Beyond pop stardom, Madonna’s success appeared Heaven sent in 1989
Madonna had certainly come a long way towards establishing herself as a serious artist by the time Like a Prayer made its appearance on March 21, 1989.
While early singles such as “Holiday,” “Borderline,” “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl” brought her to the top of the charts and endeared her to denizens of the dance floor, a failed marriage to actor Sean Penn and a desire to move forward musically brought her to a new crossroads, one where her Catholic upbringing played a major role. “In Catholicism, you are a born sinner and you’re a sinner all your life,” she confessed to Interview magazine in a May 1989 tell-all. “No matter how you try to get away from it, the sin is within you all the time. It was this fear that haunted me; it taunted and pained me every moment. My music was probably the only distraction I had.”
As a result, Like a Prayer finds a pious Madonna infusing her giddy persona with circumspect and sobriety, sung from the perspective of individuals that are grappling with faith and a kind of existential curiosity. She retained her verve and vitality regardless, resulting in the release of six singles being extracted from the album, mostly with some success. The first three offerings in particular — the titled track, “Express Yourself” and “Cherish” — all managed to climb to the very top of the charts both at home and abroad, underscoring her superstardom and ensuring that for all her serious soul searching, her popular appeal was in no danger of diminishing.
Even Prince, then at the height of his own prowess, saw the need to connect with her creatively. He makes a rare guest appearance on three of the album tracks, making uncredited guitar contributions to “Like a Prayer”, “Keep It Together” and “Act of Contrition.” He and Madonna also collaborated on “Love Song,” which they recorded at Prince’s own Paisley Park Studios.
Of course, Madonna wouldn’t be Madonna without controversy. The subsequent tour found the singer exploiting the religious regimen to create what was then a scandalous scenario, given the mix of sacred imagery and sexual innuendo. Even Pope John Paul II chimed in, calling for a boycott and prompting the cancellation of one of three dates in Italy.
Nevertheless, Like a Prayer still stands as an artistic peak for the skittish singer, borne out by its commercial credence as well. It debuted on the pop charts just outside the Top Ten and then quickly ascended from there within three weeks of its release. It stayed at Number One on Billboard’s Top 200 for six weeks, and remained there for almost a year and a half after, selling approximately 4 million copies in the process.
Thirty years after its release, Like a Prayer remains the most iconic effort of Madonna’s career, one that found her fully transitioning from superfluous pop to decidedly serious concerns. Indeed, the ability to give pop a real perspective is rarely easy, but in this case, Madonna clearly mastered the transition.