And it Feels like Home – 25 Years of Like A Prayer

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“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.

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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.

The “gay marriage debate” – made for (but ill-served by) social media

The gay marriage ‘debate’ is, in many ways, made for liberals on social media. It’s easy to slot it into the ‘barbarians at the gate’ narrative which writers like Charlie Brooker have made a career out of, flattering the egos of a self-identified ‘enlightened’ group by contrasting them with an oppressive, bigoted ‘other’. Related to this, it allows that smug, trite superiority which many non-believers feel over the religious, who have become the symbolic receptacle of any and all anti-marriage sentiment (which itself has become synonymous with homophobia.) The debate feeds the unpleasant self-victimisation which is clung to by many privileged (white, middle-class) gay people – witness, with tiresome inevitability, the speed with which these people have once again rushed to analogise their ‘plight’ to that of black people (apartheid! segregation!) More than anything, it facilitates the sense of certainty and being right which Twitter absolutely thrives on.

As a result, yesterday largely seemed to consist of shrieking slanging matches where many people were acting like they believed themselves to be the UK’s modern-day equivalents of Rosa Parks. Yet rather than fury resulting from an engagement (even in an unproductive way) with people who believed differently, this largely seemed to feed off another one of Twitter’s more dangerous traits – that of it serving as an echo chamber. I could find barely anyone who was making arguments against gay marriage – instead there were scores of people shouting ‘me too!’ while working themselves into a frenzy and almost competing to see who could be most outraged. This reached a bizarre peak with hysterically overblown attacks on Labour for apparently indicating that they would give their MPs a free vote on the issue. This was, it seemed, the worst thing that had ever happened to the labour movement. Never mind clause 4 or the Iraq war, tuition fees or complicity in torture, adoption of most of the worst excesses of Thatcherism or woeful acquiescence to the austerity agenda – it was this procedural issue (one which will surely not even be noticed by most people) which had people threatening to leave the party in droves. This was especially odd given that Labour’s record on gay rights isn’t exactly as straightforwardly glittering as we’re now led to believe. Even more so since we only have to look to recent history to find Labour members assuring us that many gay people didn’t want marriage and civil partnerships brought “joy and security”. Indeed, a search for ‘Labour’ and ‘gay marriage’ in the final year of the Labour government brings only 21,500 results – in the past year this returns 340,000 results. Gay marriage is an idea for which the time has come and it’s very obvious that even many of the most vocal supporters did not even think about it only 2 years ago, making the righteous fury seem very ill-fitting.

This seems to stem from the rise and rise of Labour as ‘the Tories but nicer’. Economic issues, once the raison d’etre of the party, have increasingly been hollowed out and replaced by liberal concerns. Make no mistake, Labour today is a liberal party rather than a socialist one. It was notable that yesterday’s chorus of opprobrium drowned out confirmation that Labour will oppose one of the most shameful and harmful aspects of Osborne’s Autumn statement. This is the direction many of us want Labour to go in and one which has potential to make a real difference to the lives of millions of people – yet only a week after a statement which found the government’s plan for the economy in tatters and them further heaping the worst of this failure onto the poorest in society, much of the left was tearing itself apart over the almost-entirely symbolic issue of gay marriage. Some canny observers noted the timing of the government’s gay marriage announcement with suspicion. Judging by yesterday’s response, it’s difficult not to believe that they were correct to do so.

This of course raises wider issues, not least the question of what ‘equality’ means. The gay marriage debate is concerned only with a very narrow legal equality (and perhaps in a wider sense with civil rights) and almost no-one who loudly bangs on about it seems to pause to think about ‘equality’ in any other way. Yet many who oppose gay marriage do so not because they are homophobic but because they believe that we should be pulling away from the state privileging certain relationships between consenting adults over others, not striving to cement it further. This is partly why some have readily agreed with David Cameron that gay marriage is an inherently conservative (and Conservative) idea, something which the angry righteousness of many supporters cannot possibly allow for. To go even wider, gay marriage is almost completely and utterly irrelevant to economic rights and economic equality, things which should be at the absolute core of any left-wing party. Yet we have the perverse spectacle of activists thanking a government, which is increasing inequality and poverty while dogmatically attacking those on benefits, for their stance on gay marriage. Do gay people exist outside of the economic sphere? Only the most sheltered and privileged of people could possibly expect a homeless gay person, a gay person whose benefits have been cut, a gay person who has been made unemployed, a gay person forced to use food banks, to be intrinsically grateful to the government because they will be able to call their partnership a ‘marriage’.

Inevitably, any move away from the state’s power to privilege certain relationships over others (‘marriage’) would upset some religious people. ‘Some’ being the important part of that sentence. The outpouring of hatred and contempt for the religious which many have engaged in as part of this ‘debate’ is horrific and certainly no better than the vile homophobia engaged in by some in the name of God. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of the British population has supported gay marriage since even before civil partnerships were introduced. Given that the latest census indicates that around 25% of the population is atheist, it surely follows that many religious people support gay marriage? Rather than devoting so much energy to the loud minority who espouse homophobic views it would perhaps be more productive to engage with the quiet majority who don’t. Having been raised Catholic, attending church regularly and going to a Catholic school, I tend to find the lazy superiority of many self-proclaiming atheists to be utterly repugnant. Being religious doesn’t mean you abandon your critical faculties and being atheist doesn’t mean that you are a brave champion of rationality. I still have many religious family members, friends, workmates and acquaintances and absolutely none of them, whether Christian or Muslim or Sikh, has ever had a problem with my sexuality. So as flattering to your ego as it is to celebrate your intellectual superiority over those who believe in ‘old men sitting on clouds in the sky’ (why is it always variations on that?!) I think debate and progression would be better served by getting off the war horse and realising that most folk are actually pretty decent (and indeed that not everyone opposed to gay marriage is religious or even homophobic.)

This applies generally and, of course, takes me back to the beginning because Twitter and the like are fundamentally based on self-validation and polarisation rather than deep engagement or self-reflection. The gay marriage question being played out on these forums has rendered it enormously tiresome and poisonous and we would do well to think about the nature of ‘equality’ and how our own treatment of others is inescapably part of that. Social media has ill-served this debate.

A secularist, he says, is someone who appeals to natural reason, and not to divine law. And this kind of reason is by definition something shared by both sides in the argument. But the militant secularist takes for granted that “the religious” have no access to reason. There can be no reasoning with his opponents. All he can do is to repeat himself more loudly until the idiots understand.

The ‘new Atheism’ has become one of those totems of ‘liberalism’ that so many loudly proclaim but rarely seem to quietly contemplate. It was both funny and sad that much of the response I witnessed to Warsi’s comments consisted of lazy humour pushing the equally lazy line that religious people are all stupid, infantile bigots and atheists (or should that be ATHEISTS! as the particular breed I’m speaking about never shut up about it) are calm, rational beings. Self-awareness was not a strength of this argument, as one ‘rational’ person to another took a single sentence from Warsi’s quite lengthy speech, leapt to their own convenient conclusion about what it meant and used it to ridicule all religious people as being less intelligent than themselves. Even many who were presumably attempting a more conciliatory tone couldn’t resist a dig (e.g. ‘I will fight for the right of people to believe any silly fairy story they want’). Amongst the most egregious ‘jokes’ hurled in response to Warsi were those suggesting that ‘militant secularism’ had no historical acts of violence to rival the Crusades or ‘suicide bombers’. Where to even begin with the sheer stupidity of that line of thinking?!

It’s a shrieking, oppressive form of ‘debate’ which serves no purpose other than to make people feel better than other people. I would argue that no-one is truly ‘rational’ but any attempt to be so would surely quickly have to realise that stupidity and bigotry are not the sole preserve of the religious, or indeed particularly connected to the religious at all. I was raised as a Catholic, in a Catholic family, at a Catholic school. My boyfriend was raised as a Protestant. Our families remain Catholics and Protestants, as do many of our friends. The idea that any of these people lack the ability to make up their own minds about things but instead believe whatever they are told to (which is another problem given the many competing strands of thought in most major religions) is preposterous, offensive and dehumanising. In short, it’s about as far from ‘rational’ as it’s possible to be. 

Militant secularists fail to understand the rules of secular debate

This perfectly exposes the fundamental problem of separating crimes, particularly violent crimes, by various traits shared by victims and by their presumed causes. Much of the rhetoric aggressively voiced by many gay activists (and indeed wider) could be (and is) portrayed as ‘anti-Catholic’. If you have a story like this, one ‘side’ will use it to bash the other. ‘Look! Look what your words lead to!’ And the other ‘side’ will take a story like this and say the same thing. It becomes a matter of various interest groups competing to be the most victimised and most able to spin a suitable narrative from that. The violence becomes lost in this – any common empathy and, most importantly, common response to it becomes all but impossible.

It also dehumanises the victims who increasingly cease to be seen as human beings and are instead reduced to an abstract ‘difference’: a ‘gay’, a ‘Catholic’. You could see this in the instant response to the murder of Stuart Walker . He immediately became ‘a gay man’ who had been murdered because of his sexuality. As that link shows, this interpretation spread worldwide very quickly (in a way in which it would not have had Stuart not been gay – I don’t imagine very many people outside of Scotland are aware of the case of Zoe Nelson, for example). Then, over the course of the evening, some possible ‘explanations’ (not justifications, of course) for the murder came out (some of them quite unsavory). As quickly as he had become ‘a gay’ martyr, Stuart was dropped. The column which Patrick Strudwick (yes, him again) had written within 24 hours of the discovery of Stuart’s body never appeared, and anyone familiar with his work will know why – it would have fixated on Stuart’s sexuality and used it to push a narrative of increasing ‘hate crimes’ against gay people. Now, Stuart is of no use and I doubt most of the people who expressed outrage at his death are even aware that someone was caught and charged with it (the Pink Paper did report Stuart’s funeral last week but they do tend to report on anything that happens to anyone gay, anywhere, ever).

I had a discussion about ‘hate crimes’ this year with a transexual woman. She agreed that they were a ridiculous and divisive concept. Yet she still wanted violence against transexuals to be classed as a ‘hate crime’ in legislation. Her (not unreasonable) reasoning was that, since hate crime legislation wasn’t going anywhere any time soon, her ‘community’ deserved that special recognition and protection too. In the frequently depressing discussion that recently sprung up about online abuse against females, I repeatedly saw people arguing that making this abuse a ‘hate crime’ was the way to deal with it. Where does it end and how many differences do we have to highlight before we step back and say ‘hold on…all murder (for example) is hateful and wrong, no matter who the victim is. No murder is ‘better’ than another. No murder is intrinsically more ‘tragic’ than another.’ That to me is real equality – expecting that I’ll be treated the same as anyone else, even if something dreadful happens to me. I don’t want to be reduced to my ‘difference’, thank you very much.

Most Scottish religious hate crimes ‘target Catholics’

This touches on something which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently – namely the reaffirming of liberal identity by the world around you. A few weeks ago I read a review of a play called ‘The Faith Machine’. It sounded like a subtle, complex piece which took standard liberal themes (such as the wickedness of religion and the superiority of First World attitudes to homosexuality) and turned them on their head, offering different viewpoints. Specifically, the review seemed to indicate that the play argued that humanity needs faith in something. Heck, even the Daily Mail raved about it, expressing much the same sentiments as the first review (which was from The Guardian).

So off I went, roping in my friend Matt. I’m not sure he has yet forgiven me. The play was absolutely nothing like I had imagined. It wasn’t complex in the slightest and instead was a one-note bore which served only to reaffirm the superiority of the liberal audience watching it. It offered up grotesque caricatures of Americans to laugh at and dismiss as they launched into idiotic diatribes about ‘terrorism’. It featured hysterically po-faced observations about ‘globalisation’ and religion which you would expect from the pen of a 16-year old particularly lacking in self-awareness. Worst of all, it featured a ‘heroine’ who was so smug, hectoring and caricatured (she reads LOTS OF LIBERAL NOVELS! She ADOPTS AFRICAN CHILDREN! She’s been HORRIFIED BY WHAT SHE SAW IN IRAQ!) that it was impossible not to root for the other characters, most of whom were imperfect but trying to do the right thing.

In short, it was utterly dreadful.

What really struck me, however, was the fact that everyone seemed to love it. I was sitting beside a couple of students who were whooping and clapping hysterically at the end. One of them even made a disparaging comment about me and Matt due to our less-than-enthusiastic reaction (okay, we may have laughed at a few ‘profound’ moments). We looked on Twitter afterwards and people writing about the play were universally raving about it and celebrating how it ‘really made (them) think’. I was dumbfounded. I don’t think there was any point in the play when anyone who fancied themselves as a liberal sort would have felt remotely uncomfortable, felt that something they believed in had been credibly challenged. Perhaps these people were all Daily Mail readers who were having dramatic conversions but I doubt it. Instead, like the films Ellen Jones writes about in this piece, they were people who were leaving having had their egos stroked and their worldviews confirmed.

I have been as guilty as buying into this as anyone but more and more I try to force myself to seek out views and opinions which challenge me. I am infuriated that there is an entire industry of columnists (Charlie Brooker, Caitlin Morin, Grace Dent, Barbara Ellen, Deborah Orr, Patrick Strudwick etc) who build careers on reaffirming the views of their readers (and some of them do it very well and are very entertaining). Can we imagine anyone reading anything by these people and feeling challenged anymore than we can imagine any of their audience reading Melanie Phillips and thinking ‘oh well she has a point there’? The high priest of this was of course Johann Hari and I’ve written enough about the response to his misdemeanours and how people seemed more interested in ‘agreeing’ with him than in any accuracy or integrity. Faith in your superiority has become an industry; a self-serving machine.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with enjoying things which present views you agree with, of course. ‘The West Wing’ built an entire series on doing this very well (though even then, it frequently offered shades of grey and a messy morality where sometimes good people did bad things for the right reasons etc). If, however, we wish to avoid descending into a comfortable, smug sense of superiority to the world around us we need to actively seek out new information and new opinions (and, again, I am speaking from experience here – I have certainly been comfortably smug). Ones which we will not feel comfortable with. We need to avoid celebrating bad works of art and bad journalism merely because we ‘agree’ with it. We need to engage critically with the world around us and avoid the attempt to shut this down by painting it as ‘being negative’. By keeping an intellectual hunger, a sense that we might be wrong about things and a belief that other people have valuable insights to offer us even if they are distant from our own, we keep ourselves grounded, aware and (I think) humane. Perhaps you do need faith in something more than yourself and your own rationality to aspire to this, I don’t know. I certainly would not have been caused to dwell on it after ‘The Faith Machine’.

The Faith Machine

A flawed, but interesting article. The rise of ‘New Atheism’ has spawned a raft of people who believe they are superior (both mentally and morally) to anyone religious purely on account of not being religious. It’s lazy thinking that demonstrates no critical thought and no recognition that ‘religious people’ are not a homogenous mass of open-mouthed idiots drooling over everything they are told by their ‘Church’. The utter contempt which I now quite frequently see aimed at all religious people by some is trite and serves no purpose other than to reinforce the sneerer’s view of themselves.

Could this be the church to calm our secularist outrage?