Search This Blog

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Like a Prayer

I'm going to do something very different for this Sunday Jukebox entry.  I know I say this phrase quite often in this blog, but I do believe that this time around, this will be something very different.

After all, how many times have I opened up a blog with a discussion about a television commercial?  Not very often, if ever.  But trust me.  The discussion about the commercial will lead to the discussion of the background music playing in the commercial, which flows into a chat about the song itself, and so on and so forth.

Now, I'm sure most of you have drank at least one Pepsi in your lifetimes.  I know I certainly have drank my fair share of them.  Well, over the years, Pepsi has been known for creative some rather creative and expensive advertisements over the last few years.  I seem to recall Pepsi spending a lot more money on ad campaigns than Coca-Cola did - at least I remember it being that way when I was a child.  After all, they had "The Pepsi Challenge" all throughout the 1980s! 

And, that's not even mentioning all of the celebrities who have pitched Pepsi products over the last few years.  Ray Charles was "the right one" to pitch Diet Pepsi.  Michael Jackson's commitment to Pepsi was so great that he actually had some of his hair singed in a pyrotechnics stunt gone wrong.  And, the Spice Girls certainly brought Pepsi over to "GeneratioNext". 

(It's really scary how much I remember Pepsi commercials.)

But, how many of you actually remember the one and only commercial that a self-proclaimed "Material Girl" filmed?  Not many of you probably do.

That's because the one and only commercial that featured Madonna as the newest spokesperson for Pepsi was pulled from the airwaves after just a few airings. 

But why was it pulled? get into the discussion over why, I think it's best if I show you the offending commercial.  I'll let you try and pick out what the kiss of death was.

Have you figured it out yet?  No?  Truth be told, neither could I at first.  To me, it seemed like a typical Pepsi ad, with a lot of dancing, a lot of warmth, and a lot of product placement (though given that Madonna's 8th birthday was in 1966, I highly doubt that Madonna would have even had a VHS tape of the party...just saying, is all).

And Pepsi really wanted to sign Madonna as a spokesperson.  The commercial was filmed in January 1989, and Madonna had signed on to do the commercial at a very pivotal time in her life.  She had just turned thirty the previous summer, she was set to release her fourth studio album in March of 1989, her acting career was fizzling out with the disastrous "Shanghai Surprise" and "Who's That Girl" (though the latter film spawned the #1 hit of the same name for Madonna back in '87), and she had just signed the divorce papers which ended her almost four-year marriage to Sean Penn. 

It was already decided that Madonna's first single for the new album would be the title track - "Like a Prayer", and while she was filming the video for the single, she had signed a five million dollar contract with Pepsi, which would have made Pepsi an official sponsor for Madonna's "Blond Ambition Tour".  The way things would work was simple.  Madonna's commercial would air in February 1989, featuring the brand new single in the Pepsi commercial.  Then just days later, the single would be released, providing a cross-promotional opportunity for both Madonna and Pepsi.

At least, that's how it was SUPPOSED to go.

True to Pepsi's word, the commercial aired in its entirety during the 31st Grammy Awards in February 1989.  Just a few days later, on March 2, the commercial debuted on network television during an airing of "The Cosby Show".

But by the very next day, a swarm of controversy erupted upon Madonna releasing the official video for "Like a Prayer", and that controversy caused Pepsi to withdraw their association with Madonna for good, and caused Madonna to become the target of extreme scrutiny, even getting banned from the country of Italy as a result!

Really!  So, I guess this leads to the question...was the "Like a Prayer" video really that controversial?

Well, you tell me.  Here's the video below, a #1 hit for Madonna this week twenty-five years ago!

ARTIST:  Madonna
SONG:  Like a Prayer
ALBUM:  Like a Prayer
DATE RELEASED:  March 3, 1989

Okay, you can pick your jaws up off the floor now.  This scandal is old news now.  But it's still an interesting story to tell.

The video was a masterpiece in itself.  It was directed by Mary Lambert, whose other major project that year was directing the film adaptation of Stephen King's "Pet Semetary". While the then seven-year-old me completely missed the storyline the first time I saw this video, the adult version of me totally gets it.  To be honest with you, I'm definitely not a very religious person, and I certainly can't even remember the last time I set foot inside of a church.  But while I never did find the video to be personally offensive, I certainly can see how some might have felt that way at the time.

Why, this video seemed to have practically every single taboo squished into a nearly six minute single!  It had murder, it had racial tensions, it had divine intervention, it had burning was a definite departure from the cutesy-pie 50's inspired Madonna we grew to love during the "True Blue" era of 1986-87.

Okay, so let's set up the story.  In this video, a newly brunette Madonna (brown IS Madonna's natural colour, in case you weren't aware), is running down a pathway towards a church, stumbling along the way.  Turns out that she had witnessed a brutal crime.  A young woman was stabbed by two Caucasian men and unfortunately Madonna was unable to intervene due to fear.  However, she did see a young black man running to the woman's aid as the perpetrators fled, and as a result, the man was arrested wrongfully by police.

Cue the burning crosses.  Well, okay, not quite yet.  We're coming to that part.

(Actually, if Madonna had her way, the video's original concept would have featured an interracial love affair between a black man and a white woman, with both of them being shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan!)

Deeply wracked with guilt and pain over the whole situation, Madonna walks inside of the church and spots a statue of a caged saint who bears a striking resemblance to the murder suspect arrested in the video.

TRIVIA:  The wrongly accused man/statue was played by actor Leon Robinson.

Madonna prays in front of the statue, and it is here where we see our first image of religion...the image of the statue shedding real tears.

From this point on, the middle of the video is one gigantic dream that Madonna has after passing out in the middle of a church pew.  We see her falling through the sky and clouds into the arms of a woman who reassures her and gives her a warm smile before pushing Madonna up into the air where she finds herself back in the church in the presence of the young black man who Madonna witnessed going to jail while she was conscious.  He kisses Madonna on the forehead, walks out of the church, and Madonna proceeds to stab herself with a convenient knife.

Well, okay, not really.  She just cuts her hands in what becomes the second religious symbol of the video.  Just before Madonna can rummage through the church's medicine chest for some gauze, she proclaims that the choir is ready to sing...and sing they shall!

TRIVIA:  The choir singing back-up vocals in the video is the Los Angeles Church of God choir, lead by Andrae Crouch.

Now, this is where the video begins to get really deeply mired in controversy.  As the video showcases Madonna dancing along with the choir (where one of the singers strangely resembles the woman who caught Madonna in the clouds), it cuts back and forth to Madonna also dancing in front of several burning crosses - which symbolizes the obvious frustration and anger that Madonna feels about the sheer injustice of a black man going to prison for a crime that he did not commit.  Of course, Madonna witnessed the whole thing and initially said nothing about it.  So, maybe this was one video in which Madonna experienced both the beauty and peace of Heaven, and the dark, dangerous place known as Hell.  It makes sense, when you think about it.  When Madonna first witnessed the attack, she said nothing about who really did the deed, and I suppose that could be considered a sin.  But the minute Madonna prayed for God to forgive her, she ascended up to heaven.  It's absolutely brilliant when you stop and think about it that way.  And, again, keep in mind that I am NOT a religious person either.

Oh, and we also see brief flashes of other religious symbols...including one image in which a portrait or statue actually sheds tears of blood.

At the end of the video, Madonna wakes up, realizes that in order to truly be forgiven for her sins, she must go to the police station to clear the man's name.  She does, the man is released from custody...and at the end of the video, it's all revealed that the whole video appeared to be just a high school production complete with a red curtain and a "THE END" graphic added onto the screen.

Now, on one hand, the song was absolutely praised.  Critics loved it, calling "Like a Prayer" one of Madonna's best songs, if not the best.  Fans seemed to love it too, as the song hit the #1 spot in April 1989, and spawned the eventual sale of fifteen million copies of the "Like a Prayer" album.

On the other hand, the controversial imagery found in the video angered a lot of people.  Never mind the fact that Madonna lost her endorsement deal with Pepsi.  Religious groups protested and boycotted Madonna over the fact that they claimed she was committing blasphemy by displaying such sensitive religious imagery in the video.  Pope John Paul II was so offended by the Madonna video that he actively took on the cause to have Madonna barred from both Italy and The Vatican!  Television stations were even ordered not to play "Like a Prayer" on Italian airwaves at all because of the controversy!

But here's the irony of it all.  Pepsi pulled the commercial in almost no time at all (even though the company still considered airing it before protests from consumers forced them to do an about face).  That same year, Madonna's "Like a Prayer" was nominated for two awards at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards - ironically enough sponsored by Pepsi!  And when Madonna won the Viewer's Choice award, she actually thanked Pepsi in her acceptance speech for causing so much controversy!

And here's another reason why Madonna ended up getting the last laugh.  You know that five million dollar contract that she signed with Pepsi?  Well, Pepsi was so desperate to distance themselves from her that they let her keep the money that they paid for her endorsement - even though the commercial only aired a few times!  And she used that money to fund her Blond Ambition Tour as well as filmed this video that was released after "Like a Prayer". 

ARTIST:  Madonna
SONG:  Express Yourself
ALBUM:  Like a Prayer
DATE RELEASED:  May 9, 1989

Yes.  It's a double shot of Madonna.  If you're a Madonna fan, you're welcome.  If not...well, I hope you enjoyed the story of "Like a Prayer" at least!

No comments:

Post a Comment