By now, you’ve likely heard the 1,000th No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 – Lady Gaga’s new single “Born This Way.” The dance anthem has come under a bit of fire for critics thanks to its striking similarity to another dance-pop icon’s hit, Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”
The Madonna-Gaga comparisons have been wildly obvious from the start – Italian-American, dyed blonde singers with decent if not fantastic voices, a flair for the visual and a desire to control every aspect of their iconography – but it’s the same damn chord progression on both tunes. If there is a bright side to the situation, though, it’s that listeners might be tempted to revisit “Express Yourself” and the landmark pop album it came from, Like a Prayer (1989) – which has never been remastered on compact disc.
You know what this means, of course – a Reissue Theory look at Madonna’s most ambitious album, and arguably her most satisfying. It’s all after the jump.
Before Like a Prayer was released in the spring of 1989, Madonna Louise Ciccone was again in danger of the certain kiss of death for pop stars: overexposure. Her last studio LP, 1986’s True Blue, was a good if not mind-blowing pop record; it was followed by a stopgap remix album, You Can Dance, a year later. She had attempted to transfer into the acting world, with the aid of her husband, Sean Penn. But Shanghai Surprise and Who’s That Girl? were massive bombs, and the Penn’s tumultuous relationship with the press – and each other – finally came to a head right before the album was finished, with the pair nullifying their marriage in January 1989.
The singer was also internally struggling with her family – her mother died when Madonna was only five, and relations with her family were sometimes difficult – and her religion (the Catholic-raised girl was the arguable epitome of sexual rebel in the 1980s – a role that became heavier to her as AIDS became more prevalent). She elected to put those feelings in her work for the first time ever, resulting in a much more personal kind of songwriting and production. (Collaborators Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray produced the bulk of the album, having produced its predecessor as well.)
Madonna wasn’t afraid to experiment with bigger beats and harder-edged dance on tracks like “Like a Prayer,” “Express Yourself” and “Keep It Together.” But the biggest leap for most fans was “Love Song,” a slow-burn trip of a song co-written, co-performed and produced by Prince. The Artist, at the time, had completed Lovesexy, the difficult alternative to the unreleased Black Album, and was beginning work on another LP of gopsel-inspired funk, Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic. (Work on that album was scuttled when Prince was recruited for the soundtrack to Batman in 1989; portions of Rave would end up on both that album and the subsequent Graffiti Bridge project in 1990.) Though many considered the collaboration to be less than the sum of its parts (including Madonna, who coyly intimated in interviews that His Royal Badness was far too interested in his music to notice her or her advances), Prince did contribute one of the best pieces of the Like a Prayer mythology: a blistering guitar solo on the title track, unheard on the album version but played backwards for the final track “Act of Contrition” (which Prince produced under the name “The Powers That Be”) and partially reused for some remixes on 12″ singles.
No Madonna album would be complete without iconic videos, and the Like a Prayer project had several. The first, a stunning, provocative clip for the title track, featured sensual activity in a church (with the black Saint Martin de Porres), stigmata and burning crosses. (In an equally striking but not as controversial shift, the singer went back to brunette.) The video pushed the boundaries of what the public considered decent; the Vatican strongly condemned her and Pepsi, which was to promote the album with a commercial starring Madonna and premiering the song, cancelled the endorsement. Nonetheless, the clip is seen as a classic today, continuously cited by MTV and VH-1 as one of the greatest of all time. But the “Like a Prayer” clip wasn’t the only classic video of the era: “Express Yourself,” which featured an empowered Madonna in a black pantsuit among a Metropolis-inspired backdrop, was an early hit for David Fincher, who would use the video’s success to jump to feature films like Alien3, Se7en, Fight Club and last year’s The Social Network. “Cherish,” the album’s bounciest ballad, was the first video directed by the late, great Herb Ritts, who’d been known as a top-notch still photographer (his portrait of Madonna for the True Blue album sleeve is one of his many iconic shots).
Madonna capped promotion of the album with her biggest tour yet, the Blonde Ambition Tour of 1990. Featuring iconic costumes (including the Jean-Paul Gaultier-designed cone bra) and increased sexual antics (which got one show in Rome cancelled and nearly got the singer arrested in Toronto), the tour was a high point in her career – and was later obsessively chronicled in the documentary Truth or Dare (1991).
Though Like a Prayer is arguably Madonna’s musical high point – and certainly one of the greatest albums of the 1980s – Warner’s series of Madonna remasters in 1999 stopped short of including that album. The singer has since moved on to a record deal with Live Nation, although she remains on good terms with her longtime label. Many have hoped for a box set or deluxe reissue campaign to happen under the influence of Rhino; should that ever happen, Like a Prayer will be able to be revisited as a masterpiece, as it deserves to be seen.
Here’s what a deluxe Like a Prayer might look like, featuring bonus remixes (released and unreleased) and outtakes.
Madonna, Like a Prayer (Sire/Rhino)
Disc 1: Original LP
- Like a Prayer
- Express Yourself
- Love Song
- Til Death Do Us Part
- Promise to Try
- Dear Jessie
- Oh Father
- Keep It Together
- Pray for Spanish Eyes
- Act of Contrition
Disc 2: Remixes and Rarities
- First is a Kiss
- Possessive Love
- Just a Dream
- Love Attack
- Like a Prayer (12″ Extended Mix)
- Express Yourself (Non-Stop Express Mix)
- Cherish (Extended Version)
- Keep It Together (12″ Remix)
- Like a Prayer (with Full Guitar Solo)
- Express Yourself (Local Mix)
- Cherish (Shocklee & Castellano Remix)
- Keep It Together (Instrumental)
Disc 2, Tracks 1 and 8 from Sire 12″ single 0-21326
Disc 2, Tracks 2-5, 10 and 12 previously unreleased
Disc 2, Track 6 from Sire 12″ single 0-21170, 1989
Disc 2, Tracks 7 and 11 from Sire 12″ single 0-21225, 1989
Disc 2, Track 9 from Sire 12″ single 0-21427, 1990