Twenty-five years ago this March, after months of feverish anticipation, one of the most successful pop albums of the ‘80s hit stores with a whiff of patchouli and a heavy dose of controversy. Madonna’s commercial and artistic momentum had been building steadily since her first hit, “Holiday,” reached a modest #16 six years earlier. By the time 1989 had arrived and she was preparing to release her fourth album she’d amassed six #1 singles and was second only to Michael Jackson in the galaxy of pop stardom. With Like a Prayer she delivered a knockout that became a global smash, generated six hit singles, and sold millions of copies worldwide. Like a Prayer enjoyed critical acclaim as well as commercial success. Released on March 21, 1989, it spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart during the spring of ’89. A quarter-century later, Like a Prayer still holds up as an outstanding collection of top-notch material. Overall, as a complete piece of work, it is arguably the finest album of Madonna’s three-decade-plus career.
The album was preceded by the release of the fantastic title-track on March 3. The single “Like a Prayer” did nothing to dampen expectations for the new album, and it quickly shot to #1 all over the world. The provocative video directed by Mary Lambert had religious conservatives in a tizzy and prompted Pepsi to drop Madonna from a major ad campaign (although all the pearl-clutching by those denouncing the video was surely more effective promotion than any advertising money could buy). The religious-themed clip — which features Madonna tenderly kissing a black saint that she had transformed from statue to flesh and blood with a sensual caress of her hand, and then dancing amongst flaming crosses in a skimpy black dress while wearing a crucifix — was condemned by no less than the Vatican itself. “Like a Prayer” is one of the great singles of the ‘80s and was brilliantly produced by Patrick Leonard. The sequence between 3:04 and 3:38 (on the album version) is particularly stunning. “Like a Prayer” includes a strong gospel element, and some commentators have noted a striking similarity between it and David Bowie’s 1986 single “Underground” from the movie Labyrinth (although even Bowie would have to admit that “Like a Prayer” is by far the stronger of the two). The title song and album opener set the stage for an assemblage of songs that are personal, strongly commercial, and brilliantly executed. Pop music doesn’t get much better than this.
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