Not Fade Away 1989: Like A Prayer, by Madonna

Not Fade Away 1989: Like A Prayer, by Madonna

"I'm sort of naturally a pain in the ass. I naturally like to do things that rub people the wrong way. No, that's wrong. Let me rephrase that. I just like being controversial, I guess. Even that doesn't sound right. But somehow it happens that way. It's more like "Hey, well, you know how they always say things are this way? Well, they're not! Or they don't have to be."Madonna talking to Glenn O'Brien, Interview, 1990

"It's hard to know what was more awe-inspiring about the conceit of this song and its accompanying video - the sheer ego needed to go there, or the fact that she now had the talent and soul and imagination to pull it off so magnificently."Garry Mulholland, This Is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco (Cassell, 2002)

And so we leave the eighties in much the same way as we started them. In a dazzle of glory. Now, almost 25 years later, it seems to me (feel free to scoff) that 1989 seems as charged and potent a year for pop as, say, 1965, 66, 79 or 81. A year saturated in sound.

Everyone and everything is playing their part in 1989. Italo House, Balearic beats, old-school indie, new school indie, London sound systems, Scottish widescreen miserabilists and the odd tune from proper pop goddesses.

Hip hop would not reach its commercial peak for a few years yet, but in Fight the Power it found its anthem, a charged, potent, sonically dense, angry record from a band who were both infuriating - in some of their politics- and thrilling - ditto - by turn.

Set against that you had De La Soul's sunny "Afrocentric optimism", while across the Atlantic Soul II Soul offered a soaring black British take on R&B ("a song and performance and production so perfect in every way," Garry Mulholland said of Keep On Movin', "that the Sun seemed to come out every time it played"; personally I prefer Back to Life - though both are great).

The Beloved offered blissed-out (possibly, oh let's be honest, probably, drug-induced) dreamy electropop, and in Manchester guitar bands were shrugging off the spell of the Smiths (though Morrissey's shy, sensitive bookishness was still offering a useful model for The Sundays) and finding that they could dance after all.

The Stone Roses - as this year's comeback proved - still get all the kudos, although they never seemed that much more than an attitude and a decent guitarist to me. By contrast the Mondays offered hooligan flair and prole-art energy in their swampy funk (though, arguably, it's 808 State's Pacific State that was the city's best gift to the world that year).

In America rock was finding fresh fuel in Black Francis's scream and the bass-playing of Kim Deal. The Pixies initiated the loud-quiet-loud pattern that would infuse every half decent rock band for at least the next decade (and all too many that weren't even a quarter decent).

But 1989, I've decided, belongs to the women. Dusty - the first great British pop vocalist - bows out with an undervalued Pet Shop Boys ballad. Kate Bush put James Joyce's erotic vision to music. But in the end they are both in the shadow of the material girl.

In a way it's almost too easy to choose Like a Prayer as the Madonna track. Written with Patrick Leonard, it is her most nakedly obvious attempt at pop classicism (gospel choirs and all). I'd be happy to argue that Papa Don't Preach was the most successful - and moving - lyric she ever wrote, and some of her most interesting music would emerge in the nineties after she'd stopped selling 20 million albums every go (not that 2 million copies is to be sniffed at either).

But then pop's pleasures often work best when they're obvious, when they're immediate, when they're in your face. And Like a Prayer is in your face.

Part of that is down to the tune itself, but you could also point to Mary Lambert's thrillingly offensive video. Against a backdrop of burning crosses, it not only argues that Jesus was black but that Madonna might be having sex with him. Always running in parallel, Madonna's fervent attraction to and feminist rejection of the orthodoxies of the Catholic Church was one of her most significant creative accelerants. Plus she enjoyed noising people up. And, ever the smart businesswoman, she knew there was money in it.

The sex button was an easy one to push in a country that was both politically and culturally conservative in that decade. It was to Madonna's credit that her sexuality never felt - to me at any rate - like something she was commodifying. Some of her critics felt that was exactly what she was doing, but as she sang on Human Nature "Express yourself, don't repress yourself". We can argue about whether that is the sensible, grown-up response.

Camille Paglia once argued that Madonna was the future of feminism for that very reason: "Madonna has a far profounder vision of sex than do the feminists. She sees both the animality and the artifice. Changing her costume style and hair colour virtually every month, Madonna embodies the eternal values of beauty and pleasure. Feminism says, 'No more masks.' Madonna says we are nothing but masks".

That might be honest but it also opened the way for the music business to objectify almost every woman in the industry over the years that followed. For that reason Madonna's image-making is not unproblematic.

But she also is a woman in charge of her life, of her career, of her image. She has never been a victim. That's why her example matters.

That and the fact that Like A Prayer shows just what is possible in a simple pop song. Sex, religion, controversy. And a choir. I love that choir.

Other Contenders

Back To Life, Soul II Soul, Featuring Caron Wheeler

Eye Know, De La Soul

Fight the Power, Public Enemy

Nothing Has Been Proved, Dusty Springfield

Keep On Movin', Soul II Soul, Featuring Caron Wheeler

Monkey's Gone to Heaven, The Pixies

French Kiss, L'il Louis

Ride On Time, Black Box

Pacific State - 808 State

W.F.L. (Vince Clarke Mix), Happy Mondays

The Sun Rising, The Beloved

Wicked Game, Chris Isaak

Can't Be Sure, The Sundays

I Kicked a Boy, The Sundays

The Third Time We Opened The Capsule, Kitchens Of Distinctions

The Sensual World - Kate Bush

The Downtown Lights, The Blue Nile

Round and Round, New Order

I Wanna Be Adored, The Stone Roses

Epic, Faith No More

Rhythm Nation, Janet Jackson

John Peel's Festive 50 winner: Can't Be Sure, The Sundays

NME Single of the Year: She Bangs the Drums, The Stone Roses

And the best-selling single of 1989: Ride On Time, Black Box




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