March 1989: Madonna Releases LIKE A PRAYER

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

As the 1980s decade careened to a close, one of its biggest stars was ready to change with the times.

Madonna had all but defined the decade, breaking out in 1983 with a self-titled debut album packed with club hits. The singer went on to soar all the way to the top of the music world with a string of hit songs, blockbuster albums and sold-out concert tours.

While Madonna branched out to movie and stage acting to varying degrees of success, her musical career continued to flourish. When the 1987 big-screen comedy Who's That Girl stumbled critically and at the box office, the movie's soundtrack and subsequent tour were both a resounding success.

After wrapping up 1987 with a remix collection, You Can Dance, it would be almost a year and a half before she returned with her fourth full-length studio album: Like a Prayer.

The campaign kicked off in January 1989 with Madonna previewing the Like a Prayer title track via a splashy ad campaign with Pepsi. The song served as the soundtrack for a special two-minute TV commercial for the soft drink which debuted during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in February 1989.

The excitement over the new song was dashed for many when Madonna debuted the song's highly controversial music video. Directed by longtime collaborator Mary Lambert, the clip was a result of Madonna wanting to create something more provocative than her previous music video work.

The "Like a Prayer" visual more than accomplished Madonna's objective, featuring such racy imagery as burning crosses and an interracial kiss between Madonna and actor Leon. It was enough for Pope John Paul II and the Vatican to protest the video, and call for a boycott of Pepsi and its subsidiaries, which included Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC.

Ultimately, Pepsi gave in to the protest, cancelling the entire Madonna ad campaign (although they did let her keep the $5 million she was paid for the collaboration).

"I think there was a point when we realized that it was the title track, and the lead track, and it was going to a powerhouse," producer Patrick Leonard revealed about the song to Billboard. "It became obvious that there was something unique about it. And that somehow we made this thing work: with its stopping and starting, and a minimalistic rhythmic thing, and the verses, and these bombastic choruses, and this giant choir comes in. This is ambitious, you know?!"

Madonna released the Like a Prayer album amidst the firestorm of controversy (and publicity) on March 21, 1989. Created with producers Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard, the LP arrived in grand fashion; the first pressing of the release came scented with patchouli oil, as well as a fact sheet about safe sex and the very real threat of HIV/AIDS. It was a bold statement at a time when precious few artists were willing to take such a strong stance on sexual health and what many derisively considered a "gay disease."

The album featured Madonna with a whole new look and persona, complete with dark brown hair and a revamped fashion sense described as a "cross between gypsy and hippie."

The Like a Prayer title track flew up the charts to peak at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week of April 22, 1989, where it stayed for three weeks.

The album's second single, the female empowerment anthem "Express Yourself," also made a strong chart showing, peaking at #2 on the Hot 100 in July 1989.

The next Like a Prayer single, "Cherish," followed a similar trajectory, also peaking at #2 on the Hot 100.

The album produced even more singles, in the form of "Oh Father," and "Keep it Together" in America. In the United Kingdom and Europe, "Dear Jessie" served as the final single from Like a Prayer and "Keep It Together" was not released there.

“In the past, my records tended to be a reflection of current influences,” she told Rolling Stone at the time. “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.”

Debuting at #8 on the Billboard 200, the Like a Prayer album was a smash hit, cruising to the #1 spot for the week of April 22, 1989. The album maintained the top spot for six weeks in a row. It was Madonna's third studio album in a row to hit #1 on the chart following Like a Virgin and True Blue, making her the first artist to do so since the Rolling Stones had an eight-album run of #1s between 1971-1981.

“I didn’t try to candy-coat anything or make it more palatable for mass consumption, I guess. I wrote what I felt,” Madonna told SongTalk (via AV Club) about the LP. “In the past I wrote a lot of songs that [revealed my inner self], but I felt they were too honest or too frightening or too scary and I decided not to record them. It just seemed like the time was right at this point. Because this was what was coming out of me.”