The Story of... 'Like a Prayer' by Madonna
5 May 2022, 09:53
Madonna's iconic song 'Like a Prayer' was released 30 years ago this week, and it remains one of the greatest pop moments ever.
But what inspired the song, who wrote it and where was the video filmed? Here's all the important and fascinating facts:
Who wrote 'Like a Prayer'?
Madonna wrote the song with her long-time collaborator Patrick Leonard, and was included on her album of the same name in 1989.
What inspired the song?
Madonna had not recorded any music throughout 1988, and following the critical and commercial failure of her films Shanghai Surprise and Who's That Girl and the Broadway production Speed-the-Plow, she was in a creative crossroads.
Her marriage to actor Sean Penn ended, and she had also turned 30, the age at which her mother had died.
She said in the March 1989 issue of Rolling Stone that her Catholic upbringing gave her a feeling of guilt all the time: "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. Because in Catholicism you are born a sinner and you are a sinner all of your life. No matter how you try to get away from it, the sin is within you all the time."
She was also aware that her fanbase was growing up, and felt the need to record something totally different. She wanted her next album to dictate what could be popular in the music world going forward.
Madonna wanted to write about personal matters on her mind at the time, and for 'Like a Prayer', she chose topics she had never shared with the general public. She looked into her personal journals and diaries, and later recalled:
"What was it I wanted to say? I wanted the album to speak to things on my mind. It was a complex time in my life."
How was the song written?
Producers Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray were experimenting with instrumental tracks and musical ideas, and both wanted to bring their style to the album and composed music for the title track.
Madonna felt that what Leonard presented was more interesting, and she started to work with him.
She then wrote 'Like a Prayer' in about three hours, writing and producing it with Leonard.
Like a Prayer meaning: What is the song about?
Madonna described 'Like a Prayer' as the song about a passionate young girl "so in love with God that it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life."
Inspiration for the track also came from the Catholic belief of transubstantiation, the change of essence by which the bread and wine offered in the sacrifice of the sacrament during the Mass, become, in reality, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
She later changed the context of the song so that the lyrics had dual meaning. While the song may have seemed superficial and about sexuality and religion on the surface, the song actually had different meanings intended to provoke reaction from her listeners.
Leonard later explained that he was not comfortable with the lyrics and the sexual innuendos. Giving the example of the first verse 'When you call my name, It's like a little prayer, I'm down on my knees, I wanna take you there', he felt that this could also refer to someone performing oral sex.
However, Madonna refused to change the line, as she was adamant about keeping it in.
Who else features on the track?
The gospel vocals were recorded by The Andraé Crouch Choir, who also appeared on Michael Jackson's 'Man in the Mirror'.
For the intro, Leonard used guitar recordings by Prince, who had been asked by Madonna to contribute to the track. In 2014, he said that no other music by Prince was used, but some effects around the choruses might have been his.
How did it perform in the charts?
The song topped charts around the world, including the UK and US.
It went on to sell over five million copies worldwide, and is one of the best-selling singles of all time.
Like a Prayer music video: Where was it filmed?
The music video was directed by Mary Lambert and was filmed at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, California and at San Pedro Hills in San Pedro, California.
Madonna wanted the video to be more provocative than anything she had done in the past, and wanted to address racism by having the video show a mixed-race couple being shot by the Ku Klux Klan.
However, she later settled on another theme in keeping with the song's religious connotations.
Actor Leon Robinson (best known for playing the lead role in Cool Runnings) was hired to play the role of a saint, which was inspired by Martin de Porres, the patron saint of mixed-race people and those seeking interracial harmony.
The video was shot over four days.
Lambert had originally taken casts taken of Robinson's face, hand and feet to create the statue of the saint, but later found that the statue did not look like him, and so he was asked to re-shoot the scenes.
He had to act as a statue, which he said was difficult since "first of all, I didn't realize how hard it is on the back to stand absolutely tall and straight and not move. Secondly, as a performer you have this nervous energy—and my requirements here were total antithesis of that.
Like a Prayer music video: What is it about?
The video shows Madonna witnessing a young woman being robbed and murdered by a group of men, but isn't able to help. A black man walking down the alley also sees the incident and helps the woman, but the murderers run away.
The police mistakenly suspect the black man of being the killer and arrest him. Madonna flees the scene and escapes to a church. There, she sees a caged statue of saint, who resembles the man.
Madonna then lies down on a pew and has a dream in which she is falling through space. A woman, representing power and strength, catches her. She tells Madonna to do what is right and sends her back up.
Still dreaming, she returns to the statue, which transforms into the man she had seen earlier. He kisses her forehead and leaves the church, as she picks up a knife and cuts her hands.
After seeing scenes of Madonna singing in front of burning crosses, erotic scenes are shown between her and the saint, and the singer being surrounded by a choir inside the church. Madonna wakes up, goes to the jail and tells the police that she had witnessed the crime and that the man is innocent; and he is released.
Why did it cause so much controversy?
Religious groups worldwide including the Vatican, immediately protested the video, saying that it showed blasphemous use of Christian imagery.
They called for the national boycott of Pepsi (after she performed it in a Pepsi commercial) and PepsiCo's subsidiaries, including KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.
Pepsi explained the differences between their advert and Madonna's artistic opinions in the video, and later gave in to the protests and cancelled the campaign.
Pope John Paul II also got involved, and encouraged fans to boycott the singer in Italy altogether.