In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Madonna’s Like A Prayer, which went to No. 1 on April 22, 1989, where it stayed for six weeks.

As 1989 dawned, it seemed like business as usual for Madonna. Her movie career continued to chug along: She was in throwback starlet mode in the forgotten Bloodhounds Of Broadway and gearing up to play the coquettish caricature Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy. Meanwhile, her personal life was attention-grabbing tabloid bait. Her tumultuous marriage to Sean Penn finally ended in divorce and she was making Pepsi gunshy about their endorsement deal, because people mistook the edgy “Like A Prayer” video—which featured burning crosses, among other things—for part of its ad campaign. (In reality, the Pepsi clip’s main emotional tug was rather innocuous black-and-white footage of Madonna as a beatific child.)

All of this turmoil overshadowed the fact that as a musician and songwriter, Madonna was looking to deviate from the formula that made her famous. For 1989’s Like A Prayer, that meant a serious musical upgrade from popcorn-flick dance-pop fluff and faux-retro Top 40 cuteness. Working again with Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard (who had helped her take baby steps toward maturity on 1986’s True Blue, including the trembling ballad “Live To Tell” and the strident hit “Papa Don’t Preach”), Madonna debuted a more sophisticated approach. “In the past, my records tended to be a reflection of current influences,” she told Rolling Stone. “This album is more about past musical influences. The songs ‘Keep It Together’ and ‘Express Yourself,’ for instance, are sort of my tributes to Sly & The Family Stone. ‘Oh Father’ is my tribute to Simon & Garfunkel, whom I loved.”

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