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Intro

Talk about controversy! When Madonna released "Like a Prayer" in 1989 – or more accurately, when she released the "Like a Prayer" video – all holy hell broke loose in American pop culture. Critics charged that the video (which included images of Madonna singing in a field of burning crosses and frolicking with a black saint inside a church) was sacrilegious, a slap in the face to people of faith. What gave this pop singer (who had already offended some by co-opting the name of the Virgin Mary) the right to conflate the majesty of prayer with the ecstasy of sex? "Like a Prayer" set off a cultural/religious brouhaha of mammoth proportions. There was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth, and the cancellation of a $5 million Pepsi ad campaign, and the suggestion that Madonna ought to be excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

Twenty years later, "Like a Prayer" no longer seems quite so shocking. (We've all seen a lot worse since.) And, removed from the hubbub of controversy that originally surrounded it, the song itself actually now seems more interesting. Truth is, there's not one word of "off-color" material in the lyrics; if you didn't know Madonna was the singer, "Like a Prayer" would sound perfectly at home on any Christian radio station. "When you call my name / It's like a little prayer / I'm down on my knees / I wanna take you there / In the midnight hour / I can feel your power." What preacher could object to that? And yet… if you want to hear it as a song about sex, that works just as well. Maybe Madonna was really onto something here; could there really be something common in the human experience of rapture, whether it's experienced in ways sacred or profane?

About the Song

ArtistMadonna Musician(s)Madonna (vocals, keyboards), Prince (intro guitar), The Andrae Crouch Choir (background vocals), Randy Jackson (bass), Guy Pratt (bass), Chester Kamen (guitar), David Williams (guitar), Dann Huff (guitar), Bruce Gaitsch (guitar), Marcos Loya (guitar), Larry Corbett (cello), Patrick Leonard (keyboards), Jai Winding (keyboards), Stephen Bray (keyboards), Geary Lanier (keyboards), Jonathan Moffett (drums), Jeff Porcaro (drums), John Robinson (drums), Luis Conte (percussion), Paulinho da Costa (percussion), Sandra Crouch (percussion)
AlbumLike a Prayer
Year1989
LabelSire Records, Warner Bros.
Writer(s)Madonna, Patrick Leonard
Producer(s)Madonna, Patrick Leonard
Learn to play: Tablature
Buy this song: Amazon iTunes
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Music Video

Shmoop Connections

Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
Messing around with God has always been a dangerous thing to do. But artists just can't seem to stay away from the subject, and their efforts to push the boundaries of religious thought have often rubbed the more traditional-minded among us the wrong way. Just a few months before Madonna released "Like a Prayer" to howls of protest in the Christian community, the author Salman Rushdie got an even worse reception from his fellow Muslims: he had a bounty placed on his head by Iran's powerful Ayatollah Khomenei after the Ayatollah decided his book The Satanic Verses blasphemed Islam. So we're used to this kind of controversy as a staple of the modern-day "culture wars."

But it turns out that the "culture wars" actually go way back; the line that divides art from blasphemy has always been a bit fuzzy. You're surely not shocked to hear that Madonna outraged the Catholic Church… but did you know that Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost – both now revered as canonical writings in the Christian tradition – were originally also slammed as outrageous forms of artistic blasphemy? Wonder what people will be saying about Madonna in a few hundred years…

On the Charts

"Like A Prayer" made it to #1 in the US. The album Like A Prayer also hit the top of the charts.

The song was a massive international hit as well, reaching #1 on the 15-nation Eurochart Hot 100 Singles and topping several different countries' national charts; Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway all saw Madonna take over the top spot with "Like A Prayer."
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