FEATURE: The Immaculate Conception: Madonna’s Like a Prayer at Thirty



The Immaculate Conception


Madonna’s Like a Prayer at Thirty


I have a fond admiration...


 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna, in her Portugal home, posing for a selfie on 22nd February, 2019/PHOTO CREDIT: @Madonna

for legendary and decades-lasting artists who are keen to look back at their best work and are not stuck in the present. There is nothing wrong with looking ahead and only wanting to concentrate on that but I love when artists can mark album anniversaries and get a bit nostalgic! There is no danger when it comes to Madonna: someone who is often caught in the hot breeze of reminiscence and willingly celebrates her big achievements. This year sees two more Madonna albums celebrate important anniversaries. Like a Virgin (it turns thirty-five on 12th November) and Bedtime Stories (turning twenty-five on 25th October) give music lovers a reason to cheer later in the year. Whenever an exciting Madonna-related event pops up, the Queen of Pop herself is there to get on social media and ask her followers where they were at the time. I guess a lot of her fans are young and do not remember the first bloom of her success. It seems that there is still a massive love of her older work.

Mötley Crüe have just, for some reason, covered Madonna’s Like a Virgin – one can only imagine what their motivation is! It is a track from the soundtrack from their upcoming biopic, The Dirt. For those who prefer her 1998 album, Ray of Light, another title-track has been captured - this time by the band, POND. It is great that artists, so long after album releases, are still vibing to Madonna and keen to have their say. I am wandering off the path of focus here and, as Madonna has a new video is in-the-works featuring drag queens (not an acoustic ballad, one suspects!), there is a lot of action in her camp. Included in her plans is an appearance in this year’s Eurovision but, as some are reporting, it might not yet happen:

 “Madonna’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest is currently unclear, after production officials reviewed the songs the singer was preparing to perform and found one of them to be inappropriate for the audience and expected atmosphere of the competition, according to Ynet.

A new replacement song has not yet surfaced, and it is unclear if it will.

A number of sources located within the Eurovision contest itself expressed their dismay with the intended performance of the song, while others said that artistic freedom should be respected and to leave the choice to Madonna herself. The acting director-general of the public broadcasting corporation is in favor of the latter and directed production not to interfere with her artistic expression.

Meanwhile, Israeli media unofficially reported that Madonna filmed a political advertisement that would “lead to controversy.” It is unclear if this is in any relation to the controversial song choice


It is a very big year for Madonna because she has new material coming. The album she is working on, Magic (not confirmed but looks like it will be), is taking shape and Madonna keeps dropping teasers and clues as to what the album will contain and when it will come. But, in 2019, we also get to mark three huge albums celebrating important anniversaries. The heftiest of them all happens on Thursday: Like a Prayer turns thirty. I will concentrate on the album itself very soon but, before that, it is worth looking at the period before 1989. It is fair to say that Madonna revolutionised and transformed Pop through the 1980s. When her eponymous debut arrived in 1983, she was not at her very best but definitely showing true promise and something different. Like a Virgin (1984) was a quick follow-up and, again, an album packed with danceable tunes and Pop flair. There were signs that she was becoming bolder as a songwriter and not just writing about usual subjects: matters of the heart, the perils and unpredictability of relationships and, at times, the need to get everyone together in celebration. Her first big leap occurred in 1986 when she released her third studio album, True Blue. In some ways, it is an album from her early-career that people forget. Not because it is bad – it is far from that! – but, if you had to name five Madonna albums, it is one people forget. True Blue marked a new phase in Madonna’s career. She has ascended from this rising Pop artist to someone who, whilst not quite queen of the scene, was making moves towards the throne!

If the first couple of years’ work was synonymous with these big and bold Pop tunes, True Blue was Madonna mixing loftier themes into her work. The album was released on 30th June, 1986 and co-written and co-produced alongside Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard (there were a few other writers in the mix as well) – the trio would also work together on Like a Prayer. The young Madonna was blossoming as a songwriter and showing many of her peers – who had teams writing their songs and were essentially cogs in a machine – that she was a cut above. Although a lot of True Blue looks at love’s spectrum - visions of relationships and the highs and lows – there is a definite edge that runs throughout. The title cut is about her then-husband Sean Penn and it is great hearing a very revitalised, positive and happily-in-love Madonna writing these paens to a healthy and life-affirming bond.

 IN THIS PHOTO: On 20th September, 1986 Madonna attended the Second Annual ‘Commitment to Life’ Gala to Benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, California./PHOTO CREDIT: Ron Galella/WireImage

There was this definite aspect of Madonna trying to engage with an older audience. Classical elements came into True Blue and, on Papa Don’t Preach, there is this distillation of proactive and rare themes, a more mature and less predictable sound and the Pop-queen-in-waiting taking a leap. Papa Don’t Preach, the standout from the album, is indication of where Madonna was heading to on Like a Prayer. Tackling teen pregnancy, pro-choice and dealing with reactions from her family and boyfriend, it was like nothing else in music. The album cover of True Blue also reflected an artist who was growing in maturity - and did not want to be just as another young and bright-eyed Popstar.

Madonna was producing more ambitious music and, at the same time, becoming this fashion icon. She was always a pioneer but, with every album, a new look would come in. Look at the video for Papa Don’t Preach and there is this more Punk-like, short-haired star that was very different to the Madonna who greeted us earlier in her career – more bangles, longer hair and a traditional 1980s look. If Madonna and Like a Virgin flirted with weightier themes and taking on important issues, True Blue was a definite seduction. Maybe La Isla Bonita’s characterisation of certain races and people would not be considered P.C. today but Madonna was adding new sounds and ideas into the modern Pop scene. Open Your Heart’s video is like a peep show and voyeuristic look that portrays Madonna as a stripper. Madonna was experimenting more with sexuality and freedom; it retained a sweet and naïve vibe due to the fact that outside of the strip joint was a young boy waiting for Madonna. It is clear that, since her 1983 debut, Madonna had grown and was becoming more daring with her subject matter and image. All of the signs were there regarding Like a Prayer’s look and sound. Madonna was working non-stop and, when one project ended, she would embark on another one. She launched into the Who’s That Girl tour in 1987: a thirty-seven-date event to promote the film and soundtrack of the same name.

Madonna was no stranger to acting – having appeared in Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985 – and, whilst Who’s That Girl (film) would receive mixed reviews in 1987, her real big flop would occur when Shanghai Surprise reached cinemas. Featuring the then-newlyweds of Sean Penn and Madonna, the 1986-released film looked like it was cinematic gold. Combining huge names on the poster and a plot that had promise – Penn played Glendon Wasey, a sleazy conman struggling to sell glow-in-the-dark neck-ties in Shanghai; Madonna a missionary nurse (Gloria Tatlock) who wants to procure supplies of opium to ease the suffering of her patients; the two unite on a quest to obtain these supplies – it was panned by critics and was a commercial bomb. Most of the criticism came, one suspects, from people wanting to tear Madonna down: at that time she was the biggest artist on the planet and this was a way of kicking her a bit. The slew of bad reviews did not deter her ambitions and visions. If anything, film roles and more prolific touring allowed Madonna the chance to play with personas and naturally inhabit these characters. Within the space of six years, this bubbly and bright new Pop artist had risen through the ranks; performed in several films and brought her music around the world. True Blue went on to sell over twenty-five million copies and, before Like a Prayer was released on 21st March, 1989, Madonna was becoming this global icon.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna, Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver on stage performing in Speed-the-Plow in 1988/PHOTO CREDIT: Brigitte Lacombe

Whilst many artists struggle to manage all their touring and recording demands, Madonna was capable of balancing album duties and her acting desires. She wanted to be a big star on and off of the screen and she was even stepping into theatre. In 1988, she appeared in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow and, whilst there were some negative reviews, there was some praise for her performance. It was this break-neck and restless work ethic that amazed people when Like a Prayer arrived – how could someone who was appearing in films and on the stage (not to mention touring the world…) manage to create an album, no less one that redefined Pop as we know it?! True Blue is marked by a sense of happiness and contentment with this new love, Sean Penn. However, by the time Like a Prayer hit shelves, the couple’s divorce was almost finalised – the signatures would be dry by the end of September 1989. Every album saw a Madonna revolution and Like a Prayer was no different. True Blue was this big leap that was unafraid to go off the traditional Pop map regarding its subjects and sounds: Like a Prayer augmented that and, from the cover alone, one could tell Madonna meant business. Together with Herb Ritts – who also was the photographer for True Blue – we had a cover that was fully colour (rare for Madonna) and, whilst it did not feature Madonna’s face (that was a first), it was a lot more striking and artistic than anything she has released.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna pretty looking chic in a 1989 shoot/PHOTO CREDIT: Herb Ritts

Some have compared the album’s cover to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. – he is wearing denim jeans on the cover but is facing the wrong way round; one hand in his back pocket with a pink/red rag hanging out. That cover was sort of Springsteen as this grafter and rebellious figure. Madonna’s denim-sporting cover was a more mystical, culture-fusing and less sexual thing. Some also feel that Like a Prayer is similar in tone to The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. That cover is overtly sexual – as the album title suggests – whereas Madonna sports Eastern jewellery and has playfulness to it. When the album came out, she infused it with patchouli oil so that it has this scent of exoticness, eroticism and the peaceful. Let’s pan back a bit and look at Madonna in Speed-the-Plow. She turned thirty during its run and was thinking about her time of life. As Caroline Sullivan discussed in her excellent book, Madonna: Album by Album, other big artists born in 1958 were changing their musical dynamic when they hit/were approaching thirty. Prince experimented with spirituality on Lovesexy (and lost sales) in 1988 whilst Michael Jackson was rallying against injustice and the plight of the world – this would surface on his 1991 album, Dangerous. All three artists (including Madonna) were born relatively close to each other in the Midwest of America and it is interesting seeing these artists transform and evolve by the summer of 1988.

Given the dislocation of her marriage and other problems, Madonna’s Like a Prayer was her most introspective and personal album to date. Songs on the album dealt with her mother’s early death (Promise to Try); her reaction to her father as he dealt with his wife’s death (Oh Father) and the importance of family (Keep It Together). It is hard to say whether the impending divorce from Penn or their decision to have children – the idea was mooted for 1989 but fraught and confrontational issues at home added more nails to the coffin – was the biggest factor when it came to songs about family. It is clear Madonna was moving away from the throes of love and youth and more concerned with something deeper and more important. She addressed AIDS on Pray for Spanish Eyes (on some editions of the album it is just called Spanish Eyes) and domestic abuse on Till Death Do Us Part. Working alongside Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard, Madonna engrossed herself in work and wrote a lot of the album’s biggest songs over a productive two-week period. Madonna would turn up in the studio with a notebook and, as Patrick Bray told Chris Heath of Smash Hits, she wrote in a stream-of-mood; taking a few hours for song fragments and impressions to turn into fully-formed lyrics. She was still learning but exerting more influence and control over the songwriting. In an age where, today, a lot of artists are too safe and rely on teams to dress and direct them, write their songs and keep them focused…Madonna was not going to write an album that was too safe and commercial.

Like a Prayer was a different beast to anything Madonna has ever produced. She was placing the importance of experimentation and texture over mere beats and easy tunes. Aside from personal circumstances and growing older…the biggest change in Madonna’s music from her True Blue period was the tone. On the album, there is far less of the anthemic and sing-along songs that defined her reputation. If anyone was looking for an album packed with Holiday, Like a Virgin and Borderline-like merriment, they would be in for a disappointment. If anything, Like a Prayer was a much more varied and broad album that anything in Pop at the time. If one was looking for a jam then they had the title-track: God being symbolised as a lover saving Madonna; the icon at her most overt, challenging and bold. Cherish is a simpler song but one that, against her relationship problems, was about embracing love and its wonders. Express Yourself is a thrilling and hugely-catchy song that reminds me of her Madonna/Like a Virgin oeuvre. Every one of Like a Prayer’s eleven tracks has weight - and there is such a huge range of themes and sounds throughout. Madonna continued her sonic endeavour and was mixing more into the pot. The album would receive huge reviews but, almost before things began, momentum was almost derailed. Madonna signed a five-million-dollar deal with Pepsi to promote them…

She was intrigued by this project that mixed commercialism with something more challenging – not merely an artist cashing it in to promote their latest project. Pepsi won the right to broadcast Like a Prayer’s title offering before anyone else and they would also sponsor her tour. The single was due for release on 7th March but the public got an early taste five days previous. The advert was a celebration of inclusiveness and, with Joe Pytka directing (he also helmed Michael Jackson’s Pepsi adverts), it all looked safe on paper. The advert was promoted heavily and almost hyped as this worldwide event! The advert aired during America’s top-rated sitcom, The Cosby Show, and saw two-hundred-and-fifty million people across forty nations tune in. The commercial soon took on a sour tinge when the video for Like a Prayer received backlash from various corners. Most of the antagonism came from churches and religious bodies who felt the image of burning crosses was blasphemous and in support of groups like the Ku Klux Klan.


IN THIS PHOTO: On 21st September, 1989 Madonna was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine for the second time that year (she was also featured in March)/PHOTO CREDIT: Herb Ritts

The sight of Madonna kissing a black man in the video was seen as controversial and many were uncomfortable with what she was putting out. This reaction caused Pepsi to pull their deal and, whilst they had no idea what the video was like and how it would be perceived, they bore the brunt of the negativity – many complaining to them rather than MTV (who aired the video and knew what it contained). The furore and fallout from the Pepsi/Like a Prayer debacle could have backfired regarding the album’s perception and success. The fact that the video for Like a Prayer threatened to overshadow Madonna’s album of the same name is remarkable. As this article from 2016 shows, the video got a lot of attention - not the kind of focus that it should have received:

As one might expect, the “Like a Prayer” video was talked about incessantly upon its release, which was great in terms of inspiring record sales, but it also led to the cancellation of the contract that Madonna had recently signed with Pepsi to use the song in a commercial. More impressively, the Vatican actually took time to condemn the video.


IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna entrapped in the epic Like a Prayer video/PHOTO CREDIT: Mary Lambert

“I knew that we were pushing some big buttons, but I sort of underestimated the influence and bigotry of fundamentalist religion and racism in this country and the world,” director Mary Lambert told Rolling Stone. “I always think that, if my work is successful, it goes beyond my intentions and in this case it definitely did. The most important thing was to force people to reimagine their visual references and really root out their prejudices. Using burning crosses to reference racism to religion. Why not a Black Jesus? Why can't you imagine kissing him? I wanted to speak about ecstasy and to show the relationship between sexual and religious ecstasy. I think that subconsciously a lot of people understood this and were either enthralled or outraged by it”.

A few reviews felt that the material lacked conviction and was a tad pretentious. To be fair, there were moments of pretention (if you consider she was this boy toy-like figure before Like a Prayer) but Madonna’s delivery and songs were at peak levels of emotion and conviction! Madonna never faked a moment and to call her anything other than true and authentic was an insult. Other critics (rightly) lauded the material as being brave and ambitious: against a Pop scene that was changing in 1989, Madonna was confirming her place as its leader and spiritual guide.

If Madonna’s range was not huge and as impactful as singers like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, it was a lot deeper and stronger than it was at the start of her career. Madonna has always been an underrated singer and Like a Prayer is a perfect demonstration of how expressive and rich her voice is. We live in a time when T.V. reality shows promote and celebrate singers who can belt out a tune with power but very little appeal and nuance. Madonna is an artist who has always stunned with her conviction and natural abilities. Six singles were taken from Like a Prayer and, apart from Oh Father (which was the first single not to crack the top-twenty since Holiday), she kept having hit after hit. It seemed that before one hit could die and fade, another was released and creating a storm! In fact, Express Yourself went to number-two and it was helped by its Metropolis-inspired video: based on the Fritz Lang film, the huge-budget video featured Madonna playing the boss of enslaved young men; she then becomes a slave - lots of futuristic scenes and gorgeous looks. It rightfully won three MTV Awards and remains one of her most striking promotional videos ever.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna praying in a fantastic-looking shot/pose from 1989/PHOTO CREDIT: Eric Kroll

Perhaps the only song on Like a Prayer that seemed expendable was/is Love Song. It is one of two songs featuring Prince (his backwards-guitar would feature on the charming, funny and interesting Act of Contrition) but it was not a great showing. There is steaminess and some French vocals; two massive stars on the same song but, when all is said and done, neither added anything great! The fact Love Song is third in the tracklist – behind the massive Like a Prayer and Express Yourself – showed Madonna held hopes it would be a big hit. Most reviews are tepid regarding the song and, whilst it is interesting, it is not Madonna’s best moment. Against minor controversies and missteps, Madonna was ending the 1980s on a huge high. Enormous reviews (as I shall mention soon) gave her confidence and kudos and publications frequently included her in the best-artists-in-the-world lists. Madonna completed the 1980s with a fifty-seven-date world tour (Blond Ambition) and she was the biggest star in the world.

Madonna, on Like a Prayer, was shaping how music videos and Pop music should be; how the 1980s should have been away from the slightly cheesy and kitsch offerings. From 1989 onward, magazines and critics ranked Like a Prayer as one of the most important and influential albums ever – not just of the 1980s. The transformation from Madonna the Pop contender to the uncontested Queen of Pop was complete. She was opening discussions regarding religion and tackling subjects like domestic abuse and AIDS in a very inspiring, open and personal way. It was a turning point where Madonna was being taken much more seriously. One feels her incredible work ethic contributed to a stronger and more assured album. I still struggle to get my head around the fact that Madonna was appearing in various productions whilst still able to produce one of the best albums of the 1980s. Many critics were also stunned when they realised that, not long after she was being reviewed in a film, people were turning their attentions to a fresh album.

Like a Prayer, in many ways, was Madonna blossoming into womanhood. Her fans were willing to follow and she was not shedding them off: the same girls who fell for her in 1983 were with her but Madonna was picking up new acolytes. Like a Prayer was a pioneering album and one of the first Pop records to tackle sexuality, religion and gender independence. One can look at the biggest Pop albums from the past few decades and you can hear Madonna’s influence and see her fingerprints – although none have been as transformative and groundbreaking. The risks Madonna took in 1989 inspired bold albums from the likes of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga in the 2000s. Although Pop has changed a lot since 1989, one can still feel the tremors of Like a Prayer. Contemporary reviews were very positive but Like a Prayer has won its fair share of love since. Pitchfork, when assessing the album in 2015, said this:

 “So maybe Madonna’s protests that Like a Prayer wasn’t autobiographical were a bit of a ruse—or just another way to keep the minds of America’s pop-watchers thinking about her music as she gave them an album where she was less afraid to show her flaws, more willing to try on new personas that had bits of her selves attached. After all, as she told The New York Times in 1989, “What I do is total commercialism, but it’s also art.” Like a Prayer straddles those two ideals with gusto, with even its less satisfying moments adding to the heat given off by the MTV era’s brightest star”.

This is how Blender perceived Like a Prayer in 1989:

Her divorce album,” says producer Pat Leonard, with the post–Sean Penn fallout most evident on the anguished “Till Death Do Us Part” (“You’re not in love with me anymore”). From the ethereal-metal guitar and globe-shaking drum boom of the title track’s intro onward, Like a Prayer is Madonna’s most touching, least strident record. “Dear Jessie” does “Strawberry Fields Forever”; “Express Yourself” is a mood-elevating pop thrill; and the lavishly orchestrated, dad-baiting “Oh Father” brings mist to the eye. Madonna’s ex-boyfriend Prince turns up on “Love Song,” presumably to piss off Penn”.

One cannot assess the impact and place of Like a Prayer without considering the before and after. We have already looked at True Blue and the transition from 1986-1989 but, between 1989 and 1992, Madonna stepped up and evolved once more. The soundtrack, I’m Breathless (from the film, Dick Tracy, which came out in June 1990) was another foray into film - and one better-received than some of her earlier efforts. The standout track from that album, Vogue, was Madonna promoting gay culture and creating an iconic video. Employing some House elements, Madonna was reacting to the changes in music during the early-1990s. There was this rise in House music and European innovators transforming the landscape.


The 1991 documentary, Truth or Dare, was a revealing look at Madonna’s life: the superstar we all knew and the person away from the spotlight. There were darker and difficult moments – her arguing and clashing with her Dick Tracy co-star Warren Beatty among them – but it was a well-received and illuminating look at the world’s biggest music star (I omitted to mention Madonna appeared in the 1989 film, Bloodhounds of Broadway. It was another performance that garnered mixed reviews but further proof she was a work-machine!). The success of singles such as Vogue and Justify My Love (a non-album track; it was included in her greatest-hits collection, The Immaculate Collection, in 1990) indicated how she was transitioning from Like a Prayer to Erotica.

IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify/ALBUM PHOTO: Stephen Meisel  

The album arrived on 20th October, 1992 and, one day later, her Sex book hit the shelves.Vogue sold six-million copies and put gay ‘ball’ culture in the spotlight; Justify My Love sold one-million - and there was no stopping Madonna’s momentum! Erotica marked one of the most divisive periods of her career. Unmarried and entering a different phase of her life, the shift from the more spiritual and introspective Madonna to the bolder and more sexual artist was complete. People loved Justify My Love and it was felt that more of the same (in the form of Erotica) would be a big success. Even though Erotica sold six-million copies – compared to fifteen-million of Like a Prayer – it was seen as a comparative disappointment. It was clear Madonna was pushing the envelope and not willing to repeat what had come before.

She wanted something grittier and tougher than the cleaner and more polished Like a Prayer. She was no longer working with Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray. Instead, writers like Shep Pettibone were brought in to give her work more oomph, House influences and something sexier. Madonna wanted something tougher for the 1990s and turned in her most club-friendly record since her debut (in 1983). If Madonna was entering a new stage and following her instincts - perhaps the public were unprepared for the sex-heavy nature of her work. The video for Erotica certainty turned heads: risqué and sensual, its myriad eye-opening images and visions might have enticed some viewers…but some critics were not impressed. To Madonna (Erotica) was about everyone being able to express their sexuality with freedom and without judgement. She was not trying to corrupt America or lead people astray: instead, her aim was to create these brilliantly expressive and evocative tracks that opened up conversation and inspired the people. If some of the songs sound impersonal - Rain and Bad Girl could have been released by any other artist of the day one feels - the songs get into the head and stay with you.

This blend of softcore porn and artistic expression was another evolution from Madonna but some felt Erotica was a cold and controversial album that contained little in the way of warmth or anything sexy. The Sex book featured images slightly tame by today’s standards but, at the time, Madonna was ruffling feathers and seeing her sales drop. In retrospect, Erotica inspired Pop stars during the 1990s and 2000s. It welcomed in a bolder and more sexually-expressive sound that has been cited by some huge artists. The reviews were not all bad but they were not as glittering as (for) Like a Prayer in 1989. I love Erotica and there are some fantastic songs on the album – including Erotica and Rain – but it was clear, after the attention from the groundbreaking Like a Prayer, Madonna wanted to take her music in new directions and conquer the world. It would take until 1998’s Ray of Light to get Madonna back in the critics’ good books (she received acclaim but nothing as heady as Like a Prayer or Ray of Light) but one can see this fantastic Pop artist exploring and evolving by 1992. I keep using the word ‘evolving’ but it is rare to see an artist change so frequently and boldly! Madonna would face new challengers and Pop-queens-in-waiting during the 1990s but her constant sense of movement and confidence kept her ahead of her peers.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna, looking seductive, only has eyes for Steven Meisel during a Vanity Fair photoshoot in October 1992

Nothing, to me, in the Madonna cannon is as important and iconic as Like a Prayer – even though I feel Ray of Light is her defining album –, and it is an album that, even now, is still being played and celebrated. Musicians have taken it to heart and, whilst we can definitely thank Madonna for opening up discussions regarding religion, darker themes and uncommercial avenues, I do not think an album as bold and brave has been created. It is strange that, in a way, Madonna created this benchmark that has not been equalled. The Queen of Pop is still going strong and is preparing to release her fourteenth studio album, Magic (as I said, it is not 100% confirmed but looks likely), very soon. I believe a new music video is being shot and Madonna has posted photos of her posing with Pharrell and Snoop Dogg; singing with female vocal groups and hinting at a record that will be a mixture of textures, cultures and genres.

IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna gives Pharrell Williams a cheeky little touch as an always-cool Snoop Dogg smokes a cigar in a photo posted by Madonna to her Twitter account on 27th February, 2019. She captioned the photo with the words “With The Godfather and his Consigliere”, perhaps signalling that they might appear on her fourteenth studio album, Magic/PHOTO CREDIT: @Madonna

She is now sixty but is not keen to rest and compromise. Madonna is active on social media and not someone who is stuck in the present: she commemorates big anniversaries and is happy her music is still inspiring and reaching new people. She is posting new tweets every day and it is great seeing this iconic artist engaging so wholly and personally with her fans, whether that means posting photos of her children or keeping people in the loop regarding music. Maybe her insane work rate has declined slightly (lest it kill her) but Madonna is definitely not looking to retire: she loves what she does and, as a Pop innovator, excited to fuse sounds and different cultures. I do hope there are many more years of Madonna albums because one thing she cannot be accused of is being boring! Even now, she is still more brash and organic than most of the music world - one would forgive her if she became a little more settled and cosy but, sh*t, this is Madonna, bitch! We look forward to fresh material and her next chapter but, thirty years on from the biblical sermon that is Like a Prayer, it is worth taking a moment and recognising this incredibly inspiring, popular and milestone album.

Everyone will have their favourite tracks from the record (mine is Express Yourself) but, if you are new or familiar, spin the album in full. 1986’s True Blue hinted at this artist who would become a Pop queen but Like a Prayer confirmed her place and moved the music world. Why was Like a Prayer so important and why does it remain so in 2019?! In this Huffington Post article from 2017, some interesting theories are explored:

 “A Rolling Stone review by J.D. Considine from April of 1989 correctly noted that Like a Prayer was “as close to art as pop music gets.” The album touched on topics such as childhood innocence, childhood loss, child abuse, spousal abuse, women’s rights, and spirituality. It mixed all of these themes together to not only make the listener think and dance, but ask questions as well — some of which were risky to ask in 1989. Like a Prayer proved that an artist can mix style and substance in order to break societal and musical barriers. 28 years later, many pop artists, including Madonna herself, are trying to hit all the correct spots Like a Prayer hit, but they just don’t have the same effect”.

It is a titanic and hugely important album that cannot be ignored. As the A.V. Club explain in this 2014 feature, Like a Prayer was a pivotal moment for both Madonna and Pop music as a whole:

“Like A Prayer was Madonna’s first truly substantial record, the dividing line between her chirpy club-kid days and the mature sounds and themes that increasingly marked her ’90s work. The album’s sustained run at No. 1 buoyed her self-assurance and bravery, and validated that people were willing to follow her even as she transitioned into adulthood. And even today, Like A Prayer remains provocative and progressive: The racial tension alluded to in the “Like A Prayer” video is striking, while the album’s themes of religious and sexual oppression still feel all too relevant. Madonna dictated pop’s future direction while also being firmly in control of her own fortunes”.

There are articles dedicated to how Madonna has changed the world; how Like a Prayer had these unique edges and was a definite progression from the superstar. A lot of Pop from the 1980s and 1990s can date and sound a bit tired when played today. Listen to any Madonna record and that is never the case: Like a Prayer is, perhaps, the album that gives us the most through time and changed music the most. Critics noted how Like a Prayer was as close to art as an album could get.

 IN THIS PHOTO: An alluring and pensive Madonna captured in 1989/PHOTO CREDIT: Herb Ritts

From the huge and moving videos to the album cover and Madonna the fashion icon inspiring legions, this was a music leader laying down an incredible testimony that was far deeper and more important than anything coming from Pop in 1989 - aside from a few other bold artists (like Kate Bush), the year was more defined by other genres and revelations, including a couple of Hip-Hop classics. Many media sources will overlook Like a Prayer or merely nod to it in musical form. One suspects the title offering will be played a lot but what of the lesser-exposed songs such as Promise to Try and Pray for Spanish Eyes?! If the album’s creator was looking deeply at her life at the age of thirty and seeking to make changes, I hope the thirty-year-old masterpiece that came from Madonna creates a similar effect regarding the music scene today. We do it a proper nod of respect and there are so many songs on the album that get overlooked. Till Death Do Us Part mixes something more serious with a spirited and driving composition; Promise to Try’s elegance captures your heart and mind whilst there is a certain audaciousness placing the candid and intoxicating right next to the stately and emotional Oh Father! Really, Like a Prayer is an album so packed, eclectic and nuance that, even now, I am shifting my top-five-songs-on-the-album list!

IN THIS PHOTO: A bubbly Madonna is photoed by Alberto Tolot in 1989

There are numerous why Madonna inspires and guides the scene today but, as Barbara Ellen wrote in The Guardian when celebrating Madonna’s sixtieth birthday last year, she instinctively knows how to write an amazing song!

In truth, popular culture still reeks of Madonna’s influence for a good reason: she’s earned it. Far from being a shallow shape-shifter, she always knew her way around a pop classic (her oeuvre is full of them), and developed a flair for choosing talented collaborators to keep her music fresh. Moreover, back when she could have played it safe, Madonna called herself an artist and acted like one, tirelessly reinventing herself. From plonking a black saint in the Like a Prayer video to putting out a book called Sex, at the peak of her fame, just about everything Madonna did alienated middle America, because she wanted to define the zeitgeist, not merely reflect it”.

It is evident Pop is strong but nowhere near as strong and compelling as it could and should be. Let’s raise a glass to Madonna (I am sure she will be doing likewise at her home in Portugal!) and, if you have it on vinyl or loaded on Spotify, play the record from its start to finish. The sheer range of moods, subjects and experiences seems like Madonna laying her heart, soul and bones on the table for all to see.


IN THIS PHOTO: The Queen of Pop cryptically posted this image on Twitter on 18th March, 2019 with a message regarding “A taste of things to come”, perhaps signalling new material was afoot/PHOTO CREDIT: @Madonna

It is the nakedness and revelation from her that makes the whole experience so breathtaking. Like a Prayer is a rare musical gift that keeps on uncovering new revelation and surprises. I do hope that journalists make an effort to mark thirty years of Like a Prayer because it is a seismic album and one that changed the foundations of music. Even in 2019, you get the feeling Madonna can shake Pop to its core and deliver something truly staggering. This is an artist who is always moving forward and not willing to follow the herd. In a year where music, I feel, is becoming so closed-off and lacking in optimism, there is plenty on Like a Prayer that can get us in a better mood! This enormous album rose to the top of the Billboard 200 within a few weeks and kept that position for six consecutive weeks - making it her longest-running number-one album. The album spent a total of seventy-seven weeks on the charts and laid down this incredible marker for musicians of the 1990s. Pop artists have been learning from Like a Prayer ever since its release; whether that be tackling controversial themes or showing an incredible, eclectic spirit. Its influence and impact is almost impossible to quantify but I am sure various websites will try and calculate that over the next couple of days. Like a Prayer, as I said, sounds as fresh and exciting today as it did on 21st March, 1989. It is an album that, thirty years after its birth, remains daring, human; passionate, unique and, above everything else, a Madonna who was unafraid to...

EXPRESS herself.