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Madonna – Like a Prayer (1989) & Ray of Light (1998)

October 11, 2013

Madonna_-_Like_a_Prayer[Albums 246 & 247/1001]

Madonna should not still be relevant.

– Talent-wise, she’s an adequate dancer and in terms of technical proficiency, she’s certainly not a very good singer.

– Shock value was a big part of her early publicity.  By definition, shock value is unsustainable, it’s supposed to wear off as people become desensitized.

– She’s a pop star.  Pop stars tend to come and go.  Pop radio hits are often quickly forgotten or dismissed as “That’s so (undesirable year)” by a fickle public.

Yet three decades have passed since her self-titled debut and her current net worth is in the neighbourhood of one billion dollars!

To paraphrase the mid-90s Milk campaign, Hey Madonna, what’s your secret?

My theory: Madonna realized it’s called the music business.  She wisely focused some energy on the second word.

The music still matters (and I’ll get to that) but as an entrepreneur, she understood what it took to stay in the game.  It’s really just following basic business advice:

Madonna understands her limitations
Her vocals aren’t the greatest and so it’s not about hearing her sing, it’s about the show.  She can dance but smartly dances with a group on stage.  She can write songs but also employs top notch co-writers, musicians & producers.220px-Ray_Of_Light

Madonna reinvents herself
Perhaps taking notes from the ultimate chameleon David Bowie, there are distinct phases of her career.  Fashion & music transformations receive equal emphasis.

Madonna is versatile
Her different pursuits have resulted in varying amounts of success but few others have a business card that reads Singer/Songwriter, Actress, Director, Dancer, Author, Philanthropist, Savvy Businesswoman.

Madonna gives ’em something to talk about
Any publicity seems to be good publicity in her case.  I think she genuinely believes the Oscar Wilde quote, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

It doesn’t hurt that her records (particularly Like a Prayer) feature some catchy tunes.

Like a Prayer begins with the title track, perhaps Madonna’s finest song to date.  I’d imagine those who have sat through one too many karaoke butcherings may have heard enough but I’m still a fan.  Express Yourself keeps the momentum going on the second track before the oddly underwhelming Prince duet, Love Song.  It’s not a bad song by any stretch but the sum of the parts was greater than the whole.  For a dynamite 1989 track with a nearly identical name, check out The Cure’s Lovesong.

I hesitate to assign the label of ‘guilty pleasure’ as one shouldn’t feel bad about listening to a solid pop record.  So I shall feel no remorse, this is a good one.

If the 1001 list has a bias, it may be the inclusion of several ‘comeback’ records.  Or considering LL Cool J’s adamant plea to not use that term, perhaps ‘statement of continued relevance’ records.  Though she was far from out of the spotlight in the 90s, Ray of Light is often regarded as Madonna’s musical return to form.

Ray of Light isn’t nearly as instantly accessible as Like a Prayer.  Just as immediately likeable shouldn’t be dismissed as lightweight, less accessible doesn’t necessarily mean more depth.  Her 1998 effort is more atmospheric, more electronic, more mysterious.  There are some strong moments early on, the middle sags somewhat before picking up steam again towards the end.  Which I suppose not only summarizes Ray of Light but Madonna’s overall career trajectory in the 90s.

Lifelong devotees? She’s got plenty.  Critics?  No shortage there either.

Say what you will about the “Queen of Pop” – as long as her name stays in the conversation, she’ll probably be glad you have an opinion!


From → 1980s, 1990s

  1. Never seen that Dougie ad before! Nice.

    Interesting about the 1001 list having so many comeback records. The thing about comeback records is, often you’re really really excited when they come out, but 10 years later the shine is off the apple.

    • For that reason, even though it would be temporarily exciting if they did, there are many groups I hope never reunite – legacy matters!

  2. Great post. I remember buying Like a Prayer and Prince’s Batman records on the day of release back in 1989. They had both received 5 stars in NME and were massive records at time. I think Like a Prayer has weathered better. Not least because 24 years later – on my copy at least – you can still smell the patchouli oil inside the record sleeve.

  3. Agreed that Lovesong is superior to Love Song. Instead of “Take A Bow,” I think Madonna should bow out gracefully. That’s great that she’s still in shape and doesn’t drink and loves to share her opinion du jour and will forever have her gays who remember Vogueing at the clubs in 1990, but she is tired tired tired. Put those nobby knees together, take up your crucifix from black Jesus in your video, and go crochet, girl. Forget “Justify My Love” and justify those naked pictures with you and Vanilla Ice. Ick.

    • Naked pictures with her and Vanilla Ice? Eww. I don’t remember that at all, was that “now” or “then”?

      I see Ice has a new reality show coming where he goes and stays in an Amish community. It’s called Ice Ice Amish or something.

      • I vaguely recall living with two male roomies who stood in line to get her metal spiral Sex book, and it had pics of him and Naomi Campbell I think?? And Madonna was naked hitchhiking or writing odes to her special areas. I saw one of Ice’s landscaping show once, but are you serious about the Amish? He’s all tatted up. He doesn’t even have a proper 1825 beard to wear.

      • oh. my. gosh. and can i just say that jimmy stewart looks great in that picture for being in his early 100s? if I had the DIY channel, i’d have to check this out. no shame in honest work. it just seems like an odd choice.

      • Definitely an odd choice. I guess today’s tastes favour fish out of water type scenarios? Who knows.

    • The movie Broken Arrow had the great line, “I don’t know what’s scarier, losing nuclear weapons, or that it happens so often there’s actually a term for it.”
      I don’t know what’s scarier, Vanilla Ice has his own reality show or that this is far from his first reality show!
      But you’re right – 23 years after the widely ridiculed Ice Ice Baby, he’s still somehow in the entertainment business. Different medium, but he’s got an audience.

      • I will never, ever, ever appreciate anyone whose main claim to fame is based on a sample of someone else. Whether I like the original sample or not doesn’t matter.

      • I was in elementary school when Ice Ice Baby came out – when I learned that he’d lifted the bass line from Bowie/Queen, part of the childhood magic was gone.

        Then I thought, well at least the other big song from that year (U can’t touch this) was original..until I heard Super freak!

      • I’ve never had much respect for Madonna. My high respect for Björn and Benny dropped a notch when they let her have “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” to sample. 😐

      • They show up twice on the list – Arrival & Visitors, I think I’ll be getting to those ones soon. Their arrangements were typically quite strong & I’ve always enjoyed their show Chess.

  4. I love Madonna soooo much! I just love her. THEN her last album came out (which sucked sooo bad) and I went to her concert tour for that CD MDNA and it was awful. She came out FOUR hours late… and the concert sucked. I was so pissed off. I did go to Sticky and Sweet concert which was a lot of fun. Who knows what made those two tours so different? Like a Prayer is one of my favorite albums of hers. Love Song with Prince is great… Dear Jessie.. Oh Father.. Keep It Together. Just fun!

    • 4 hours late – poor form! Glad to hear the first concert experience was positive though. Like A Prayer was my preferred of the two here, “Music” is also on the 1001 list.

  5. Great post, Like a Prayer is such an amazing song.

    • I heard her perform a stripped down version of the song on a Hurricane relief special – it still worked well in that format, 20+ years later. Good tune!

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