Madonna – Like a Prayer

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.

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One Response to Madonna – Like a Prayer

  1. RBerman says:

    Instrumentally, we’ve got heavy synth bass, slinky guitar, programmed and ethnic percussion. Lyrically, a prototypical Madonna song: religion and sexual longing intertwined like the Song of Solomon, the sacred tome which Hebrew boys were forbidden to read.

    This song merits a bit of melodic dissection by way of comparison to yesterday’s song, “She Drives Me Crazy.” The latter song consists of seven notes in the verse (3-5-6, 1-3-2-2), repeated four times, with five notes in the chorus (1-3-3-2-1), repeated four times, plus a few more descending notes at the very end of the chorus. Grade-school level composition, but with catchy production. Madonna used to sing songs like that too. The chorus of “Holiday” consists of four notes (three of which are the same note: 3-3-3-4) repeated four times. Its verse has eight notes repeated three times (1-2-3-1-2-6-1-2), with a nine-note conclusion (5-5-5-6, 5-5-5-7-6).

    In contrast, I count five different melodic elements in “Like a Prayer.”

    1) The bridge (“Life is a mystery..”, a section which also serves as an intro to the whole song) is not actually in a different tempo, but the legato quarter notes do set it apart from the syncopation of the rest of the song, giving it a hymnlike quality enhanced by the choir and organ backing it. Unlike the rest of the song, it hangs around a minor chord, vi. The first line has six notes (of which, granted, four are the same: 1-1-1-7-2-1 on the major scale. The second line echoes the first with an extra syllable crammed in, while third line harmonizes it a third higher (3-3-3-2-4-3). The fourth and final line (1-1-3-2-1-6) leaves us unsettled on the minor chord. This is good tune construction.

    2) The chorus (“When you call my name…”) appears before the first verse, unusual for a pop song. It’s in major key and has four lines: 3-3-1-1-7, 2-2-2-2-1, 1-1-1-1-7, 1-2-1-3-2-1. Then the whole thing repeats with a little variation (2-2-2-2-1, 2-2-3-1-1, 2-2-2-1, 2-3-2-3-2-1). This nice ABAC construction can be found in many hymns and classical compositions, but this particular melody leans too heavily on the tonic; what’s the fun in coming home if you barely left?

    3) The verse (“I hear your voice…”) goes 6-6-1-1, 2-2-1-3-1-6-1, 6-6-1-1, 3-2-2-2, 2-3-1-2. It’s ABACD, with the second A quickly moving on to C to make room for D. Then the whole thing repeats, with a different D (2-3-4-3) the second time around. Still just a few notes clustered around the tonic due to the limitations of Madonna’s voice, but substantially more interesting than the chorus.

    4) The gospel choir response (“Like a prayer, I’ll take you there…”, 3-4-5, 6-6-5-5, 3-5-6-6-5) occupies a different area of the scale from the preceding melody, creating a tension and longing for the tonic. This leads to…

    5) Madonna’s outro vamp begins with over a minute left in the song: “Just like a prayer, your voice can take me there…” It starts in minor (6-6-7-1, 7-7-7-7-1-2, then a repeat of that) but resolves to major (3-3-1-1, 3-3-3-3-2-1, 1-1-2-3, 2-2-2-2-1-3-2-1) for the second half.

    So yes, there’s a lot going on here instrumentally. But beyond that, there’s simply a lot more actual *music* being played. I’d like to think that subliminally, this was the reason for this song’s success at least as much as Madonna’s toned biceps and blasphemous imagery were.

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