Thirty Years Ago, Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ Cemented Controversy As A Pop Star’s Greatest Weapon

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If released in 2019, Madonna‘s “Like A Prayer” video would have ignited a different controversy than the one it stirred up in 1989. Throughout the clip, broadcast in advance of the album of the same name, the singer dances in a field of burning crosses, the instantly and viscerally recognizable motif of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s not exactly her symbol to appropriate. A generous reading of the video suggests she is deploying the inflammatory image toward a commentary on racism in the United States. In the video’s narrative, a black man is arrested by white cops for a crime he did not commit. It’s the same old story: He witnessed a gang of white men assault a white woman, ran over to help her, found himself the one in handcuffs. The stories nursed by white supremacy insist he must be responsible for the violence, so into the can he goes. And then there’s Madonna, dancing in front of the KKK’s crosses, hinting at a link between the racists in uniform and those cowering under white hoods. She presages Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 refrain: “Some of those who work forces / Are the same who burn crosses.”

Thirty years ago, Madonna came under fire not for flashing the burning cross and not even for suggesting that the police are racists but for being horny for God. Before you see the video’s instigating event — the assault, the arrest — you see Madonna rushing into a church, distraught. She finds a wax saint in a cage. He weeps and comes to life, and she falls for him, taking him into her arms until he becomes a real boy. By today’s metrics, it’s a benign enough image, but in 1989 it was enough to send the American Family Association into a tizzy. Madonna had an advertising deal with Pepsi, and the AFA, along with other right-wing Christian groups, furiously called for Pepsi boycotts. Reagan had just left office, succeeded by Reagan-lite (George H.W. Bush). Pop stars couldn’t simply f*ck saints without repercussions.

“The Most Rev. Rene Gracida, bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas, called for a boycott of all Pepsi products in South Texas Catholic, a magazine distributed to more than 40,000 people. He said he acted after watching the music video and said he found the song to be sacrilegious,” reported the Associated Press in April 1989. At no point does the Most Rev. Gracida pinpoint which aspects of the song and its video he took as sacrilege. It’s as if he expects his critique to be self-evident, and yet Madonna is only tamely acting out events already enshrined in Catholic lore: The stigmata, the statue coming to life, the unbearable sensuality of loving a punishing God. Christ’s love for his flock was never meant to be chaste; just ask Saint Teresa.

More likely religious leaders were offended by the gall of the whole gesture: A woman calling herself Madonna penning her own hymns and scripting her own ecstasies. Never mind that it’s the name her mother gave her, and never mind that on the album Like A Prayer she maintains a deep and fearful reverence to her parents and her God just like the Bible says she should. She’s a woman wielding power, a pop star usurping the pulpit, and so good Christians must pour her soda of choice down the drain.

The controversy only inflated Madonna’s celebrity, and in the 30 years since, controversy has become a standard metabolic process in the life cycle of the pop star. Try imagining Britney Spears, who zoomed out the cover of Like A Prayer on her 2000 sophomore record Oops!… I Did It Again, without a tearful Chris Crocker rushing to her defense. Try divorcing Miley Cyrus from the nude swing on the wrecking ball, the vanilla attempt at twerking. The pop machine devours backlash. It’s as sure to sell records as it is to crystallize a pop singer’s identity. She is who she riles.

As a megastar of the eighties, Madonna had plenty of audience to offend. She worked before the dawn of the stan, the web native who treats their chosen idol as both deity and bestie, taking to Instagram to defend the celeb with intimate and religious fervor. The stan takes root in Madonna’s conflation of singer and patron saint. But before the internet, the lives of celebrities stood further apart than they do now, tabloid fodder rather than social media drip. You had to buy a paper to read about their troubles; they weren’t nestled in the feed among people you knew in real life. Information flowed in one direction. Fans could read about Madonna’s allegedly abusive marriage to Sean Penn but they could not cancel the aggressor.

In interviews shortly after her divorce, Madonna declined to comment on the assault charges she filed and then withdrew against her husband. Though the rumors are bad, she has not commented since, except to deny the allegations in court papers. Thirty years ago, reports that a successful actor brutalized his wife couldn’t dent his career. It was not quite a sin to hurt a woman. It was just marriage. In most cases it still is.

On “Till Death Do Us Part,” the fourth song on Like A Prayer, Madonna sings from the perspective of a woman in a fractured, torturous marriage. The beat clatters and falls, anxious. It’s an upbeat number in a minor key, an urgent missive from hell iced over with a pop sheen. “He starts to scream / The vases fly,” Madonna sings in one of the interludes where she shifts from first to third person, hovering over the scene as an omniscient narrator. It’s not quite autobiography: The woman in the song never leaves. “I would never want to continue a terrible relationship forever and ever and ever until I die,” Madonna told Rolling Stone. This is all she concedes: “Like most of the songs on my album, it’s very much drawn from my life, factually speaking, but it’s fictionalized, too.”

She leaves her interviewer in the blur between the fact and fiction of her life, declining to articulate the boundary. It’s the same place she leaves her listeners. From the playful duet with Prince, “Love Song,” to the mournful recollection of childhood trauma, “Oh Father,” Madonna maintains her right to a constructed persona. She is and is not the speaker in her songs. These are not confessionals belted from the depths of inner turmoil. They are pop songs, which means they are unspecific, which means there is more truth to be found in them.

Consider the contradiction in the first measures of the album’s title track: “Life is a mystery / Everyone must stand alone / I hear you call my name / And it feels like home.” Madonna asserts cast iron solitude as the inevitable condition of life, and then she allows it to break with a single cry of her name. Alone and united, she finds grace in the impossibility of her position. Her words take the logic of ritual, of transubstantiation. The communion wafer is the body of a man two thousand years dead. The wine is his living blood. It’s funny how bitterly religious leaders reacted against a woman who spread their thinking further than they ever did. Is there anything more Catholic than transforming wax into flesh through sheer, unbridled desire? Let the choir sing.