In the lead up to the release of her fourth studio album, Like a Prayer (1989), Madonna had signed an endorsement deal with Pepsi. The deal, which gave the singer $5 million to do several commercials for the soda company, would at the same time feature and promote her music. Pepsi produced a two-minute-long commercial—a Pepsi-branded music video, really— that would premiere the single "Like a Prayer" in over 40 countries at once.
It was a huge deal. On March 2nd, 1989, the highly anticipated ad went out over the airwaves. In that Pepsi version, Madonna reflects back on innocent images of her own childhood before being transported to some kind of upbeat, retro song-and-dance number that looks like it's taking place on the set of West Side Story.
So far, so good. The next day, though, MTV premiered Madonna's official (non-Pepsi) version of the "Like a Prayer" video. And all hell broke loose. The music video's plot has been summed up nicely by Madonna herself:
A girl on the street witnesses an assault on a young woman. Afraid to get involved because she might get hurt, she is frozen in fear. A black man walking down the street also sees the incident and decides to help to woman. But just then, the police arrive and arrest him. As they take him away, she looks up and sees one of the gang members who assaulted the girl. He gives her a look that says she'll be dead if she tells. The girl runs, not knowing where to go, until she sees a church. She goes in and sees a saint in a cage who looks very much like the black man on the street, and says a prayer to help her make the right decision. He seems to be crying, but she is not sure. She lies down on a pew and falls into a dream in which she begins to tumble in space with no one to break her fall. Suddenly she is caught by [an African American woman] who represents earth and emotional strength and who tosses her back up and tells her to do the right thing. Still dreaming, she returns to the saint, and her religions and erotic feelings begin to stir. The saint becomes a man. She picks up a knife and cuts her hands. That's the guilt in Catholicism that if you do something that feels good you will be punished. As the choir sings, she reaches an orgasmic crescendo of sexual fulfillment intertwined with her love of God. She knows that nothing's going to happen to her if she does what she believes is right. She wakes up, goes to the jail, tells the police the man is innocent, and he is freed. Then everybody takes a bow as if to say we all play a part in this little scenario. (Source)
Okay then. Unsurprisingly, the video's comingling of sex, race, and religion (to say nothing of shots in which Madonna sings in front of a field of burning crosses) caused extreme controversy. Coming hot on the heels of The Last Temptation of Christ, a film that similarly brought sex into religion (portraying a romance between Jesus and Mary Magdalene) to the outrage of religious conservatives, the "Like a Prayer" video was apparently bad enough to cause Pepsi to walk away from its contract with Madonna.
While she was obligated to do several more commercials, Madonna had apparently scared Pepsi out of $5 million without having to do any more actual work. Rumors of things even worse surrounded (and still surround) the video. Some said that the entire country of Italy had banned it. Others attempted to find satanic lyrics in the single as it was played in reverse.
People who no doubt did not actually watch the video created most of the controversy. While everyone is entitled to his own sense of shock, with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, the outrage caused by the video is not terribly interesting. (Maybe we've just become numb by the even more shocking cultural memes of recent years.) What might be more fruitful is attempting to understand where the video's imagery, themes, and narrative come from, what it could actually mean—if anything at all—and how it serves its purpose as an advertisement for Madonna.
Because Madonna herself has said that Like a Prayer is emotionally honest and autobiographical in some ways, we have to consider her heritage and cultural upbringing carefully when watching "Like a Prayer."
Much of that autobiography appears in the form of religious imagery. As a second-generation Italian American, Madonna (born Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone) expresses general themes and Italian American cultural identities in the video. Scholar Carla Freccero identifies these themes as "a connectedness to Italy—in name, of course; in tradition; and in relation to theology, to femininity, and to exile, departure, and immigration."
The Roman Catholic aspect of that cultural identity is likely the source of some of the discomfort Madonna caused for tradition-minded Americans; there was, for a long time, a very significant cultural (and ethnic) gap between the Catholics of Southern European descent and traditional Protestant Americans. In his book The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950 Robert Orsi identifies the "popular religion" of Italians that American "churchmen have denigrated," saying:
When used to describe popular Catholic religiosity, the term conjures up images of shrouds, bloody hearts, bilocationg monks, talking Madonnas, weeping statues, boiling vials of blood—all the symbols which the masses of Catholic Europe have found to be so powerful over the centuries... (Source)
Madonna's experiences in the video—the stigmata, the bleeding statue, and her physical encounter with the Black saint, Saint Martin de Porres—all fall into this cultural phenomenon of popular religion. What popular religion allows for within the Italian Catholic community is a powerful sense of connectedness to the faith. The kind of demystification of Christianity that results from physical encounters with religion makes many uncomfortable. Madonna is well suited to play upon such discomfort with "popular religion"—her name itself suggests it, "Madonna" being a title for the Virgin Mary. With the video for "Like a Prayer," Madonna establishes that (dreamed) physical connection between the saint and herself to be a vital source of inspiration to act upon witnessing the Black man unjustly imprisoned.
The music video as the tale of a young white woman finding power in interracial harmony and the African-American community has its own historical setting. Within Madonna's personal history, she has said that she wanted to be Black when she was a kid, and that she mostly interacted with Black children. In New York and other urban centers, Italian Americans immigrants and African Americans shared a history living next to each other in the tenements, sometimes in competition and sometimes in cooperation with each other. In the sense of the prejudice experienced by both communities, there is a shared sense of being in exile, of being somewhat disowned and disenfranchised. In the process of the video, Madonna confuses and mixes the two cultures as she attempts to play upon (marketable) themes involving the power of religion (and sex) to aid in defeating prejudice and personal fears.
The blending of these two cultures is apparent in several ways. Visually speaking, the Italian-American Madonna and the African-American choir blend together in the red and brown color scheme of the video. The combination of the "popular religion" of Roman Catholicism with the Black gospel choir is an obvious cultural meshing, but one you're not likely to see too often in real life; the Black church is typically a Protestant institution.
In the video, we see the saint-worship and the imagery of the gospel choir coming from two distinct religious groups. But Catholicism and the African American church do share a certain emotional forthrightness. Madonna uses the mystique of emotional authenticity in Black religion to demonstrate the power of faith to awaken an emotional conviction within her to go to the police, despite the danger in accusing the dangerous white men of rape.
Self-sacrifice brings the narrative full circle, back to Roman Catholicism. But, just as the images of the music video are confused, the "morals" and the resolution are equally ambiguous. On one hand, the idea of self-sacrifice is noble and helps the viewer identify with Madonna not as a singer but as a concerned woman with wholesome values and a commitment to justice. On the other hand, self-sacrifice treads very closely to what Feccero calls "self-aggrandizement," as Madonna is the focal point of the video. In a sense she becomes like the virgin, but for entirely different reasons.
But, as Feccero also states, it's important to remember that Madonna is a multimillionaire with an intention—making you buy her album for $19.99—in mind.
With that in mind, the Black gospel choir does more than demonstrate the power of religion. Madonna, celebrated by the dancing choir and surrounded in children (playing up the Madonna-Virgin Mary connection perhaps), becomes a savior of sorts. A heroine. You probably shouldn't think about that too much, if only because the narrative of the story becomes largely trivial at the end of the music video when the curtain rolls down and the words "The End" appear in corny '50s script.
So, why are you reading all this? What's the point, especially if Madonna trivializes the whole video experience in the end?
In discussing Madonna, as was popular in some academic circles in the 1990s, much has been said of her "postmodernism." Don't be afraid, it might sound like a complex academic term that is impossible to understand (and in some ways, that's actually not a terrible definition of "postmodernism" after all). But the idea is also much closer to your life than you might think.
A simple way of thinking about postmodernism is as the way in which our contemporary artists and culture produce art that resists definite interpretation. Where modern poets like T.S. Eliot produced art that tried to mean something, postmodernist art has become about confusing the meaning of images, cribbing artistic styles, opposing them, and reveling in meaninglessness, expressing only what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called the ecstasy of communication.
How does "Like a Prayer" demonstrate some of these ideas? First, Madonna's video, wrapped its dated conception of itself as a play, resists the idea of being taken seriously. The blending of Italian-American and African-American traditions and cultures should also be considered a postmodern choice. It resists interpretation. Where a critic might try to understand the video as an endorsement of Catholicism, the blending of Catholicism with the African Methodist Episcopal choir Madonna meets in her dream prevents such a simple interpretation. The video is neither here nor there on particular religions, only communicating the power of some force of faith to empower her.
The elephant in the room here—the sexual scene between the saint-come-to-life and Madonna—fits into this argument as well. The combination of sex and religion, two things opposed in many minds, is the most obvious postmodern turn in the video.
Academic Steven E. Young wrote about "Like a Prayer" in his essay "Like a Critique: A Postmodern Essay on Madonna's Postmodern Video 'Like a Prayer.'" (Gotta love those academic subtitles.) Young notes that the sex/religion coupling "gives way to a deeper [pairing], multiple/single." He observes that we desire the singular in both sex and religion, and conversely fear the multiple in sex and religion. He says, "If the Madonna video shows an almost seamless blending of the various apparently oppositional [pairings], black vs. white, sex vs. religion, multiple vs. single, into ambiguities, which reveal the lack of one...meaning, then as viewers, we may take that first step, even if only tentative, toward the freedom to choose for ourselves."
So, in Young's mind, the sex/religion merger and other postmodernisms of the video that confuse any definite "meaning" invite speculation and the possibility of several, equally plausible, reactions to the work—freeing us in the process. That might be a little generous of Young, but Madonna herself states that the conception of the music video as a play is meant to suggest that we are all part of the story unfolding.
It's a sweet thought, though the cynic in all of us might be wise to asterisk that happy ending with a footnote reminding us of Feccero's statement. Madonna is a multi-millionaire, and she is selling her work. That invitation of freedom of interpretation that Madonna supposedly creates is also an invitation to see Madonna as a visionary feminist—as in the narrative of the video itself—which invites its own sense of celebrity, role-modeling, and marketing into the mix.
And the controversy itself—which she had to know was sure to erupt after she filmed herself making out with a Black saint inside a church—only helped sell records. (Like a Prayer has sold more than 11 million copies worldwide.)