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Thursday, July 25, 2013

July 25, 2013: AmericanStudying Ambiguous Hits: “Like a Prayer”

[This week’s series focuses on how AmericanStudies can help us analyze some of our most ambiguous pop music classics. Add your thoughts on these songs or any others for a chart-topping weekend post, please!]
Why the controversial side to Madonna’s hit is nothing new, and why it should be irrelevant.
One of the more successful days in my Introduction to American Studies course (which focuses on the 1980s as a case study) has always been the one in which we discuss the brouhaha over Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” (1989) as an exemplary culture wars controversy. It has so many perfect ingredients to sum up the era: not only the clash between a Hollywood celebrity and “middle America,” between sex and religion, but also protests over a music video, a soda company ending an endorsement deal, and, yes, the Pope. And at the heart of all those debates is a genuinely ambiguous song—I always start that day by dividing up the class and asking half to argue that the song’s about sex and the other half that it’s about religion, and each half have plenty of good evidence with which to make their case (especially since I play the rarely heard album version of the song, which includes the question “God?” prior to the musical opening).
The truth, of course, is that it’s impossible to reduce the song to one theme or the other—that from its title on, the song’s power lies precisely in its conflations of sex and religion, lust and faith, the love one feels for a lover with the love a believer feels for a higher power. The Catholics and other Christians who protested Madonna might not want to admit it, but those conflations are as old as religion itself, as illustrated very potently by “The Song of Solomon.” And they are likewise at the heart of one of the most famous and compelling accounts of faith, that of St. Teresa of Ávila: Teresa’s autobiography includes one of the most impassioned descriptions of spiritual epiphany ever recorded, a moment captured perfectly by my favorite sculpture, Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1645-1652). To be clear, I’m not equating Madonna’s pop song to Teresa’s writing, nor arguing that the intersections of love and faith, the physical and the spiritual, are the same in either (or in “The Song of Solomon”)—but those elements are present in each case, linking these texts as part of an evolving tradition toward which those protesting Madonna had to turn a blind eye.
Moreover, the protests over the video for “Like a Prayer” required an even more willful blindness. Yes, Madonna sings in front of burning crosses at times; yes, she exchanges passionate kisses with a vivified statue of a saint in a church. But in the context of the video’s story, those moments, along with every other detail (such as the appearance of an African American Gospel choir, the leader of which catches Madonna during a free fall earlier in the video) are explicitly connected to another and overarching theme: that of racism, and specifically of the kinds of discriminatory visions that can only see a black man as a killer, rather than a hero—and, perhaps, that refuse to acknowledge the possibility that Jesus was himself far darker of skin than most artistic depictions. The fact that the video became a flashpoint in culture war battles over religion and sex has unfortunately obscured its compelling engagement with these longstanding American themes and questions, and its groundbreaking portrayal of interracial physicality and romance. I’d say it’s time we focus on those elements instead.
Final ambiguous hit tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on this song, or other American hits?

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