It seems things have gotten a little Madonna crazy of late. Using her well received half-time performance spot at Superbowl XLVI, Madonna was assured huge viewing numbers to help push her new album MDNA, which is set for release any day now. Following on from all of this, it seems that fans (new and old alike) are very optimistic that the Queen Of Pop finally has her mojo back after a decade or so of very generic releases. I say generic, though, not because they were so much worse than what’s out there today in pop land but because of how they pale in comparison to her truly great material of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a time when Madge ruled the pop world with an iron fist, her wild ambition, and a trusty assortment of flashy bustiers.
So, to celebrate this new Madonna madness that has found its way to The Daily Vault, I am going back in time to revisit those days when pop music had so much more going for it and the leader of the pack had so much more to say for herself and about herself. Truth be told, I have two favorite Madonna albums: one is 1992’s Erotica, which is still the most interesting and diverse album she has ever produced, and the other, of course, is, Like A Prayer, which is clearly her most personal and accomplished work. This album is like reading through a few open pages of her most treasured journals. Vocally, she has never before or since delivered such heartfelt and emotive performances so consistently across one album.
Musically, it is easily the funkiest and most enjoyable of her albums to listen to, and although there are a couple of songs that don’t really match up to the rest of the material here (“Spanish Eyes” and “Dear Jessie”), they are still pleasant enough not to be labeled as unnecessary filler. It seems to me today, some 23 years after its release, that the only real downer I can come up with is this: the album opens with the best song Madonna has ever recorded and one of the greatest pop songs of all time. “Like A Prayer” is a tour-de-force when it comes to pop songs – great lyrics, a punchy and weighty track, gospel backing vocals, and Madonna’s finest moment as a singer on record yet.
Not only was all of this achieved in the studio, but upon its release, Madge had one more trick up her sleeve that would give this all of the controversy that anyone would need. The video of the title track featured some questionable decisions to say the least, the most vital of those it seemed was casting a young black dancer in the role of none other than old JC himself, Jesus Christ. This set Madonna on a warpath with the Vatican, which she would fully exploit to great effect on her Blond Ambition tour the following year.
Having said all of that, there is much more to this record than its exceptional title track. We have the exuberant, carefree pop of “Cherish,” which again was enhanced by the video in which Madonna (stripped of gimmicks and color) gave one of her most memorable and fun performances to date. “Express Yourself” was and remains a wonderful slice of dance-pop that found Madge rallying the sisterhood to continue to evolve and, well, express themselves in every possible way. Just as funky but a little more loose is the brilliant “Keep It Together,” which is clearly directed to her large and rather dysfunctional family.
Easily the most revealing song to be found here is “’Til Death Do Us Part,” which laid bare her tumultuous and often bizarre marriage to actor Sean Penn. The tabloids had a field day with the union from day one, and with this song Madonna went one step further in only confirming what had constantly been hinted at in the press. Just as revealing but in a very different way is “Promise To Try,” which is like the adult Madonna trying desperately to convince her younger self not to forget her late mother and more so the comfort of actually being mothered.
“Oh Father” is a little more ambiguous, as Madge never really reveals to us the true object of her thinly-veiled anger. Whether it relates to her father or her religion (at the time Madonna was a somewhat lapsed Catholic) matters not, as it remains a powerful statement of defiance in the face of adversity. The only bizarre moment on Like A Prayer comes courtesy of Madonna’s collaboration with His Purpleness, Prince. The pair apparently shared a brief fling back in the mid-‘80s and for whatever reason decided it was time for a little on-record shenanigans. “Love Song” is (I’m only guessing here) most likely a Prince song that he thought appropriate for the occasion. Both the track and lyric has his style and quirk written all over it, it’s a little funny and rather an odd choice but somehow it works.
Like A Prayer sounds just as vital and idealistic today as it did back then, and knowing that it’s creator will never again have so much to say about herself and the world around her, makes it all the more reason to treasure it. It topped the charts in no less than 18 countries and remains one of the great pop albums of all time.