Album: Like a Prayer (1989)
Songwriters/producers: Madonna/Stephen Bray
As the final single from Like a Prayer, Keep It Together - like Oh Father, unreleased in the UK - never quite managed the zeitgeist-level impact of the album’s first three singles. For where True Blue felt more like a collection of massive, individually brilliant singles, the Madonna on Like a Prayer subdued her larger-than-life persona in service to the more consciously sequenced music. Even Keep It Together, one of the outright catchiest tracks, didn’t sound quite like a radio smash, and perhaps as a result, it took a good two months from its release on the 30th of January, 1990 to peak at #8 on the Billboard charts - only to be swallowed whole as Vogue became something of a cultural phenomenon.
Musically, Keep It Together is pure funk - though very much its own song, it was a less mellow tribute to Sly & the Family Stone, to the extent that Madonna would sing a full verse of their classic Family Affair on the 10-minute version that closed each Blond Ambition performance. Along with Express Yourself, it was her final collaboration with Stephen Bray - so it was natural that they’d mature beyond drum machines for the more complex sounds of pre-disco black popular music. However, the single remix does opt for a more current sound with more piano and synthesised beats, as the album version would’ve sounded rather incongruous on pop radio at the time.
At its core, Like a Prayer is an album about relationships - the spiritual, the romantic, the parental, and on Keep It Together, the familial. Perhaps the most plainly autobiographical lyric Madonna would ever write, it’s practically her life story - from her crowded, oppressed childhood to the even more crowded loneliness of stardom. Through all this, there’s still something fundamentally accepting, sympathetic about her brothers and sisters, who shared her formative experiences of love and loss. But she doesn’t idealise them, either:
“When I look back on all the misery
And all the heartache that they brought to me
I wouldn’t change it for another chance
‘Cause blood is thicker than any other circumstance”
But in practice - and more so for the pre-motherhood/Kabbalah Madonna, her actions sometimes spoke louder than words. The above lyrics from Keep It Together effectively sum up her entire relationship with brother Christopher Ciccone, always her closest, most artistically linked sibling, but also the person she cast the greatest shadow upon. From taking dance classes together with Christopher Flynn, to backup dancing in her track dates and Lucky Star video, from dressing and directing her live shows to designing her houses, his life was always defined by his famous sister - to the extent that he found his final independence, rather ironically, in writing his autobiography Life with My Sister Madonna. It’s a depressingly honest read - though very much maligned by certain optimistic fans for his accounts of mistreatment by Madonna’s hand, he admits as much that his resulting life as something of a hanger-on was much better off for her achievements and assistance. And in dedicating The Immaculate Collection to Christopher by his nickname “‘The Pope’, my divine inspiration” - one would hope Madonna acknowledges him in kind.
(Family Affair/Keep It Together live from Japan on the Blond Ambition Tour, complete with bizarre British accent)
The idea of family - literally, and through Madonna’s apparent mothering of her dancers - is central to Truth or Dare (known outside the US as In Bed with Madonna), the 1991 film chronicling the Blond Ambition Tour. To call it a documentary would be wrong - for the mere presence of director Alek Keshishian’s black-and-white cameras created an observer effect, where Madonna would play to the cameras. Hence, there’s little of the honesty on the Like a Prayer album to be found, as the film presents her entire onscreen life as performance art - the dare is the truth. This explains many of the film’s more surreal moments - like her infamous fellating of an Evian bottle, or the simulated sex games with her dancers - but many of the more ordinary scenes are just as put-on. Calling it “the best acting of her whole career”, Christopher Ciccone’s book sheds much light on her less overtly contrived interactions - how brother Marty and childhood friend Moira McPharlin would never have been allowed backstage without cameras, or how he would have waited until after the show to inform her of the Canadian police’s threat to arrest her over obscenity charges. One of the truly sincere moments is Madonna’s tribute to her father, where onstage after the Detroit show, she claims “I worship the ground that he walks on”, and sings Happy Birthday to him with the crowd. On the other hand, the strangest scene comes from visiting her mother’s grave - though the devastatingly honest Promise to Try provides the soundtrack, it’s entirely contrived for the cameras, and perhaps the audience’s sympathy. Christopher looks on with an expression somewhere between bemused and utterly furious; he later wrote “that my sister used my mother’s grave as a movie location, her death as the impetus for her performance, wounds me deeply.”
Overall, Truth or Dare is compelling, entertaining, but highly questionable viewing - perhaps it says a lot that three of her dancers later sued for the film’s supposed invasion of privacy, fraudulent depiction of their private lives and resulting emotional distress. It also created a rift between Madonna and then-boyfriend/Dick Tracy co-star Warren Beatty, who summed up the movie perfectly with the quip that “she doesn’t want to live off-camera”. Personally, I vastly prefer the genuine sincerity of her 2005 Re-Invention Tour documentary I’m Going to Tell You a Secret - though the format is basically the same, the rampant egotism of Truth or Dare’s Madonna at 32 has given way to a 45-year-old at peace with herself and the people around her. Indeed, much of this stems from her family - her beautiful children Lola and Rocco, and her somewhat comically depicted polar-opposite husband Guy Ritchie. Though it’s a shame that relationship didn’t last, I get the feeling she as usual has no regrets - she wouldn’t change it for another chance. Just as the hardship of her childhood molded her into the driven, disciplined personality determined to succeed, her motherhood transformed the self-centered figure into a better, more whole person.
“It’s not easy having a good marriage - but I don’t want easy. Easy doesn’t make you grow. Easy doesn’t make you think.”
- Madonna on Guy Ritchie, in I’m Going to Tell You a Secret