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Rock History 101: Madonna – “Like a Prayer”

on May 02, 2010, 12:01am

Madonna herself would probably be the first to admit that she owes a large part of her meteoric rise to fame to MTV. Anyone who knows me will realize that it pains me to say this, but it’s true. Had the beginning of Madonna’s career not coincided with the burgeoning phenomenon of music television, would she have been as likely to seat herself on the Queen of Pop’s throne?

Part of Madonna’s staying power has revolved around that same savvy she must have drawn upon in the first place, that ability to recognize what’s about to be hot and capitalize on it before anyone else does. Naturally we have Michael Jackson to thank for his contributions as well – no one will hear me arguing that – but Madonna helped set the standard for the music video, recognizing it as a vehicle through which she might promote her image as an artist – and for her, of course, there have been many such images – and as much more than just a necessary evil. The songs are today just as memorable for their accompanying videos. A good or bad thing? I don’t know. That’s the subject for another article. But with the videos for “Borderline”, “Like a Virgin”, and “Material Girl”, to name just a few of the early gems, Madonna explored the elements of storytelling, fantasy, and making the song not just a song but an event.

Also: controversy.

If we were playing free association with “Madonna,” the word “controversy” would be right there with “Catholic,” “lacy gloves,” “rosaries,” “sex,” “campy film roles,” and … you get the idea; it could go on forever. The naysayers will argue that Madonna probably owes a large part of her fame to said controversy as well, but I don’t think so: Controversy doesn’t keep you within the public’s consciousness for 27 years and counting.

Either way, whether epic – who can forget 1992’s Sex debacle? – or comparatively quiet – oddly enough, no one ever made much of her dating a man only a handful of years older than her daughter, Madonna’s career has rarely been devoid of controversy for ever too long a stretch, and her MTV presence has never been an exception. Indeed, when it comes to banned music videos, Madonna’s number must be up there. First there was 1990’s “Justify My Love”, for which Madonna made an impassioned defense on Nightline, but don’t cry for her, Argentina, just yet: She knew what she was doing – it went on to become a best-seller on VHS. Then there was 1992’s semi-banned “Erotica”, which aired only in the post-midnight rotation. Finally, there was 2001’s Guy Ritchie-directed “What It Feels Like for a Girl” (an absolutely ridiculous omission on MTV’s part). And while this doesn’t exactly count, there was 2003’s unabashedly anti-Bush “American Life”, which Madonna herself pulled out of concern that it would offend American troops with its Iraq War images.

Before we stop there, let’s not forget about the whole litany of videos that simply pissed people off. The voyeurism-celebrating “Open Your Heart”. The pro-choice or pro-life, depending on how you interpreted it, “Papa Don’t Preach”. “Express Yourself”, which pleased precisely nobody: Conservatives were appalled by her crotch-grabbing dance moves, feminists were peeved about her being chained to a bed. “Vogue”: MTV eventually acquiesced to allowing the video to air with one questionable shot intact – where Madonna’s see-through shirt reveals the exact outline of her breasts, and, if one looks closely enough, probably her nipples – perhaps because absolutely nothing could overshadow the glorious introduction of the cone bra.

And then there was the time when the hordes of the pissed-off actually brought about some swift and decisive action. In 1989, Pepsi-Cola inked a $5-million deal with Madonna to feature “Like a Prayer” in one of its commercials, as well as to sponsor her upcoming “Blond Ambition” tour. Elaborate in both scale – there was a teaser commercial for the real commercial – and production value, the two-minute ad aired just once, on March 2, 1989, to the tune of a 250 million-person audience.

Many of whom, apparently, weren’t prepared for the actual music video, which aired the next day and represented an exact contrast to the wholesome material put forth in the Pepsi commercial. Catholic and other conservative religious groups were shocked by the video’s highly sexualized imagery, made worse by the fact that it was strongly intertwined with religious – Catholic, of course – iconography. Madonna kisses a black saint, presumably Martin de Porres; makes love to said saint on an altar; and spontaneously suffers stigmata-like wounds. What was perceived as most hideous, though, was the scene in which Madonna dances before a field of burning crosses, still wearing her scanty maroon slip, no less. Blatant blasphemy, hints toward lesbianism (recall the dream-like shot in which a woman puts her hands on Madonna’s waist and floats her off into the sky, but don’t ask me to explain that one), and, worst of all, racism. (On that note, Madonna’s long-time back-up singer, Niki Haris, refused to appear in the video because, as an African American, she took offense to such images.) Ironically, Madonna claimed that the video was meant to make an anti-racist statement.

madonna like a prayer Rock History 101: Madonna   Like a PrayerEither way, the video’s basic storyline – Madonna witnesses crime against white girl; black man is wrongfully arrested for it; Madonna doesn’t tell cops out of fear for own safety, goes to church to pray about it, and eventually finds strength to testify on innocent man’s behalf – was mostly overshadowed by all the other “brouhaha” … that’s how MTV veteran Kurt Loder himself referred to it, anyway. On that note, no one even got around to bitching about the fact that the song itself is highly sexually charged: Did people forget that it’s about blow jobs? All right, not entirely, and Madonna has never admitted as much, but let’s see here: “When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer, I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there.” She wasn’t just speaking of genuflecting.

At least the video’s director, Mary Lambert, hinted toward this theme, commenting that the video was meant to combine two types of ecstasy, religious and sexual. Similarly, the song reflects the idea that spiritual love and sexual love are intrinsically linked, with both providing redemptive qualities. It sounds like a good idea, right?

But the objections were swift, and Pepsi quickly yanked the commercial out of fear of a massive boycott. Even the Pope got in on the act; later he would play an integral role in the cancellation of Madonna’s “Blond Ambition” show in Italy due to low ticket sales. It didn’t matter: Madonna got to keep her $5 mil, and in the end, all of the “brouhaha” could have only done wonders for the video’s exposure.

It’s funny to think that most of Madonna’s early “controversy” is pretty tame by today’s standards. We live in an age in which Christina Aguilera can hump a boxing ring while wearing underpants that expose the bottom half of her buttcheeks, or a sweaty Britney Spears can pant heavily into the camera while being surrounded by no fewer than four male dancers. I think these and other pop princesses would be the first to admit that they owe a great deal to Madonna.

But no one, no one, can do it like Madonna. Besides, why be dirty when you can just be naughty?

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