was good and you had to skip forward to it. Annoyingly no one seems to have bothered to make the separate stand-alone tracks available on eg itunes for some old examples of this. I think the best hidden track I can think of offhand is Kelis’s cover of “I Don’t Care Any More” on Wanderland, Jay-Z used to do it regularly too.

    Unlisted songs that have their own track are fine, one of the most prominent was probably Lauryn Hill’s cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” – the only hidden track to wind up getting nominated for a Grammy ever? Oh yeah and Janet Jackson released the hidden track on janet., “Whoops Now”, as the album’s final UK single.

  2. 92
    lex on 25 Aug 2010 #

    W/r/t “pop songs shouldn’t be long” – totally disagree, I never bought that there was an “ideal” length for a pop song. Some songs need to be epics, some need to be snappy, I can’t actually think of many examples where a song is overly long enough to be annoying (exception: most of the tracks on Keri Hilson’s last album seemed to go on rather unnecessarily). I used to think Amerie’s “1 Thing” was too long until I noticed the awesome counterpoint melody that develops in the last couple of minutes.

  3. 93
    fivelongdays on 25 Aug 2010 #

    My personal favourite ‘hidden tracks’ are the ones on ‘Dookie’ by Green Day, ‘High Anxiety’ by Therapy? and ‘Safe As Fuck’ by Goldie Lookin’ Chain (which requires one to rewind the CD at the start).

    I realise everyone here will mock me for my taste. Oh well…

    EDITED TO ADD: I’ve also noticed that, in Ireland, this was knocked off the top spot by ‘Paradise City’, which, along with all the other singles released from ‘Appetite for Destruction’, is a surefire 10 in my books.

  4. 94
    vinylscot on 25 Aug 2010 #

    World Party’s “Kuwait City”, hidden at the end of the “Bang” CD (on initial copies anyway) was better than anything else on the album, although by that time I think everyone except “Q” magazine was beginning to tire of them.

    ….and a hidden track after twenty minutes of silence is at least preferable to a thirty-six minute crap track like “Section 10 (A Long Day)” at the end of the Polyphonic Spree’s “The Beginning Stages of…..”

  5. 95
    Matthew H on 25 Aug 2010 #

    That Stone Roses ‘hoedown’ scared the bejesus out of me when I left the CD playing the day I bought it.

    Most irritating example for me is ‘Check On It’ at the end of B’Day which then becomes the wretched ‘Listen’ and – I think – something else. Totally ruins ‘Check On It”s last.fm/iPod stats.

  6. 96
    LondonLee on 25 Aug 2010 #

    “Diamond Dogs” ends with a locked groove. How do they reproduce that effect on a CD? I’ve never heard it in that format.

    And Monty Python’s “Matching Tie and Hankerchief” album has a double groove on side two so the album actually has three sides. Freaked me out when I was young and, after getting the same side two for several listens, I suddenly heard a whole different record. Felt like I’d fallen into another dimension or something.

  7. 97
    MikeMCSG on 25 Aug 2010 #

    #78 Slightly pre-dating The Look , “TV” by The Flying Lizards.

  8. 98
    Erithian on 25 Aug 2010 #

    Best – the truly beautiful “Gyda Gwen” from Catatonia’s “Way Beyond Blue”.
    Worst – what can only be described as 22 minutes of wibble at the end of Queen’s posthumous “Made in Heaven”.

    Mark Shipper’s Beatle-story spoof “Paperback Writer”, which we’ve discussed on here before, tells of “droners” (IIRC) – people who sit for hours listening to the run-off groove at the end of “Sgt Pepper”. There was one droner who listened to nothing else for eight years until he went out and bought a copy of “Venus and Mars”, and after playing that album – you’re no doubt ahead of me here – put Pepper back on because he preferred the drone.

  9. 99
    Matthew K on 25 Aug 2010 #

    #28 “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.”
    Outstanding – insights like this make me pore over the comments on Popular instalments.

  10. 100
    Billy Smart on 25 Aug 2010 #

    Of course! The greatest hidden bonus track ever predates the CD: ‘Train in Vain’ on ‘London Calling’. Top that!

  11. 101
    punctum on 25 Aug 2010 #

    “English Rose” by the Jam on All Mod Cons.

  12. 102
    thefatgit on 25 Aug 2010 #

    I downloaded the mp3 Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “F# A# infinty” and missed out on the locked groove at the end of “Bleak Uncertain Beautiful…” :(

  13. 103
    Rory on 25 Aug 2010 #

    @94 Well remembered, vinylscot, I was trying to think what that was called. Loved World Party at the time.

    The Stone Roses hoedown was my least-favourite hidden track until I heard Ash’s “Sick Party” on 1977. At least the hoedown was on an album I didn’t actually want to listen to.

  14. 104
    Rory on 25 Aug 2010 #

    Reading up on hidden tracks at Wikipedia, here’s one the Kylie fans among you will appreciate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbNC3OgBFAw

  15. 105
    DietMondrian on 25 Aug 2010 #

    Re: double grooves – and the second mention in this thread for the Primitives – the Spells EP alternate 12″ had Earth Thing and Empathise on a double groove on the A side, leading to about five aborted starts per play as I kept getting Empathise when hoping for Earth Thing.

  16. 106
    Martin Skidmore on 25 Aug 2010 #

    Double grooves were a real missed opportunity. I thought songs where there was any possible tension about the conclusion could have been recorded twice with alternate endings, and put on the same side with a double groove so you wouldn’t know what you were hearing until the end. A great example would be Roy Orbison’s Running Scared, where he spends the song terrified of the return of his beloved’s last love, and then in the last verse he turns up: “My heart was breaking / Which one would it be / You turned around and walked awayyyyy with MEEEEEEEE!” We could have had another with the penultimate word changed to “from”.

  17. 107
    lex on 25 Aug 2010 #

    #95 “Check On It” and “Listen” were both separate, stand-alone tracks on the reissue of B’Day; in any case, a stand-alone mp3 of “Check On It” shouldn’t be hard to track down given that it was a single.

    One proper closing track I’d really like as a separate mp3 is Amy Winehouse’s “Amy, Amy, Amy” off her debut – one of her best songs, I think, but only available as a 13-minute track with two hidden covers (I forget what) attached.

  18. 108
    loomer on 25 Aug 2010 #

    Re: length of pop songs, well it depends on the song. I wasn’t meaning the old “classic 3 minute pop song” ethos cause we aren’t in the Beatles/Motown era where songs were in the 2 minute range. Amerie’s “1 Thing” is amazing, I never thought that was long, it’s just the average length of songs these days. What I had in mind was simple repetitive bubblegum type songs exceeding 5 minutes.

    Take Madonna’s debut, there were only 8 songs so the tracks were long. The album version of “Holiday” is more than 6 minutes, Borderline, Lucky Star and Everybody are all over 5 minutes too. Same for “Cherish”. While these full versions are good, for me the edited single versions have more replay value (although it’d have to be the video version of “Cherish” cause that was another bad edit). There’s the conflict between dance and pop which dictates some of these songs have to be longer I suppose. Everyone has their own ideas of what songs they think are overlong.

  19. 109
    flahr on 25 Aug 2010 #

    #106 I’ve read about comedy records (presumably like the Monty Python one above) that did that, viz. have two different endings for two different grooves. I think MAD Magazine put out one or two.

    I dunno how but the album La Roux has it so that when played on CD there’s about two minutes of silence before the ‘hidden* track’ but ripping it yields the song without any lead-in silence. That’s the proper way to handle it.

    *of course most of the time now the hidden track is listed but just in slightly smaller lettering; at least Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid made a (risible) attempt to hide it by colouring it grey

  20. 110
    23 Daves on 25 Aug 2010 #

    A trivial, personal aside regarding “Like A Prayer” – for the first week or so, I thought that the line “Let the choir sing” was actually “Level crossing!”. Why Madonna mid-song would have chosen to blurt out “level crossing” in a panicked way defies any kind of rational explanation at all, but to this day that’s what I hear whenever she comes to that line.

  21. 111
    Matthew H on 25 Aug 2010 #

    #107 Yeah but, you know, I only wanted to buy it once.

  22. 112
    lonepilgrim on 25 Aug 2010 #

    with regard to the various mixes of Madonna’s singles – is there a site that can provide some guidance to the best or better versions? Or can folks here help? I appreciate that there may be some difference of opinion!
    I used to own The Immaculate Conception on vinyl but it seems that the version of LAP on TIC is suspect and there seems to be some doubt cast on the current greatest hits package.

  23. 113
    Hofmeister Bear on 25 Aug 2010 #

    #112 There’s a large thread somewhere on the Steve Hoffman forum related to what you want. Finding it is another thing entirely. Most of the Madonna fan forums seem to require signing up first before you can even view them.

  24. 114
    lex on 25 Aug 2010 #

    #108 It makes sense that Madonna’s early singles were unusually long by pop single standards, at that point she was basically a dance act, right? And tracks made for club consumption are usually longer to allow them to be mixed into other tracks in a DJ set.

    #112 Of Madonna’s ’80s material I’ve only ever owned The Immaculate Collection and the original albums – so no single-only or video-only versions – and I don’t know whether there are any non-TIC, non-LP mixes that are superior, but I love all the LP versions I have.

  25. 115
    Elsa on 26 Aug 2010 #

    #109: the flexi record MAD magazine put out in 1980 had no fewer than eight variant grooves (eight possible endings). Song’s called “It’s a Super Spectacular Day.”

    http://threshold.vox.com/library/post/mad-magazine-its-a-super-spectacular-day.html

  26. 116
    swanstep on 26 Aug 2010 #

    @112. lex@114 has the right idea – only the Immaculate Collection versions of things are must-avoids, and the original album versions of things are normally very good and often often differ only subtlely from any single version. The biggest problems arise with songs that weren’t originally on M. albums, esp. Into the Groove and Crazy for You. The former, which was completely wrecked on the IC, has at last been replaced by the single version on Celebration (and in any case, for whatever reason, ITG’s cd-single has been widely collected and is pretty easily tracked down for a download). The latter, perhaps because CFY’s IC version *wasn’t* a complete trainwreck, has just been left in that version on Celebration.

    This is incredibly irritating. As far as I know, the original 4 min 8 sec version of CFY (which is about 20 sec longer, with a thicker bass sound, less up-front treble-synth wittering, and a different, more live-sounding reverb on the drums), still isn’t available on any Madonna album. It’s worth tracking down if you can.

  27. 117
    Popsmitten on 26 Aug 2010 #

    Proof that it’s easy to be pretentious about pop music. Did all this pass through Madonna’s mind when she sang this? I doubt it. It’s a great pop song because you can read all this into it and still be wide of the mark.

  28. 118
    lex on 26 Aug 2010 #

    @116 – I have “Into The Groove” on the reissued version of Like A Virgin – it’s obv not the TIC travesty but is the original single version different again?

  29. 119
    punctum on 26 Aug 2010 #

    #117: D-.

  30. 120
    Tom on 26 Aug 2010 #

    You’re right of course Popsmitten, it’s actually about toast.

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