Love her or hate her, Madonna defined popular music – screw that, she defined popular culture — like no one else during the 1980s. Her 16 straight Top-5 singles (from “Lucky Star” to “Cherish”) are unmatched by any act in history; her clothing choices defined tween fashion for much of the decade; and her penchant for simultaneously generating controversy and commerce has served as a template for spotlight-hogging celebs ever since. And let’s not get started on her film career …
Anyway, with her last album of the decade Madonna took it all to a new level, and cemented her status as the biggest star of the ’80s. After all, how many artists can piss off Pepsi and the pope in one fell swoop?
The Material Girl actually had gone sorta quiet in 1988, leaving the pop charts to George Michael and Michael Jackson while she tried her hand at theater in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. Even as her not-too-badly received Broadway run continued from May through December, Madonna went into the studio in the fall with her usual compatriots, Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray – along with a certain diminutive purple-clad figure with whom she would record one song publicly, and who would contribute to a couple others in secret.
The early buzz around the making of Like a Prayer was overshadowed during late 1988 and early ’89 by a cultural controversy that had been brewing – make that bubbling – for a few years. The nation’s leading soft-drink companies had made pop stars an important part of their competition for market share, a development that (figuratively speaking) set many rock purists’ hair on fire. They accused artists like Michael, Whitney Houston and Jackson (whose hair had proved quite literally flammable) of selling out the music in pursuit of the almighty dollar; they howled once more when Madonna was given the then-enormous sum of $5 million to debut the “Like a Prayer” single in a commercial for Pepsi, which also bought sponsorship rights to her 1990 tour.
Knowing it had scored a huge coup in the Cola Wars, Pepsi even saw fit to preview the ad during the Grammy telecast:
A week later, the two-minute “Like a Prayer” ad aired in 40 countries – and in the U.S. during The Cosby Show:
That was March 2. On March 3, MTV debuted the “Like a Prayer” video, directed by Mary Lambert, which featured … well, if you’re reading this column and you don’t already know what’s in that clip, I can only congratulate you for emerging from under that rock and suggest you click on the window below.
The outrage generated by the “Like a Prayer” video extended from the usual American suspects, like Jerry Falwell and the American Family Association, all the way to the Vatican, which expressly condemned its (ab)use of Catholic imagery. Boycott threats quickly ended Madonna’s relationship with Pepsi – she was relieved of her obligation to make three more commercials, but got to keep the $5 mil. Gospel superstar Andrae Crouch made a big deal of his refusal to allow his choir to participate in the video, though it had appeared in the Pepsi ad and he was listed as co-arranger of the single.
The controversy only fueled demand for the Like a Prayer album, of course; released March 22, it quickly topped the Billboard chart and stayed there for much of the spring. A funny thing happened, though, on the way to all this stigmata-wound-deep controversy and chart success: Like a Prayer turned out to be a huge creative leap forward for Madonna, and quickly established itself as a pop classic.
It wasn’t just because of the universal impact of the album’s singles, three more of which would reach the Top 10: the #2 hits “Express Yourself” and “Cherish,” as well as “Keep It Together,” which became the closing production number on her “Blonde Ambition” tour. For the first time, Madonna gave listeners a window into her personal life, with songs discussing her lost mother (“Promise to Try”), her distant father (the Top 20 single “Oh Father”) and her failed marriage (“Til Death Do Us Part”).
Then there was her unusual duet with Prince on “Love Song,” which instead of the anticipated blockbuster turned out to be a quirky aural experiment along the lines of the Purple One’s mid-’80s B-sides. Its lyric, too, defied expectations, and the singing partners sounded absolutely nothing like Peter Cetera and Amy Grant as they icily intoned, “This is not a love song.” (Prince’s easily identifiable guitar parts on “Keep It Together” and “Like a Prayer,” as well as the latter song’s interpolation on the album-closing “Act of Contrition,” went unacknowledged by either artist for years.)
Still, beyond the controversy surrounding its leadoff video, Like a Prayer is best remembered for the single and video “Express Yourself.” Taking more than a little inspiration from the Staple Singers’ anthem “Respect Yourself,” the song was Madonna’s most explicit female-empowerment statement to date, finally putting into lyrical form what her music and image-making had achieved for years – the inversion of sexual exploitation into its own form of control.
The video, directed by David Fincher in what arguably remains his finest moment in any medium, reinforces her message using imagery (some of it borrowed from Fritz Lang’s seminal silent film Metropolis) that plays with sexual politics in remarkably sophisticated – and provocative – ways. One moment she’s chained to a bed (though the chains are awfully long), the next she’s literally prowling on all fours like a cat in heat. The combination of semi-nudity and bondage was enough to give MTV pause and keep “Express Yourself” off broadcast television; in later years, MTV (as well as Rolling Stone) would recognize it as one of the 10 finest music videos in history.
Empowered herself by her success with Like a Prayer and particularly its videos, Madonna would continue to push religious and sexual buttons in the years to come – most prominently with the video for “Justify My Love,” so racy that it was played only after midnight on MTV, and with her next studio album Erotica and its accompanying book, Sex. Most observers agreed that those projects (as well as a series of peculiar and risquÃ© acting turns) took her too far out of the cultural mainstream, and soon she would back off their extreme provocations and return her focus to more universal concerns.
But such humbling developments seemed far away in 1989, when Madonna shocked the world – just enough – with the controversy and the artistry of Like a Prayer. The amount of shit she got away with that year must have made her feel she could do anything. She was wrong — but it must have been a heady feeling nonetheless, and for a while to come she would drag the culture giddily along for the ride.