28 years ago this week, Madonna released what is not only her best album to date, but also what could be the most important release ever by a female artist. That’s not to say that Like a Prayer is the best album ever by a female artist, but it’s pretty close. After six years of being considered pop fluff and a disco dolly, Madonna was finally taken seriously by most music critics in 1989. Still, Like a Prayer deserved even more than bewildering critical acclaim.
If Madonna and misogyny weren’t practically synonyms, Like a Prayer would have not only won several Grammys in 1990 (it didn’t even earn any major nominations), but it would be widely praised for its songwriting and production 28 years later. If a man delivered the same type of vocals Madonna did on Like a Prayer, critics would note that his voice isn’t technically perfect, but distinct, melodic, and full of emotion. When it comes to Madonna, who certainly could never hit the notes of Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston, it’s just easier for people to say that she “can’t sing.”
For people (especially millennials) to understand how important Like a Prayer is to culture and music, they have to comprehend the repressive environment Madonna’s album arrived to in March of 1989. The late 1980s was ruled by the religious right, who believed AIDS was a curse God gave to the gay community. Women who were outspoken or wore revealing clothes were referred to as sluts, whores, bit**es, etc. Police brutality among African Americans was still widely accepted without much of a backlash. And interracial dating was still considered a taboo.
With all of this in mind, let’s analyze why Like a Prayer is such a milestone of an album.
The “Like a Prayer” Video
The “Like a Prayer” video has provocative imagery that caused the religious right to wet its pants. However, none of the imagery, which is used for pure symbolism, is blasphemous. Most importantly, “Like a Prayer” is a video that shows the viewer racism, sexism, and police brutality. It urges them to think and overcome it — this is something that wasn’t considered “cool” in 1989. The idea of a “Black Jesus” was also considered blasphemous to some, especially the religious right.
The aftermath of “Like a Prayer” was groundbreaking in that Madonna beat the religious right at their own attempted game of censorship. Their efforts caused Pepsi to drop Madonna as a spokesperson, but they completely failed at hurting Madonna’s success or censoring the video. The “Like a Prayer” single and video hit No. 1 and remain widely loved classics almost 30 years later. Madonna paved the way for other artists to not only challenge the religious right, but win.
The “Like a Prayer” Song
Even if you aren’t convinced that the “Like a Prayer” video is an artistic masterpiece, the song “Like a Prayer” has stood on its own. Not only has Rolling Stone and Billboard praised it as one of the best pop songs of all time, but the song has become a spiritual classic, even for those who aren’t fans of Madonna.
“Like a Prayer” became the highlight of Live 8 in 2005, and it was also one of the highlights of the 2010 Hope for Haiti concert. It was also prominently featured in Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl Halftime show. Any live performance of the song is sure to whip the audience into a frenzy.
This decade, “Express Yourself” is mostly known as the song that inspired (maybe a little too much) Lady Gaga’s self-empowerment LGBT anthem “Born This Way.” However, as Gay Times Magazine notes, “Express Yourself” has become an empowering anthem for the LGBT community as well. However, in the late 1980s, the song was mostly known as a female empowerment anthem. “Don’t go for second best baby” became a catch phrase for strong women who were sick of being treated like second class citizens from men and other women who still subscribed to the patriarchy. (more…)
Is Like A Prayer the greatest pop record of all time? As Madonna’s masterpiece turns 28, here are 10 reasons why Barry Bryson thinks so.
1. The opening title track is quite simply the greatest five minutes and 39 seconds of pop ever. It sounded like a game changer then and it still does now. The video, the Pepsi commercial, the incredible Blond Ambition live performance all add to its legacy but really all you have to do it put it on, close your eyes and let her take you there.
2. Often referred to by Madonna and her co-producer Pat Leonard at the time as the “divorce album” following the end of her marriage to Sean Penn, lyrically on Like a Prayer she delves deep. Till Death Us do Part combines heartbroken acceptance with steely resolve and in the process she created one of her finest songs.
3. This album is essentially what all her live tours came to represent, a journey from darkness into light. It is unflinching and often uncomfortable but punctuated with joy (Cherish) and fantasy (Dear Jessie) as well as empowerment and guts (Express Yourself).
4. It’s an album to listen to in its entirety, you can stream tracks from it yes, but I think you need a full 47 minutes for this. It deserves it.
5. There are no super producers at play on Like a Prayer (Price aside, more of which later) just Madonna, Pat Leonard and Stephen Bray creating something that by today’s standard seems incredibly simple. Vocally most of what is heard on Like a Prayer is first take. It makes it feel spontaneous and emotional and not overly though through meaning it’s her first “real” Madonna record.
6. Issued at the time with every copy of this album was a leaflet called The Facts About Aids, intended to educate but also to de-stigmatise the myths that so much of the 80s were awash with. It seems like nothing now but at the time it was hugely political and potentially damaging to its commercial success.
7. I am married to a man who seriously hates the smell of patchouli but not me. Every sleeve of the vinyl album was scented and 28 years later my original vinyl still carries it thus taking me there once again.
8. Watching Madonna pay tribute to Prince early last year I was struck by what contemporaries they were, far more alike each other than they were the other pop behemoth Michael Jackson. Apparently Madonna and Prince dated, feuded, made-up and fell out again but much more than that is the fact they both fiercely embodied a musical independence and a sexual liberalism and on Like a Prayer you get the greatest non-song ever in the form of their duet Love Song.
A sparse production heavy duel that culminates in Prince pushing Madonna to go vocally hoarse at the end and then it fades off as you imagine them both tired yet happy. In 2015 shortly before his untimely death Madonna sat front row at a small private gig Prince performed. Friends and rivals make the best music.
9. The real pull of Like a Prayer is ultimately its emotional punch. A song like Promise To Try where an adult Madonna talks to the five-year-old bereft Madonna in the aftermath of the death of her mother feels like one of the most honest grief sentiments ever committed to song, but it finishes looking ahead with strength and from the darkness emerges the light. This track alongside Oh Father define this album as something way beyond losing yourself on the dance floor although it is a Madonna record so she’s never one to keep you away from that for too long.
10. Try listening to Keep It Together without grabbing a chair and saying “Hi Hi Hi, Hello love” the Blond Ambition finale was THE moment you knew that Madonna had not only owned the 80’s but was likely to hang on the following decades too and it was right here all along. On record a funky ode to loyalty and love transformed live into the something most female pop stars would spend a career trying to emulate. It hasn’t happened yet.
By early 1989, the world had come to know Madonna as a dance-pop provocateur with quirky-sexy style. She was the biggest female celebrity on the planet, and yet for all her fame, few realized just how much pain and self-doubt this soon-to-be-divorced 30-year-old lapsed Catholic from Detroit was carting around. With “Like a Prayer,” that would all change.
Recorded amid the dissolution of her marriage to actor Sean Penn, “Like a Prayer” was Madonna’s most introspective and eclectic album to date. Unlike the three that came before, it blended classic psychedelic rock with then-current synth-pop sounds. And now, a quarter-century after its March 21, 1989 release, it doesn’t sound a bit dated. Lyrically, it’s about growing up, moving on from bad romance, and getting right with God and family. At least two of the songs center on the death of Madonna’s mother, a childhood trauma that had a strong part in making the singer who she is.
Before “Like a Prayer” was even released, Madonna made it clear this wouldn’t be just another album. Three weeks before the release, she debuted the video for the title track, the first of five top 20 Hot 100 singles spawned from the album. Featuring depictions of murder, interracial love, and cross burnings, the clip juxtaposed notions of religious and sexual ecstasy, leaving some folks puzzled and just about everyone talking. Catholics denounced her; Pepsi dropped ads featuring her (and ended plans to sponsor her tour). Fans, of course, ate it up.
Controversy aside, “Like a Prayer” is among Madonna’s finest moments, and over the next 10 tracks, its namesake album never lets up. It’s funky, poignant, and even a little kooky. And while Madonna is the quintessential singles artist, this chart-topping LP stands as one of her most fully realized collection of songs. Read on for our classic track-by-track review.
“Like a Prayer”
What a way to start an album. First, distorted guitars and a heavy thud. From there, a pop-gospel workout that’s as enigmatic as it is invigorating. It’s “Thriller” meets Catholic mysticism, and “Like A Prayer” works just as well without its vivid video. No wonder it shot to No. 1 on the Hot 100 a month after its release.
The party moves from the church to Madonna’s posh high-rise, where she looks at her jewels and satin sheets and decides she’d rather have a man who’s in touch with his feelings. It’s her brassy, funky version of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and it climbed all the way to No. 2 on the Hot 100.
This collab between Madonna and Prince is the ‘80s-pop equivalent of Wonder Woman teaming up with Batman. Given the star power, the track feels a touch slight, and as Prince’s signature scratchy disco guitar breaks through Madonna’s synths, the divergent musical sensibilities make like the lovers in the lyrics—they don’t quite connect.
“Till Death Do Us Part”
As her tumultuous marriage to actor Sean Penn comes to an end, Madonna reflects on the well-publicized fights—“He starts to scream / the vases fly”—and emotional distance that doomed the couple. The skittering guitar or keyboard part creates a frazzled feel that contrasts nicely with Madonna’s assured vocals. (more…)
“Recent legislation and rhetoric have put decades of progress for girls and women at risk,” the signees wrote in the open letter on behalf of Global Citizen and Chime for Change.
“All over the world, women are on the frontlines fighting for our future. Yet millions of girls and women are still denied basic equal rights. And recent policies and appointments in the United States jeopardize its position as a global leader and positive role model on human rights. We stand together to say, in a voice louder than ever, that fighting for gender equality is the emergency and the opportunity of our time.”
Actresses like Julia Roberts, Freida Pinto, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Dakota Johnson and Salma Hayek, who co-founded Chime for Change with Beyoncé, also signed the letter, which also demand gender equality.
“This is about hearing a call – to join us wherever you are. About raising an alarm – drawing attention where there is work to be done. And about celebrating – those who are already showing us, against impossible odds, what is possible,” they continued.
“We believe that connection empowers us. That every voice matters. That each one of us is needed to achieve change. We believe we can do extraordinary things when we come together.”
Beyoncé helped found the Chime for Change female empowerment organization in 2013; that same year, a concert in support of that effort featured Beyoncé, Madonna, Legend, Jennifer Lopez, Jay Z, Florence and the Machine and more.
Coldplay’s Chris Martin is also heavily involved in Global Citizen, signing up to curate the organization’s annual super-concert until 2030.
Read the entire open letter below:
We have reached a critical moment in history. Recent legislation and rhetoric have put decades of progress for girls and women at risk.
In 2013, we joined with CHIME FOR CHANGE to convene, unite and strengthen the voices speaking out for girls and women around the world. Today, we find ourselves under threat of seeing a generation’s worth of hard-won gains reversed.
All over the world, women are on the frontlines fighting for our future. Yet millions of girls and women are still denied basic equal rights. And recent policies and appointments in the United States jeopardize its position as a global leader and positive role model on human rights.
We stand together to say, in a voice louder than ever, that fighting for gender equality is the emergency and the opportunity of our time.
With every generation, our story has spread wider, become more familiar. The voices telling it braver, more powerful. But our story is far from over.
This is about hearing a call – to join us wherever you are. About raising an alarm – drawing attention where there is work to be done. And about celebrating – those who are already showing us, against impossible odds, what is possible.
We believe that connection empowers us. That every voice matters. That each one of us is needed to achieve change. We believe we can do extraordinary things when we come together.
We fight for education. For health. For justice. For every girl. Every woman. Everywhere. We fight for our future. Because none of us can move forward if half of us are held back.
Join us, and take action for gender equality at globalcitizen.org/IWD2017
The rare 12” features Madonna’s ground-breaking hit “Into The Groove” from the 1985 film ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ in which Madonna starred.
An extended dance mix from 1984 of single “Angel” produced by Nile Rodgers / mixed by Nile Rodgers and James Farber. 12” remix by John “Jellybean” Benitez of “Chica Material” (Material Girl) produced by Nile Rodgers. And “Vacación” (Holiday) produced by John “Jellybean” Benitez.
Artwork authentically replicates the original Argentinian release. To be made available worldwide for the first time for Record Store Day 2017.
Limited to 8000 copies
Side A:1. Into The Groove (4.40)2. Angel (Extended Dance Mix) (6.15)
1. Chica Material (Material Girl) (Jellybean Dance Remix) (6:05)2. Vacación (Holiday) (6:08)
UPC: 0081227941000PPD: £7.99 / €10.00FORMAT: 12″ 4 track EP – 33 ⅓ rpmWEIGHT: Standard COLOUR: Black Vinyl