The Madonna Timeline: Song #106 – ‘Like A Prayer’ – March 1989

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

It began, of all places, in the middle of ‘The Cosby Show.’ Then a part of America’s must-see Thursday night NBC line-up, it was the perfect time and location for maximum exposure. A preview – one of the only commercials for a commercial – had aired the week before. In the midst of a desolate arid landscape, tumbleweed rolling in the wind, a solitary tribal man stumbles into a hut that incongruently houses a television and a Pepsi dispenser.

“No matter where in the world you are on March 2, get to a TV and see Pepsi present Madonna with her latest release ‘Like A Prayer’ for the first time on the planet earth,” an ominous voice-over announced. The new Madonna single was to premiere in a Pepsi commercial. Soft drink preference aside (I had always been a Coke boy, when I had the luxury of drinking soda, which wasn’t often) I was excited. While nowhere near the levels of fanatical devotion I would attain in a couple of years, I enjoyed Madonna much more than the next guy. It was in the gay genes.

On March 2, 1989, I sat on the edge of the chair by the television in the cellar of my parents’ house. I can still picture its plaid upholstery, black and gray and brown, and straight out of the 70’s. Leaning forward, I watched with rapt attention as the laugh track faded and the commercial break began.

Madonna’s voice sounded the opening lines of ‘Like A Prayer.’


Life is a mystery,


Everyone must stand alone


I hear you call my name


And it feels like home.

My very first impression? I didn’t like it. I was used to the simpler, disposable, instant ear candy of ‘Like A Virgin’ and ‘True Blue.’ This was challenging, darker, more complex… and was that a Gospel choir? It marked the beginning of the way I would learn to love a Madonna song slowly at first (‘Frozen’) but also more deeply. This would be a love that lasted through time and space, and such life-long loves don’t always begin with immediate gratification. It took some time, but once ‘Like A Prayer’ embedded itself in my head, once those grand cathedrals of mighty thought and musical rumination erected themselves in my mind, it was there for good.

As for the Pepsi commercial, it was sweet-enough, but it would only air twice. The official music video was released next, and it was then that all hell broke loose. A startlingly brunette Madonna (we’d only known the dirty and platinum blonde of the 80’s) sang her new song while dancing in a black slip, receiving stigmata, kissing a black saint come-to-life, and standing defiantly in a field of burning crosses, while a plain-as-day story of a black man wrongly accused of murder played out almost as an afterthought.

I remember being profoundly perplexed by all the controversy. The Catholic Church was pissed about the religious imagery, seemingly oblivious to its message of truth and justice. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority found fault with just about everything Madonna did, and planned a boycott of Pepsi who, scared shitless, immediately dropped the commercial and their ties to Madonna (while kissing the millions of dollars they paid her good-bye.) Were people seeing the same video I was seeing? This was a tale of right and wrong, of innocence and guilt, of wrongdoing and murder and misplaced blame, of racism and violence, and ultimately of vindication and justice. The imagery was powerful, and effective, and the resulting firestorm of publicity only served to solidify Madonna’s status as cultural icon and zeitgeist master.

For anyone with the slightest ability to comprehend a video narrative, Madonna’s character stands for justice and truth, and the story is one of an innocent man wronged, and finally righted. The burning crosses were more for impact of imagery, conjuring the historical context of racism over a story in which racism plays an integral part. The religious moments, too, were more of a touching on key Catholic components that today seem both archaic and harmless. At the time, though, ‘Like A Prayer’ ignited an inferno of rage from all sides. For a thirteen-year-old gay boy, it sparked something else – the transcendent power of a pop song, and the way it could take one away from a miserable and mundane existence.


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


Just like a prayer
you know I’ll take you there

Every morning before going off to school I would watch the video on MTV’s Top-Ten countdown. It filled me with a thrill and a vague sense of danger, but the music moved me, every listen growing more powerful, touching something deeper. Despite the fact that I did well in school, had a few friends and a pretty good time there, it still required a bit of effort to gear myself up to face another day. There was always the possibility of being called out, of being called ‘faggot’, of being targeted and taunted. I felt myself apart from all my classmates, something that distanced me from them no matter how close we got. Some of these kids I’d known since I was a baby, and yet I never felt part of the class.

After each period, the halls filled with the noisy rushing masses of burgeoning adolescence, each scrambling to find peace, acceptance, or their next class. After a tumultuous and sickly 7th grade, I found my footing in my final year at Wilbur H. Lynch Middle School, but still never managed to truly belong.

In the middle of the building, a marble staircase rose across from the auditorium, and if you peered over the windows looking out you had a view of the hills rolling down to the Mohawk River. I stopped there, feeling the rush of life move around and past me, like some bit of time-lapse photography where my body was the stationary point around which all else evolved and changed. Standing still, I looked out the window. I wanted to be free.

I hear your voice, it’s like an angel sighing
I have no choice, I hear your voice
Feels like flying, I close my eyes
Oh God I think I’m falling out of the sky
I close my eyes, Heaven help me

I was breaking free of parental and parochial restraints, unfurling wings I never knew I had, challenging dogma that I’d never thought to question, and not because of Madonna, but because of knowledge and information and the realization that there was more to life than I was being taught and told. When I got home from school, I searched the television for her again, catching another countdown and re-examining what everything in the video might mean. More than the images, though, it was the music that moved me.

She was there in the night, to see me through. On the radio she sang to me as I laid in bed. The lights were out, and in the darkness I prayed. It was a prayer and a wish for love all at once, where the hunger of desire matched the hunger for something spiritual, and the soul demanded something both carnal and emotional and only found it in the orgasmic swelling of a choir. This was a song for eternity. A God anthem. A glimpse of heaven, a taunt of hell. In me something moved. Something recognized that soon I would have greater struggles, and the life I had, the love I would feel, would be at direct odds with what the church would have me be, what my family would have wanted for their first-born son, and what society would not be ready to accept until many years later – until, perhaps, many years too late. Luckily, I did not see that then. It would have been too much for my thirteen-year-old mind to comprehend. Instead, I got lost in the majestic swelling of the music, the rousing spirit of the choir, the glorious licks of an electric guitar.

It lifted me up. It raised my spirit. It spoke to me like the voice of God – perhaps greater than the voice of God because up until that point I didn’t think God had ever spoken to me. It gave me strength to get through whatever obstacle came my way. It was a covenant between me and Madonna, that whatever might come she would be there.

After my initial hesitation, I grew to love the song, feeling that wonderful pull to listen to it over and over – the kind of addictive draw I only felt with Madonna songs. Late at night, when I should have been asleep, the song would come over the radio, and I’d sit up and listen, slowly turning the volume up just a bit, getting lost in the chords and the choir, feeling a stirring from deep within my soul – and I knew I wanted to be a part of that one day, to inspire that feeling, to make something that touched someone.

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
Just like a prayer you know I’ll take you there

The ‘Like A Prayer’ album, however, was another story. Being raised as a strict Catholic, and being shamed and scared into behaving lest I burn in the fires of hell, I could stand the vague religious teasing in songs such as ‘Like A Prayer’ and ‘Spanish Eyes,’ but not the sacrilegious squealing of the last track ‘Act of Contrition,’ where she turned the traditional prayer of confession into a screeching, jarring, in-joke of borderline-blasphemy. I played only a few minutes of that before shutting it off and taking the cassette tape out of the stereo. Frightened, I fled outside under the falling light of day, quickly traversing the length of lawn, then into the woods beyond the pool. I paused at the top of a bank, where forest weeds parted in a bit of a clearing, and placed the cassette on the ground. I found a rock – a large one for my small self – and raised it over my head, planning to smash the cassette into a multitude of plastic shards.

Conflicted, I paused, the muscles in my arms slowly starting to burn beneath the weight of the stone. I wanted to prove something to God, to prove something to myself, to prove, perhaps, that I did have faith, I did believe, I did have love in my heart. It was a sign of repentance. A sign of solidarity and support for the Lord. A sign of respect for Jesus Christ.

Yet it was all for show, and God would know that. I stood there, hovering over the tape, Madonna’s navel gazing up at me, and I wondered at my faith, not knowing whether to laugh or cry at the ridiculous predicament in which I had just placed myself. I put the rock down, lowered myself onto my haunches, and balanced there, contemplating what I was supposed to do. Dusk was at hand. The light was fading. Soon the woods would be dark.

I decided then… not to decide then. Pocketing the tape, I trudged back inside, and once in my bedroom I shoved it far back into one of my desk drawers, closing it into darkness. Something in those whispered prayers scared me. I feared what might befall my family if I listened to that. I feared whatever wrath or dark magic might be conjured if those words were released in my home. I wasn’t so concerned with myself – in fact, quite the opposite – but the idea of my behavior causing pain or harm to loved ones was where all that Catholic guilt manifested its treacherous power. There was also the question of my own soul – what might happen to it if I were to embrace Madonna’s blasphemous album? The tape stayed hidden for a couple of years. From time to time I’d catch a glimpse of it when searching for something else, sniffing a hint of its patchouli packaging, then quickly shutting the drawer again. I put it so far from my mind that I almost forgot about it.

But then a strange thing happened. I wanted to die. To kill myself. And suddenly I wasn’t so scared by God and religion and what might happen to my soul. It wasn’t that I stopped believing, I simply stopped buying into the dogma and the fear. If God was love, why should there be such fear? Why would He be so vengeful? Why would He hate me for my love?

When you’re freed from such fear, a song like ‘Act of Contrition’ means nothing – while ‘Like A Prayer’ could mean everything. The only moments I felt alive back then were when I listened to that album. Raking leaves and feeling profoundly hurt by my parents, I’d put ‘Promise to Try‘ and ‘Oh Father‘ on my walkman. I’d listen to ‘Spanish Eyes’ and let my own tears burn the pillow, begging for Christ to redeem and rescue me before taking my soul and body away.  I even found the betrayal and loss in ‘Til Death Do Us Part‘ a comfort for my downtrodden state.

In the months and years ahead, ‘Like A Prayer’ – the song and album – transformed into something life-changing. The music was good. It was inspiring. The driving force of ‘Express Yourself’ was all I needed for motivating the worst day, and the giddiness of ‘Cherish‘ and ‘Dear Jessie‘ lifted the heart when I was on top of the world. Madonna had crafted a cohesive tapestry of sound and experience, the very best kind of pop art an artist could muster. And I felt, in connections small and large, the power that certain songs had of making sense of the madness.

It was far more serious than her previous pop efforts, deeper and richer as well. Crafted during the tumultuous death-throes of her marriage to Sean Penn, it is heavy with both tension and release. An impending divorce is a heavy burden, the pain of loss magnified by Madonna’s familial ruminations at the same time.

Like a child you whisper softly to me
You’re in control just like a child
Now I’m dancing
It’s like a dream, no end and no beginning
You’re here with me it’s like a dream
Let the choir sing…

For me, I was on the brink of such turmoil, about to be tossed into the raging river of adolescent angst, teenage rebellion, and the messy and difficult struggle of coming to terms with my sexuality. It was a maelstrom of emotions, a mass of moving moods which all of Madonna’s burgeoning messages would come to mollify. She was searching, I was searching, we were all searching for something – meaning, magic, love… and it came to fruition in a pop song ~ a magnificent, majestic, moving song that melded electric guitar and a Gospel choir and the voice of the woman who once sang ‘Like A Virgin.’

The fear that first accompanied the album, and that first supposedly-blasphemous performance of ‘Like A Prayer’ during the Blonde Ambition Tour had dissipated into something else, like the curling tendrils of incense that encircled the air, gripped the lungs, and then drifted off like they had never been of consequence.

Every year during Lent, the rituals of the Catholic church haunted me, in a good way. There was comfort in that dim smoke-laden atmosphere, in the hush and quietude of the cavernous church. All the mysteries of the crucifixion and the resurrection, in the alchemy of the Body and Blood of Christ, hung in the air like, well, Jesus himself. And bound like His bloodied head in a crown of thorns, shot through like the nails in His hands, the guilt that once bled from me was rendered into a similar collection of religious cyphers and signs – echoes of what once held such sway. ‘Like A Prayer’ was the musical embodiment of this time of the year, and I cannot think of it without thinking of the church.

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
Just like a prayer you know I’ll take you there

As for its place in the Madonna canon, ‘Like A Prayer’ remains, almost across the board, her most beloved song. Critics, fans, and non-fans alike agree on that much. It marked the first bit of widespread critical acclaim that she’d enjoyed for her music. (I still remember a hard-core Metallica fan, one of my classmates in high school, begrudgingly giving props to the guitar chords of ‘Like A Prayer’.)

Live performances of ‘Like A Prayer’ have proved to be perennially powerful, beginning with the epic Blonde Ambition staging – the first time she performed it for an audience. That version (Catholic misgivings aside) was a stunning church-themed tour-de-force of choreography and vocals.

Oddly enough, she would not perform it live again for over a decade – at an MTV release special for ‘American Life’ in 2003. Since then, though, it has been a staple, not only for tours, but for one-off live performances. On the Reinvention Tour – the closest she’s come to a greatest hits tour – ‘Like A Prayer’ was given a stripped-down but rousing treatment, a testament to the power and construction of the song, and Patrick Leonard’s vital impact on Madonna’s musical legacy.

My very favorite live performance of ‘Like A Prayer’, however, may just be the one she performed for Live Aid 8, mostly because of her genuine and touching interaction with the girl whose face had embodied the original Live Aid dream. It’s a rare moment of earnest and unguarded joy in a career where very little has ever been left to chance.

On a much smaller scale, she also performed at the Hope For Haiti benefit. That acoustic version was intimate and somber, yet filled with hope, and it flew largely under the radar, which was a shame, as it was quite a compelling argument for Madonna’s oft-questioned musical prowess. As for those who had pegged Madonna as a pop star capable only of disposable, frothy throwaway hits, ‘Like A Prayer’ displayed a deeper and darker side to her songbook. A techno-infused mash-up that soars to a hand-clapping climax, the apocalyptic performance from the Sticky and Sweet Tour reveals the darkness at the heart of ‘Like A Prayer’ – even if there is light and salvation at its resolution.

That salvation would be found in the finale to her Super Bowl appearance – when thousands of lights glowed in the stadium, and one woman stood alone in the center of it all, commanding the stage and finishing up one of the greatest Super Bowl half-time shows in history.

Most recently, Madonna performed ‘Like A Prayer’ on the MDNA Tour. There is usually one moment in every Madonna tour that brings me to the verge of tears: the opening salvo of the Drowned World Tour, the intimate ‘Crazy For You’ on the Reinvention Tour, the powerful ‘Live to Tell’ on the Confessions Tour, or the haunting ‘Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You’ on the Sticky and Sweet Tour – but for the MDNA Tour it was the climactic ‘Like A Prayer.’ It was here that the transcendent culmination of the evening found its footing in the united fans, all of us joined across the globe – a connection to each other, a connection to Madonna, a connection to whatever God or higher power in which we each believed.

Life is a mystery
Everyone must stand alone
I hear you call my name
And it feels like home. 

Darkness. Anger. Fire. Danger. Life. Death. Heaven. God. From the depths of hell to the upper echelon of glory, the spiritual journey of ‘Like A Prayer’ is epic. It began at the beginning of some of my darkest times. Adolescence. Puberty. A time of questioning and wondering, doubting and despairing. But the trajectory of ‘Like A Prayer’ had to begin somewhere. It had to start from the lowest point and move steadily and slowly toward ascendance, ever-reaching upwards. It was a long journey. A spiritual journey. A journey I needed to make alone, and the only guidance was the voice of Madonna.

Just like a prayer,
Your voice can take me there,
Just ike a muse to me,
You are a mystery
Just like a dream
You are not what you seem
Just like a prayer,
No choice your voice can take me there.

Life was a mystery, but she was there to help me along the way. Madonna was the Beatrice to my Dante, calling me up from the depths of the despair and guiding me through the hellish journey, bringing me higher, raising me up, lifting my heart and spirit and soul.

I didn’t know it then, but I was lost. And I would be lost for a very long time. It was Madonna who helped me to find myself. Unbeknownst to her, it was her voice that carried me through those dim days, and any dim day that followed.

‘Like A Prayer’ continues to evolve and transform in the way that the most lasting songs do. Gaining resonance, growing in significance, and becoming much more than it ever originally was, the song has withstood the tests of time and taste. Listening to it today I still get goose-bumps. I still go back to those early days of being so lost and so alone. But it’s okay. Like a prayer will always take me there.

For the longest time, I’d been looking forward to writing the Madonna Timeline for ‘Like A Prayer’ – as one of my favorite Madonna songs, I knew it would be a totem for this series. Yet as the songs progressed, and we passed #100, I began to feel a certain dread and pressure to do it justice, to properly impress upon you the import of this song on my life – and it turned out that’s impossible to do. Like the very faith it embodies, my love for ‘Like A Prayer’ is ethereal, untouchable, and indefinable – defying all explanation, at once intrinsically and universally personal. There would be no way to convey the myriad ways this song has informed my existence, the way it’s been a part of my life for the past 25 years. There are certain songs that become a part of our existence, woven delicately yet inextricably into the fabric that makes up the tapestry of our time on earth. They bind us to this moment, to this world, taking a stand and making a mark in the timeline of the universe. That will always be what ‘Like A Prayer’ is for me.

The best way to understand… is to listen.

No choice, your voice can take me there
Your voice can take me there…
Like a prayer.
Song #106 – ‘Like A Prayer’ – March 1989 
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