'Like a Prayer' at 31: Ten reasons Madonna's fourth album remains an all-time classic

Three decades after Madonna sent us there, Matthew Barton examines the ten commandments that created an iconic era.


Words: Matthew Barton

It may be hard to believe, but Madonna’s fourth album, Like a Prayer, turns 30 thi week (21 March). Madonna, who was 30 herself at its time of release, had crafted a modern classic that solidified her status as perhaps the leading pop artist of her generation.

Here, we take a look at ten reasons why Like a Prayer continues to influence and enthral listeners today...

Thou shalt kiss the feet of a saint: 'Like a Prayer' – the video

If Madonna, resplendent in natural brunette curls and black cocktail dress, dancing on a hill of burning crosses and kissing the bare feet of a black saint in front of a gospel choir doesn’t float your boat, who are you?

Madonna was no stranger to racy videos, having writhed in a Venice gondola for 'Like a Virgin' and performed to an underage boy at a peepshow in 'Open Your Heart', but the Mary Lambert-directed promo clip for 'Like a Prayer' married all of the controversies swirling around her – outspoken sexuality, religious appropriation – into an intoxicating and iconic mix.

It speaks to a deeper examination of racism, bigotry, and the equating of religion with sexuality, and predictably the fallout was immense. The bit where her hair falls over her face as she dances in front of the fiery crucifixes… chills.

Thou shalt issue the lead single to end all lead singles: 'Like a Prayer' – the song

A fade-in, scratchy guitars, a slamming door, silence, and then an organ and a gospel choir. 'Like a Prayer' as a song is still utterly captivating and utterly mesmerising, a true modern pop classic. It confirms Madonna’s talents as a singer and a songwriter, and is a song of beauty and redemption, of power and ecstasy that endures to this day.

Isn’t “I’m down on my knees, I want to take you there” just one of the greatest lyrics of Madonna’s entire career, spiritual fervour doubling as sexual innuendo.

The original version, featuring the verses where the rest of the music drops out of the mix, is the best, for its dynamics and its courage in not following a traditional radio-friendly pop formula. And it worked – it was an international chart-topper.

Thou shalt reinvent the role of the modern pop star: The influence

Like a Prayer is a textbook example of how to take a pop career to the next level; where Madonna and Like a Virgin heralded a brand new kind of pop star, and True Blue exploded into international superstar status, Like a Prayer made Madonna an icon.

Not only was it commercially appealing, it was artistically refined – “as close to art as pop music gets,” wrote Rolling Stone. The combination of the music, the art direction, the videos, and the controversy (Pepsi commercial anyone?) became a blueprint for artists to follow, and albums like these, at these points in a career, make lasting legacies.

Thou shalt make a generation’s feminist anthem: 'Express Yourself'

The album’s second single 'Express Yourself' is a strident feminist anthem; it betrays a soul influence Madonna would expand on later with 1990’s 'Rescue Me' and some of the material on 1992’s Erotica, and it used the funk of Sly & the Family Stone as an inspiration. It was one of two Stephen Bray co-writes for this record, along with 'Keep it Together', keeping the exuberant pop smarts of their prior collaborations.

'Express Yourself” is also known for its stunning (and expensive, at $5million in 1989 money) Metropolis-inspired video, directed by David Fincher.

“Don’t go for second best baby,” Madonna instructed her listeners, and she gave people the courage and the permission to not settle – “second best is never enough, you’ll do much better, baby, on your own.”

Thou shalt work with the Purple One: The collision of two '80s icons

If you ever wondered what a duet between Madonna and Prince may sound like, look no further – a funky, skeletal, weird R&B pop crossover, the mid-tempo jam 'Love Song' definitely bears all the hallmarks of a Prince Rogers Nelson song but also features some of Madonna’s best and most impassioned vocals.

Madonna decamped to Paisley Park to work with Prince, and it’s a rare look at what a collaboration between two modern pop icons would sound like. Also, listen out for the lyrics that Madonna resurrected 16 years later on 'Hung Up'.

Thou shalt make songwriting gold: Madonna & Patrick Leonard

Madonna first began working with songwriting partner Patrick Leonard in late 1985 as sessions got underway on her True Blue LP. 'Live to Tell' from that album proved it was a match made in heaven, and Like a Prayer is the sound of a deepening and strengthening partnership.

Leonard’s beautiful music proved the catalyst for some of Madonna’s most memorable vocal melodies and gave her carte blanche to write from her heart; would we have got 'Like a Prayer', 'Oh Father', or 'Spanish Eyes' with any other collaborator?

Thou shalt bathe your album sleeve in patchouli oil: The artwork. Patchouli oil!

For a woman whose album and single artwork had been so inextricably linked with her face, Like a Prayer announced a new kind of Madonna: the cover art features not her face but her bare midriff, with denim jeans on show, accessorised with jewels. (But for face enthusiasts, the back cover does also feature an iconic black and white Herb Ritts photo of a sultry Madonna praying.)

The insert expanded the image to show a blurred Madonna, dancing, her purple chiffon top billowing around her sinewy frame. The lyric sheet was, rather wonderfully, bathed in patchouli oil to simulate incense, while the accompanying advice leaflet 'The Facts About AIDS' was further proof of Madonna’s commitment to, and understanding of, LGBT issues.

The leaflet, comprising an introduction and three-point fact list, referred to AIDS as an “equal opportunity disease,” sufferers of which “deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry.” An advocate of AIDS awareness from the start, it further marked Madonna out as a passionate supporter of LGBT and human rights. 

Thou shalt (eventually) strike a pose: In a roundabout way, it brought us 'Vogue'…

Like a Prayer can, in part, be held responsible for bringing us the bewitching classic that is 'Vogue'.

Madonna was working with producer and writer Shep Pettibone ostensibly on a b-side for the album’s final single 'Keep it Together' – and what was initially conceived as a b-side went on to become one of the defining hits of her career.

Even indirectly, Like a Prayer is awesome (hello too, Blond Ambition Tour.)

Thou shalt pour out thine heart: The lyrics

Like a Prayer represents peak Madonna vulnerability. In addition to your more confident 'Express Yourself', there are familial tensions in 'Keep it Together' and romantic and emotional yearning in 'Spanish Eyes', crucially it was the first Madonna referenced through music the death of her mother as a little girl ('Promise to Try'), her difficult relationship with her father ('Oh Father'), and her tempestuous marriage to Sean Penn ('Til Death Do Us Part').

This was a real insight into Madonna the person as much as the artist, and set out her stall for future soul-searching endeavours. She matched her soul-baring lyrics with some of the most beautiful vocal melodies of her career. “It was a real coming-of-age record for me emotionally, I had to do a lot of soul-searching, and I think it is a reflection of that,” she said at the time.

Thou shalt prove the naysayers wrong: The voice

Not enough is made of Madonna’s skills as a singer. Like a Prayer shows Madonna’s chameleonic style; every performance is full of emotion, and each song highlights her vocal versatility.

There is the throaty soulfulness of 'Love Song', the alternately emotive sung verses and ice-cold spoken word parts of 'Till Death Do Us Part', girlish vigour in 'Cherish', pure (and not cloying) emotion in 'Promise to Try', maternal warmth in 'Dear Jessie', and soaring belting in 'Spanish Eyes' that reaches high and swoops down low.

She had really come a long way since the helium bursts of her debut...

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