Like a Prayer


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Like a Prayer

  1. 1. Detailed Music Video Analysis Madonna – Like a Prayer Artist Madonna Track Like a Prayer Album Like a Prayer Genre Pop rock, gospel Released March 21st 1998 (Sire, Warner Bros.) Video Length 5:38GenreAccording to Barry Keith Grant, genre allows audiences to recognise media texts bytheir specific and recognisable characteristics. The highly controversial video for Likea Prayer challenges this to some extent - both the audio and visuals bring togetherelements that one would not normally associate with the pop genre. Up until thatpoint, Madonna had released predominantly dance-orientated or simple light-heartedpop tracks, however this song, by contrast, is a guitar-based pop-rock song thatuniquely incorporates elements of gospel and funk music including the infamousgospel choir. This wholly links with Buckingham’s idea of genre naturally evolvingover time rather than being a permanent static entity.Despite this, with reference to Goodwin, Madonna’s “star image” and motifs havealways been routed in the idea of being unconventional and innovative in order tostand out and maintain popularity and success; she is well-known for “reinventing”both her sound and image. Hence, Madonna plays around with Jason Mittell’s idea ofindustries using genre to sell products to audiences. By cohering different genrestogether the appeal of the song may have reached far beyond that of Madonna’stypical mainstream audience, utilised as a means of increasing popularity and profits(it is worth noting that the song and its video is considered to have helped Madonnareach “megastar” status).These ideas are mirrored on screen, the use of a gospel choir in a church, forexample, helping audiences to create a link between the audio and visuals by meansof amplification (ref. Goodwin). The use of the church, as well as the generally darkand moody connotations (burning crosses, nightfall, etc.) in the mise-en-scene are“out-of-pop” conventions, pop videos usually use light-hearted imagery to reflect the“fun” nature of the song. However this song is quite deep and largely dark in its lyricswith a multitude of possible meanings and as such, uses unexpected locations, andsimultaneously represents religious, racial and sexual themes, all of which would notbe expected of this proportion in the late 1980s.There are some recognisable “pop” characteristics such as the blend of narrative andperformance clips, but again the narrative at the time was unconventionally film-like(most videos were still performances-based) and controversial because of theaforementioned representation and themes. Liam Hedley
  2. 2. Arguably, the most recognisable characteristic is Madonna dancing, albeit notchoreographed, towards the end of the song in the “ritual celebration” when themusic becomes more uplifting. With reference to the Uses and Gratifications Theory,this provides gratification in the form of entertainment for audiences who associateMadonna with being able to produce uplifting, fun music that makes people want todance. This would be in addition to the video providing an insight into society due tothe way it represents contemporary issues/stereotypes.Media LanguageMedia Language is used extensively in the video in order to support the narrative,representations and general enjoyment of watching the video.As is crucially important for a pop artist who is ever so reliant upon their image, thereis an abundance of close-up shots of Madonna throughout the sequence, allowingaudiences to familiarise themselves with Madonna’s latest incarnation of her “starimage”. They give the video a sense of brand identity and illustrate the emotion in thehymn-like lyrics, but emphasise the intimate experience that the singer has withreligion. This supports Andrew Goodwin’s ideas that record companies demand lotsof close-ups of the main singer or vocalist.According to Vernallis music videos make good use of juxtaposition, one suchexample being the dark tones in the outside scenes of this video, compared with theorange “glow” than can be seen inside the church, exuding a spiritual sense of moodto match the religious themes. The initial shot of the church doors, a slow zoom infrom a long shot matching the pace of the music, showing the light glowing throughthe windows, has become iconic and symbolises how people can always find comfortin religion.Slow motion is used in the beginning of the video in order to make events of thehomicide and subsequent refuge in the church more dramatic, placing an emphasison the fact that this is a narrative video. This matches the pace of the music and sosupports Vernallis’ idea that the camera moves in time with the music (although thisis officially an editing technique).At the beginning of the video the pace of editing is quite slow to match the pace ofthe music, as it increases the number of cuts naturally does as well. Howeverthroughout the video, despite the number of quick shots, camera movement iscopious – lots of tilts, pans and zooms especially. This ensures that the camera isnot static and shots do not become boring, but also links in with the mid-tempo of thesong. This again supports Vernallis’ idea that camera moves in time with the music.Goodwin suggested that performers and objects also move in time to the music,which is the case here. Madonna dances to the beat of the song, and the choir movefrom side to side in a similar fashion. This is only prominent towards the end of thesong when a conventional “ritual celebration” becomes apparent.There are few examples of Goodwin’s “thought beats” in the video, again helping tomake the opening shots more dramatic. The most prominent examples are when thechurch door is slammed and the succession of several cuts the first time the drumbeat of the chorus kicks in. Liam Hedley
  3. 3. RepresentationRepresentation is a pivotal factor in this music video, tackling race, religion, andsexuality. This ties in with the ambiguous lyrics that can be interpreted in a variety ofdifferent ways; usually either sexually, religiously, or both – the video explores therelationship between the two, but also throws issues of race into the mix to not onlymake the narrative more interesting, but help to trigger a resulting sense of religiousecstasy and resolution.Most commonly, the lyrics are in some form perceived to refer to a woman whobecomes sexually infatuated with god (hence the use of a church and gospel choir).Madonna performs stigma in the church/chapel and kisses a black statue of a saintwho at one point comes to life, representing these sexual themes and innuendos inthe lyrics (I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there”). It is worth mentioningthat Madonna “illustrates” (ref. Goodwin) the lyrics at this point by kneeling at the footof the statue. These act form the catalyst for Madonna undergoing a religiousexperience and sense of ecstasy within a dream sequence, where a woman (whoresembles the lead singer of the yet to be seen gospel choir) tells her to do what isright in relation to the homicide witnessed earlier in the video.The performer witnesses the homicide committed at the beginning of the video. Aman murders an innocent woman, before fleeing as he realises Madonna is watchingher. A black man passing by notices the incident and tries to help the young woman,but the police arrive and arrest him. This places the black man in stereotypicalsubordinate position, alluding that he is presumed to have done wrong because ofhis race, highlighting the at the time prominent issue of racism.Madonna flees and seeks comfort in the notorious chapel, and the statue shebecomes infatuated with reminds her of the black man falsely arrested andimprisoned. The fact that the statue is seen behind bars is a nod to this, and openingthe cage to “free” him precedes her “religious experience” where she will do this in“real life”. This presents religion in a highly positive light, drawing on the sense ofbelonging it gives to people, especially when the man has been released from jail,and the “ritual celebration” and dancing with the gospel choir begins.Throughout the video Madonna can be seen performing in a darkened field in front ofnumerous burning crosses (which acts as a prop and has become symboliciconography). This juxtaposes the positive light that religion is portrayed in for therest of the video, and caused much controversy. However, it links in with the issue ofrace in that it is a reference to the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan burnt crosses toshow “the light of god” and as such, offended black people because it suggested thatreligion was only open to white people, when in reality many black people are highlyreligious. Again this purely reinforces the issue of racism.Mention of Stuart Hall is relevant here, suggesting that the media is an insight intosociety, but through careful mediation. While this is conformed to in the meaningbehind the Like a Prayer video, it is important to remember that it is work of fictionand the themes and stereotypes have been exacerbated to dramatic effect, makingthe video more interesting and in turn, entertaining to watch.Hall also suggested that representation could only be meaningful if there is a sharedrecognition of ideas, people, situations and such like. This is also relevant here. Atthe time Madonna’s music was only popular in the Western world and so most wouldunderstand the themes in the video. Likewise, due to the artist’s immense popularity, Liam Hedley
  4. 4. most people would probably be aware of Madonna’s catholic upbringing andtherefore understand the semi-autobiographically component of the lyrics.Madonna’s “star image” (ref. Goodwin) is also worth mentioning at the level ofrepresentation. In the video, Madonna’s “look” is not typical of the way she wasusually seen in the public eye at the time; she has brown hair instead of hertrademark blonde and she wears a stock brown dress rather than provocative and/orflamboyant outfit. With reference to Genre, and the way that Madonna has alwaysplayed around with conventions, the singer’s “star image” has clearly adapted in thisvideo to fit the change in musical style, the various themes and the arguably “deep”lyrics. This notion has long since continued in Madonna’s career and in 2007 DavidGauntlett suggested that “artists play around with their identify in modern society”.This is exactly what Madonna has always done and when this video was releasedback in 1989, she will have shocked her usual audience and thus kept theminterested and prevented them from becoming bored.NarrativeAlthough most pop videos nowadays contain elements of narrative, they are typicallymore performance-based. This was especially the case in the 1980s when narrativevideos were only beginning to emerge as an art form. The majority of clips in thisvideo show Madonna lip-syncing within the context of a narrative but of course thereis the already mentioned, infamous burning crosses. According to Sven Carlsson,this would be a “performance” clip, relying on predominately on narrative possiblydue to the deep lyrical themes that could possibly not rely on performance alone.The narrative in principle, as explained in Representation, centres on finding safetyand confiding in religion, which is “amplified” (ref. Andrew Goodwin) in the video byMadonna having a religious experience in a church/chapel. A lot of the videoamplifies rather than illustrates the lyrics, emphasising their religious nature,examples including using “slow motion” and “thought beats” in the form of cuts tomatch the pace of the song. There are some points of lyrics “illustration”, the choirsinging, Madonna falling (“oh god I think I’m falling”) and seeking comfort in thechurch (“and it feels like home”). Nevertheless, the illustration vs. amplificationargument is hazy in parts.It is only towards the end of the video when performance shots interweave thenarrative ones - the burning crosses and the choir performing. It is interesting to notethat while the shots of the choir are actually performance-based, it is cleverly editedto look as if part of the narrative - after stigmais performed; a combination of a pan tothe left and then a tilt reveals the choir singing along as if they are they to rejoice withher. This supports Pam Cook’s idea of a fictional world with verisimilitude governedby spatial and temporal coherences. The choir are coincidently in the church at thatspecific moment, and whilst this could actually happen in reality, it is highlyunrealistic. By contrast, the rest of the video is little more realistic, aided by therelatively linear structure.With reference to the both Tim O’Sullivan and Todorov, the video roughly followstheir identified narrative structures, the only exception being Todorov’s first stage –the video seems to be begin mid-res as Madonna runs though a field that wouldn’tlook out of place in a post-apocalyptic film to the sound of police sirens. This post-apocalyptic connotation is exuded by the low camera angle, the fact that it is nightfall,and the burning barrel in the background, etc. Liam Hedley
  5. 5. Todorov Stage 1 Stable equilibrium (NOT APPLICABLE) Stage 2 Stability disrupted, disequilibrium (post-apocalyptic field, homicide) Stage 3 Recognition that disruption has taken place (seeks comfort in church, religious “dream” telling performer to free innocent man from jail) Stage 4 Action against disruption (frees innocent man from jail) Stage 5 Restoration of new state of equilibrium (dancing and “ritual celebration” with gospel choir)O’Sullivan Establishment of plot or theme(post-apocalyptic field, homicide, man falsely imprisoned to race, seeks comfort in church) Development of problem/enigma, increase in tension(statue reminds performer of arrested man and homicide, religious “dream” telling Madonna to do the right thing) Resolution of plot(frees man from jail and “ritual celebration” with gospel choir)By following these structures, the clip could be considered a fully-fledged “narrativeclip” in which it could function as a short film with no sound. The end of the videoshows a red theatre-like curtain closing in on the “stage”, suggesting that the videowas intended to be treat like a short film.There are instances when the clip chronologically backtracks just before the bridge,showing new shots of the homicide, but this functions as a recap of the themes andof what has happened before the plot is resolved. Hence, Goodwin’s ideas ofnarratives and performances being repetitive are supported. This does make the clipslightly fragmented, with reference to Vernallis, but her idea that there may be gapsin the understanding of time and space within the diegesis is void in my opinion.There is a clear narrative with no unanswered questions. Liam Hedley