"Like a Prayer" is a song by American singer Madonna, from her fourth studio album of the same name. Sire Records released it as the album's lead single on March 3, 1989. Written and produced by Madonna and Patrick Leonard, the track denoted a more artistic and personal approach to songwriting for Madonna, who believed that she needed to cater more to her adult audience. The song is about a passionate young girl in love with God, who becomes the only male figure in her life.
"Like a Prayer" is a pop rock song and incorporates gospel music. It features background vocals from a choir and also a rock guitar. The lyrics contain liturgical words, but they have dual meanings of sexual innuendo and religion. "Like a Prayer" was acclaimed by critics, and was also a commercial success. It was Madonna's seventh number-one single on the United States' Billboard Hot 100, and topped the singles charts in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and other countries.
Madonna had not recorded any music throughout most of 1988. Following the critical and commercial failure of back-to-back big-budget films, Shanghai Surprise (1986) and Who's That Girl (1987), she acted in the Broadway production Speed-the-Plow. However, the unfavorable reviews once again caused her discomfort. Her marriage to actor Sean Penn ended, leading to the couple filing for divorce in January 1989. Madonna had also turned 30, the age at which her mother had died, and thus the singer experienced more emotional turmoil. She commented in the March 1989 issue of Rolling Stone that her Catholic upbringing struck a feeling of guilt in her all the time:
Once you're a Catholic, you're always a Catholic—in terms of your feelings of guilt and remorse and whether you've sinned or not. Sometimes I'm wracked with guilt when I needn't be, and that, to me, is left over from my Catholic upbringing. Because in Catholicism you are born a sinner and you are a sinner all of your life. No matter how you try to get away from it, the sin is within you all the time.
Madonna also understood that as she was growing up, so was her core audience. Feeling the need to attempt something different, she wanted the sound of her new album to dictate what could be popular in the music world. The singer had certain personal matters on her mind that she thought could be the musical direction of the album. For the title track, Madonna chose topics that until then had been personal meditations never to be shared with the general public. She perused of her personal journals and diaries, and began considering options. She recalled, "What was it I wanted to say? I wanted the album to speak to things on my mind. It was a complex time in my life."
This was the first song by a major artist to be used in a commercial before being released to stores or radio stations. With the cola wars heating up, Pepsi signed Madonna to a $5 million endorsement deal, which included a two-minute commercial that would debut this song. The spot, overseen by Pepsi's ad agency BBDO, was called "Make A Wish," and showed Madonna watching an 8-year-old version of herself and doing some jubilant street dancing.
The commercial was promoted in a 30-second spot that aired during the Grammy Awards on February 22, 1989 (yes, a commercial for a commercial). Then on March 2, it aired on prime time television worldwide, including in America where it was seen on The Cosby Show. The Pepsi people claimed that 250 million viewers saw the ad, and that they were clearly the choice of the younger generation, as their partnerships with Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and now Madonna, demonstrated. The commercial was clever and innocent, and the song was also a winner, clearly destined for #1 with such an auspicious debut.
The song was released the next day and instantly added to radio playlists around the world. It was also added on MTV, but instead of creating a video that was an extension of the commercial, Madonna hijacked it. Instead of an 8-year-old girl at a birthday party, we see Madonna witness a brutal crime and take refuge in a church. She shares an interracial kiss, gets stigmata on her hands, and dances in front of burning crosses. Predictably, religious groups were outraged, with the American Family Association and The Vatican condemning it. Pepsi, facing a boycott, dropped Madonna and never again aired the commercial.