On March 3, 1989, Madonna released the hit song, “Like a Prayer.” And it was a monumental moment unlike no other before it at the time.
After three back-to-back multi-platinum albums, a record-breaking world tour, it seemed like the singer was on top of the world as she readied the release of her fourth album, Like a Prayer, in March of 1989.
That January, ahead of its release, Madonna brokered an endorsement deal with Pepsi for $5 million. The deal included the launch of the album’s title song in a television commercial -- an unheard-of arrangement at the time -- and the cola brand sponsoring the singer’s next world tour. The following month, Pepsi debuted its highly anticipated commercial during the 31st GRAMMY Awards, with an estimated 250 million reportedly watching the ad worldwide.
A month later, it was time for the unveiling of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” music video, which was scheduled to make its worldwide debut during Entertainment Tonight before being shown in full on MTV. But as Lu Murray, the show's producer at the time, remembers, the anticipation of the music video was met with immediate shock and awe.
“It was a huge deal and we were anxiously waiting for the video,” she says, recalling that it kept getting “later and later” before the video finally arrived on set, after ET already started taping that night’s episode. “I remember snatching the video and running into an edit bay and handing it to the editor and saying we got to cut this very quickly. We popped in the video and started watching it, and then we looked at each other and I went, ‘Uh oh. I don’t know if we're going to be able to air this.’”
Presumably, the first people outside of Madonna’s team and director Mary Lambert to watch the video, what they saw was far from what they were expecting.
Opening with Madonna witnessing a murder of a young woman, the video then sees an innocent African-American man incarcerated by the police before Madonna eventually flees to a church. There, she sees a wax saint that resembles the arrested man, which eventually comes to life and kisses her. Throughout the video, Madonna is seen singing in front of burning crosses, in a church with a children’s choir and in moments of erotic embrace with an African-American religious figure.
Because the video arrived so late, it was decided that it would run during the end credits, but ET could only use certain portions of the video not so visibly controversial. “We stayed away from the burning crosses and some of the other aspects that were going to create controversy,” Murray explains, adding: “We played it safe that day.”
While its initial debut was cut short, the full video made its way to MTV and was met with immediate backlash. “We knew it was going to be a big story,” Murray says.
Religious groups called for a boycott, with Pope John Paul II even speaking out against it. “The video is a blasphemy and insult because it shows immorals inside a church,” Italian Roman Catholic historian Roberto de Mattei said at the time.
Within days of protests and complaints, Pepsi was forced to drop the ad and ultimately cancel its deal with Madonna. “It may go down as one the most expensive advertising blunders ever,” host John Tesh reported on ET soon after.
The fight with religious groups didn’t stop with the music video, however. The Vatican even tried to boycott her “Blond Ambition” tour when it came through Italy. “I am aware that the Vatican and certain communities are accusing my show of being sinful and blasphemous, that they are trying to keep people from seeing it,” Madonna said at the time. “I think I'm offending certain groups, but I think that people who really understand what I’m doing aren't offended by it.”
Despite the controversy, which could have devastated an artist of lesser assurance, “Like a Prayer” went on to be nominated for MTV Video Music Awards’ Video of the Year and has since been viewed over 72 million times on YouTube. Meanwhile, the song topped the Billboard Hot 100. Today, it’s considered one of the singer’s best and is listed in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Additionally, the album went 4x platinum, selling over 15 million copies worldwide. It went on to produce six singles, including the follow-up hits, “Express Yourself” and “Cherish.”
On the anniversary of its release, Madonna took to Instagram to reflect on the video. “30 years ago today I released Like a Prayer and made a video that caused so much controversy because I kissed a black saint and danced in front of burning crosses! I also made a commercial with PEPSI that was banned because my video was seen as inappropriate. ???Happy Birthday to Me and Controversy!” she posted.
In true Madonna fashion, she was a day late celebrating the anniversary because she had been blocked on the social media platform.