‘Like A Prayer’ is the greatest Madonna song of all time. A masterful blend of quiet/loud, it mixed hymn-like verses with funky, gospel choruses. It was underpinned by lyrics which encapsulated her public persona; a woman grappling with her sexuality in the face of a religious upbringing. It became her ascendant calling card, and made sure her legendary status was assured.
At the time of the song’s conception, the singer seemed to have the world at her feet. Having successfully transitioned from the ‘BOY TOY’-wearing, chipmunk-voiced pop strumpet to the sleek, 80s robo-femme on the multi-platinum smasher that was 1986’s ‘True Blue’, fans and critics were waiting with baited breath for her next move. But circumstances conspired to make her next musical offering more personal than anything she’d ever released before.
She might have been The Queen Of Pop but in 1988, at the time of ‘Like A Prayer’’s composition and recording, a number of factors were making Madonna feel less than regal.
Her acting career, which began with so much promise (1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan), had belly-flopped after two big budget failures (Shanghai Surprise and Who’s That Girl) and a much maligned stage debut in David Mamet’s ‘Speed The Plow’.
There was her marriage to actor Sean Penn which was coming apart at the seams, dissolving into massive, sometimes violent arguments fuelled by egos and booze.
Finally there was the fact she was turning 30, problematic for anyone, but especially as it was at this age that her mother died from breast cancer.
All these added up to the singer reflecting on her life, taking a leaf out of musical hero Joni Mitchell’s book. She approached the new album sessions in an organic way, adopting the outlook of a singer-songwriter and exorcising some of the demons that haunted her. At the time of its release she flagged up her ability to turn her vulnerabilities into song, saying:
‘Like a Prayer’ album is a collection of songs about my mother, my father, and bonds with my family… It’s taken a lot of guts to do this.
This emotional discombobulation manifested itself in the feel of the title track. Recorded at the end of ’88 with long-term collaborator Patrick Leonard, the duo were keen to get to an emotionally honest place.
She told Songtalk magazine:
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.
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Like some of the album’s other songs (‘Oh Father’, ‘Keep It Together’ and ‘Promise To Try’), ‘Like A Prayer’ formed a psychic link between the trials of childhood (in this case her Catholicism) and her adulthood. “Life is a mystery/ Everyone must stand alone,” she sang in the tracks opening couplet, before linking religious ecstasy with a sexual one. It’s something that she’d flirted with before (pairing crosses with lingerie during her ‘Like A Virgin’ period), but never dealt with musically.
The song seemed to be about husband Penn, who seemed to fit the image of the lover who was unknowable (“Just like a muse to me/you are a mystery,”). Indeed the 12” single artwork provided a deeply personal message. Drawn by brother Christopher, it contained the letters ‘MLVC’ (Madonna’s initials – Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone’) with a ‘P’ (for ‘Penn’) having fallen away.
The subsequent controversy caused by the song’s video (specifically its association of sex with religion) couldn’t dent the success of the track. It was Number One around the world, in the UK it was Number One for three weeks, selling over half a million copies. It remains one of Madonna’s trademark songs and the moment she went from popstar to pop culture auteur.
Did You Know?
• Prince plays the (uncredited) guitar solo in the song
• The actor who played the role of the saint in the music video also appeared in the film Cool Runnings
• It was featured in the Glee episode ‘The Power Of Madonna’