Like a Prayer

Albums: Like a Prayer (1989), The Immaculate Collection (1990), I’m Going to Tell You a Secret (2005), Celebration (2009)
Songwriters/producers: Madonna/Patrick Leonard

How strange that a work as immense as Like a Prayer begins with guitar by none other than Prince, the consummate pop artist - and almost immediately, the sound of a door slamming shut. In that single second of sound lies a symbolism that is both entirely fitting - Madonna enclosing herself in stridently spiritual feelings, discarding the past - and entirely unsuitable - for surely art this distinctive does nothing but open metaphorical doors? Like a Prayer is a near-six minutes of reconciled contradictions; where most artists say one thing and mean it, Madonna speaks with a myriad number of connotations - each one completely intentional, completely true.

Essentially, the most resonant, transcendent moments in Madonna’s career have been where her music, lyrics, video, image and public perception align in a way that allows her to, for a brief point in time, embody the concept of the song or album itself. Though their musical brilliance is undeniable, they are not so much songs as cultural experiences inseparable from the visual and emotional associations they carry.

Where Like a Virgin both flouted and winked at Madonna’s Catholic roots, Like a Prayer is its inverse - the reverent atmosphere feels like the more mature sacred to Like a Virgin’s playful profane. But the truth lies in between; the religious context allows Madonna to be more subversive than ever before, elevating the romantic sexual experience to that of a spiritual epiphany. On the surface, some would see it as her repenting at confession, disowning her past behaviour, but if anything, Like a Prayer in fact justifies her sexuality. This process of unification is really what she’d been doing all along; with the Virgin Mary’s name reclaimed by the sex symbol of a whole generation, perhaps one of her feminist aims was to shatter the Madonna-whore complex at the heart of the religious patriarchy?

The sheer density of Like a Prayer’s lyrics is stunning - Madonna uses the brevity of pop lyrics to great effect by fitting so many associations into each phrase. Lines like “When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer” refer to the Catholic reverence of her namesake like literally no other artist could, and “I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there” - both a position of prayer and a suggestion that she wants to give as much as she receives - truly make the sacred and the profane inseparable. At the song’s core is the concept of “la petite mort” - French for “the little death”, a reference to the post-orgasmic state of bliss that borders on the transcendent. One theory goes that in that state of creation, removed from the worldly and material, such pleasure is where we are closest to God - similarly to the idea of prayer as conference with God. My interpretation of Like a Prayer is essentially that Madonna views love, taken to its most intimate point, as an experience so natural and overwhelming it borders on evangelizing. Make of it what you will.

And I’ve barely touched on the music, which is as conflicting and brilliant as every other aspect. Despite having arguably the single best use of a gospel choir in all of popular music, theirs is a Protestant form of expression, not Catholic - but it’s also Madonna being as racially and musically inclusive as ever to the point of stepping out of the vocal spotlight for much of the song. The atmosphere, as established by Prince’s (uncredited) guitar, Guy Pratt’s jumpy bass and in particular the massive choir and church organ is truly unique - few songs have ever managed to be both funky and expansively epic. Patrick Leonard is arguably Madonna’s most consistent collaborator, and on Like a Prayer, their immense ambition pays off. To quote Sal Cinquemani of Slant Magazine, “‘Like a Prayer’ climbs to heights like no other pop song before it—or after.”

Controversy: the first sign of a cultural event. Madonna received $5 million for her endorsement of Pepsi - firstly appearing in the “Make a Wish” commercial and extending to the company’s sponsorship of her next tour. But upon seeing Like a Prayer’s full music video, Pepsi executives pulled the advertisement, attempting to remove their brand’s association with the “inevitable” of outrage they knew would result. It was only ever aired twice, which is a shame - for what now seems like an excellent, surprisingly uncontrived bit of cross-promotion would then have been utterly mind-blowing, considering it was the song’s world debut. Indeed, the images contrasting Madonna at the height of her success with a younger, dreamy version of herself are genuinely touching. Though nowhere near enough people saw the ad for it to make an imprint on the public consciousness, any publicity was good publicity. Madonna probably gained more from its cancellation, if anything - she kept the $5 million advance, and historically, the song is undiluted by any commerciality, having lost any associations with Pepsi in the eyes of the public.

(This excellent 1992 article runs through the series of events as only one who lived through them could.)

MTV / YouTube

And what a video it turned out to be. In the present day, we’re too far removed to feel the full force of the reactions - but in 1989, many viewed it as completely sacrilegious in both its adoption and subversion of Catholic imagery. As usual, this was the result of misinterpretation, a superficial reaction to the images and not their intended meaning. But in a way, it’s hard to blame the conservative outcry - though the video is stunning on a purely visual level, the out-of-order narrative it presents requires multiple viewings to understand, though it is all the more rewarding for it. Madonna herself explains the chronological order of events best:

"A girl on the street witnesses an assault on a young woman. Afraid to get involved because she might get hurt, she is frozen in fear. A black man walking down the street also sees the incident and decides to help to woman. But just then, the police arrive and arrest him. As they take him away, she looks up and sees one of the gang members who assaulted the girl. He gives her a look that says she’ll be dead if she tells. The girl runs, not knowing where to go, until she sees a church. She goes in and sees a saint in a cage who looks very much like the black man on the street, and says a prayer to help her make the right decision. He seems to be crying, but she is not sure. She lies down on a pew and falls into a dream in which she begins to tumble in space with no one to break her fall. Suddenly she is caught by [an African American woman] who represents earth and emotional strength and who tosses her back up and tells her to do the right thing. Still dreaming, she returns to the saint, and her religions and erotic feelings begin to stir. The saint becomes a man. She picks up a knife and cuts her hands. That’s the guilt in Catholicism that if you do something that feels good you will be punished. As the choir sings, she reaches an orgasmic crescendo of sexual fulfillment intertwined with her love of God. She knows that nothing’s going to happen to her if she does what she believes is right. She wakes up, goes to the jail, tells the police the man is innocent, and he is freed. Then everybody takes a bow as if to say we all play a part in this little scenario."
- Madonna (via a brilliant in-depth essay by Shmoop)

What’s astonishing is that the video manages to add more layers of meaning to the song, turning it into something of a parable as it likens the black man, punished for giving assistance, to a saint. Though he was in fact meant to be Saint Martin de Porres, Madonna and director Mary Lambert would have been well aware that his character would be interpreted as a black Christ, with the outrage towards that suggestion highlighting a modern racial inequality. With the breathtaking scene of a fierce-looking Madonna dancing in a field of burning crosses, it’s a little harder to say - perhaps an attempt to reclaim traditionally racist imagery? And finally, Madonna’s act of attesting to his innocence borders on the orgasmically rewarding; her stigmata a possible indication that she is doing as Jesus would, and will be punished for it (not in the video, but for spreading its message in real life).

For the images indelibly burned into the collective cultural consciousness; for the power of its message - for even having a message; and for the sheer fervor of the public response, Like a Prayer has my vote for the greatest music video of all time.


Express Yourself

Albums: Like a Prayer (1989), The Immaculate Collection (1990), Celebration (2009)
Songwriters/producers: Madonna/Stephen Bray

"Come on, girls! Do you believe in love? ‘Cause I got something to sing about it, and it goes something like this…"

N.W.A., the seminal hip-hop act and pioneers of gangsta rap outrage, have a lot more in common with Madonna than you’d think… that is, besides both having classic 1989 singles called Express Yourself. When N.W.A.’s version called for rappers not to hold back, to forget the censorship pop music demands, they might as well have been rapping about Madonna - for who else could successfully funnel counterculture and controversy into the confines of a #1 single? Her take on Express Yourself is an insistent denial to anyone who ever took her mock-Material Girl image at face value, and one of the clearest, most inclusive feminist messages ever put to song.

Madonna’s brand of sex-positive feminism is true equality in that it acknowledges men - with no possible accusations of man-hating, any objections can be blamed on the insecurities of domineering macho types. Though she uses every bit of her iconic status to call on women to “make him express himself”, the song’s title, Express Yourself, is also an appeal to male listeners to prove they deserve the women they’re with. “Long-stemmed roses are the way to your heart, but he needs to start with your head” - not the other-way-around double entendre, for material gifts are one thing, but intelligence and empathy go a long way. It perfectly reinforces Madonna’s oft-misinterpreted sexual politics - firstly, that to be desired is empowering, and secondly, that a visible, free-spirited sexuality can be for one’s own sake, and not imply a come-on to any man that’ll have her. As she’d soon whisper on Justify My Love, “poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another” - and of course, the same goes for women. The heart of the song isn’t a series of demands towards men, but a celebration of womanhood - beautiful, empowered, self-sufficient, but partial to a partner who really can “lift you to your higher ground”… mutually.

Madonna’s original roots may have been in disco, an essentially black form of music, but Express Yourself turns time back to the late ’60s, a perfectly authentic tribute to soul if there ever was one. The album version’s horn section, effortlessly bouncy bassline and generous backing vocals make it a Respect-level anthem for the 1980s, with the difference that Express Yourself (despite having some of Madonna’s strongest vocals) could actually be sung along to. However, Shep Pettibone’s 7” remix was released as the single and video, and included on both The Immaculate Collection and Celebration. With most of the band replaced with synthesisers and house beats - the kind that’d be explored more fully the subsequent year on Vogue - it lacks the album version’s depth, though it’s a little more danceable, more commercial and still excellent nonetheless.

MTV / YouTube

The video for Express Yourself is really the start of Madonna’s Blond Ambition phase - the queen taking place on her throne, revelling in the attention, but always shining the light back onto her subjects. Ever since Material Girl, her ability to pay tribute to the icons before her time and not steal from, but reinterpret them, was much of what cemented her own timelessness. Express Yourself effectively takes the surreal industrial imagery of Fritz Lang’s classic film Metropolis and spins it into something else altogether. It puts Madonna at the top, the epitome of the successful career woman - stunningly beautiful, totally feminine, but also able to dominate in traditionally male roles - as shown by the contrast between her usually curvy appearance and that tense dance in an oversized tuxedo. She oversees a bunch of almost-as-beautiful male factory workers, but while they work, exercise and engage in the traditional competitive male form of conflict resolution - fighting - one man aspires to a little more. Instead of taking part in the macho cockfighting, he looks after Madonna’s adventurous black cat, giving him the balls to take the elevator straight to her bedroom and seduce her. The way I see it, his disregarding of “traditional” masculinity, and his empathy symbolised by the cat are proof of his worth as a lover, a partner - and perhaps Madonna’s crawling to lap up a bowl of milk shows that she is the cat? Throw into the mix a creepy suited observer (her husband? the boss?) and his wind-up horn section and you have a work of art every bit as metaphorically complex as Like a Prayer. And you have to give her credit for gender equality, as always - rather than reducing the female sexuality on show, getting half-naked male models to work out on MTV was a pretty effective way to even out all the eye candy on display. A classic in every sense of the word.



Albums: Like a Prayer (1989), The Immaculate Collection (1990), Celebration (2009)
Songwriters/producers: Madonna/Patrick Leonard

"Don’t underestimate my point of view…"

As an album, Like a Prayer is often lauded for its incredible diversity - but rarely is it remarked upon how plain odd its sequencing is. This is an album that delights in its jarring transitions - the way it goes from the divorce and domestic violence of Till Death Do Us Part to the sunny, entirely optimistic Cherish within only three songs would be utterly baffling if they weren’t pulled off so well. To call Like a Prayer Madonna’s “divorce” or “religious” album, as it is so commonly labelled, would be to ignore songs like Cherish - which, however contradictory, are a big part of Like a Prayer as a whole. Instead, call it her most personal album - one where Madonna shows her true complexity as an artist by portraying practically the entire range of human emotion.

Cherish is certainly the most outright pop song on Like a Prayer, but its origins lie in the girl-group sound Madonna had been pursuing since Like a Virgin. But where Shoo-Bee-Doo felt cliché, True Blue simply shone - and Cherish takes the style to its final conclusion and greatest heights. It’s the feelings of a woman shedding all the baggage of past failures and relationships for a pure, instinctive infatuation - but one that’s never blind to the need for something lasting, “more than just romance”. Though songs like Vogue and Ray of Light still had the feeling of boundless elation that made so many of her ’80s singles great, such statements of optimism as Cherish were something she’d literally never again attempt. Madonna’s recent Rolling Stone interview shed some light on her present feelings:

"The songs that I think are the most retarded songs I’ve written, like ‘Cherish’… end up being the biggest hits. ‘Into the Groove’ is another song I feel retarded singing, but everybody seems to like it."
- Madonna, Rolling Stone 2009

Fair enough - one can’t blame her for seeing their optimism as her own youthful naïveté. But she still sings Into the Groove, reinterpreting it mercilessly on the Sticky & Sweet Tour, and Cherish makes for a brilliant transition to the title track on Celebration. Whatever her personal feelings, it’s hardly fanservice when the songs themselves are that great.

MTV / YouTube

Herb Ritts, the man responsible for the True Blue album cover, along with many of Madonna’s most iconic images, had at some point actually become a punchline for photographic style over substance.

"In the advertising industry, there was a joke that lazy or desperate art directors would say: ‘I’ve got an idea, Herb Ritts!’, when they couldn’t come up with anything original."
- via an article on True Blue’s cover from the excellent blog Sleevage

But just as Madonna’s huge mainstream appeal doesn’t imply a lack of artistry, nor did the sheer glamour of Ritts’ photography detract from the incredibly evocative nature of his portraits. Though he had no experience in film, Madonna somehow roped him into directing her video for Cherish, and the results are one of the purest distillations of his signature style. Despite, or perhaps because she wears a swimsuit only revealing by 1920s standards, Madonna’s toned figure is as sexy as ever as she rolls around in sand and frolics with mermen. And though shot entirely by Ritts himself on a handheld camera in freezing weather, the blue-tinged monochrome of the beach is nothing but bright and sunny. With none of the extended metaphors of her last two videos, Cherish is just an incredible visual spectacle, but it does it so well that it’s nearly faultless.

(the making of Cherish, from an interview with Herb Ritts - R.I.P.)


Oh Father

Albums: Like a Prayer (1989), Something to Remember (1995)
Songwriters/producers: Madonna/Patrick Leonard

“‘Oh Father’ is not just me dealing with my father. It’s me dealing with all authority figures in my life.”
“Does that include God as well? You say, “Oh Father, I have sinned.”

- Madonna, in a 1989 interview with SongTalk

The most undeservingly overlooked song of Madonna’s entire ’80s body of work, Oh Father was by far her least commercial single to date. Its original release as a single in late 1989 (excluding the UK, where it was finally released as the second single from Something to Remember in 1995) took guts - predictably peaking at number 20 on the Billboard charts, it ended her run of 16 consecutive top five singles. But it was a necessary sacrifice - for more than sales or populism, the already-world dominating New Madonna wanted respect no matter the cost.

The first shock is how outright lush the song sounds - the piano alone is beautiful enough, but Bill Meyers’ sweeping string arrangement just soars. In a true departure from precedent, there’s not a single synthesized instrument in the song. The second shock is the sheer rawness of Madonna’s vocal performance - where almost any other singer would have scaled typically balladic heights, she’s restrained, but resolute and infinitely more honest for it.

"It’s funny that way you can get used
To the tears and the pain
What a child will believe
You never loved me

You can’t hurt me now
I got away from you, I never thought I would
You can’t make me cry, you once had the power
I never felt so good about myself”

Whilst Promise to Try, a pledge to her younger self, was about the pain of her mother’s death, Oh Father appears to open with the same childhood anguish, but from her father’s side. Coming from a 30-year-old Madonna, “you never loved me” sounds like an accusation, and the chorus virtually an account of child abuse - but is it really? Or is the act of blaming her father merely “what a child will believe”? The girlish, pure backing vocals in the chorus feel like a memory - nothing like the wounded vibrato of Madonna’s lead vocals.

"Seems like yesterday
I lay down next to your boots and I prayed
For your anger to end
Oh Father I have sinned

You can’t hurt me now
I got away from you, I never thought I would
You can’t make me cry, you once had the power
I never felt so good about myself”

On the other hand, the second verse casts some of the blame on herself. In 1985, she told Time, “I have a lot of feelings of love and warmth for her but sometimes I think I tortured her. I think little kids do that to people who are really good to them. They can’t believe they’re not getting yelled at or something so they taunt you. I really taunted my mother.”

There is a common story that Madonna Fortin Ciccone, exhausted from her treatment for breast cancer, sat down to take a break from looking after her kids - and a five-year-old Madonna Louise Ciccone climbed on top of her, hitting her, demanding attention. But her mother lacked the strength - “I was so little and I put my arms around her and I could feel her body underneath me sobbing and I felt like she was the child.” No doubt the young Madonna had feelings of guilt, however unfounded, over her mother’s death. But on the other hand, the way “Oh Father I have sinned” prefaces the second chorus, it becomes as much an indictment of Catholicism, and perhaps God himself, for taking her mother away prematurely. “I never felt so good about myself” - but was that God’s fault, or her own, or her father’s?

"Oh Father [if] you never wanted to live that way
[If] you never wanted to hurt me
Why am I running away”

As honest as the song may be, there is not much literal truth to be found here. Madonna has never claimed her father intentionally abused her, physically or mentally, but as for the metaphorical? The art ultimately exists for its own sake - it doesn’t have to be literally true to be honest or biographical.

Interestingly, the Like a Prayer album booklet prefaces those two lines with an “if” that’s not on the recording. It’s a minor detail, but left in, it changes Madonna’s faith in her father’s good intentions into a questioning cynicism that would’ve been at odds with the song’s more reconciliatory conclusion.

"Maybe someday
When I look back I’ll be able to say
You didn’t mean to be cruel
Somebody hurt you too

You can’t hurt me now
I got away from you, I never thought I would
You can’t make me cry, you once had the power
I never felt so good about myself”

That “maybe” is as cautious as forgiveness gets - she knows it’s true, but she doesn’t quite feel it in her heart yet. Essentially, Oh Father concludes with the understanding that the trauma of her mother’s death, subsequent guilt and her repressive Catholic upbringing weren’t truly her father’s fault - in a way, all three stemmed from God himself, a higher Father. But she never quite points the finger; and when she finally sings the last choruses in full, she knows “you can’t hurt me now”. It’s a bitter Madonna, but one who’s now at peace.

MTV / YouTube

As with most of Madonna’s more personal, biographical efforts, Oh Father has a fairly literal visual interpretation of the music. The black-and-white, wintry look draws inspiration from the grand, archetypal cinema of Citizen Kane - and more than any of her other videos, there’s something truly cinematic about the moody low-key lighting. There’s an incredible attention to detail - from her mother’s death and funeral (the sewn lips representing her silence, a true story), to having three separate actors with uncanny resemblances to her father Silvio Ciccone, to recurring themes like the scattered pearl necklace. Most remarkable is how it blurs the past and present - the adult Madonna comfortably observes from the fringes of her childhood memories, and vice-versa towards the end, where she and her father cast the shadows of their arguing younger selves. Most significantly, she seems to take on the spirit of her own mother, the older Madonna, at the bedside of her younger, 20-something father. She delivers her final forgiveness with a kiss, whilst her present-day bond with her father goes unspoken - they simply share the memory and love of her mother. This was somewhat true of their real-life relationship as well - when asked by MTV’s Kurt Loder if her father had seen the video, Madonna replied, “To tell you the truth, I don’t know if he’s seen it. I’m kind of afraid to call him up and ask him.”

Oh Father is absolutely one of Madonna’s greatest works, and crucial to understanding her psyche both as an artist and a person. But despite all this, it seems to warrant little mention in present recaps of her career. Celebration seems content to portray most of her career as a party, defining her greatest songs as hits more than anything else. But why wasn’t it even on the supposedly completionist DVD? Really, the Madonna of today can do whatever she likes - unlike the Madonna who was once compelled to prove herself as a serious artist. It’s a shame that Oh Father doesn’t have a place in the canon of her body of work, because it certainly deserves it - its exclusion is selling herself short on both artistic and personal levels.


Dear Jessie

Album: Like a Prayer (1989)
Songwriters/producers: Madonna/Patrick Leonard

The question I believe everyone asks themselves upon hearing Dear Jessie for the first time is “…why?” If the greatest sex symbol (and so much more) of the ’80s wanted to prove once and for all her mettle as a serious adult artist, why did she write and release a kids’ lullaby? Why, on Like a Prayer, was it sandwiched between the album’s purest pop song and its most serious, heart-wrenching ballad? And why was it released as a single at all, let alone Madonna’s final single of the 1980s?

Dear Jessie was originally inspired by Jessie, Patrick Leonard’s daughter - though the idea and most of the music was likely his, how its collaboration and recording with Madonna came about remains a mystery. Though the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is always mentioned as a reference point, to me the overall feel is closer to Disney’s iconic Fantasia - perhaps referenced by Madonna’s Minnie Mouse ears on the single cover - albeit with the colours flipped around, the general sense of darkness removed. In the sense that Dear Jessie was intended as a lullaby to a young girl, it works fine, but the “pink elephants and lemonade” imagery that makes up the song is just gratingly cutesy to adult ears. The same goes for the music, which is so bright and major-key it’s saccharine - but at least the composition and fluttering string arrangements are complex enough to make the song an interesting, maybe even a rewarding listen.

So standalone, the song achieves what it aims for - but why its inclusion on Like a Prayer? Compared to Promise to Try, Madonna’s powerful, bittersweet dedication to her motherless childhood self, Dear Jessie comes off as both musically weaker and insincere escapism coming from a woman who’s lived the fact that childhood is not always innocence and happily-ever-after. And though the segue between the two songs helps, putting Dear Jessie right before Oh Father practically invites listeners to think less of the prior track. But in asking why, one has to consider that Dear Jessie was written for a child - and that Madonna would certainly never have wished her own hardship on anyone else’s, let alone her own. Though she had good intentions, one wishes the song wasn’t so jarring as to detract from the flow of the overall album. To hear her write truly mature, uncontrived music for a child, we’d have to wait nearly a decade for the birth of her daughter Lourdes, the inspiration behind the genuinely affecting Little Star… and another few years for the English Roses, her series of children’s books with morals! (if you’re into that kind of thing)

With all this considered, why was Dear Jessie released as a single - infuriatingly, instead of the far more deserving Oh Father in the UK? Well, it came out on the 10th of December, and perhaps as a result of the end-of-year spirit, it may have tapped into the Christmas market more than the Madonna market, peaking at #5 in the British charts. And though it’s now barely remembered, it was once fitting as an adopted Christmas song, even if it’s no Winter Wonderland.

YouTube - official

The slightly low-budget cartoon music video is, um… appropriate. Hardly MTV fare, and Madonna herself only appears as an animated Tinkerbell knockoff, but the technicolour images admittedly suit the music perfectly - even if for most, they probably turn the whole affair into death by sugar overdose. No wonder it wasn’t included on the Celebration DVD - as much as the fans are completionists, I’m sure nobody really misses it.

(if you’re not convinced and want to feel slightly better about this whole affair, just check out this offensively atrocious Eurodance “cover” of Dear Jessie by Rollergirl, recorded ten years later but already a thousand times more dated)


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