Tom wrote about this on Popular here: so here is a project ending couple of thoughts.
“Life is a mystery”. But Madonna doesn’t mean a mystery like the kind Sherlock solves three times a year, or even the kind they solve using CSI in Las Vegas, New York or Miami (with or without sunglasses). What Madonna means here is that “Life is a mystery” sounds, in itself, mysterious. Smart. Sexy. A bit deep. Like a good lyric.
Compare that opening to the main couplet in the chorus: “When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer”. Now this sounds self-aggrandizing, perhaps a little big headed, a typical silly lyric – but of course is factually correct. If you call her name: “Madonna”, it is indeed like a little prayer, it is a little prayer to the Virgin. All of which lies at the heart of this terrific song. It earns its religiosity, by being factually religious and reassuringly secular at the same time.
This is a world Italian American Madge knows well, she knows the buttons she can push in the video (it’s a Black Jesus on the cross – not her after all, a female Jesus would be a step too far in 1989 in a way it was totally fine in the 00’s). And the whole thing is bundled up like one big simile – I wonder if these days she would have bothered with the “Like A” – when it came to the prayer. But it is the “Like A” that also allows the secular world in. We may not pray like her, we may not pray at all, but we understand the purity of the sensation she is referring to. And it is an oblique callback to “Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free”, the prayer comparison comes from the romantic pairing, but the music makes it more than clear with its ersatz gospel flourishes and raw dancefloor power that the real thing that is like a prayer here is dancing to a ridiculous song. The Beatles might have been bigger than Jesus, the Stone Roses may have declared themselves the resurrection a few years later, but Madonna understands the communion between feet and dancefloor here like few before or after. Which is a bit of a mystery.