Review: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” (1989)

When that first voice hits—whether it’s a question, whether it’s a salutation …—when that first voice hits, pausing for a good seven seconds before the howls and the breathing wind, before the bass drum jangles and the synthesizers roll, before, even, Madonna—born Madonna Louise Ciccone—starts crooning like a newborn duckling, like the morning’s fresh dew …—it becomes clear to anyone within earshot: This is the only way to go about it. Sitting down or standing, with one’s head held high, within earshot, eyes closed and dreaming.

Here there is everything—or everything anybody could ever ask for at a moment like this—pop meets gospel, light meets dark, and of course, the mystery … the mystery that surrounds it all and keeps one wanting; wanting and at the same time strangely calm. Like this is going to be okay. Like even at the end, there might be some hope. Something like renewal.

The watch is ticking in my pocket and growing louder.

Struck by her Catholic guilt—her marriage to Sean Penn had ended earlier that year—and the death of her mother—Madonna was buoyed by her religious upbringing and a newfound emotional, some might say transformative, maturity—she delivers what might be understood as a life-changing invocation to God. Across nearly six minutes, she sings of being chosen, of having a calling, of living outside of the moment … and at the same time within it.

“I hear your voice, it’s like an angel sighing

I have no choice, I hear your voice …”

I have no choice; I simply have no choice.

And this is where the story starts to get sideways. And this is where it swerves and turns, where it folds over endlessly … where I lose my place as if stepping backstage for a cigarette, a cup of water—I’m so damn thirsty, I’m so damn tired …—everything looks the same except for my face, which looks blurry at the window.

The yard is filling with snow.

I close my eyes and tighten my grip … I’ve been holding it all the while. I close my eyes and still, and still … the headlights coming in and out again behind curtains, the rattle of the blinds, the passing of people, footsteps, rubber.

It isn’t hard to think about my life, about the life I’ve lived, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen and felt … how I met my wife. Berlin, on assignment.

It didn’t rain a day all week. Everyone I saw seemed to be smiling. And she was the happiest of them all.

A café in Berlin with paintings of elephants holding instruments. The kind of paintings that look crude and half-formed, the kind that look like they were done by the baker’s grandson. The kind that look as if they could come alive at any moment.

A day I’ll never forget. And I can still taste the bitter smack of the black coffee, the bienenstich she ordered, the bienenstich she urged me to taste, and the way the sweet dough crumbled and dissolved the minute it hit my tongue.

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About Chris Campanioni

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Chris Campanioni likes sweating, making mixtapes, and the Eighties, at least according to his Facebook profile. He has worked as a journalist, model, and actor, and he teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and Pace University, and interdisciplinary studies at John Jay. Through every medium, more he writes about media representation and the cult of celebrity, how we construct our selves and our identities, and the ways in which we communicate and correspond. There is no such thing as memoir; everything is memoir, so he keeps saying. Skin, sensation, and memory have produced two novels (GOING DOWN, TOURIST TRAP) and two poetry books (IN CONVERSATION, ONCE IN A LIFETIME), and Best Debut Novel (2014 International Latino Book Awards) and Academy of American Poets Prize (2013) distinctions. Find him in space at or in person, somewhere between Brooklyn Bridge Park and Barclays Center.
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