“Did this actually make you think or are you just trying to be cool?’
My first high school English teacher didn’t much care for my essay about Madonna’s Like A Prayer, returning it to me with the (barely) implicit message that I would write it again. I’d written about how, at the tail-end of my Catholic primary education, Madonna’s album (and particularly the furore around its first single) had opened up a small but ultimately invaluable space for me to start thinking about my relationship with religion. This had been previously been unthinkable for me; more than that, it had seemed terrifying. It felt intrinsically wrong. That the music so resonated with me is unsurprising when you read Madonna’s thoughts at the time:
“I have a great sense of guilt and sin from Catholicism that has definitely permeated my everyday life, whether I want it to or not. And when I do something wrong… if I don’t let someone know that I have wronged, I’m always afraid that I’m going to be punished. And that’s something you’re raised to believe as a Catholic.”
She spoke of the deeply-ingrained but nonetheless taught sense that “If you enjoy something, it must be wrong.” It was ironic, then, that prior to the school discos and end-of-term days where we could bring music into the classroom, we would be given the firm instruction “NO MADONNA”. This had the obvious effect of making Madonna seem infinitely cooler – even dangerous. And how often can you say that about pop music?
There has been nothing quite like the controversy which erupted around Like A Prayer, either before or since. The single was premiered in an innocuous Pepsi commercial, the product of a then-unprecedented $5 million tie-in deal.
The day after, the now-legendary music video was released. There was instant and widespread uproar, with accusations of blasphemy meeting barely-hidden racism regarding Madonna’s use of a ‘black Jesus’ (the video actually depicts Saint Martin de Porres). The Pope himself condemned the video and the Vatican later censured the whole album. Pepsi quickly ditched the campaign and Madonna kept the money, managing the quite incredible feat of appearing subversive while filling her bustier with multinational dollars.
We tend to believe that boundaries keep being pushed and we become less and less easy to shock. Yet if anything, the Like A Prayer tornado seems less likely to happen in 2014. Pop is more fragmented now, yes. Yet it also seems to carry less cultural weight and have less heady aspirations. The instant response to this in some quarters will be to point out that I’m just older. Sure. But we live in age where even self-confessed pop fans argue for the ‘right’ of pop to be meaningless, frothy background noise, thinking that this is fighting the good fight against elitism. Big artistic statements are so rare that Lady Gaga can hinge an entire career on the mere appearance of offering something beyond the interchangeable pop which dominates, with most of the big pop stars singing variations offered by the same few song-writing teams. Indeed, it’s notable that many listeners of contemporary Madonna long affectionately for the days when she would largely write an entire album with one or two other people (and relatively obscure people at that) – they may not realise it but they’re buying completely into notions of creativity and authenticity (in the spark between writers) which they would probably profess to scorn.
Going back to 1989, there was little overlap in the collaborators between the dominant artists of the era. Prince’s Batman was created by a total of three writers and one producer. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 – three writers and four producers. Even Kylie’s Enjoy Yourself is entirely driven by Stock Aitken and Waterman, with one cover version. Madonna’s Like A Prayer unashamedly revelled in its ‘rockist’ take on pop, drawing on inspirations like Simon and Garfunkel, Sly and the Family Stone, The Beatles and Stax Records. Madonna spoke of her love for Tom Waits in interviews of the period, while the album cover is a clear evocation of Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. This was no trite attempt to ‘elevate’ pop by name-dropping so-called serious artists – it was a refusal to countenance that pop wasn’t just as worthy and creative in the first place. If this seems overly worthy, the scenting of the album sleeve with patchouli oil surely provided a cheeky wink at the misunderstood blurred line between artifice and authenticity?
At the time this line was personified by Prince, so it’s unsurprising that Madonna wanted to work with him. What’s perhaps more surprising for some is that Prince equally wanted to work with her (Madonna laughed about how little respect she was afforded as an artist with a wry ““You mean they don’t realize I’m a songwriter as well as a slut?”) The two had gotten together in 1987 to figure out a collaboration: Prince wanted Madonna to star in Graffiti Bridge only for her to dismiss the script as ‘a piece of shit’ (she was right). A co-written musical was mooted and then abandoned. In the end, the two created some impromptu demos, with Madonna describing how they:
“…sat down and just started fooling around. We had a lot of fun. What happened is that he played the drums and I played the synthesizer and we came up with the original melody line; I just, off the top of my head, started singing lyrics into the microphone.”
Oh, to have been in that room. The result, Love Song, was largely finished off via a tape being sent back and forth (very 20th century) and it is perhaps the most low-key and left-field duet between two pop superstars that there has ever been. Some see it as the weak point of Like A Prayer – I think it’s a febrile treasure. The Purple One also pops up on Keep It Together and Act of Contrition, as well as the 12” version of Like A Prayer.
Prince aside, Madonna again worked with the two men who had largely guided 1986’s mammoth-selling True Blue album: Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray. Having collaborated with both for years by this point, there was an easy and magical chemistry. Things moved quickly, with Leonard later saying:
“Everything is very quick. We wrote ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Spanish Eyes’, ‘Til Death Do Us Part’, ‘Dear Jessie’, ‘Promise to Try’ and ‘Cherish’ in a two week period. I was working on another album at the time so she’d just come in on Saturdays or days off. Nothing took more than 4 hours ever.”
Bray summed up the mood which drove the writing forward with such speed: “It’s behind the scenes, definitely, in Madonna’s psyche.” Her relationship with Sean Penn had very publically disintegrated during the album’s genesis, with Madonna finally filing for divorce following a prolonged violent assault by Penn. Speaking about writing her most personal record to date, Madonna said:
“In the past I wrote a lot of songs like that, but I felt they were too honest or too frightening or too scary and I decided not to record them. It just seemed like the time was right at this point. Because this was what was coming out of me. “
‘Express yourself so you can respect yourself’ was no throwaway line – it’s a fundamental tenet of the record. The result may have been atypical of pop at the time but it was the continuation of a trend Madonna had both pushed and ridden. True Blue’s Live To Tell was the obvious precursor, while Janet Jackson’s Control (also released in 1986) had attracted much attention for its very public rejection of her father Joseph’s influence (and indeed Janet too would push deeper with the themes of Rhythm Nation 1814). You can nonetheless imagine that it was still shocking to hear a pop superstar of Madonna’s calibre singing about an abusive partner, a dead mother and a dysfunctional family.
It’s not noted enough how central the theme of family is to Like A Prayer, despite it being writ large on the record. It is dedicated to her mother, who provides the inspiration for the naked emotion of Promise To Try. Her father is the subject of Oh Father (funnily enough) while on Keep It Together she addresses her five siblings. Til Death Do Us Part of course addresses her former husband while the psychedelic joy of Dear Jessie is aimed at Pat Leonard’s daughter Jessie whom Madonna had apparently gotten drunk on champagne in 1987. If much of the family on display here is messy and messed up it’s clear that Madonna views it as central to life: “don’t forget that your family is gold”, she sings on Keep It Together, positing them as the key to remembering the essential core of yourself.
It was a self I was still finding, let alone coming to terms with, in 1989 and the following years. Like A Prayer more than any other record not only accompanied me on that journey but helped me to discover myself. It didn’t explode my world wide open but rather, as I said at the start, created a small space where the seeds for what became defining questions about my life were planted. I haven’t even touched on my burgeoning sexuality and how Madonna at the time was by far the most prominent advocate of gay rights (Like A Prayer featured an educational insert about AIDS while the song Spanish Eyes has been said to be about the disease). I’m sure I picked up on that connection, somewhere, but truth be told it was buried deep within me at that stage; I had to get out from under the whole Catholic sinner thing before I could even begin to visit those places. Happily, Madonna would be there for that part too.
So happy 25th anniversary to Like A Prayer, a pop album which remains unparalleled in my humble opinion. More than any other it shows what pop can really be and why it demands to be taken seriously rather than defended as irrelevant fluff. It’s a record which continues to matter while containing some mercurial, evergreen singles – it remains a watershed moment in pop. Its DNA can be found when Christina Aguilera announces herself as a ‘serious artist’ by getting personal on Stripped; when Rihanna turns the travails of her private life into brilliant music on Rated R and (of course) when Lady Gaga pays ‘homage’ to one of its most famous singles. We now don’t bat an eyelid when, on her most recent album MDNA, Madonna sings of her second failing marriage on songs like I Fucked Up and Falling Free (it’s surely no accident that her second divorce album picks up where the first one ends, with a recitation of the Act of Contrition?)
Was I ‘trying to be cool’ when I wrote that essay back then? Probably. I certainly felt cool liking the record at the time but by God, it really did make me think and it made me feel. Rolling Stone famously called the album ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. It may have been intended as a great compliment but fuck that. Like A Prayer is art – great art, at that. And when I listen to it now? It feels like home.