Meaning of Like a Prayer by Madonna
Like a Prayer
The Meaning Behind Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”
Madonna is one of the most iconic pop stars of all time, and her song “Like a Prayer” is arguably one of her most influential and controversial hits. Released at the beginning of March 1989 (recorded September 1988) as the lead single from her fourth studio album of the same name, the song marked a turning point in Madonna’s artistic and personal evolution. But what is the song really about? And why did it cause so much controversy?
The Artist’s Perspective
According to Madonna, “Like a Prayer” is a song about a passionate young girl who is “in love with God”, and who sees Him as the only male figure in her life. She explained that the song was inspired by her Catholic upbringing, and by her personal meditations from her journals and diaries. She wanted to express her feelings of guilt, remorse, and sin, as well as her desire for redemption and salvation.
The song was co-written and co-produced by Madonna and Patrick Leonard, who had worked with her on previous albums. They created a pop rock song that incorporated elements of gospel music, such as a choir, an organ, and a rock guitar. The lyrics contain liturgical words, such as “prayer”, “angel”, “heaven”, and “choir”, but they also have double meanings that suggest sexual innuendo and eroticism.
Madonna said that she wanted to create a song that was both spiritual and sensual, and that challenged the conventional notions of religion and sexuality. She said: “I wanted to speak about ecstasy but using the metaphor of an orgasm with God.”
The Listeners’ Interpretations
The song received critical acclaim from music critics, who praised its artistic maturity, its musical complexity, and its emotional depth. Rolling Stone listed it among “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. However, the song also sparked controversy among some listeners, especially religious groups, who found it blasphemous, sacrilegious, and offensive.
Some listeners interpreted the song as a metaphor for oral sex, based on lines such as “I’m down on my knees” and “In the midnight hour I can feel your power”. Others saw it as a celebration of female empowerment, based on lines such as “You’re in control” and “Express yourself”. Still others saw it as a reflection of Madonna’s personal struggles with her family, her divorce from Sean Penn, and her mother’s death.
The song also generated different reactions depending on the cultural context. For example, in Spain, where Catholicism is predominant, the song was banned from radio stations for being disrespectful to religion. In Japan, where Christianity is a minority religion, the song was well received and became Madonna’s first number-one single there.
The Historical and Societal Context
The song was released at a time when Madonna was going through several changes in her career and in her life. She had turned 30 years old, which was considered old for a pop star at the time. She had also faced many failures in her film projects, such as Shanghai Surprise (1986) and Who’s That Girl (1987). She felt that she needed to reinvent herself and cater more to her adult audience.
The song was also influenced by the social and political issues of the late 1980s, such as the AIDS epidemic, the rise of conservatism, and the racial tensions in America. Madonna wanted to address these topics in her music and in her image, using provocative symbols and messages.
One of the most controversial aspects of the song was its music video, directed by Mary Lambert. The video depicts Madonna witnessing a murder of a white woman by white men, while a black man is falsely accused of the crime. Madonna hides in a church for safety, where she sees a statue of a black saint that comes to life and kisses her. The video also shows scenes of stigmata, burning crosses, gospel choir singing, and erotic dancing.
The video was condemned by the Vatican, who called it “a blasphemy against God”. It also sparked protests from family and religious groups, who boycotted products by Pepsi, who had used the song in their commercial. Pepsi canceled their sponsorship contract with Madonna, but allowed her to keep the $5 million fee.
Like a Prayer” was ranked at number 25 on the Hot 100 Year-End chart for 1989, and was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in May 1989, for shipment of one million copies. In the United Kingdom, “Like a Prayer” entered the UK Singles Chart at number two, before moving to the top the next week, remaining there for three weeks. Madonna became the artist with the most UK number-one singles of the 1980s, with a total of six number-one hits. “Like a Prayer” became the tenth best-selling single of 1989 in the United Kingdom, and was certified Gold by the British Phonographic Industry, for shipment of over 400,000 copies. According to the Official Charts Company, the single has sold 850,500 copies there as of April 2019.
The video was also praised by some critics and activists, who saw it as a powerful statement against racism, sexism, and religious intolerance. The video won several awards, including MTV Video Music Awards for Video of the Year and Viewer’s Choice.
“Like a Prayer” is a complex and multifaceted work of art that reflects Madonna’s personal journey, as well as the cultural climate of the late 1980s. It is a song that challenges the boundaries of religion and sexuality, and that invites the listeners to question their own beliefs and values. It is a song that has inspired and provoked generations of fans and critics, and that remains relevant and influential to this day.