When it comes to 1980’s pop music icons, one of the last, but certainly not least, artists we discuss is none other than Madonna Louise Ciccone. Bursting on to the scene in the middle of the decade, her combination of singing, dancing and sexual provocation made her one of the biggest stars in the industry. In 1989, she took a step forward with an album that was not only commercially successful but critically acclaimed, with the release of “Like a Prayer”. This record, which features several uncredited collaborations with Prince, was rated as album #331 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
This record was a conscious attempt by Madonna to elevate from the simpler pop sounds of her first three records, and she fully succeeded. Addressing her own relationships with her mother, father, soon-to-be ex-husband Sean Penn, as well as her Catholic faith, I think this is a really strong album and I enjoyed it more than I thought I might. The title track, which was the first single released on the record, was a huge controversy at the time for the music video which blended religious and sexual imagery. Ultimately it was condemned by the Vatican, and she lost multiple endorsement deals as a result. That said, it is a beautifully powerful song and is one of several songs Prince plays guitar on without credit.
“Express Yourself” was the second song and second single released, but it remains my favorite Madonna song by far. A nice mix of uplifting lyrics and a driving upbeat melody, this song is a great song to run or workout to, which served me well as I completed my run this evening. More than twenty years later, many people claimed “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga borrowed a little too closely from “Express Yourself”. I don’t know if I see that, but I do know I absolutely love both songs, and there is a great mash-up to be found that combines the two.
Next comes “Love Song”, which is the most direct collaboration between Prince & Madonna, both in songwriting and vocal performance. Somehow this song was never even released as a single, but it is a magnificent hidden gem and definitely one of the best songs on the album, as well as a great capture of two of the biggest artists in the world working together. Just don’t ask Madonna to go back to Minneapolis again, even as a Detroit girl she supposedly hated it there at Paisley Park.
“Till Death Do Us Part” took on her struggles with marriage, and the happy dance melody defied the dark state of her personal life at the time. “Promise to Try” is a sincere and beautiful devotional to her mother, who she lost way too young from breast cancer when Madonna was only five years old. Her mom also shared her iconic first name, one of many new things I learned today. “Cherish” was the other big hit single from the record, and is just really well-crafted pop song with a great hook.
The rest of the album is less heralded, but I enjoyed it all. “Oh Father”, “Dear Jessie”, “Keep It Together” and “Act of Contrition” are all insightful songs that raised the bar for Madonna as an artist. Not surprisingly, Prince also does some great work here and his broad reach never fails to amaze me, and her producer and co-creator Patrick Leonard also deserves high praise for this strong performance. Her career continues on to this day, but I agree with Rolling Stone that this record represented her most consistently strong release of her long and remarkable career.