Some albums are worth judging by their cover. With two thumbs poked defiantly into a denim waistband – like a bedazzled answer to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ – the artwork for ‘Like A Prayer’ is the perfect visual for Madonna’s audacious, unflinching fourth record. Released on March 21, 1989, this daring exploration of catholicism, desire, bereavement, superstardom and pleasure is an unparalleled totem of pop music 30 years on.
Arriving three years after ‘True Blue‘, a record of bright, loved-up bubblegum pop gold, ‘Like A Prayer’ is abrasive and raw. Moving the focus away from presenting a collection of immediate wall-to-wall bangers, Madonna’s 1989 release feels more concerned with exploration instead. Hulking great ballad ‘Oh Father’ cleverly alludes to her fractured relationship with her father and god at the same time; not your typical album fodder. ‘’Till Death Do Us Part’ also nods toward her split from her then-husband. “I’m not your friend, I’m just your little wife,” Madonna sings, atop jaunty, fidgeting melodies.
While ‘True Blue’ talked vaguely about lust – the “desire burning inside of me” on ‘Open Your Heart’ – here the door is flung overtly off its hinges. Madonna was brought up a Catholic, and ‘Like A Prayer’ unpacks how self-pleasure and sex can stack up next to devout faith. In Madonna’s world, desire is holy.
“In Catholicism you are a born sinner and you’re a sinner all your life,” Madonna told Interview Magazine in 1989. “No matter how you try to get away from it, the sin is within you all the time. It was this fear that haunted me; it taunted and pained me every moment. My music was probably the only distraction I had.”
In the tabloids, Madonna was treated like music’s most sinful villain. A copy of The Sun, from November 1989, derides the singer for having a “whore’s foul mouth” (charming!) and takes great pleasure in tearing apart her revealing outfits. The gossip papers rabidly followed her every move; reporting joyously on the breakdown of her marriage to Sean Penn, and gleefully branding her movie project Who’s That Girl a ‘flop’.
‘Like A Prayer’ seizes back the narrative, and yet, it’s not bound to being firmly autobiographical. Sure, it’s confessional, but in a sexier, more abstract way that plays with conventional ideas of sin. “Catholicism’s such a dramatic religion,” Madonna told NME in 1995. “There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance and ritual and punishment and when you’ve sinned you go to a dark curtained booth and tell the priest all the bad things you’ve done and it’s all so… kinky!”
Which brings us onto ‘Like A Prayer’s sardonic closer. ‘Act of Contrition’ starts out earnestly, reciting solemn prayer atop yowls of guitar; listing various sins and asking for forgiveness in husky tones. Hamming it up for the tabloids, Madonna’s repentance is short-lived. “I have a reservation!” she growls fiercely, parodying the entitlement and pettiness of superstardom. “What do you mean it’s not in the computer?!?!”
On its release, ‘Like A Prayer’ caused almost immediate controversy. Its title track infamously debuted during a Pepsi commercial, with a visual helmed by Space Jam director Joe Pytka. The fizzy drink super-corp paid Madonna $5 million for her appearance, eager for one of the world’s biggest superstars to endorse their brown beverages. To sweeten the deal even further, they also slapped a sponsorship stamp on her forthcoming world tour.
The next day, Madonna’s iconic and controversial ‘Like A Prayer’ music video was released. Against a barren landscape of flaming crucifixes, Madonna wanders into an empty Catholic church. There, she’s immediately drawn to a weeping statue of a black saint, and kneeling before him, she anoints the statue’s feet and finds stigmata on her hands; playing a Mary Magdalene type figure and drawing on blatant religious iconography, Madonna’s interested in how the Bible’s “sinful woman” actually represents something sacred and worthy of celebration.
Later, the video depicts the saint statue coming *ahem* to life, and things get very raunchy. The song itself draws parallels between intense sexual pleasure and transcending to a higher spiritual plane. Basically, no prizes for guessing what variety of moaning Madge is on about when she’s down on her knees, telling the Messianic figure that he’s “like an angel sighing”.
Predictably, conservative Pepsi-gluggers everywhere were outraged by Madonna’s audacity: how dare this wanton woman taint innocent viewers with her alternative explorations of sin, sex, and religion. In response, they began to boycott Pepsi’s products. The global corporation swiftly cut ties, pulling the original ad, along with their brand-stamping of her tour.
As for Madonna? Well, she didn’t give a shit, first of all, because Pepsi let her keep the fee anyway. Cracking on with her artistic vision for the record’s roll-out, she renamed the live run. The ‘Like A Prayer’ tour became Blond Ambition tour. It’s no exaggeration to state that every pop production you’ve ever seen since is indebted to the show’s immense vision. And far from being knocked by the headlines around her, Madonna thrived in the face of controversy.
Divided into five distinct segments – Metropolis, Religious, Dick Tracy, Art Deco and Encore – Blond Ambition was far more like theatre production than conventional concert; with elaborate costumes and intricate sets that referenced everything from A Clockwork Orange and Fritz Lang to high fashion and performance art.
And at the same time as she opened up a dialogue around sex, Madonna also chose to use her huge platform to bring the AIDS epidemic to the forefront. Each copy of ‘Like A Prayer’ came with a ‘The Facts About Aids’ information card. At live shows, she spread clear messages about practicing safer sex, and chose to dedicate her final American date to her friend, the late Keith Haring. Her New Jersey show alone raised $300,000 for The Foundation for AIDS Research, at a time when the disease was widely feared and misunderstood by the public, and LGBT+ people were disproportionately discriminated against. “Put a condom on your willy,” Madonna would tell the audience.
“What Madonna said to me was this’” recounts Luis Camacho Xtravaganza, who toured the world as a backing dancer on the Blond Ambition tour. “‘There’s no such thing as bad press, honey, there’s no such thing as bad press,” he remembers with a cackle. “‘Worry when they’re not talking about you’”
A member of New York City’s legendary ballroom leaders House of Xtravaganza, Luis choreographed the ‘Vogue’ music video with fellow voguer Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, and he quickly become drawn to Madonna’s total lack of artistic compromise. Born and raised a “kid from the projects” on the Lower East Side – “I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth,” Luis says – the whole experience of touring the world was dizzying enough. And as rehearsals went on, he realised he was a part of something truly historic.
“Madonna wanted to take things further,” Luis says. “Her vision was elevating the concert formula to a level of theatre. Inserting art into that, too, she really wanted to give the audience an experience, rather than them just going to a concert and seeing somebody sing into a mic. I really think she was a pioneer in that. She set the stage for concert shows and experiences, for any show that followed.” he says.
“She is good at pushing boundaries and buttons and making people feel something from what she’s doing, whether that feeling is good or bad,” Luis observes. “She’s fearless – I love that she knows what she wants, and will bring it to the forefront, regardless of what people might think. An artist should be true to her platform, and she was true to hers. And very unapologetic about it. I love that about her.”
The Pope, Vatican State, and several other Catholic groups begged to differ, taking issue with Madonna’s ‘blasphemous’ use of religious iconography. Meanwhile the Toronto police force threatened the star with arrest, claiming that her notorious performance of ‘Like A Virgin’ – which featured Madonna joyously simulating masturbation atop a luxurious velvet bed placed centre stage, flanked by two men with enormous stuffed breasts – was in breach of obscenity laws. “Do you think that I’m a bad girl?” Madonna asked the endless crowds at her final show in the Canadian city, as police looked on. “Do you think that I deserve to be arrested?” she goaded them.
“I hope so,” she decided, before promptly launching into the full, uncensored routine. Ultimately, the threatened arrest never happened, but Madonna was fully prepared to take the risk.
Ian Cottrell – who now runs the long-running Dirty Pop club night at Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach – went to see Madonna’s show at Wembley Stadium show when he was 17, and halfway through sixth form. “I just remember the pure excitement of her coming on stage and opening with ‘Express Yourself”” he says. “The dancers, the industrial set, Shep Pettibone’s beats, and then Madonna, appearing at the top of the stairs in the iconic suit from the [song’s] video, with the bra poking through. She asked “DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE?!” And we we all went crazy.”
Marching down the stairs in a business suit, Madonna soon rips off the jacket to reveal a golden corset with those infamously cartoonish, pointed breasts; designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Straddling helpless male dancers on the floor, grabbing her crotch, and thrusting – to ear-piercing screams – this was a strong, athletic woman taking full ownership of her sexuality, and her own pleasures and desire.
“Bloomin’ heck, we were new Christians at the time, and I didn’t know what to do with myself!” says Janet, now 56, who was at the Wembley Stadium Blond Ambition show with her husband in 1990. The pair had recently found faith. “There was this whole thing about sex on the altar: that was very out there, and at that time, shocking. I don’t say the f-word, and so this one woman getting everyone to chant it was shocking for me [Madonna asked Wembley to chant the word in order to reclaim it]. All these male dancers were utterly in bondage, submitting to Madonna. And the outfits! Nobody dressed like that.”
“It was hilarious in some respects because we’d gone from seeing [Evangelist preacher] Billy Graham there, to seeing Madonna,” Janet laughs. “She’s had a Catholic upbringing, and she didn’t seem to be denouncing it, but I remember I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to like it, in some respects,” Janet admits. “I will always remember those very hard, stiff conical bosoms,” she exclaims. “They were fascinating for me, as somebody who sews! The whole conical bosoms business, incredible…“
Think of the whips and chains of Rihanna’s ‘S&M’, Ariana Grande’s ‘Side to Side’ (according to Ariana, it’s a song about feeling a bit, um, sore after a vigorous night of pash) Christine and The Queens’ macho-femme articulations of desire, and countless other pop greats who emerged post-Madonna, and traces of ‘Like A Prayer’ and Blond Ambition linger in their every move.
Watch a pop show now, and you may well take the sheer scale of production for granted. From Troye Sivan rising onto the stage of Hammersmith Apollo while reclined on the sofa of a full living room set, to Lorde performing ‘Melodrama’ inside a floating box with a rotating cast of characters within, pop’s motto has become go big, or go home. When Olly Alexander gyrated steamily behind a floodlit curtain on Years & Years recent ‘Sanctify’ tour (the group were supported, no less, by London vogue house Kiki House of Tea) the nods to Madonna were clear and deliberate. ‘Like A Prayer’ – and the genius of the Blond Ambition tour – led the way to all of this bold, visual expression, making room in the pop landscape for artists with ambitious, conceptual ideas that provoke discussion and nimbly tread the line between euphoria and danger.
“As with everything that involves something that is a hot button – the [masturbation] simulation on stage, stuff like that – you’re always gonna have people who root for it, and others who aren’t enthused,” Luis says. “If it fits, then do it regardless – it’s expression.”
“I think it was a great forerunner for what we have now,” Ian concludes. “Blond Ambition definitely raised the bar, and where Madonna led at that time, people had to follow.“