The One after the Big One: Madonna, LIKE A PRAYER
Today's press- and fame-seeking celebrities (be they a Cyrus, Minaj, Kardashian or a Real Housewife from somewhere) have got nothing—nothing—on Madonna, circa 1989. Madonna could make headlines without even trying, just by being seen in public with (or without) her famous soon-to-be-ex-husband (Sean Penn); she could command a then-whopping $5 million to star in a Pepsi campaign built around the lead single off her fourth album; she could then be removed from that campaign (but keep her $5 million) by sexualizing the statue of a saint and dancing in front of burning crosses in a video for that same song, which also earned her headlines when she became the subject of a boycott endorsed by the Pope himself.
She was the O.G. of the effortlessly (in)famous, a title she would hold for years. It would have meant little, however, had she not also been one of the great pop songwriters and performers of her generation, a fact that had been established by the extraordinary sales and staying power of 1986's TRUE BLUE and reinforced by her aforementioned fourth album, LIKE A PRAYER, in '89.
The songs on LIKE A PRAYER are often cited for their maturity, and while that might inadvertently shortchange earlier tracks like "Live to Tell" and "Open Your Heart," the themes she touches upon are certainly miles away from the dance floor. The provocative title track marvels at the pull of spirituality, of its enduring presence in one's head and heart, from childhood forward. She sings of the struggles with her parents (her mother's death in "Promise to Try" and her authoritarian father in "Oh Father") and husband ("Till Death Do Us Part"), opening up to her audience about her vulnerabilities, as she never would outside of her music. She also preaches empowerment in "Express Yourself," raising her voice and becoming a voice for others who suffer in silence.
Lyrical concerns are not all that make LIKE A PRAYER stand out; melodically, she hits the mark as well. "Cherish" is pure effervescence, a jaunty song about being in love—when is something like that not a pleasure to hear? "Oh Father," "Pray for Spanish Eyes" and "Promise to Try" are dramatic and moving, reminders of what a great ballad singer Madonna is. Such prowess of performance extends to "Love Song," where she goes toe-to-toe with Prince and holds her own.
LIKE A PRAYER is the best kind of follow-up album—one that acknowledges the things that made the previous record a hit, only to deepen and extend those very same traits into something new and equally as rewarding. Let's see today's fame junkies pull that one off.
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