In “Like a Prayer,” the music-video and title song of an album that represents Madonna’s convincing bid for recognition as a serious rock artist, the 30-year-old star has never looked more beautiful or sung with more feeling. The songs, which deal directly and very emotionally with her failed marriage to the actor Sean Penn, her family, and her Catholic girlhood, transcend the brassy dance-pop of her three previous records to reveal Madonna as a vulnerable human being.
In the video she kisses the feet of the statue of a black saint who steps out of a cage to become her flesh-and-blood lover. As they embrace in a church pew, a black gospel chorus swoops and billows behind her sobbing vocal. Madonna is down on her knees one moment and falling out of the sky the next. With its images of interracial love, religious ecstasy, stigmata and burning crosses carried forward by lush Caribbean-flavored pop-gospel music, “Like a Prayer” surpasses Madonna’s earlier music videos in its heady swirl of sacred and profane images. It is titillating, heart-tugging and funny all at once.
Madonna, speaking by telephone from Los Angeles last week, shrugged off the controversy surrounding the video, which has been denounced as offensive by the American Family Association and has led Pepsi-Cola, which paid her more than $5 million to use the song in a TV commercial, to ask that it be withdrawn from MTV. The company’s request was denied.
“Art should be controversial, and that’s all there is to it,” Madonna declared, reiterating the philosophy behind many of her videos.
Since becoming an international star just over four years ago, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone from Detroit has shown a genius for stirring up just enough controversy to advance her career without tipping the balance of public opinion against her. Indeed, the seeds of controversy are embodied in her very name. That name, she said, has always made her feel special.
Pictures of Madonna, in a photogenic swoon with eyes half closed, have become as ubiquitous as the faces of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles. But Madonna – far more than the idols of the 50’s and 60’s – has exercised an impresario’s shrewd managerial control over her image. Steeped in pop-culture iconography, she has manipulated the persona of the good-bad girl in music videos, concerts and endless photographs in a way that has made her self-invention a kind of ongoing performance, and has made her one of the 10 highest-paid entertainers of the late 1980’s, having earned, according to Forbes magazine, more than $20 million in each of the last three years.
“What I do is total commercialism, but it’s also art,” said Madonna. “I like the challenge of doing both, of somehow making art that is accessible and making commerce something artistic. I think I have a very healthy point of view about myself,” she said.
Having virtually invented herself in the downtown New York club world of the late 70’s and early 80’s, Madonna must be well aware that the kind of teen-age adulation she attained with “Like a Virgin,” her first No. 1 hit, which led hordes of adolescent girls to dress like her, is stardom of the most perishable sort. Her challenge has been to find a way of entering the grown-up show business mainstream while still remaining something of a kid in the eyes of her fans. It has been a race against time, but with “Like a Prayer,” which demonstrates such impressive musical growth, she appears to have won, at least in the world of pop music.
In nonmusical areas, however, Madonna has often miscalculated. After making an initially bright impression in the movies – in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” playing a version of her downtown New York self – Madonna floundered in the wooden “Shanghai Surprise” and the unbearably shrill “Who’s That Girl?” On Broadway, however, her portrayal of a scheming Hollywood secretary in the Lincoln Center production of David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” revealed, in the words of Frank Rich of The Times, a talent for “intelligent, scrupulously disciplined comic acting.” Her performance in the play suggested that she would be far better suited to icy femmes fatales than noisy kooks. Much is riding on her portrayal of Breathless Mahoney, the nightclub singer in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy,” which is now being filmed in Los Angeles. In the movie, she will sing three new songs by Stephen Sondheim.
The idea of integrating one’s image into one’s act, whatever that act may be, is as old as the profession of press agentry. But Madonna brings to it a knowingness and an inspired spontaneity that could only have come in an age when the abundance of media allows any American with a talent for self-promotion the possibility of at least a few minutes of air time.
Rock stars have always been image-mongers, but it wasn’t until the early 70’s, when David Bowie brought a studied self-consciousness to the process, that rockers began to experiment detachedly with the idea of persona. As Mr. Bowie coldly adopted and discarded assorted alter egos and musical styles, he turned his career into a kind of performance art, and in the process repudiated the authenticity of any one image. While not many others have pursued his cynical experiments in anti-heroism, he brought a sense of arty playfulness to the idea of pop stardom that hadn’t been there before.
Madonna’s immediate antecedent was Deborah Harry, the postpunk New York rocker who adopted a cartoon-inspired name for her band Blondie and devised a pop-art look to match. Since the late 70’s, groups and singers with catchy conceptual brand names like Chic, Prince and Boy George, not to mention scores of rappers, have proliferated. At the same time, Michael Jackson, in a series of music videos as ambitious as Madonna’s, has thoroughly dissolved the line between his performing and his public image. Madonna, whose childlike singing echoes Mr. Jackson’s hits of 15 years ago, has also become her own pop-art product, spinning music-video fantasies about her own celebrity. Some People Didn’t Get the Joke