Madonna has always been a visual performance-artist rather than a classic singer songwriter in the way of Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde. While her songs and albums have enjoyed commercial and critical success, it is arguably in her visual medium, and her music videos in particular, where her artistic statements on sexuality, race and gender politics find their most potent and provocative expression.
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Like a Prayer (1989)
When Madonna originally envisioned the video for “Like a Prayer,” she wanted to tell the story of an interracial love affair in the South between a black boy and a white girl who run away together and then are shot by the Ku Klux Klan. Mary Lambert, the video’s director, felt instead that the song was about sexual and religious ecstasy. Madonna visualized this ecstasy as making love on an altar, an image which finds its way into the video’s climax.
The video begins with Madonna fleeing the scene of a young woman’s murder. She enters a church and sees the statue of a black saint which appears to be weeping. She reclines on a pew, falls into a dream, and through a series of flashbacks, recounts herself witnessing a white woman being murdered by white men for which an innocent black man (who resembles the saint in the church) is arrested. In the video, Madonna kisses the feet of the black saint, experiences stigmata, dances before burning crosses and makes love with the black man/saint on the altar.
From the beginning of her career, Madonna had provoked controversy by toying with religious iconography and sexuality. The “Like a Prayer” video added race to create an unholy trinity. Religious groups across America decried the video as blasphemous. The Pope banned Madonna from appearing in Italy and urged a national boycott of Pepsi which had featured Madonna and the song in a new commercial. Religious and family groups in America urged similar boycotts. Pepsi quickly pulled the commercial from TV airwaves. The video nevertheless topped critics list, winning recognition from Rolling Stone and Billboard as one of the top videos of the 1980’s and of all time, and winning MTV’s 1989’s “Viewer Choice” Award.
The “Like a Prayer” video presents a number of themes for analysis. Although the black saint in the video may be a replica of Martin de Porres (the patron saint of interracial harmony), the narrative of the video – where a black man tries to save a white woman and takes the fall for the men that murdered her – implies that this saint may be in fact be a (black) Jesus, something likely given the resemblance between the black man and the statue in the church, both played by Leon Robinson.
The love-making on the altar can also be interpreted symbolically. On the one hand, the image – along with the scenes of the burning crosses, the bleeding eye of the statue – can be seen tragically as the martyrdom of black men by White America for kissing, gazing or even wanting white women. On the other hand, Grant interprets the love-making as the most poignant scene of the video, driving home the message of racial equality.
Why the video provoked such a religious outcry is also a question. Robinson describes the video as “great for anyone religious – it shows Madonna witnessing an attack and then going to a church for guidance” – in this case, to confront the police as an eye witness to the crime the black man was wrongly accused of and have him set free. The Black Jesus alone was perhaps going too far from some. In this sense, Madonna’s dancing in front of the burning crosses not only symbolizes racial hatred in America and how it is institutionalized through iconography, but how it can be smashed as well.
Written by Randeep Purewall
Santiago Fouz-Hernandez and Freya Jarman-Ivans. Madonna’s Drowned Worlds.