Madonna’s fourth studio album is an immaculate collection of songs which saw the superstar looking inwards for divine inspiration. Taking in grief, loss, redemption and empowerment, with the celestial Like A Prayer she created her own new testament…
Though Madonna had already established herself as the definitive female pop artist of the 80s with a catalogue of classic hits under her Boy Toy belt, she had found herself at a crossroads in her public and professional life when she entered the studio in 1988 to work on her fourth album. Devastated by the breakdown of her marriage to actor Sean Penn and having recently turned 30, Madonna was feeling increasingly introspective, compelled to confront her feelings about the life-altering events that she had brushed aside for years.
Two years on from True Blue, her most successful album to date, and feeling immense pressure to follow it up, she was desperate to shift focus back to her work from the tabloid caricature that she was becoming thanks to her tumultuous union with Penn.
Sean’s propensity to lash out at paparazzi photographers had made him public enemy number one in the tabloids and even landed him in jail. Madonna’s willingness to stand by her man made her guilty by association and earned the couple the moniker, ‘the Poison Penns’.
Meanwhile, her ‘scandalous’ antics with bisexual comedienne Sandra Bernhard – dressing in matching outfits for an appearance on David Letterman’s talk show which implied their relationship was more than platonic – and teaming up with Dirty Dancing’s Jennifer Grey and dubbing themselves ‘the Snatch Batch’ (a take on Sinatra’s Rat Pack) to frequent New York’s infamous lesbian nightclub, Cubbyhole, only fanned the flames of her tabloid notoriety.
As the press plotted her inevitable downfall and primed the likes of Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and Taylor Dayne for pop supremacy, Madonna began work on her next album. Having spent her hiatus from the spotlight collaborating with playwright David Mamet on her Broadway debut Speed-The-Plow, and working with filmmakers Woody Allen and Howard Brookner, she was inspired to make the record much more personal than her previous work, delving deep into her psyche and purging her feelings on subjects such as the breakdown of her marriage, the death of her mother and her strict Catholic upbringing.
“We called it the divorce album,” says Pat Leonard, who co-wrote and co-produced the LP with Madonna. “Everything took four times longer to do, as she kept breaking down in the studio. It was a hard time for her.”
While Madonna felt she had proved herself musically by co-writing and co-producing her True Blue album, she felt she had to prove it hadn’t been a fluke and worked again with Leonard, feeling they had developed a genuine rapport. Typically, he worked on musical ideas while Madonna contributed melodies and drew from years of her personal diaries and journals to form the lyrics. The first song they wrote was Like A Prayer, followed by Promise To Try (which dealt with the death of her mother) and Oh Father (Madonna’s account of her troubled relationship with her father and authority figures in her life).
Known as the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the album, they became Like A Prayer’s emotional core, informing the direction the record would take, with Madonna’s vulnerability perfectly encapsulating the feelings she wanted to convey in the songs. Till Death Do Us Part, a chilling account of domestic abuse, made especially uncomfortable listening thanks to the circumstances surrounding the end of her marriage to Sean Penn.
Madonna spoke openly about her lyrical honesty to SongTalk magazine: “I didn’t try to candycoat anything or make it more palatable for mass consumption. I wrote what I felt… Because this was what was coming out of me.”
As well as the searingly honest lyrics, a huge part of the songs’ authenticity came from the conviction in Madonna’s vocal delivery. Gone was the much-maligned ‘Minnie Mouse on helium’ girlish voice of some of her earlier work, replaced by battle-scarred tones, thick with emotion. “A lot of the vocals we kept were the first takes,” Madonna said. “They were a lot more spontaneous and emotional, and integral to the music. We had every intention of going back and fixing them, but when we listened to them, we said: ‘Why should we? They’re fine’.
“I think it’s because I didn’t have the pressure of knowing it was the final vocal. Strange sounds and imperfections, we kept them all in, because they’re emotions, too.”
Although it had been cathartic for Madonna to pour her heart into Like A Prayer’s darker moments, the album needed some light to ensure it was not too much of a culture shock to Madonna’s fanbase. Cherish was an unabashed love song which harked back to the True Blue sound and Dear Jessie was a psychedelic lullaby which joyously celebrated the childhood innocence Madonna was robbed of following the death of her mother when she was just five years old.
Madonna also collaborated with long-term co-writer Stephen Bray for a pair of funk-driven tracks, influenced by their mutual love of Sly & The Family Stone – Keep It Together and Express Yourself, with Love Song, a hook-up with Prince (a remnant from an aborted musical they’d been working on) completing the LP.
The world first heard about Like A Prayer in January 1989 when soft drinks giant Pepsi announced they’d signed an unprecedented $5 million deal with Madonna to be their new face and would be debuting her single in an advert in a simultaneous broadcast around the world, as well as sponsoring her next world tour. The company had recently fulfilled a similar arrangement with Michael Jackson, and with the biggest female superstar on the planet signed to them, Pepsi were confident the deal would see them emerge as the victors over Coca-Cola in the ‘cola wars’, which were at their height at the time.
Described by Madonna as the “ultimate meeting of art and commerce,” she didn’t want to feel used by Pepsi and inked the deal subject to a set of her own stringent ground rules.
She didn’t want to dance in the advert (although she relented after meeting choreographer Vincent Paterson) and, as other artists had done, she categorically refused to allow Like A Prayer to be amended in any way to incorporate Pepsi into the lyrics, feeling it would cheapen her song.
Entitled Make A Wish, the two-minute advert was a sentimental depiction of Madonna watching home movies of her eighth birthday party, and was screened around the world on 2 March 1989 to an estimated audience of 250 million. Thrilled with the response, Pepsi put an edited ad into heavy rotation across the world, delighted with their new signing.
Although Madonna and Pepsi’s venture was commended as perfectly executed by business analysts, the success was to be short-lived. The following day, Madonna released her own video for Like A Prayer, with cataclysmic results.
The video, with its vivid scenes of stigmata, Madonna kissing a black Saint (often misconceived as being a ‘black Jesus’) and dancing in a field of burning crosses provoked a response more extreme than anyone could ever have imagined. Religious groups were up in arms, burning effigies of Madonna and threatening a boycott of her and anyone associated with her. Madonna was typically defiant in her response, claiming the video’s positive message had been overlooked. Frustrated that their plight was falling on deaf ears, the protestors turned their attentions to Pepsi, threatening to boycott them and all of their associated companies.
Pepsi buckled under the pressure and ended the deal, allowing Madonna to keep her $5 million fee.
In what turned out to be an indispensable lesson for Madonna – that of teaching her the value of controversy as currency, both the single and album topped the charts around the world when they were released in March 1989. As well as the album’s commercial success (it went on to sell over 15 million copies and produced a further five hit singles), it was subject to unanimous critical acclaim – a first for Madonna. NME gave the album 10/10, while Rolling Stone described it as being “as close to art as pop music gets”.
Nobody was as surprised by the reception as Madonna herself. “People don’t realise I was a songwriter as well as a slut?” she joked. “I guess the image gets in the way. What am I supposed to do? The information is on the label. If they don’t read it, that’s not my problem. I’m not going to put a sticker on the front of the record saying: ‘Listen, I wrote these songs!’ People will pay attention to what they want to pay attention to.”
After Like A Prayer’s delivery amidst a blaze of publicity and controversy, Madonna more-or-less disappeared from public view. Having made the difficult decision to postpone plans to tour Like A Prayer that summer so that she could play femme fatale Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy, pop’s most controversial star spent much of 1989 ensconced in the unlikeliest of locations – the Disney studios.
With Madonna unavailable to promote the album, the success of Like A Prayer’s subsequent singles was reliant on a string of groundbreaking videos from directors Mary Lambert, David Fincher and Herb Ritts.
The care and effort Madonna expended when visually presenting her work was suitably rewarded at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards, where she made her only public appearance of the era to perform Express Yourself and pick up a string of gongs, including Artist Of The Decade and the Viewer’s Choice Award for Like A Prayer.
Ironically, the latter was sponsored by Pepsi, whom Madonna thanked in her acceptance speech “for causing so much controversy”. Although the controversy is one of the more memorable aspects of the era, Like A Prayer’s real strength lies in the music itself. By revealing her vulnerability and her strength in a pure, brutally honest way, she had created a body of work that would shape her artistry from this point of her career onwards.