Madonna’s profound spirituality has been evident for over a generation of her life and works; Madonna’s music is where we get a sense of a deep, evocative, profound, even ecstatic belief. Her music canon, which she has either written or co-written (a majority of what she has recorded) is revelatory biography.
Like a Prayer is a landmark work for Madonna. Rolling Stone magazine says of the album “as close to art as pop music gets.” Both the song and the album are packed with an ecstatic burst of her spirituality; it is as if it were both subconscious and intentional. For the subconscious, she is creating a work that seems to be music and a dash of meaning; but she comes and reveals something of herself; the life she has lead, what has driven her; her love for God and paradoxically her questioning of God existence at the same time; it is a passion in a biblical sense—which she does so in the lyrics of her song; it is in third person but it is Madonna completely. It is her question, her comments that are direct, and honest.
It is from Like a Prayer that she is a Rubicon (she comes to us, delivers the message and too herself is transformed; she cannot turn back); she acknowledges publicly something very personal; something that she cannot quite explain; it is the spiritual passion that enters her work from this point forward; though there are moment she takes a “break” but her demonstration of her spiritual stake are clear in a larger message; her videos, her music, she oozes a love for God that is unyielding and successively becomes stronger and even more yearnful.
Madonna asks a simple question; and this is the “Why.” The “why” is what has driven her to seek God even more so and to get the answer she needs; the answers are a lifelong quest of reaching, exploring, asking….why. The loss of her mother is so clear; and she writes about it in this album. It feels personal and it is strikingly sad; if one does not well up with a tear than they must not be part of our human experience.
Though Madonna is critically acclaimed in Like a Prayer there are hints of what is to me; an earlier work that is autobiographic and drips with a heavy heart; a nearly heavy burden of dark and anxious chords of “Live to Tell” It is her partnership with Patrick Leonard, who is pivotal in Like a Prayer as her writing co-pilot; he is a sort of catalyst that brings out the deeper feeling Madonna needs to express; needs to let others know and share in the divine mysteries:
I know where beauty lives
I’ve seen it once, I know the warm she gives
The light that you could never see
It shines inside, you can’t take that from me
After a chorus there is a long and nearly uncomfortable pause:
If I ran away, I’d never have the strength
To go very far
How would they hear the beating of my heart
Will it grow cold
She is feeling a desire to go to another realty; to escape the burden of what she is experiencing; the burden of a world that has been relatively cold. She admits that running away might help but that those around (perhaps her father would not go looking for her) and that in doing so she leaves, escapes in vain, there is no satisfaction and yet worse alienation, aloneness, and ache in her heart and soul that is worse than before.
Like a Prayer is hard to miss and in fact the single is the only Madonna song to make it in Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 500 Songs of all time speaks to how pivotal and the songs importance. Though the song has a popular and easily accessible sound and reassures the listener that Madonna is not departing them for a new sound. She encapsulates sounds familiar and within her style and signature. Like a Prayer is a book end (so to speak) along with Spanish Eyes being the last full track (there is a track called Act of Contrition but it is not a full length track) is the other book end.
Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone
I hear you call my name
She is called by God; she is invited. No she is levitated, transported to his house. She is also expressing an acceptance of her unique personhood and the mysteries that have been applied to her experience and existence.
The sound throughout the song has a church organ and background of cherubic voices. The sound is not comforting rather it is ecstatic—much repetition—a nearly speaking in tongues.
When you call my name it’s like a little prayer
I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there
A curious selection by saying “little” prayer. She is having an ecstatic moment like a medieval mystic. She is inviting other people to join her so that she may impart her charismatic moment and that she may not be alone in this ecstasy.
I hear your voice, it’s like an angel sighing
I have no choice, I hear your voice
She is compelled by the mysterious voice, the mysterium of feeling that cannot be explained in mere words. She is taken to actions that express the moment of feeling and an evocation of touching God. Interestingly she is a requisite listener to this voice.
She is further weakened and her defenses are down so that she may accept this cup of life.
I close my eyes, Oh God I think I’m falling
Out of the sky, I close my eyes
Heaven help me
Madonna is with God, it is an inseparable bound; a joy, it is the best news she has been given and news that she also creates by this connection, this acknowledgement of God. The Harlem Choir who backs her up (in video and song) lends a hand in delivering her soul in choral responsorials.
The choir gives color on how the beginning lyrics give some initial and logical background which are soon departed for the complete and full on ecstatic moment; each word, one after the other, does not necessarily have a close connection or even resolution; they are assembled as pure and humble and vulnerable emotion.
Like a child you whisper softly to me
You’re in control just like a child
Now I’m dancing
It’s like a dream, no end and no beginning
You’re here with me, it’s like a dream
The choir leader is that voice that comes directly from God and she lays her hand on Madonna; anointing her emotion; the choir leader keeps her singing directed at Madonna; the choir leader is the appointed voice of God speaking to Madonna and her responsorials are cascades of intense emotion and is documentation for the cosmic record. It is the intensity and call of the charismatic intention.
Madonna continues with Promise to Try a song not just about remembrance but continuation; a spectrum that goes onward; there is sorrow; no doubt but the ethereal is heavily weighted in this song. It is a leap of faith that she clearly is not certain how to do. She needs and wants to connect but like a frightened child is not sure how to do. She finds it hard to keep the comment being asked; she says perplexingly:
I promise to try—it’s not the same
Is she trying to tell us she forgot to do something on the last temporal day of her mother’s life? There seems to be something akin to guilt. She struggles for both strength and hope; despair and sadness and a struggle to find a continuation to keep her mother is alive. It is an earnest and resolute effort:
I promise to try—but it feels like a lie…..
There is consistent doubt; consistent uncertainty;
I’m still hanging on—but I am doing it wrong
This track is about the omniscient but she cannot even get insight on what to do next; how to get from the heartache from the rest of her life; that she feels both a sense of dishonor if she goes on without the reminders of someone she desperately needs, and yet is stuck in this eternal mystery.
Dear Jessie feels like an homage to her innocence lost at childhood; the tribute is to go back somehow to a world of comfort, love and simplicity, youth and profound innocence. The lyrics are playful; uncompromising in the optimism and love for life; a sweetness and delicateness that Madonna may not publicly display but needs to express through song;
Pink elephants and lemonade….
Candy kisses and a sunny day…..
See the roses raining on the love parade
She catapults her emotive post-real world by trying hard to believe in this minute escape:
If the land of make believe
Is inside your heart it will never leave….
Where the mermaids sing as they comb their hair…..
She drips with honeyed tones; with wistful wishes and heartfelt desires; a wish to be somewhere else….
And in Oh Father is a tribute to her father; a dependence on him in ways he could not fulfill; it was his human failing of how to comfort a delicate little girl in her time of need. An energy that still lives in ways that she cannot fully understand; this is pure raw emotion; she is honest and says of her father:
You never loved me…
Ann then later on…
You didn’t mean to be cruel
In a very religious way she asks for a piece of her anger to be forgiven that they were both subjected to the same cruel fate of losing her mother and his wife.
Spanish Eyes, the last full track, is the pondering question of God; the deep questioning; while there is belief there is a momentary step back to question his existence;
What kind of life is this(???)
If God exists
It is her question of being forsaken: what a cruel world; why me? Why have you forsaken me? Is the thesis of this song. She is perplexed:
I don’t understand
And as this song progresses there is increased anger; it is so cloaked. It is hidden because we are not really certain whom she is addressing
You were not the Maravilla in our minds
You are not sure what or whom the chorus is referring; it is that moment of being forsaken and when one is forsaken is still asking to be saved:
No me dejan olivarte
Now, Ray of Light is a refined spirituality. Her just found belief in Jewish mysticism of Kabbalah; helps to channel her seemingly wide array of questions about God; there is an ease in her voice; her lyrics are more confident; more contented; her voice is refined and signifies that she is in a better place. Though she does sprinkle some mysteries in this album.
In Drowned World, Substitute for Love she says;
I’ve change my mind….
Should I wait for you
Now I find I’ve changed my mind
This is my religion
Madonna comes to us in the first track with direct questions… not certain to whom she is asking…is she asking you, me? She feels contented that she has changed her mind—changed from what to what? She seems to be insistent in her response. She has a new found religion? The video suggest her state of motherhood brings her to being her new religion or perhaps is it a new way of thinking… this tracks is so succinct; but a “mmmmm” she sings is a responorial to her contentment in finding this new way to God; it is her momentary recompense.
In the track, Skin Madonna is speaking in terms of her spiritual life and we once again revisit her ecstatic- the word she sings here are seemingly desperate but rather they are in the context of connection with God a continuation of her theme of ecstaticism of God:
Kiss me; I’m dying
Put Your Hand on My Skin…
I need to make a correction….
Touch me, I’m trying
To see inside of your soul…
I want to make a connection
Skin, correction, soul, connection; a yearning a need to connect from the temporal to the ethereal. She no longer wants just a temporal experience her need is for an ethereal connection; a communication with souls.
Sky Fits Heaven even a strange wording; but this is a wording from the sacred to us. While it seems mysterious it is highlighting what we take for granted and how this is a puzzle piece that affixes our spiritual grounding and ecstatic uplifting.
There is an ecstatic love; an ecstatic urgency; there is no discomfort in this song rather it is a sudden and yearning for the ethereal. She mysteriously says:
That’s what my future could see
This is an omniscient voice – both the human and the divine; there is ethereal knowledge—it is beyond a leap of faith—more than just certainty. There is a strong syncopation—a beat of resolution, constancies. The syncopation mixes with a simple noted piano, occasional guitar that chimes in and a unusual keyboard that could only best be described as a Jetsonian sound; a sound from a future as we see it today.
There are kernels of knowledge that are so dense coming out you but almost no time to take and understand. As if we become part of the trance and we are only to pick up what is needed.
Fate fits karma so use it….
Hand fits giving so do it
In Madonna’s journey it is hard to tell if she is truly following the signs she talks about;
Traveling down the road
Watching the signs as I go
And what seems to be a sudden departure from the lyrics before or after:
I think I’ll follow the sun
And then she concludes with
Watching the signs as I go.
What may seem as mystery or abstraction is a juxtaposition of her love for her spiritual path; she mentions “Gospel” and “Prophet” as her guides to the higher spiritual floor. The song imparts what it is suppose to give a re-review of what you just heard.
Madonna seeks to give to her listener not just an account of her experience but starts to give more teaching in her lyrics;
In the track Frozen she says:
Love is a bird, she needs to fly
Let all the hurt inside of you die
She curiously makes mention of her self and talks directly to the listener.
The Music album feature mainly danceable tunes and then she reserve a beautiful pearl for us with Paradise (not for me). Madonna gives us the listener an account of where she is; the sound is dark, brooding, very synthesized. This song is the long trail of the ecstatic conversation with God. This ecstasy is not what the word might imply of just delight but it is the extremes of joy, pain, sudden back draft of hurt; the ecstatic dialogue comes and flows and it is never final;
I’ve been so down…
Once more again
I am broken
Once more again
I don’t believe it
The sensitive soul seeks safe harbor; because the soul has been hurt and stutters in disbelief. An immediate response might be – “what can I do”
She also utters:
Is not for me
This is a conversation in the temporal sphere; while there can be a perceived paradise here but it is vacuous and oh so temporary.
American Life is misunderstood; there are the pop songs to assure her listener that she is still with them. That she has no walked away from them. But the album glows with her continued dialogue with the ethereal. The music is both contented but a bit more anxious than previous works.
Love Profusion is a song mixing ecstasy and contentment; assurance, certainty and yet she continues her dialogue with God in honest terms; they are not for us to “hear” but if we do we can listen to this dialogue.
There are too many options
There is no consolation
I have lost my illusion
But she comes back with her long standing question of why:
What I want is an explanation
The ecstatic expression of going from:
I got you under my skin
There is no comprehension
At least in earthly terms
There is real isolation
There is so much destruction
What I want is a celebration
How does she bridge her earthly confines for the heavenly glory; the glory of God – The Light; she has insight and is at once satisfied with her knowledge and also yearning for the ethereal; and the ethereal is the Light, a unification of souls.
In Nobody Knows Me is a song of frustration; even after all this time; she is in her garden but what is important seems to be pressed against the negative world we find ourselves in;
I don’t want lies
I don’t watch TV
I don’t waste time
Won’t read a magazine
Her recompense is her faith in God;
I, I sleep much better at night
I feel close to the Light
Now I’m gonna try
To improve my life
The song uncomfortably continues with a chant of
Nobody knows me…. Nobody knows me….
Nothing Fails is her book end is an equivalent to Like a Prayer one could easily take the lyrics and apply this to her relationship with Guy. While there are kernels of her relationship; it is her relationship with the higher level of the soul; the connectedness and non-connectedness in the pool of the endless human state. She has come to this point in her life; and curiously it is not just wandering about her love but her ecstatic connection with her soul mate. She gives no clues and is now simultaneously private and public. The simple beat and guitar are earnest sounds; humble sounds.
She continues with her ecstatic expressions:
Feel my heartbeating
You’re the one….
Cause I’ve climbed the Tree of Life, and that is why
No longer scared if I fall.
A direct link to her faith in Kabbalah and link to beginning; the Sephirot.
It’s seems contradictory that she is singing a sacred tone:
I’m not religious
But I feel so moved
Makes me want to pray
Pray you’ll always be here
I’m not religious
But I feel such love
Makes me want to pray
The chorus (London Community Gospel Choir) is heart gateway to the ethereal; the warm and assuring voices; they are filled with ecstasy and certainty; and your hands are up so that too may feel the warmth of this light. And yes this is a religious and a religious moment at once. The word religion becomes irrelevant and then becomes the sacred flow of connection with the Higher.
American Life also feature a song called X-Static Process; curious that she uses a word in the title of one her songs. It is what describes her feelings and mood and actions with respect to her life with God. It is a song of honesty, solitude, longing, burning questions and much more:
Don’t know who I’m suppose to be…
I’m not myself, myself right now
Don’t know what I believe
This song presents mysterious lyrics; again like the mystics tale they are both blissful and perplexing; personal and filled with a mystery that leave us pondering everso. She has questions that still needs to ask.
And she finishes this track with”
But in the process I forgot that I was just as good as you
This Rubicon is genuine and lives through Madonna’s music uninterrupted; an expression of not just what she knows but what she feels; her medium is a direct link to the Light and gives her a vibrancy that is strong, enduring, sprinkled with mystery, ecstatic cries; her lyrics are thick with logos (meaning) and couple that with the sound of her music give a context for her place, temperature and love. Madonna imparts with a vast chamber of truth, honesty, yearning, longing, needing, wanting, being, and conceals much to protect her most human traits; there is a picture that comes into focus; and in feeling each word, each beat, I am reminded of myself and how I feel a direct link to loss and the inexplicable and I know I am not alone.
© 2008 James Meléndez / Jaime Patricio Meléndez