Why I chose to analyze the music video by Madonna „Like A Prayer“

The task of presenting and analyzing a music video first required to choose any music video of our choice. My personal aim was to simply choose a “good” music video. The question arises, what are the requirements of a “good” music video. After some research about popular music videos that appear in several top music video lists, I choose to approach this task from a different angle by having a look at what is known as a bad music video and compare it to a music video which is in my own opinion a good music video. Through my analysis and in this paper I would like to demonstrate why the music video “Like A Prayer” by Madonna is to my judgment a good music video. This signifies capturing images and scenes which tell a story which mesmerizes the audience. It makes you want to watch it to the end, provokes an emotional response, causes the audience to watch it again and ideally stays unforgettable. 


Introduction to the music video Like A Prayer by Madonna

Madonna’s music video “Like A Prayer” was directed by American film director Mary Lambert in 1989. With this video Madonna wanted to demonstrate a more provocative side and therefore tries to address the perpetual problem of racism. Nevertheless the video pin points aside from more than just racism several other themes which I would like to highlight in this music video analysis as well. My main focus will be upon certain scenes representing the themes which are being addressed in the images of the music video. Since the video was aired in over 40 countries at once on MTV it had a huge global effect on its audience. Before the entire music video was aired on MTV on march 3rd in 1989, the Pepsi commercial which featured and promote her music video “Like A Prayer” was highly anticipated and aired one day before the music video. It showed a 2min. long commercial with preview of the lyrics and music. It shows her innocent childhood in a flashback, afterwards Madonna is dancing in the streets with other dancers in a west side story like theme. The commercial includes a few brief religious choir scenes with a religious touch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6TRctPxcpI (date of access 17.10.2014)
 This advertisement was very well received by the audience. Therefore the lyrics and music will not be centered, since the real shock which raised public controversy was the music video “Like A Prayer” premiered on MTV. The video had an impressive impact. It changed the perspective onto the before well received short preview clip of the music video.
The aim of this analysis will be to demonstrate the themes shown in the music video which sparked the audiences interest, leading to extreme controversial discussions, Pepsi’s $5million contract cancelation with Madonna and a  rumor that the entire country of Italy had banned the video.1 Even the Vatican condemned it.

Analysis of the music video Like A Prayer by Madonna

Music video summary

Before beginning with the video analysis, first a short music video plot summary by Madonna herself:
“"A girl on the street witnesses an assault on a young woman. Afraid to get involved because she might get hurt, she is frozen in fear. A black man walking down the street also sees the incident and decides to help to woman. But just then, the police arrive and arrest him. As they take him away, she looks up and sees one of the gang members who assaulted the girl. He gives her a look that says she'll be dead if she tells. The girl runs, not knowing where to go, until she sees a church. She goes in and sees a saint in a cage who looks very much like the black man on the street, and says a prayer to help her make the right decision. He seems to be crying, but she is not sure. She lies down on a pew and falls into a dream in which she begins to tumble in space with no one to break her fall. Suddenly she is caught by [an African American woman] who represents earth and emotional strength and who tosses her back up and tells her to do the right thing. Still dreaming, she returns to the saint, and her religions and erotic feelings begin to stir. The saint becomes a man. She picks up a knife and cuts her hands. That's the guilt in Catholicism that if you do something that feels good you will be punished. As the choir sings, she reaches an orgasmic crescendo of sexual fulfillment intertwined with her love of God. She knows that nothing's going to happen to her if she does what she believes is right. She wakes up, goes to the jail, tells the police the man is innocent, and he is freed. Then everybody takes a bow as if to say we all play a part in this little scenario." (http://www.shmoop.com/like-a-prayer/meaning.html date of access 17.10.2014)


Theme analysis

The music video source and version, which will be addressed is in the following link:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDnUIXF2ly8 (date of access 17.10.2014)



Beschreibung: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-NF4xM0eNsMQ/UF3kew-QBxI/AAAAAAAAAU0/R6ZHbTAn5Y4/s200/1.bmp
This climax scene situated almost exactly in the middle of the music video at 2:53min of the 5:37min is what I would like to address first. From my perspective this represents the key moment for understanding the story and main theme of the music video, which tackles not only religion, racism and female maltreatment, but inequality through discrimination as well. This scene is the epiphany moment for the audience, when they realize why Madonna struggles and asks for guidance in church.

Although racism plays a vital role in the sequence too, since a black man gets arrested for a crime he did not commit, the real problem in my opinion is coming to conclusion to rapidly. The scene the arriving police sees is a black man holding a dead woman in his arms, therefore he is immediately being accused of having murdered the woman.
“You should not judge a book by its cover”, is a well-known proverb which refers quite well to this scene and the entire music video. The unjustified prejudice by the law enforcement  regarding racism, especially in the 1980’s, comes to mind. Nowadays we might be more liberal and used to such provocative scenes, because of many events that demonstrate more racial equality, like the election of an African American President of the United States. People today react less outraged, but 34 years ago such topics were taboos or difficult to discuss. The mindset of people of that time was entirely different and the interracial interaction demonstrated in the music video by Madonna were appalling to many white conservatives. The racial intolerance of that time can be applied to feminism as well which will be addressed later, when analyzing the scene that displays Madonna’s uncertainty and feeling of threat and therefore seeking of guidance and strength in church. The mindset and intolerance towards equality shown in this scene gets more aggressive by adding the theme of racism.


This music video features several African American people. For example the choir, who sings with Madonna. Interesting is the fact that the woman, who is being murdered, was described by Madonna herself, as an African American woman. When watching the video for the first time, none of my peers nor anybody in the seminar I asked identified her as African American. Nevertheless we have, with her, 4 African American Key-Characters in this music video, that play an important role in the story:
the murdered woman,
a woman of the choir who catches Madonna, when she is falling from heaven in her dream
the innocent man who tried to save the murdered woman and afterwards gets wrongly arrested by the police
the saint, who looks similar to a Jesus statue brought to live in Madonna’s dream.
The last two characters named are played by the same actor, Leon Robins. The already mentioned interracial interaction of Madonna with a black Jesus statue brought to life is in my opinion what caused the most moral turmoil in the 1980s, since a black son of god was still not generally accepted. This scene has its highlight when the black Jesus statue kisses Madonna on the lips (4:14min). A close camera angle like this is often used for provocative intentions. In the end Madonna decides to help the innocent man because in her dream the innocent man is a saint who helps her with the difficult decision to do the moral right thing, although it might endanger herself. Religious guidance here is strongly represented by the black community, because every single character which is part of the religious community is African American. Influencing the protagonist Madonna the most is not only the saint who is African American, but the African American choir and especially the choir woman who catches Madonna.  The short scene in which she catches Madonna, who is falling through the sky in her dream symbolizes Madonna’s disarray and confusion. Religiously speaking is Madonna aloof and needs moral guidance to find back her path to community to do the right thing.  The African American woman tosses Madonna back up in the air and tells her to do what is right². Equality is shown here again, since helping is the religious and righteous deed to do, irrespective of the race or gender. Here is explicitly exposed how religion takes a superior role in the music video.


Only showing African Americans as representatives of the religious community might be borderline insulting to religious Caucasians, especially since the only Caucasian males shown in the music video are the murderers and the police, who falsely arrest the innocent African American man. This characterization applies to all Caucasians in the video, since Madonna herself, a Caucasian woman, chooses the moral correct path only through religious guidance by an African American Saint, although she was unsure, because she got intimidated by one of the Caucasian murderers who spotted her witnessing the murder.
The displayed two scenes shown here have many items that are corresponding by means of similarity and have therefore high interpret value:

Beschreibung: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-_0J-qOuie9I/UF3mjW6wkWI/AAAAAAAAAVU/3DItjWmWM5s/s1600/5.bmp
Both images show the black actor Leon Robins behind bars and Madonna in front of him. The camera angle plays a defining role in these two scene. In the first scene Leon Robins represents a saint and Madonna asks him for guidance and comfort. The scene appears holy, though the candles and lighting shining upon both characters from above. The entire camera view is shown from above as a high shot, suggesting a sense of spirituality and vulnerability, as the audience views the scene from high up feeling superior. One could interpret this as a view from heaven. On the left side of the first scene is a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. behind a fan. He was assassinated by a Caucasian racist 21 years before this video was made. In the second scene stands the same fan and behind that one is a republican flag signifying national pride, the republican conservatism and for some even white supremacy. The church window with yellow glass next to the bars of the prison cell are identical in both scenes and suggest it is the same room. In the second scene the camera work is different. It is a mid shot and gives the viewers a perspective on the same level to the characters in the scene. Madonna is now less vulnerable and has strength in her faith and knows the moral correct path to take spending confidence and telling the truth. This time the lighting is more white and shines from the back of the actor Leon Robins instead from the back of Madonna like in the first scene. The prison bars might symbolize racism deriving from the time of slavery. Therefore in the following scene the stature of the African American Jesus is crying, in desperate hope for freedom through equality. It is a very close shot of his face that emphasizes the emotion and sadness this religious figure is expressing.


Moral Panic

As I already mentioned there are several scenes which cause severe moral panic, especially for people in the 1980s. One of the more aggressive scenes I think are the ones with the burning crosses. A burning cross is widely associated with the Ku Klux Klan. This is one of the first scenes of the music video and immediately forces the audience onto the topic of racism. 
Female maltreatment is what causes the death of the final victim in the music video. The murder and possible rape add a feeling of moral panic, which gets enhanced by the relationship between the African American Jesus and Madonna.
Feminism should not be an underestimated topic. Although the victim is a young female, the leading character, who is in moral parrel, is Madonna. She decides to be strong and take action to do what is morally correct. Nevertheless she is shown in her undergarment showing a lot of skin. Even when she is in church asking for religious guidance. This might be under the prospect of her being defenseless or rather because “sex-sells”. An other perspective is that Madonna expresses a lot of her femininity throughout this video.²
Beschreibung: http://www.musicvideosdeconstructed.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/madonna_CROSS.jpg
Lastly I would like to address the intertextuality of the music video ending. The cast is taking a bow and curtains come down in the final scene, immediately after the innocent African American has been released from prison thanks to Madonna’s testimony. This displays that the music video recognizes itself as a fictional story in form of a theatrical play. Usually those kind of plays carry a moral message they try to deliver to the audience and this ending scene tries to give a sense of realism and strongly provokes the viewer to reflect upon what he has seen. 

Personal impression

My own impressions when watching “Like A Prayer” for the first time played a big part in the analysis of this video. The beginning is rather mysterious. I was confused for the first half of the music video and hardly understood the story and message Madonna was trying to convey to the audience. One of the first scenes shows Madonna in a short evening gown in a church in front of the statue of a black saint behind bars, who is crying. At first glance it seemed to me she only shuffles a few very controversial topics and themes to outrage the audience. This first perplexing impression was corrected in the middle of the music video at the climax of the story when the video enlightens the audience when Madonna witnesses the murder of a young woman by white men. This scene gave me a clear understanding of the story. As the video continues the disorder of the story gets more transparent and meaningful. Nevertheless the video encouraged me to watch it again to better understand the many highly provocative topics being shown in the music video. Comprehending the messages behind the story seeing it a second time had an entire different effect and the first half was a lot easier to understand.  Considering the social discrimination and widespread prejudice among Caucasians in the 80s I consider this voluntary provocation of the music video as justified and beneficial.

Conclusion & perspective on this music video “Like A Prayer” by Madonna

The video brought a completely new perspective on the song by Madonna, she was able to show herself to the world in a different light. The song itself has been perceived completely different after the airing of the music video. Professional music videos play an important role in delivering the artists message.
These music video traits I have analyzed are what define “Like a Prayer” as a good and therefore a benchmark music video. Viewers of the music video not only get entertained, but receive a strong message of believe in equality. Additionally the audience gets strongly provoked to think about difficult topics. It educates and encourages to watch the music video again to better understand all the messages and problems that are being addressed. Even 25 years after its first broadcast many of the addressed issues in the video have not yet been fully solved. This makes it timeless, which is not an easy feat. Nowadays almost everybody can easily make an own music video and the internet is flooded with different music videos of all kind. Interesting and morally appealing music videos are rare, however simple mindless and purely entertaining music videos like “Gangnam style” by Psy or “The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?) by Ylvis achieve worldwide success. In my opinion masterpieces like Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” are not only rare, but doomed to become extinct. On the one hand are their controversial message maybe too demanding for today’s society and can’t compete in this media pact community, but on the other hand there are still certain ratings for music videos that expose the ones which are widely considered as bad, because of their insufficient message. For example the music video of “Friday” by Rebecca Black. It is generally considered as a unpopular music video and was uploaded on YouTube in March 2011. With 67,715,929 views and more 1,3 million dislikes it was quite the spectacle. This comparison of extremes proves how a  music video with no message gets negative feedback and will hardly be watched again compared to a timeless music video evergreens which has to be watched more than once to fully capture it’s complex message and brilliance.





https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6TRctPxcpI (date of access 17.10.2014)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDnUIXF2ly8 (date of access 17.10.2014)