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and has led Pepsi-Cola, which paid her more than $5 million to use the song in a TV commercial, to ask that it be withdrawn from MTV.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
Initially, the persona Madonna presented was a saucy post-teen-age rebel togged out in lingerie, baring her midriff and adorning herself with crucifixes. The flap she kicked up in 1984 with “Like a Virgin,” in which she flouncingly mocked the traditionally chaste stereotype of a blushing bride while also affirming the value of true love, was comparable to John Lennon’s offhand remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. In “Material Girl,” a joke that went over many heads, Madonna drily satirized Reagan-era materialism by parodying a shallow glitzy gold digger.
Those who didn’t get the joke confused Madonna with the material girl, and for them she became a cultural symptom, a brazenly opportunistic performer substituting exhibitionism for talent. Playing a gum-chewing, leather-jacketed blue-collar Juliet in the music-video for “Papa Don’t Preach,” in 1986, the star appeared to encourage teen-age pregnancy. And in the music-video for “Open Your Heart” that same year she portrayed a seductive peep-show siren observed by a young adolescent boy.
As her star ascended, Madonna’s urban-rebel pose has softened and matured into a more sleekly glamorous and aerobicized look without losing its hard-edged sensual provocation. Her music also metamorphosed from simple blaring dance pop to the somewhat sweeter post-Motown valentines of “True Blue” to the rich, fully rounded pop of “Like a Prayer.”
The new album is ultimately more important to Madonna’s future than any acting role, and it should lay to rest any lingering doubts about her musical talent. It teems with 60’s and early 70’s echoes – of the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Sly and the Family Stone – all pumped up with a brash, if occasionally klutzy, 80’s sense of showmanship.
“The theme of Catholicism runs rampant through my album,” Madonna said. “It’s me struggling with the mystery and magic that surrounds it. My own Catholicism is in constant upheaval. When I left home at 17 and went to New York, which is the city with the most sinners, I renounced the traditional meaning of Catholicism in terms of how I would live my life. But I never stopped feeling the guilt and shame that are ingrained in you if you are brought up Catholic.”
The album is dedicated to the singer’s mother, a devout woman who died when her daughter was 7. Its songs, she said, intertwine her search for faith with her search for her mother.
The album’s most unsettling song, “Till Death Do Us Part,” is an anxious jumpy ballad that describes a marriage wracked with drinking, violent quarrels and a possessive, self-hating husband. Its ending finds the couple locked by their unbreakable marriage vows into a miserable cul-de-sac That’s what might have happened to her, Madonna said, had she and Sean Penn followed Roman Catholic church doctrine and not filed for divorce as they did in January.
Madonna’s two songs to her parents are aching hymns – one sad, the other defiant – that look back in mood to the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Couched in a lovely chamber-music arrangement, “Promise to Try” finds the singer tearfully imagining her mother observing her as a little girl and offering advice and consolation. In “Oh Father” the grown-up child berates a harsh paternal figure – husband, father, religious authority rolled into one – whose domination she escaped but only at great personal cost. “You can’t hurt me now / I got away from you, I never thought I would,” she cries in angry triumph, bolstered by a grandiloquent orchestration. A third childhood song, “Dear Jessie,” a musical fantasia about pink elephants, lemonade and the land of make-believe, offers a stylish swatch of late Beatles-style psychedelia.
“Love Song,” a smoldering duet with Prince that the two created by sending the tape back and forth through the mail and adding bits and pieces, is a yowling come-hither duet. And “Keep It Together” resurrects the edgy pop-funk style and hippie optimism of Sly and Family Stone’s “Everyday People.”
If the album has one song in which Madonna expresses a 30-year-old’s view of life unshadowed by rebellion and lingering lapsed Catholic pain, it is “Express Yourself,” in which she repudiates the philosophy of “Material Girl” and advises women not to settle for a less-than-wonderful relationship. “You don’t need diamond rings or 18 carat gold / Fancy cars that go very fast you know they never last,” she proclaims.
“The message of the song is that people should always say what it is they want,” Madonna said. “The reason relationships don’t work is because they are afraid. That’s been my problem in all my relationships. I’m sure people see me as an outspoken person, and for the most part, if I want something I ask for it. But sometimes you feel that if you ask for too much or ask for the wrong thing from someone you care about that that person won’t like you. And so you censor yourself. I’ve been guilty of that in every meaningful relationship I’ve ever had. The time I learn how not to edit myself will be the time I consider myself a complete adult.”
“‘Like a Prayer,'” said Madonna, “is the song of a passionate young girl so in love with God that it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life. From around 8 to 12 years old, I had the same feelings. I really wanted to be a nun.” What follows is a description in Madonna’s own words of what happens in the video: “A girl on the street witnesses an assault on a young woman. Afraid to get involved because she might get hurt, she is frozen in fear. A black man walking down the street also sees the incident and decides to help the woman. But just then, the police arrive and arrest him. As they take him away, she looks up and sees one of the gang members who assaulted the girl. He gives her a look that says she’ll be dead if she tells. The girl runs, not knowing where to go until she sees a church. She goes in and sees a saint in a cage who looks very much like the black man on the street, and says a prayer to help her make the right decision. He seems to be crying, but she is not sure. She lies down on a pew and falls into a dream in which she begins to tumble in space with no one to break her fall. Suddenly she is caught by a woman who represents earth and emotional strength and who tosses her back up and tells her to do the right thing. Still dreaming, she returns to the saint, and her religious and erotic feelings begin to stir. The saint becomes a man. She picks up a knife and cuts her hands. That’s the guilt in Catholicism that if you do something that feels good you will be punished. As the choir sings, she reaches an orgasmic crescendo of sexual fulfillment intertwined with her love of God. She knows that nothing’s going to happen to her if she does what she believes is right. She wakes up, goes to the jail, tells the police the man is innocent, and he is freed. Then everybody takes a bow as if to say we all play a part in this little scenario.”© New York Times