Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” — when one lyrical framework changes pop songwriting forever
“Like a Prayer” (1989) is a historic song for many reasons. It was the first song to be released as an ad before being released as a single. Its music video gathered huge controversy for its symbolism and subtext of race and religion taboos. It also marked a moment in which Madonna started being seen as a true star instead of an ephemeral pop sensation, and would become one of her most popular songs. For all of this and more, the song, and all the events surrounding it, is amongst the most influential moments of popular culture in the United States and more.
When it comes to songwriting, “Like a Prayer” was a game changer too, in how its lyrical framework influenced pop songwriting from then on.
Before “Like a Prayer”, few to no songs have dared to mesh religion and sex. Prince stood out as an exception to this norm, and there are interpretations of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (1984) to be about sexual connection too. But no other pop song had so much impact by using a religious theme — and, more specifically, a Christian theme — analogically with sex, and certainly, not from any pop star of the female gender. There were, of course, women singing about sex, and religion, but hardly about both at the same time, in connection to each other.
If speaking and singing about sex were, itself, still scandalous for a woman singer in the late 1980s, combining it with sacred references was blasphemous. (In many ways, it is still considered as such, but the public perception about it has since then got more tolerant, and open-minded.)
Until then, spirituality and religious entities were not exactly rare motifs in pop lyrics, but they were used in its original context — think the Beach Boys evoking God as the witness of their desolation in “God Only Knows” (1966), the Beatles finding wisdom and inspiration from Mother Mary in “Let it be” (1970), George Harrison chanting “Hallellujah” and “Hare Krishna” in “My Sweet Lord” (1970).
It was with Prince that we started to hear religion being mentioned on the same beat as sex in pop songs, but it was with Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” that we started to see spiritual connections as a metaphor for sex in the lyrics of pop songs — even if the song’s lyrics weren’t too explicit.
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 like a dream, no end and no beginning
You’re here with me, it’s like a dream
Let the choir sing
Like a Prayer, Madonna
While the lyrics left room to be interpreted in a literal sense, the video for “Like a Prayer” completed the suggestiveness by showing Madonna kissing a man that represented Jesus Christ. It would be one of many times in which Madonna got in dangerous waters with the Catholic Church and one of the many controversies of her career.
Yet, by being at the front of a debate on sex and religion, and by being, again, a female voice and body owning her sexuality on the radio and the MTV (as she has done before with “Like a Virgin”, in 1984, and “Papa Don’t Preach”, in 1986), Madonna helped mold the template of the woman pop star that sings and hints unapologetically about sex in lyrics and performances. That template would be replicated by artists like Gloria Trevi, Lil’ Kim, Britney Spears, Anitta, and so much more.
Songwriting-wise, “Like a Prayer” set a lyrical framework that would influence and smooth the way for lyrics like Lady GaGa’s “Judas” (2011), Lizzo’s “Worship” (2016), Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman” (2018), and Taylor Swift’s “False God” (2019).
In the most biblical sense
I am beyond repentance
Fame, hooker, prostitute wench vomits her mind
But in the cultural sense
I just speak in future tense
Judas, kiss me if offenced
Or wear ear condom next time
Judas, Lady GaGa
Hands to the sky, show me that you’re mine
And baby, worship me
On your knees
Patiently, quietly, faithfully, worship me
You love it how I touch you
My one, when all is said and done
You’ll believe God is a woman
(…) Baby, lay me down and let’s pray
I’m tellin’ you the way I like it, how I want it
God is a Woman, Ariana Grande
Religion’s in your lips
Even if it’s a false god
We’d still worship
We might just get away with it
The altar is my hips
Even if it’s a false god
We’d still worship this love
False God, Taylor Swift
Besides being one of the biggest pop songs of all time, and one that changed the path of Madonna’s career forever, “Like a Prayer” is a case of how pop songwriting frameworks can be changed forever when just one song shows that something till then unthinkable can be done.
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I am currently a staff writer at PopMatters, an independent, digital magazine of cultural criticism and analysis. My articles and reviews have also appeared in Consequence of Sound, Dummy Magazine, Remezcla, Sounds and Colours, KultScene, and more.
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