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Story & Meaning Of “Like A Prayer” By Madonna

Like A Prayer is, perhaps, the biggest hit song that Madonna ever released. But just like the singer, the track has never been far from controversy. It also helps that she is purposefully vague regarding the real meaning of the song, fueling the fire of conspiracy theorists and getting more eyes on what remains one of the most beautiful pop tracks ever produced. In this article, we’ll dive into the background, controversies, and real meaning of Like A Prayer by Madonna.

The History and Success of Like A Prayer

1990 – Madonna. Image source: Hans Schaft, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Madonna is one of the most successful artists of all time and one of the biggest pop stars we have ever seen. But her entire career wasn’t a success, and it’s important to understand the context surrounding her career when she released Like A Prayer.

At the time, she hadn’t recorded new music in over a year and was going through several different failures. Two big-budget films starring her had flopped, Shanghai Surprise in 1986 and Who’s That Girl in 1987. She had even acted in a Broadway production Speed-The-Plow but that and the films all received a wave of negative critical reception. 

2000 – Sean Penn on the Red Carpet in Cannes. Image source: Created by Rita Molnár, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

On top of career turmoil, her personal life was also in tatters. Her marriage to actor Sean Penn ended when the couple filed for divorce in 1989. She then turned 30 that year, the same age that her mother died, adding even more emotional issues for her to wade through.

All of those failures and personal struggles were boosted by her Catholic upbringing. In a 1989 interview with Rolling Stone, she stated: 

“Once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic—in terms of your feelings of guilt and remorse and whether you’ve sinned or not. Sometimes I’m wracked with guilt when I needn’t be, and that, to me, is left over from my Catholic upbringing.”

She was also recognizing, as most of us do, that by her age, it was time to grow up a little bit. For most people, that’s not a big deal. For her, it meant an audience of fans who needed something a little different than the music she had been putting out. All of this is important to know, as it explains what a complex time of her life she was going through when Like A Prayer was produced. 

February 14, 2018 – Patrick Leonard. Image source: Dperis, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

She decided to use personal meditations from her journals and diaries to find the theme for the title track of her next album. She worked alongside Patrick Leonard to put the song together, relying on the things she had already mused over for the lyrics once the music was put together. In total, it took about three hours for her to write, intending to describe the story of a young girl who was “so in love with God that it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life.”

1990 – Madonna on Blond Ambition Tour. Image source: Hans Schaft, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like A Prayer turned out to be a mixture of pop and gospel with a rock and roll guitar thrown in for good measure. It took a lot of experimentation to figure out the organ music and her singing with a backup choir to get it right. 

Critical reception of the song was immediately positive. While still a catchy and danceable pop track, it had deeper meanings than the rather shallow and simple pop songs she had released in the past. It was sort of a head-scratcher in that it actually made listeners think with the philosophical musings and double meanings within the track. Some of those double meanings got her in some hot water, but that’s a subject for our next section. 

19th Century – Woman praying. Image source: Ludwig Emil Grimm, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like A Prayer became her seventh number-one single in the US and an international hit. The song rose to the top of the US Billboard Hot 100 and remained in that position for three consecutive weeks. It then went on to top the charts in Canada, Australia, the UK, Spain, and New Zealand. Later reviews of the track would place it as an all-time great, including its inclusion in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. 

The Controversies Surrounding the Song

Madonna received quite a lot of criticism for Like A Prayer in spite of its massive success. This largely came from the double meanings of the lines in the track and the music video that accompanied it.

September 29, 2011 – St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Image source: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We could probably write an entire section on the lyrics of the song and the duality that is both Like A Prayer and the artist herself. In particular, the chorus was what sent many people over the edge and away from the religious connotations of the track, deeming it a sexual metaphor that appropriated Catholic imagery. 

When you call my name
It’s like a little prayer
I’m down on my knees
I wanna take you there
In the midnight hour
I can feel your power
Just like a prayer
You know I’ll take you there

It’s not really hard to see how people would take those lyrics to mean something sexual in the music industry. Being down on your knees and taking someone there is a pretty common way for people to reference fellatio. Feeling power in the midnight hour is another way to talk about sexual acts at night.

1884/1886 – Woman kneeling. Image source: Muybridge, Eadweard, 1830-1904, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Patrick Leonard actually warned Madonna about the “on my knees” line and asked her to remove it from the song because it would be going too far. She refused and was adamant that it would remain in the track.

But the controversy didn’t stem from the song being—what many thought to be—overtly sexual, as that was fairly standard even in the late 80s. It was the use of religious language that pissed off certain groups. Religious groups, particularly Catholic groups, instantly disliked the track.

It was just vague enough to have more than one meaning. It could be discussing a monogamous relationship, a strong sexual connection, or a deep religious relationship with God.

Then we get to the music video.

Madonna - Like A Prayer (Official Video)

Madonna and Mary Lambert were the main creative influences behind the music video for Like A Prayer, which was filmed at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, California. Madonna purposefully planned for it to be the most provocative thing she had ever done and wanted to address racism in the track. According to her, the story for the music video would end up being:

“(The) story of a girl who was madly in love with a black man, set in (the) South, with this forbidden interracial love affair. And the guy she’s in love with sings in a choir. So she’s obsessed with him and goes to the church all the time. And then it turned into a bigger story, which was about racism and bigotry.”

October 26, 2019 – Image of Saint Martin de Porres in the oratory of Saint Philip Neri in Panama City. Image source: Abraham Menahem, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lambert had a different approach to the song. She wanted it to be about sexual ecstasy and wished to parallel that with religious ecstasy. The saint in the track was meant to be Martin de Porres, the patron saint of mixed-race people and those seeking interracial harmony. 

The first controversy of the video was Madonna’s clothing. She wore a slip dress with a lot of cleavage showing, something provocative for the times. 

It starts out with the subplot of the video, with her witnessing the murder of a young white woman. A Black man comes into the frame, rushing to aid the woman and chasing off the men attacking her. When the police arrive, they mistakenly arrest the man who was helping, and Madonna runs away to a church.

July 11, 2009 – Hands with stigmata at a Franciscan church in Lienz, Austria. Image source: Mefusbren69, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After a dream sequence, she goes through a series of controversial actions, from cutting herself for a stigmata to making out with the Black saint. She ends up going to the police and telling them what happened, seeing the Black man who was wrongfully arrested released. The end of the video shows burning crosses with Madonna dancing in front of them. 

While the video was still being filmed, Pepsi reached out to Madonna to use the song in a commercial. She ended up filming a separate video for the commercial that was very different and—we’ll go with—normal when compared to the music video for the song. It allowed her to debut the track before global release, one of the first times this had ever been done in the music industry. 

August 20, 2008 – Pepsi Cola. Image source: Alter Fritz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The day after the Pepsi commercial was released, the actual video for Like A Prayer was shown on MTV. Christian groups around the world instantly began protesting, with the Vatican calling for a global boycott of Pepsi and all its subsidiary companies. Pepsi would cave to the protests, though Madonna never did. The lyrics of the track might have generated some controversy, but the video accelerated the rage from those groups.

December 29, 2008 – Black Jesus in Portobelo Church. Image source: TEDBARTH, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While it was meant to address racial inequalities and Madonna’s own religious battles, certain groups of the public went right after it. Critics largely thought the music video and song were both brilliant and a lot of other people did too. Having a, basically, Black Jesus in the video was particularly a trying thing for some, as he gets depicted—incorrectly—much lighter in a lot of people’s minds and churches. 

Regardless, the controversy was nothing short of a good thing for Madonna. It got more eyes on her track and made it have more impact than it otherwise might have been able to. In the end, it faded out like—most—other music controversies. 

The Real Meaning Behind the Song

Madonna has always been purposefully vague about the real meaning of Like A Prayer. Some people see it as being all about a deep love of God and coming to terms with religion, while others see it as being a metaphorical musing over sexuality. But which of those interpretations is actually true?

In all honesty, neither side is entirely right, and she likely meant for the track to represent both. A glance at the song sees a girl falling in love with God, and she has stated in interviews that “It’s me struggling with the mystery and magic that surrounds religion.”

Unknown – Holy Bible. Image source: Leon Brooks, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When she left home at 17, she renounced the traditional meaning of Catholicism and the strict tenets that controlled how she would live her life. However, with those came an immense feeling of guilt whenever she stepped outside of them. 

But Madonna is a sexually liberated woman and has other ideas about how her life should be lived. The track is just as easily interpreted as being a tale of sexual fulfillment. The themes are all there if you dig a little deeper than the surface, which was the entire point of the double-meanings of many of the lyrics and why she was so adamant about keeping controversial portions in the song. 

May 13, 2023 – St. Patrick Catholic Church in Cargo, New South Wales. Image source: D0a5l0e6, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In reality, the track is a representation of the duality of Madonna. It serves as the story of her battle between being who she wants to be and the strict upbringing that helped mold the way she views the world. While she recognizes that God has saved her throughout her years of maturation and been there when she needed him, she feels truest to herself when she acts outside of the teachings she was given in her younger years. 

Like A Prayer is a philosophical discussion on balancing religion and life, an exploration of the similarities between sexual and religious ecstasy, and a way to use the appropriation of religious symbols in a positive way rather than a fearful one.

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