Madonna's "Like A Prayer" was her most successful and controversial song release of all time. It's funny how the most successful songs seem to push boundaries and piss off at least a small group of people, and this one is no different.
The song itself seems to get people in a frenzy about the vague ties between sexual ecstasy and religion. Then the official music release took it all even further, got banned by most channels, excluding MTV, and even had the Pope trying to cancel Madonna.
So how did all of this success and drama come about? Well, it all started with a young pop star who was looking to take things to the next level in her career.
Before the album and single release of "Like A Prayer", Madonna was going through a phase of small failures with some flopped movie releases and a dry spell in terms of songwriting.
On top of that, she felt like she was growing to a new stage in her career that needed to have more depth beyond her typical pop releases, and her fans were getting older as well.
In her personal life, she was struggling with the recent passing of her mother and going through a divorce with actor Sean Penn, which really put her in a sensitive, emotional state.
The good thing about sensitive, emotional states for musicians is that it creates a space for us to creatively thrive the most if we are willing to take it there.
Not only did Madonna take it there with the lyrics and conception of "Like a Prayer" with the help of her songwriting buddy Patrick Leonard, but she also took it beyond where she had ever gone before.
Even during the recording process after the songwriting was done, it is reported that Madonna was fighting tooth and nail to get things to go her way as the writer and the producer for the project.
She was determined to prove to the people around her in the music industry that she was more than just some naive, shallow young pop girl.
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Madonna has said many things about this release that can give you an idea about where her headspace was for creating the lyrics, which were deeply personal. But she's also being really cheeky and vague about the interpretation of the song.
On the surface, she says that it's a song about a girl falling in intense and deep love with God. But when she explains a bit deeper about the full album and her religious upbringing, you can see some complexity there.
"It’s me struggling with the mystery and magic that surrounds religion", she said in an interview.
“My own Catholicism is in constant upheaval. “When I left home at 17...I renounced the traditional meaning of Catholicism in terms of how I would live my life. But I never stopped feeling the guilt and shame that are ingrained in you if you are brought up Catholic.”
The controversial and sexually suggestive chorus has the following lyrics:
When you call my name, it's like a little prayerI'm down on my knees, I wanna take you thereIn the midnight hour, I can feel your powerJust like a prayer, you know I'll take you there
Her songwriting partner Patrick Leonard suggested that the line about going down on her knees was too much to say in the lyrics, but she insisted on keeping it.
Madonna seems to be battling between who she wants to be, which is a liberated and sexual being, and who grew up in a Catholic church to be, where they pressured her into feeling like she had to act differently.
On one end, she is telling a story of how God has saved her through all of her years of growing and maturing through life and how he has been there when she needed him the most.
But on the other end, she is telling a somewhat haunting tale of sexual fulfillment from a man, which is darkly reflected in the minor chord progressions of the verses.
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And the official release video! Let's talk about that industry-changing video!
Controversy can bring tons of success in the music world, and while the song release itself was already edgy and had people wonder what Madonna meant with these innuendos, the video took it 20 steps further.
"I kept imagining this story about a girl who was madly in love with a black man, set in the South, with this forbidden interracial love affair. And the guy she's in love with sings in a choir. So she's obsessed with him and goes to church all the time. And then it turned into a bigger story, which was about racism and bigotry."
The music video depicted controversial themes of Catholicism mixed with Baptist church music, kissing a black Jesus, violence, and even the Ku Klux Klan's burning crosses.
The release, as you can imagine, had the pop music world going absolutely crazy. While video director Mary Lambert has recently done controversy with similar backlash (including Lil Nas X's "Montero"), this project was her biggest debate at the time.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lambert spills the beans about the crazy ideas that she and Madonna agreed on and set in place. '"
"I wanted to explore the correlation between sexual ecstasy and religious ecstasy," Lambert told them.
The idea of a Black Jesus was scary to a lot of people and came from Madonna telling me she wanted to ‘f*ck a Black guy on the altar,'” Lambert recalls.
"I said, ‘Well, why not have it be a Black Jesus? Let’s just go all the way.’ She liked that."
"The burning crosses evoked the idea of appropriation, that the Ku Klux Klan could take a cross, which is a holy symbol to a lot of people, and appropriate it in a way to instill fear and horror and promote race hatred. I wanted to turn that on its head."
As you can imagine, most of the backlash comes from the video release for this song. The lyrics by themself are touchy, but the video received tons of backlash from the religious community.
The release originally had a deal with a Pespsi commercial, but backlash from the Vatican, video music channels excluding MTV, and Pope John Paul II convinced Pepsi to cancel the promotions.
The gospel vocals prominently heard throughout the track and especially toward the end were provided by popular Gospel performer Andraé Crouch and his choir, who were first hesitant about the collaboration.
Crouch wanted to make sure that he and his religious group weren't going against any of their morals with the ambiguous lyrics, and they agreed to the recording.
But once Crouch learned the idea for the music video with all the controversial imagery and portrayals, he decided that the choir would not be featured in the video, and they had to get actors to lip sync those parts.
While Madonna, as an artist, is free to express any conflicting feelings she has toward religion, I personally do think it was rude to ask a renowned Gospel group to be a part of something so contentious under the false pretenses that the lyrics were innocent.
Some believe that this song is truly just an innocent song about falling in love with God. Others believe that this is strictly a song about sex that just mentions religious words to start a conversation.
Some religious people who welcome the song lyrics feel that it is speaking of divine bliss that Christians can feel at the height of their praise experience and that those who are relating it to sex just have dirty minds.
Other Christians feel that the religious symbolism, along with the "blasphemous" video, shows that she is entering into some type of relationship with the devil himself, who is only leading her astray and mocking the love of God.
In conclusion, the lyrics definitely tie to religion in one way or another, but Madonna's confusing dynamic with Christianity and Catholicism, in particular, is what drives this home as a deeply personal and mature realization for Madonna that drove her to take such a bold risk.
And the risk worked. Why? Because people absolutely love controversy! And while the song can be disrespectful to some and the best thing ever to others, it is objectively a standout songwriting feat for any artist.
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