The late ‘80s hadn’t been kind to Madonna. The Queen of Pop experienced quite a few setbacks at the time: Her 1987 film Who’s That Girl was lacking in both critical and commercial success, her stint in Broadway’s Speed-the-Plow garnered less-than-favorable reviews, and her volatile marriage with actor Sean Penn was ending–all in time for her to turn thirty. Considering all this drama, Madonna decided that it was time for her music career to move away from the teen scene and appeal to a wider audience. With the help of Stephen Bray, Patrick Leonard, and Prince, Madonna mined her personal journals and started working on her most introspective album yet. What resulted is Like a Prayer, her fourth album and the work widely recognized as the turning point in Madonna’s career.
Like a Prayer combined dance music, rock guitar, funk, and gospel as Madonna explored a myriad of themes: her youth, the impact her family has had on her life, female empowerment, and of course, her relationship to religion, specifically Catholicism. “The theme of Catholicism runs rampant. It’s me struggling with the mystery and the magic that surrounds it. My own Catholicism is in constant upheaval,” Madonna explained. This theme went beyond sound to the whole experience of the album, the package of which was scented with patchouli to simulate incense and included guidelines for safe sex and a warning about the dangers of AIDS. The album is dedicated to Madonna’s mother, who died when she was young.
Like a Prayer opens with one of Madonna’s most famous–or infamous, depending on where you stand–songs, the eponymous “Like a Prayer.” The pop-rock track blends dark, mysterious rock guitar riffs with vocals of a gospel choir to tell the story of a young girl intensely devoted to God–only several of the lyrics are double entendres, keeping the song firmly outside the Christian sphere. The song was a huge critical and commercial success, earning praise for its balance of danceability and religious confusion running through the lyrics, and even garnered academic attention. These positive feelings weren’t shared by everyone, however; due to the religious imagery and sexual themes present in the song and its music video, the Vatican condemned it, religious groups protested, and Pepsi canceled Madonna’s sponsorship after angry consumers started boycotting their soda.
Next up was Madonna’s relationship to her family. Songs like “Oh Father,” an ode to the men in her family (specifically her father Tony Ciccone), and “Keep It Together” emphasize the importance of her family throughout her life. The ballad “Promise to Try” is a sad, sentimental conversation Madonna seems to have with herself about the death of her mother. Originally called “State of Matrimony,” “Till Death Do Us Part” is a dark, anxious ballad that describes a marriage wrecked by drinking, violent fights, and the whims of a possessive husband–i.e., the story of her doomed marriage to Sean Penn.
Like A Prayer isn’t all as serious as it sounds. “Express Yourself” is a bright pop anthem about rejecting sexism and materialism in favor of standing up for yourself. The effervescent “Cherish” is a simple, catchy love song that draws comparisons to Romeo and Juliet, while “Love Song” is a unhurried, synth-heavy duet with Prince. “Dear Jessie” is a bizarre children’s song about encouraging the imagination. While it sounds like it could be the estranged cousin of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” it wasn’t a critical favorite, and seems a bit out of place to boot. Like a Prayer proved to be exactly what Madonna’s career needed. It was a huge commercial success, being certified quadruple platinum in the U.S. and selling over 15 million copies worldwide. Like a Prayer was also a critical hit and was looked at as the turning point in Madonna’s career. The album was praised for its personal inspirations and the inclusion of influences such as the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Sly and the Family Stone. Rolling Stone, in a congratulatory (yet outdated) opinion, called the album “As close to art as pop gets.” Thankfully, the critical love and wide commercial appeal of the album outweighed the controversy surrounding it, ultimately making Like a Prayer Madonna’s third bestselling album in her career. Even more important than the sales numbers was the recognition received for Madonna’s evolution as an artist. As Slant Magazine perfectly explains, “By the late ‘80s, Madonna was already one of the biggest pop stars of all time, but with Like a Prayer, she became one of the most important.” Thirty years later, the legacy of Like a Prayer is still recognized as the album that made Madonna the artist we know today–talent, controversy and all.