Like A Prayer

Album: Like A Prayer (1989)
Charted: 1 1


  • This was the first song by a major artist to be used in a commercial before being released to stores or radio stations. With the cola wars heating up, Pepsi signed Madonna to a $5 million endorsement deal, which included a two-minute commercial that would debut this song. The spot, overseen by Pepsi's ad agency BBDO, was called "Make A Wish," and showed Madonna watching an 8-year-old version of herself and doing some jubilant street dancing.

    The commercial was promoted in a 30-second spot that aired during the Grammy Awards on February 22, 1989 (yes, a commercial for a commercial). Then on March 2, it aired on prime time television worldwide, including in America where it was seen on The Cosby Show. The Pepsi people claimed that 250 million viewers saw the ad, and that they were clearly the choice of the younger generation, as their partnerships with Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and now Madonna, demonstrated. The commercial was clever and innocent, and the song was also a winner, clearly destined for #1 with such an auspicious debut.

    The song was released the next day and instantly added to radio playlists around the world. It was also added on MTV, but instead of creating a video that was an extension of the commercial, Madonna hijacked it. Instead of an 8-year-old girl at a birthday party, we see Madonna witness a brutal crime and take refuge in a church. She shares an interracial kiss, gets stigmata on her hands, and dances in front of burning crosses. Predictably, religious groups were outraged, with the American Family Association and The Vatican condemning it. Pepsi, facing a boycott, dropped Madonna and never again aired the commercial.

    Madonna and MTV were the big winners here. Those who thought she came off as a recalcitrant priss tended to be older, conservative folks who were far outside of her target audience, and the kind of authority figures her fanbase (the same ones Pepsi was going after) despised. In defying her corporate suitor, Madonna showed that her art was more important than their money. Pepsi got the song for a day, but MTV (always a Madonna stronghold), got the rest of the run and benefited from the controversy as viewers tuned in to see what the fuss was about.

    Pepsi had two more commercials planned and was going to sponsor her Blonde Ambition tour, but they dropped all association with Madonna, who got to keep the $5 million.
  • Madonna wrote this with Patrick Leonard, who she teamed with for many of her hits in the late '80s. Madonna explained to Rolling Stone why her relationship with Leonard has proved to be so successful: "We're both from the Midwest, and deep down at our core, we're both geeks. He's melancholic, and he is a classically trained musician with an incredible sense of melody. We just hit it off from the start. We always come up with something interesting. We usually don't write frivolous songs, although we've done that, too. There's something magical about our writing."
  • The Andrae Crouch gospel choir sang on this, but they refused to appear in the video. Crouch was a pastor and musician who wrote many Sunday morning standards, such as "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power," and helped bring a gospel vibe to several pop hits. A year before his choir appeared in Madonna's hit, the group showed up on Michael Jackson's "Man In The Mirror," which Crouch also arranged.

    When Crouch examined the lyrics to "Like A Prayer," he approved of the religious imagery, with Madonna on her knees sending a prayer to the Lord above. Add in a church organ and Crouch's holy choir, and you've got yourself a gospel song approved by a famous pastor. Crouch realized his error when he saw plans for the sexually charged video and pulled his choir from the clip. A choir does appear, but they are miming the Crouch choir's vocals.
  • Worldwide, this is Madonna's most popular song. In the US, it debuted at #38 the week of March 18, 1989 and jumped to #1 five weeks later, making it the fastest trip to the top since Michael Jackson's "Bad" in 1987.

    The song also became a chart-topper in several other countries.
  • This won the Viewer's Choice Award at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards.
  • The video was shot in California and directed by Mary Lambert, who had worked on videos for "Borderline," "Like A Virgin" and "Material Girl." The commercial was shot in Arizona and directed by Joe Pytka, who had previously worked with Pepsi on a Michael Jackson commercial.
  • Madonna had recently divorced actor Sean Penn when this was released. The cover of the single was drawn by her brother, Christopher, and contained the letters "MLVC", with a "P" falling away. They represented Madonna's initials, "Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone," with the "Penn" falling away.
  • The album was released in March 1989. It was eagerly anticipated by Madonna's fans, since her last album, the remix collection U Can Dance, came out in November 1987.
  • Madonna's original idea for the video was to have her and the black saint-figure shot in the back.
  • In 1990, this was remixed by Shep Pettibone and included on Madonna's first greatest hits compilation, The Immaculate Collection. At the time, dance remixes were usually just extended versions of a song, but Pettibone put in a completely revamped backing track, something that became popular in years to come, especially among hip-hop artists.
  • The actor in the video who played the black saint is Leon Robinson, who played Derice Bannock, the main character in the movie Cool Runnings. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Brandon - Peoria, IL
  • This appears on the soundtrack of the 1999 Drew Barrymore movie Never Been Kissed.
  • Madonna and Pat Leonard originally envisioned this song with a Latin flair, complete with bongos and Latin percussion, but quickly scrapped the idea in favor of religious elements like a church organ and choir.
  • In an interview with Billboard magazine, Leonard remembers the first, somewhat off-the-cuff rehearsal with Andrae Crouch: "He gets the choir together and they sort of wing it. He knows what he's going to tell them... but I know he's making it up as he goes along. He's listened to it in his car and he's thought about what he's going to do. It's very inspired."
  • Madonna had the vision for this song's controversial video long before Pepsi released its cutesy dancing-in-the-streets version. She told Interview magazine: "Originally, when I recorded the song, I would play it over and over again, trying to get a visual sense of what sort of story or fantasy it evoked in me. I kept imagining this story about a girl who was madly in love with a black man, set in the South, with this forbidden interracial love affair. And the guy she's in love with sings in a choir. So she's obsessed with him and goes to church all the time. And then it turned into a bigger story, which was about racism and bigotry... Then Mary Lambert got involved as the director, and she came up with a story that incorporated more of the religious symbolism I originally wrote into the song."
  • Madonna credits ex-husband Sean Penn for helping her address personal issues and bring more of herself to her music: "He was extremely influential in encouraging me to reveal that side of myself," she told Interview magazine in 1989.
  • By 2016, any lingering hostility between Madonna and Pepsi was forgotten as her song "Express Yourself" featured in a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl. In the spot, Janelle Monáe dances through different scenes representing music through the generations and how Pepsi was a part of it.

Comments: 27

  • Luke Lee from London, UkI first saw this back in '89 as a God-fearing teen. The video shocked me then.
  • Mary from WisconsinI never really paid much attention to the lyrics until I heard the song while I was driving down the highway with nothing else on my mind. It was then it struck me that Madonna was indeed referring to sex. The video, which I haven’t seen in years, simply provides another interpretation. Madonna WANTS us to discuss her original intent. She succeeds.
  • Jamie from Brisbane Looking back on all the controversy that surrounded the song upon its initial release, it all seems so petty; the song has dual connotations of its meanings of course being the religious and sexual. If you think about it I think the artistry here is quite clever and how both evoke relatable desires of the entire human experience. Also I think Madinna did something quite spectacular with the music video, it covered many social 'criticisms' like the racial profiling of the innocent black man and how he was also the saint (- if your looking at it in terms of historical accuracy, Christianity had come from the Mediterranean.) Also in the 80s an interracial couple may have been taboo and the fact that Madonna had brought this to the international conversation was brilliant. It's her artistry and this song will have a continued legacy.
  • Leo from Westminster 1, MdLet's get our Facts straight here! While God and Sex have their roles and turns in Like a Prayer, this quintessential Madonna song is both the love and sad death of her mother and a benediction to an for her audience. Madonna Cries Like a Prayer to all of us who have loved her through the years. She thanks us and we thank her for her art! She is a Blessed Presence in the history of recorded music. I Cry When I Hear Like a Prayer because Her Voice gladdens my heart. Love you Madge!
  • Rachiel from Austin, TxWhy does everyone think if its about sex it's "dirty"? You guys need to get over yourself. Sex is one of the most beautiful things on this planet and during sex is the closest to God I've ever felt. I can totally relate to the lyrics of this song as a song about a lover.
  • Theresa from Murfreesboro, TnI am huge fan of this song and the album. Madonna really wrote a great song here.
  • Liv from New York, NyI saw a documentary about the uproar this song and video caused, and the director of the video, Mary Lambert, stated that the first time she heard the song she told Madonna that It "compared religious and spiritual ecstasy to sexual ecstasy" and that Madonna agreed with her. And I do think that's very true, when I listen to the song now I see it from a different point of view, and that makes so much sense. I don't think that the video has much to do with the song itself, though It tells a wonderful story, It doesn't really cater to telling the story of the lyrics too much. Nonetheless, this song is, in my opinion, the greatest pop song of all time - It is timeless. And Madonna is, of course, the greatest pop star/artist of all time. Regardless of wether or not you are a Madonna fan, this song tends to strike a chord with everyone who hears it. And as I read in a previous comment, It really does prove Madonna's genius... over twenty years since this songs release It still has people debating.
  • Linc from Beaumont, TxThis song is about religious liberation. Madonna was raised very strict catholic and had early aspirations to become a nun. Seriously...the theme is that everyone is subject and can succomb to temptation...even a saint. We can break our confines and still be who we are.
    And I am so sorry, whoever decided Jesus is a whiteman needs to go home and read their Bible!!! Jesus was a Jew it states it oh so clearly in the Bible! Like every other verse of Matthew, Mark and Luke - and most of the Acts! And believe it or not, not all Jew practice Judaica and are infact Christians! All early Christian were Jews because they were followers of Christ - hence the name "Christians" So if you have any doubts about the anglo-saxon depicted Jesus of church portraits remember a "man" painted those.
  • N.i. from Baltimore, MdMoses: I don't know where you get the idea that white and Jewish are mutually exclusive categories. Then again, you'd know better than I, considering your own ancient Middle Eastern origins.
  • Moses from San Antonio, TxTo the idiot who said Jesus was white:
    Jesus was a JEW for Christ's sake. Not white, Jewish.
  • Tara from Somewhere, TxI think this song is about how love and maybe sex can be sacred, like a religion of love.
    As to the person who is upset because she thinks Jesus was portrayed as black, not white-1) that is a saint, not Jesus. 2) (and this is sarcasm)Obviously Jesus is white. Even though he was born over 2000 years ago in the MIDDLE EAST. Everyone knows that's where all white people come from.
  • Daniel from Rio De Janeiro, BrazilJesus WASP? I though Jesus was a hippie! Nonetheless, it's as stated below, it's a black SAINT, not JESUS! The Catholic Church has many black saints. the sacrilege parts is where she kisses him. The whole 'rape' part of the video is really cool and the bow at the end is also great
  • Chris from Geelong, AustraliaInteresting to read the debate. There's no doubt that it's about oral sex. It seems to me that Madonna switches between deep religious feelings (which I believe a genuine) and sexual ecstacy. All that aside, I cannot understand why people are offended by it. It is a GREAT SONG, and it's beauty, in my opinion sweeps aside any criticisms (I'm not a Madonna fan, by the way)
  • N.i. from Baltimore, MdWhy is depicting Jesus as an African American (which is not what the video was doing, but let that pass) any worse than depicting him as a WASP (as he is usually depicted on screen)?
  • Tegan from Newcastle, AustraliaSounds like all the people thinking this song relates to a sex act have really dirty minds!

    Honestly - she refers to being on her knees... what do you do on your knees? Hmm... oh yeah that's right... you PRAY!

    Think of it as a sex song if you will, but you should accept that that it's your mind that is dirty, not the song.
  • Robert from Snellville, GaIt appears to me that Madonna is comparing oral sex (I'll take you there) to heaven. She is toying with her allegory that praying to God and finding Heaven is like giving oral sex and finding "heaven."

    When I listen to this song, I can't help but think that this is what she is saying. It is sacreligious and disgusting to make this kind of a comparison.

    I hope I am completely wrong... I hope that she isn't so sleazy that she would use this kind of allegory. I can totally understand how Christians and other religious people are very offended.
  • Len from Raleigh, NcThis song was great.I can see why Pepsi and the religious groups where against the video.She depicted Christ as an African american and that was simply wrong to do that.To add or take away anything from God is not our right.I lost alot of respect for her after seeing this video.Clearly she had some great songs and great producing on her songs also.Her producer is just as much a part of her success as she was or is.
  • Danielle from Mckeesport, Pathis was my favorite song since i was 6 yrs old.i agree it is complex for a pop song
  • Ekristheh from Halath, United StatesWho was the beautiful woman playing the lead gospel singer who guides Madonna in her vision in the church?
  • Cooper from Somewhere, Althis song is NOT about oral sex. "i'm down on my knees.." reffers to kneeling as Catholics do in church. "In the midnight hour, I can feel your power.." People usually pray at night and she is reffering to the power of God. Can't a girl praise God in her own way?!
  • N.i. from Baltimore, MdThe song's structure is unusually complex and layered for a pop song.
  • Amanda from Little Rock, ArBehold the greatness of Madonna. 20 years after the song has been released, she's still got em guessin'.
  • Victoria from Gaithersburg, MdI am pretty sure that the song IS about giving oral sex. didn't madonna state that herself?
  • Jessica from Holt, MiThe video gave me the idea that this song was about some sort of sacriligious or forbidden type of relationship, such as an interracial relationship. But after reading steph's comment, I listened to it again and it being about performing oral sex really does make sense, especially with lines like, "I'm down on my knees, I want to take you there", "in the midnight hour, I can feel your power", and "I hear you call my name and it feels like home." Then I thought, well, maybe it is about giving interracial hummers :). Also, Madonna does have a song on her Erotica album that is about receiving oral sex, so it wouldn't be too surprising that she would have a song about giving it.
  • Hope from Big Bear, Ca0
  • Aj from Cleveland, GaThe black saint is kinda creepy because he is wax and then he comes to life and is crying. By the way, what are hummers? Are they what I think they are? Hence they lyrics: "I'm down on my knees I wanna take you there"
  • Kristy from Saco, Mewhat in gods name would ever give you that idea steph!??!!!??? rofl.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Gavin Rossdale of BushSongwriter Interviews

On the "schizoid element" of his lyrics, and a famous line from "Everything Zen."

Amy Lee of EvanescenceSongwriter Interviews

The Evanescence frontwoman on the songs that have shifted meaning and her foray into kids' music.

Phil Hurtt ("I'll Be Around")Songwriter Interviews

Phil was a songwriter, producer and voice behind many Philadelphia soul classics. When disco hit, he got an interesting project: The Village People.

Tony Banks of GenesisSongwriter Interviews

Genesis' key-man re-examines his solo career and the early days of music video.

Matt SorumSongwriter Interviews

When he joined Guns N' Roses in 1990, Matt helped them craft an orchestral sound; his mezzo fortes and pianissimos are all over "November Rain."

Goodbye, Hello: Ten Farewell Tour Fake-OutsSong Writing

The 10 biggest "retirement tours" that didn't take.