Madonna, Like a Prayer (1989)
When people talk about Madonna exposing herself, they normally mean her tendency to drop her knickers. But her fourth proper album, 1989’s Like a Prayer, is filled with nakedly emotional songs such as “Promise to Try,” (about her mother, who died when Madonna was just six) and the mournful “Oh Father” (just guess). “The album is drawn from what I was going through when I was growing up,” Madonna told Rolling Stone. As always, she had a kicker: “I’m still growing up.”
So Like a Prayer was the sound of Madonna figuring out her life, most explicitly on “Till Death Do Us Part,” a thinly fictionalized portrait of her volatile marriage with Sean Penn. But it was also the sound of a pop diva who had been taking vocal lessons and wanted to show off. Later, this would lead to an unfortunate tendency to tackle show tunes by Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. But here it meant that she not only belted blockbuster singles such as “Express Yourself,” she indulged in gentle psychedelia (“Dear Jessie”) and a slow, grinding collaboration with Prince, “Love Song.” Who would have guessed then that pop music’s two leading imps of the perverse would end up as two of its most publicly devout figures (Prince with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Madonna with Kabbalah)?
That Sacred vs. Profane tag-team wrestling match was showcased in the glorious title track, where Madonna declared “Everyone must stand alone,” and then “I’m down on my knees / I wanna take you there,” seeking succor in both God and fellatio, or maybe fellatio with God. In a career full of transgressive moments, “Like a Prayer” is the trangressiviest. The music that comes with it is irresistible: dramatic guitar skronk, a gospel choir, an amazing bassline. That’s not coincidence–it’s Madonna showing you what divine inspiration means for her.
(By Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a marginally shorter version) in Rolling Stone 955 (August 19, 2004).)
(It will perhaps not surprise you to learn that an editor changed “transgressiviest” to “most transgressive” for the print edition.)