“You mean they don’t realize I’m a songwriter as well as a slut? It’s the image that gets in the way. What am I supposed to do? The information is on the label. If they don’t read it, that’s not my problem. I’m not going to put a sticker on the outside of the album that says, “Listen–I wrote these songs!” You know, they pay attention to what they want to pay attention to”.
Today, it’s exactly 25 years since Like a Prayer; the lead single from the Madonna album released on 21 March 1989 went on sale. It blazed it’s way into society amidst a Pepsi deal gone wrong against the scandal of an incredible music video.
The album heralded a ‘new’ Madonna, writing from the heart about spirituality, domestic violence and her relationship with her family (including the death of her mother) and kick started the repositioning of the mega-stars reputation as artist over pop strumpet.
Spawning 6 single releases internationally over a 10 month period, Madonna’s fourth studio album is widely considered some of her finest work by both fans and industry.
Written almost entirely by Madonna and Patrick Leonard (Stephen Bray co-wrote Express Yourself and Keep it Together, Prince co-wrote Love Song) the LP hit number 1 in most territories and to date has sold over 15million copies.
Here we take a look back at the songs with a little help from critics and fans and revisit Madonna’s experience of making the record.
Madonna on how the song Like a Prayer came about:
“Don’t know! It just…came out of my head. Pat had the chord changes for the verse and the chorus. We hadn’t written the bridge yet. I really wanted to do something really gospel oriented and a capella, with virtually no instrumentation, just my voice and an organ. So we started fooling around with the song, and we’d take away all the instrumentation so that my voice was naked. Then we came up with the bridge together, and we had the idea to have a choir. In almost everything I do with Pat, if it’s uptempo, there’s a Latin rhythm or feeling to it. It’s really strange”.
Teddy Jamieson – Like a Prayer
In a way it’s almost too easy to choose Like a Prayer as the Madonna track. Written with Patrick Leonard, it is her most nakedly obvious attempt at pop classicism (gospel choirs and all). I’d be happy to argue that Papa Don’t Preach was the most successful – and moving – lyric she ever wrote, and some of her most interesting music would emerge in the nineties after she’d stopped selling 20 million albums every go (not that 2 million copies is to be sniffed at either).
But then pop’s pleasures often work best when they’re obvious, when they’re immediate, when they’re in your face. And Like a Prayer is in your face.
Part of that is down to the tune itself, but you could also point to Mary Lambert’s thrillingly offensive video. Against a backdrop of burning crosses, it not only argues that Jesus was black but that Madonna might be having sex with him. Always running in parallel, Madonna’s fervent attraction to and feminist rejection of the orthodoxies of the Catholic Church was one of her most significant creative accelerants. Plus she enjoyed noising people up. And, ever the smart businesswoman, she knew there was money in it.
The sex button was an easy one to push in a country that was both politically and culturally conservative in that decade. It was to Madonna’s credit that her sexuality never felt – to me at any rate – like something she was commodifying. Some of her critics felt that was exactly what she was doing, but as she sang on Human Nature “Express yourself, don’t repress yourself”. We can argue about whether that is the sensible, grown-up response.
Camille Paglia once argued that Madonna was the future of feminism for that very reason: “Madonna has a far profounder vision of sex than do the feminists. She sees both the animality and the artifice. Changing her costume style and hair colour virtually every month, Madonna embodies the eternal values of beauty and pleasure. Feminism says, ‘No more masks.’ Madonna says we are nothing but masks”.
That might be honest but it also opened the way for the music business to objectify almost every woman in the industry over the years that followed. For that reason Madonna’s image-making is not unproblematic.
But she also is a woman in charge of her life, of her career, of her image. She has never been a victim. That’s why her example matters.
That and the fact that Like a Prayer shows just what is possible in a simple pop song. Sex, religion, controversy. And a choir. I love that choir.
From The Herald Scotland: Not Fade Away, 60 Years 60 Songs – read more here
Stromo – Express Yourself
I wasn’t even born when Madonna released her first single, but for as long as I can remember I have known who she is. Like Bowie, Debbie Harry and Grace Jones before her, she always seemed other-worldly to me. One of the true pop stars that seemed to come from the moon – before any old charisma free chump could become a ‘star’ via the industry killing vehicle that is The X-Factor.
I remember hearing tracks from Like a Prayer as a child and being drawn in. The older I’ve gotten, I’ve got into her back catalogue. The album as a conceptual piece is brilliant. I read somewhere, that the LP sleeves were scented with Patchouli oils? I hope that’s true.
My favourite track is probably ‘Express Yourself’. It works on so many levels. The melody is infectious, the beat makes you want to dance and the lyrics are empowering. One of the first true ‘girl power’ anthems.
It is like a call to arms for equality for all – and not just the LGBT community. Which Lady Gaga tried to do, forcing an ‘LGBT anthem’ on us (using the same melody and chords) isn’t going to work, babes.
This was an empowering anthem for everyone. Regardless of gender, race, sexuality…
The act of self expression is vital for us all and it just doesn’t stop at the exit to the gay club. This is why Madonna’s songs can transcend communities. It’s about relate-ability. The freedom to express ourselves?
I think we can all relate to that.
What an album.
Barry Church-Woods – Love Song
When Like a Prayer came out 25 years ago there was a lot of excitement about Love Song, a duet between global superstars at the top of their game; Madonna and Prince. It turned out to be a real Marmite moment for fans, with many adoring it and others loathing it in equal measure. I for one couldn’t get enough of the tight harmonies and longed for a decent remix to set the nightclubs of my youth on fire. It never emerged. Until last year.
Luke Savant delivered this banging dance anthem as part of Madonna Remixers United.
A duet with Prince…here’s what Madonna had to say about the process…
“No, he didn’t give me a track. We 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. And then he overdubbed some guitar stuff and made a loop of it and sent it to me, and then I just started adding sections to it and singing parts to it. And then I sent it back to him, and he’d sing a part to it and add another instrument and send it back to me…it was like this sentence that turned into a paragraph that turned into a little miniseries. So it was great. It was a completely different way to work. And because of our schedules and everything, and he was in Minnesota and he likes to work there and I like to work here. So we kind of sent it back and forth. He’s great. He’s a real interesting…unique talent”.
Sal Cinquemani – Till Death Do Us Part
How well the song has aged sonically may be at the mercy of Patrick Leonard’s then-state-of-the-art 1988 Yamaha keyboards, but the producer’s pointilistic use of synthesizers is, like on “Open Your Heart” before it and “I’ll Remember” after it, a thing to behold. No more so, however, than Madonna’s autobiographical account of her turbulent marriage to Sean Penn. In a song filled with lyrics that sting, this is but one: “You’re not in love with someone else/You don’t even love yourself/Still I wish you’d ask me not to go.” That barely perceptible whirring engine at the very end of the song is the sound of her going.
T. L. Cooper – Promise to Try
Deeply emotional, the ballad Promise to Try will touch anyone who’s ever lost a loved one and felt the need to remember while also moving forward. Every line of this song evokes an emotional response and immerses the listener in the singer’s pain. The depth of heartache in Promise to Try make it one of the most memorable songs on the album.
Michael Burge – Cherish
This is the world’s most perfect pop song. It’s about love, faith, joy, strength and it’s a celebration of life. When I first saw the clip with hunky mermen rollicking in the surf with Madonna, I knew there was something devastatingly different about me. Like many of the songs on Like a Prayer, the bridge in “Cherish” is a clearly articulated chant of defiance, demanding the listener join in the love.
I feel confident that even the most conservative, bigoted, closeted and hateful humans on the planet would muster unconscious foot tapping with this song on the radio in an open-topped car on the way to the beach.
And has the word “Underestimate” ever been used in a song to better effect?
HopRabbitBunny – Dear Jessie
With Like a Prayer sounding a lot different and more sophisticated, raw, organic and mature than anything Lady Madonna had done before, she was ready to be taken a lot more seriously by the rock crowd/audience. First off, her voice started to become a beautiful instrument. Secondly, a new man entered her life. Her Teacher was Patrick Leonard. No wonder Like a Prayer was to have psychedelic and orchestral touches. Madonna had just discovered her Beatles fetish/fixation. So Patrick gave her copies of Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sergeant Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. Madonna then aced her Beatle Final Exam at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor earning an A+. One day later in late summer/early fall of 88 she flew to Ocean Way in Los Angeles to begin work. On a record that was drenched in tears, there were a couple of lighthearted moments on Like a Prayer. One of them was a beautiful Ciccone lullaby ballad about Patrick’s daughter Jessie, who Madge had recently befriended. Thus, as a result-Dear Jessie appeals to the inner child in all of us. This beautiful psychedelic ballad-a song about “the love parade”-therefore is one of Our Lady’s most charming pieces.
Knowing that Lady Madonna would one day become a mother with Lola, Mercy, David and Rocco, Dear Jessie would set the stage for the following Maddy lullabies Secret, You Must Love Me, Nothing Really Matters, Little Star, What It Feels Like for a Girl, Intervention, X-Static Process, Easy Ride and Superstar. In any event, Dear Jessie is a beautiful Zohar gem-the Child’s Garden of Verses in Madonna’s brilliant catalog. In the Evidence of Her Brilliance!
Wendell – Oh Father
I have always loved a good Madonna ballad (Live to Tell, La Isla Bonita, You Must Love Me, et al). There is nothing like it. Like a Prayer had a couple of amazy ballads that really stand the test of time, but the depth and sorrow that accompanied Oh Father was mesmerizing. A tale about Madge herself, it shed light on the abusive relationship she had been in with her ex-husband Sean Penn, the somewhat strained relationship with her father and the feelings of guilt that come even from being a victim. The song itself, the fourth single from the Like a Prayer album, is one of Madonna’s most beautiful, moving and personal ever, unfortunately, it didn’t connect with her audience at large and only hit #20 on the billboard Hot 100, becoming Madge’s first single since Holiday in 1984 not to go top 10. Boo!! The video is an absolute masterpiece. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye. Semi-autobiographical in theme, we see a young girl in an abusive relationship with her father after her mother’s death, and Madonna as the adult version in a bad relationship with her boyfriend. It was directed by now-famed filmmaker David Fincher. So if you are in the mood, watch this heartbreaking video below.
Blaze – Keep It Together
Madonna has proven that she’s no blonde floozy and can fight it out with all the big guys. This record is a celebration of the era when we all knew Madonna was here to stay and continue amazing us with her inexplicable ability to continuosly change. Along with “Express Yourself”, “Keep It Together” is a longing cry to freedom and assertiveness. Madonna once again knows how to work the styles and sounds of the late 80’s. Classic and matured 80’s with a Madonna edge.
LeooAyala – Spanish Eyes
Such an amazing underrated track. The Latin infused beats with the thumps of the 80s create this perfect track. Madonna whispers words in Spanish making this song even more amazing. It’s like “La Isla Bonita” but with a sad love story. The male backing vocal adds a special touch to it.
Act of Contrition
The albums closer speaks for itself. A free thought improvisation from Madonna lyrically set over the Like a Prayer choral elements played backwards with Prince jamming on the electric guitar. As you do.
And there was have it. Like a Prayer turns 25 today and we’ve enjoyed it’s life so far.
On March 21st, we’ll be bringing you some rarities from the Like a Prayer sessions and some of our favourite cover versions from the album. Be sure not to miss it by joining over 36k other fans of LGBTicons by subscribing to LGBTicons now.