'Like a Prayer' Was Madonna's First Masterpiece
By the time it was released in 1989, Madonna was already a bona fide superstar. Thirty years after its release, we look back at the album that established her as a meaningful artist.
Photo by Time Life Pictures; Illustration by Dessie Jackson
Madonna was already a superstar before she released Like a Prayer, which turns 30 years old this week. She had produced at least half-a-dozen era-defining hits (“Holiday,” “Like a Virgin,” “Material Girl,” “Into the Groove,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” and “La Isla Bonita”), and her previous album, 1986’s True Blue, had sold more than 25 million copies. But, in a way, she was also strangely underrated. When Like a Prayer came out in 1989, six years after she hit the ground running with her infectious debut single, “Everybody,” critics lauded Madonna for changing our conceptions around how a female pop singer could present herself and conduct her career. But they didn’t necessarily regard her as a “great artist.”
"Critics flock to her uneven product the way liberal arts magnas flock to investment banking," Robert Christgau, the self-styled “Dean of American Rock Critics,” wrote in his review of True Blue. "So desperate are they to connect to a zeitgeist that has nothing to do with them that they decide a little glamour and the right numbers add up to meaningful work, or at least 'fun.’”
Like a Prayer certainly confirmed Madonna’s flair for fun; with its kindergarten-friendly lyrics about “pink elephants and lemonade” and treacle-sweet, Beatles-y psychedelia, “Dear Jessie” remains one of her most charming singles. But the album as a whole, Madonna’s first undisputed masterpiece, also proved once and for all that she was a meaningful artist, not just an uncommonly savvy and driven pop star. She bared her navel on the album’s cover, and her soul in its songs.
Even three decades later, it’s difficult to separate the album from the scandal that surrounded its release. When the brilliantly provocative “Like a Prayer” video debuted in February 1989, just a day after the release of a high-profile Pepsi commercial starring Madonna, the Vatican and various religious groups condemned the clip for including allegedly blasphemous imagery. Here was Madonna dancing in front of burning crosses, kissing a Black Saint, and displaying what looked like stigmata on her palms.
As the video continued causin’ a commotion, Madonna stood by it, telling the New York Times that “Art should be controversial, and that's all there is to it.” Pepsi bosses were so keen to distance themselves from the button-pushing singer that they pulled the commercial without trying to take back her $5 million fee.
Today, Madonna still seems fabulously unbothered by the whole thing. She breezily celebrated the anniversary of the “Like a Prayer” furor on Instagram earlier this month, writing: “Happy birthday to me and controversy.” Atta girl!
But where the “Like a Prayer” video controversy captured Madonna at her most bullish and brazen, the album that followed a few weeks later revealed new depths of honesty, vulnerability, and cathartic emotion. “Oh Father,” one of eight Like a Prayer tracks that she co-wrote with regular collaborator Patrick Leonard, is a glorious, classic-sounding ballad about taking back control from male authority figures, including her father. "I lay down next to your boots and I prayed for your anger to end / Oh father, I have sinned," she sings, extending the title track’s conflation of religion and real-life experience.
Funk workout “Keep it Together,” one of two tracks she co-wrote with another frequent collaborator, Stephen Bray, explores how family ties can feel suffocating and comforting at the same time. “Promise to Try,” another stellar ballad, finds Madonna grappling with the memory of her mother, who died when she was just five years old. "She's a faded smile frozen in time," she sings achingly. "I'm still hanging on, but I'm doing it wrong."
Meanwhile, the sad and aromatic “Pray for Spanish Eyes” is a seeming eulogy for lives lost to America’s worsening AIDS crisis. The man Madonna still describes as her BFF, former Studio 54 bartender Martin Burgoyne, had succumbed to the disease in 1986. “How many lives will they have to take? How much heartache?” Madonna sings, pleadingly. It’s certainly worth remembering that Madonna included an AIDS fact sheet with Like a Prayer in a bid to reduce the stigma and ignorance surrounding the disease, one the recently departed President Ronald Reagan had ignored for as long as possible. "People with AIDS—regardless of their sexual orientation—deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry," the sheet stated matter-of-factly.
But the album’s most shocking track is probably “Till Death Do Us Part.” Underpinned by a deceptively perky keyboard riff, the lyrics hint at domestic abuse ("The bruises they will fade away / You hit so hard with the things you say") and violent rows ("He starts to scream, the vases fly"), offering a devastating summary of a dysfunctional relationship: "You're not in love with someone else / You don't even love yourself / Still I wish you'd ask me not to go." Coinciding with the end of Madonna’s first marriage to Sean Penn (she’d filed for divorce in January 1989), it’s one of the most affecting moments in Madonna's discography, though she’d later go on the record denying allegations that she had experienced physical abuse during their relationship.
Still, the album never becomes too introspective to work as stadium-ready pop. The Romeo and Juliet-referencing “Cherish” is a retro melodic gem in the vein of “True Blue.” The Sly and the Family Stone-inspired funk missile “Express Yourself' offers a feminist rallying cry that would inspire generations to come: Christina Aguilera and the Spice Girls have both hailed it as influence. When Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” debuted in 2011, many pop fans and music critics noted its distinct resemblance to “Express Yourself.” Madonna said Gaga's song sounded "familiar" and felt “reductive,” but Gaga insisted she didn't intentionally reference the Madonna anthem, telling NME in 2011: “If you put the songs next to each other, side by side, the only similarities are the chord progressions. It’s the same one that’s been in disco music for the last 50 years."
The accompanying video is a queer classic that's been likened to "Tom of Finland meets Fritz Lang's Metropolis," with Madonna presiding over a futuristic city fueled by shirtless male workers. And the immortal title track mixes religious and sexual ecstasy so thrillingly, it could make a celibate atheist want to dance.
Weirdly, the album’s most throwaway moment is probably be “Love Song,” a collaboration with one of the few artists of the time on Madonna’s level: Prince. It’s a vaguely experimental extended flirtation that mainly seems notable now because Madonna later re-used lyrics from its bridge ("Time goes by so slowly for those who wait / And those who run seem to have all the fun") on her Abba-sampling 2005 comeback banger, “Hung Up.”
Then again, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Like a Prayer's most heavyweight track on paper turns out to be its frothiest in practice. Like a Prayer is a rare beast: an iconic pop album that retains its ability to surprise you, using richly evocative songcraft to explore deeply personal themes—sometimes spiritual, sometimes socially conscious—from a woman’s perspective. With it, Madonna had once again remodeled people's expectations of what a female pop singer could achieve. Decades before Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next, it laid the foundation for the deeply persona pop blockbuster, auteured by a strong woman at the peak of her creative powers.