Still considered the most seminal work of her career, 30 years ago Madonna released Like A Prayer her most introspective project at the time, redefined popular music and elevated her celebrity into the stratosphere.
Expressing herself has always been one of Madonna’s most enduring caveats as an artist. The Queen of Pop has never attempted to shy away from the criticism or the controversies that have followed her especially early on during her emerging career, and in 1989 the controversies were moving at a rapid-fire pace, and yet Madonna kept in step. Proving many of her harshest critics wrong she releases Like A Prayer her most honest and introspective work, the album reshaped the perception of the artist immediately.
There was her high profile divorce from actor Sean Penn. Their tumultuous marriage had been headline fodder for the tabloids since the moment the couple began to date; the distraction of having their lives constantly under the microscope inevitably led to the relationship’s downfall. Madonna emerged determined from the experience not to appear a victim of what many had conspired to describe as an abusive situation. Between her last full-length album and the release of Like A Prayer, Madonna appeared to have grown in leaps and bounds artistically.
The 11-tracks that culminate in the setlist for Like A Prayer beginning with the album’s title track read like an exercise in self-discovery and exoneration for Madonna. She’s putting it all out there and bringing her audience along with her. “Like a Prayer” proved more of a success than anyone could have bargained for. In the lead-up to the video’s MTV premiere, Pepsi had agreed to a multi-million dollar deal with Madonna to sponsor her upcoming world tour. The commercial featuring the track was the perfect marriage of artist and product typical of the 80’s branding of an image.
Unfortunately, the video for “Like a Prayer” with its profound use of religious iconographic imagery, some of which showed Madonna cavorting amorously with a man who appeared as a Christ-like reference while burning crossing raged behind her, may have been more than squeaky-clean soda manufacturer had bargained for. Madonna and Pepsi inevitably went their separate ways, though she kept the millions promised to her, and followed up the controversy of the first video with the even more flagrant “Express Yourself” directed by David Fincher.
Just Like A Dream
For the second single from Like A Prayer, Madonna threw all care to the wind and decided the video for the more up-tempo track would be her most audacious yet. Collaborating with David Fincher (the pair would work together often) the pair chose the art deco influences of the gothic futuristic film Metropolis set to the “non-stop” remix of the track by music producer Shep Pettibone, to drape Madonna in satin sheets, chaining her to a bed — a captive to her own desires — as she awaits the arrival of her oiled up, muscly laborer who toils in the depths of the city.
The imagery from “Express Yourself” alone fueled a movement and would eventually reveal itself as the opening arc of her blockbuster statement of 1990, the Blond Ambition World Tour. The album would go on to release several hit singles including “Keep It Together”, “Oh Father”, “Dear Jessie” and “Cherish” which also featured a video from fashion photographer Herb Ritts. The video which featured Madonna on the shores of a beach playing with mermen who swam amidst the crashing waves was an interesting parallel to Ritts’ other video for Janet Jackson.
Though their rivalry was never a publicly stated competition, the two artists often found themselves during the 80s and 90s battling for similar audiences. Ritts bathed Madonna in cool blues which played beautifully to her own eyes as her skin appeared wet and desirably supple in the watery backdrop, while Jackson’s video for “Love Will Never Do (Without You) placed Janet in the stark California desert, radiating a heat — both artists the lustful affection of several well-built male models; of the two videos Madonna’s the more playful and innocent, by comparison.
Keep It Together
Perhaps the most significant extrapolation of Like A Prayer comes from its significantly closing the artistic collaborative efforts of songwriters Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray, who had been ever-present in Madonna’s early career hits. They would return to the fold, but after Like A Prayer and her next full-length album effort Erotica Madonna would begin to experiment with alternative producing and writing partners. The success of Like A Prayer would soon be eclipsed by the shockwave of a single hit song that almost ended up a B-Side. The song was “Vogue”.