30 Years of Like A Prayer – Review of a Masterpiece
In March we’ll see Madonna’s Like A Prayer become 30 years old. Yes. Already. Time goes by so slowly… Not! Like A Prayer was Madonna’s fourth studio album, after 1986’s True Blue.
Madonna’s fame has invariably been more about her image and persona than artistry.
When she released True Blue, everyone agreed that it was a more elaborate (and in my opinion underappreciated-as-years-go-by) album, with more statements to make, than her previous, Like a Virgin.
Like A Prayer was, not only Madonna’s best album to date, but the seed that spawned was is considered one of the best tours of all time. Madonna definitely marked a turning point and defining moment by inventing the theatrical pop megatour concept with the Blond Ambition Tour. But that’s another story.
30 years ago, Like A Prayer received mixed reviews (believe it or not)
With Like A Prayer, Madonna insisted once again on being taken seriously. However, at the time, it was more seen as yet another controversial provocation than as the master piece it is.
The main reason is that Madonna always stood up for herself in a male dominated industry and society with an in-your-face attitude (and this record was one big proof of it).
If Madonna and misogyny weren’t almost equivalent terms, Like A Prayer would have been universally acclaimed for its song-writing and production and won several Grammys in 1990. On the contrary, it didn’t even earn any major nominations.
Like A Prayer deserved much more recognition and anyone with a shred of knowledge and impartiality knows it. As a matter of fact, Madonna’s Like A Prayer has been deemed The Most Important Album Ever Made By A Female Artist. (Huffington Post, 2017).
Like A Prayer: The Album as a whole
30 years ago, Like A Prayer was by far Madonna’s most honest, substantial and solemn album, despite the fact that she was still considered a fleeting glimpse of a shooting star. Like A Prayer went to No. 1 two days before my 19th birthday, on April 22nd, 1989, where it stayed for six weeks.
Madonna’s early musical influences have a special place in Like A Prayer, from Sly & the Family Stone in Keep It Together and Express Yourself, to the Beatles on Dear Jessie or Simon & Garfunkel’s overdubbed harmonies in Oh Father.
Voice and lyrics
While Madonna’s voice isn’t perfect on Like A Prayer, her voice sounds emotionally candid and more confident in all the tracks as she pushes herself vocally, growing more comfortable with the conveyance of the emotional content of the lyrics, which she constructed in multiple layers to make each song interpretable, with several ambiguous meanings, demonstrating she had developed into a savvy songwriter, too.
The result is a fierce honesty in a family-issues-centred record that turned out to stand as one of the quintessential pop albums of all time.
Main theme of Like A Prayer: family and growing up
But if you’ve never before listened to Madonna’s autobiographical Like A Prayer, you might not be instantly attracted. Bear with us/it.
Dedicated to her mother, who “taught me how to pray”, family is the major theme of the album (divorce, brothers and sisters, father, mother, …).
Remember: this is Madonna establishing herself as a serious artist, and the album is more concerned with growing up and purging her demons, than with entertaining admirers.
Mixed with the family theme, there are also explicit traces of Madonna’s relationship with Catholicism in several songs like Till Death Do Us Part, Oh Father, Promise to Try, Keep It Together, Spanish Eyes and the closing track Act of Contrition.
For me, there’s not just one prayer, the obvious one, in this album. There are three: Like A Prayer, Spanish Eyes and Act of Contrition (hello, this is a real confessional prayer).
Track by track review
Tracks reviewing is not my thing, really. I think in this blog I’ve only written one post ranking Madonna’s albums and one reviewing Madonna’s tracks, Madonna’s Best Songs, since I’m no real music connoisseur as such but Like A Prayer is turning 30 and the occasion merits the effort today.
Like A Prayer
Like A Prayer is the opening track. What hasn’t been written about it? It’s considered to be one of Madonna’s best songs.
Yes, it sounds religious and there’s a gospel chorus. Yes, the lyrics may be interpreted, they have different layers. There’s a mystical tone to it, yet there’s also a sexual aspect that can’t be denied. There’s the video, the Pepsi issue, the burning crosses, the excommunicating, the speech in Italy, etc.
(By the way, in the video below of the speech, the translation into Spanish is bad at times. Keep it in mind).
Controversy aside, I can only say that Like A Prayer is timeless and that I like to think that Madonna is not talking to god, nor to a lover. She’s not talking to Sean either (it’s been suggested). I like to think she’s talking to fans. Think about it while you re-examine the lyrics.
“I hear you call my name / And it feels like home / When you call my name / It’s like a little prayer / I’m down on my knees / I wanna take you there”.
Don’t say these words couldn’t be said at any of her concerts.
She loves to listen to the crowd cheer her name (remember the Sticky & Sweet Tour in Buenos Aires), and it feels like home, so why would this be such an outrageous idea?
This is what I choose to think. I feel involved! 🙂 And this is the beauty of songs being accessible on multiple levels, isn’t it.
Express Yourself is a feminist anthem of empowerment and freedom and it has influenced many artists, from the Spice Girls to Christina Aguilera, Beyoncee, Kylie Minogue or Lady Gaga. There’s very little I can add to what’s already been written.
I personally love the track in all of its forms and versions. Two of my favourites being her live performances in the Blond Ambition Tour and the Girlie Show. Amazing.
Love Song is knowingly a collaboration with Prince, who also plays guitar in Like A Prayer, Keep it Together and Act of Contrition. For me, the weakest track of the album by far, doesn’t seem to connect. It sounds to me as a Prince song where Madonna sings a few verses, instead of vice versa.
Till Death Do Us Part
Till Death Do Us Part is a break-up song that describes Madonna’s divorce. When you pay attention to the lyrics, they are almost heart-breaking in their honesty.
“The bruises they will fade away/ You hit so hard with the things you say/ I will not stay to watch your hate as it grows/ You’re not in love with someone else/ You don’t even love yourself/ But still, I wish you’d ask me not to go”
Here, she first confesses she’s not a heart of stone and then appeals to that universal feeling: even knowing how much it hurts, Madonna wishes he’d asked her not to go, admitting to her pain and her weakness. OMG. The cold-hearted, calculating bitch might be human after all, her detractors perhaps thought.
Promise to Try
Promise to Try is an account of Madonna’s pain about having to grow up without her mother. Madonna sings to her 5-year-old self, asking her to allow her to have some closure. Madonna feels she is letting both of them down and fears that, in the end, she will forget what her face looked like.
I always loved this track but I saw it in a different light after my own mother died when I was 25. It invariably makes me cry every time I listen to it.
Cherish seems just right after Promise to Try. Not a favourite but a light, cheerful song about love whose equivalent from Madonna’s previous album would be True Blue. (I usually, don’t know why, find equivalents in all Madonna records. I guess it helps me organise them in my head or something).
Dear Jessie is a great upbeat lullaby. Inspired by Patrick Leonard’s (also producer of Like A Prayer) daughter, what I like most is the message. I don’t know if many parents played this song for their children but they should have. It tells them to use their imagination and be free.
Oh Father is such an underappreciated song (and video too) which talks about male authoritative figures. Yes, perhaps she’s talking about father Tony Ciccone, but also other male relationships from husband to piers to the Pope himself. Yeah.
I especially enjoy her (only, as far as I can remember) performance of Oh Father within the religious segment of the Blond Ambition Tour, a medley of Live To Tell, Oh Father and Papa Don’t Preach. Unforgettable.
Keep It Together
Keep It Together is another tribute to Sly and the Family Stone’s A Family Affair.
A more upbeat groover, Madonna’s song has a synth-funk sound which talks about family affairs, highlighting both bad and good things about families.
In the Blond Ambition Tour she ensures the listener appreciates the fact that family is not only your familial relationships, that you don’t choose your family but you do get to choose your friends, so be wise and choose well and love them as if they were family.
As we all know, Madonna’s tribute to Sly and the Family Stone doesn’t end here (remember Express Yourself and her version of Everybody during the Girlie Show Tour).
The underrated Spanish Eyes, (re-titled Pray for Spanish Eyes in some editions), a poignant ballad with lyrics so emotional, is a perfect example of the layers I was talking about earlier. Even us fans can’t find an agreement on what the song is about and that’s the beauty of it.
Some of the lyrics are so delicate:
“How many lives will they have to take? / How much heartache? / How many suns will they have to burn? / Spanish eyes / When will they ever learn? / You were not the Maravilla in our minds / We were proud to fight but we cannot win this blind / Stand your guns against the wall / Who’s next in line to fall”.
Some say the song is about AIDS (let’s remember that initial pressings of the album included safety pamphlets about AIDS, still a taboo subject at the time. Ugh, her mind); others say Madonna is singing about gang warfare and violence taking its toll on the Latino community.
I’ve also read that it’s “clearly about her failed marriage” to Sean Penn (which seems dubious knowing Madonna hates repeating herself). Some even assert that Spanish Eyes is about Madonna’s dance teacher Christopher Flynn (don’t think so but ok).
I think Spanish Eyes is a prayer for the least favoured “Others”, whether it is people struck by AIDS and the suffering it provokes, the Latino community or any kind of minority from LGTBI to women in general to other marginal segments of society.
Act of Contrition
How could Madonna go without a tongue-in-cheek track?
Act of Contrition is a ribbingly irreverent glance at repentance, a song where she gets to heaven having made a reservation only to find out that it’s been deleted from their computer. Clearly a whimsical satire of this well-known confessional prayer.
Tongue-in-cheek aside, this is serious stuff. Repent, bitches.
And so, we’ve come to the end.
Within all this array of songs, there are four that we can clearly group together as the most biographical, confessional tracks: Till Death Do Us Part, Oh Father, Promise To Try and Keep It Together. It’s evident that in these, Madonna is trying to force out some of her demons regarding husband, father, mother and family, respectively.
I find that Madonna succeeded in creating an exquisite equilibrium in Like A Prayer.
Making a record about such solemn matters as family, divorce, pain, Catholicism, race, etc., could have resulted in a mind-numbing, sombre and obscure collection of tracks. However, Madonna managed to even things out to deliver an accessible, balanced album that connects with universal emotions.
For example, the music and melody in Till Death Do Us Part, contrasts with the painful, confessional lyrics beautifully; the joyous Cherish and Dear Jessie lift your heart up after Promise To Try and the funky tone of the remarkable Keep It Together seems almost superficial by comparison to others, when as a matter of fact, it’s an inspiring track about the importance of family.
We can’t change the sad fact that Madonna was never truly been taken seriously because most people were more preoccupied with the controversies surrounding her than with her music. But it is even sadder that 30 years after Like A Prayer was released, many have lost sight of her legacy and are still more attentive to her age and conduct than her upcoming album (#M14).
Like A Prayer is one of the most important albums in pop and this is a fact.
One last thing: the AIDS leaflet and the patchouli scented oil
In addition to the masterpiece that Like A Prayer is, this album will always be iconic not only for the music, the controversy, the videos and the world tour that it spawned. It was groundbreaking because of its scent and because it included an AIDS fact sheet that was very much controversial too.
Madonna had already been very much involved in projects battling AIDS. On this occasion, she included a small blue leaflet with “The Facts About AIDS” which began saying that “AIDS is an equal opportunity disease”.
Madonna’s intention was to raise awareness and de-stigmatise most of the AIDS and HIV myths, to educate in safe sex.
Today, it may seem simple, but this was a political statement of monumental proportions at the time, since AIDS was a taboo subject in the late 80s, when mostly everyone stayed away from the subject, or even worse, thought it was a curse of god (and I deliberately wrote god).
Statements like this have always been risks that Madonna has chosen to take for the benefit of others, knowing that they could hurt enormously her career. She’s always survived, and triumphantly, I might add.
When Like A Prayer was first pressed, Madonna had each copy scented of patchouli oil in all of its formats, vinyl, CD and cassette. The scent three-dimensionalised the experience of the record cleverly, making the music, the scent and Madonna herself fuse into one.
Again, ugh, her mind!
Nobody had done this before, as far as I know. The delicately lingering smell would subliminally carry you to the church-incense vibe of the title track, and perhaps even to forever associate the smell with Madonna.
My LP still has the scent but not the CD.
Does your copy still have the scent 30 years later? Tell us in the comments!