First Hit #1: April 22, 1989
The Catholic church didn’t think much of Madonna. Like a Prayer didn’t help her case. Was it all the religious imagery in the video? Maybe, there is a lot of it, with burning crosses and stigmata and all sorts of fun stuff. But even if the video had none of that, they probably wouldn’t exactly approve of Like a Prayer, which is song about sex filtered through a lens of religious imagery – it could even be argued that the song is about sex as religious experience. “Down on my knees, I want to take you there” is hardly the most subtle evocation of sexuality in a pop song, after all. Madonna’s never been shy about sex in her music, and she’s always been one to court mild controversy, so a mash-up of sex and religion is really going to be right in her wheelhouse.
Still, she’s also more ambitious as an artist, and Like a Prayer is a relatively complicated song compared to some of her previous work. The tempo changes, the arrangement, the inclusion of a choir, there are a lot of plates spinning here and Madonna herself is the connective tissue that makes the whole thing work. It’s about her, and even if she’s not the most out there element it is arranged to make her the most important element, since without her the song’s different parts don’t quite gel. But that doesn’t matter, because with that uniting element the song works, whether in the busy chorus or in the quiet verses which see most of the instruments drop out.