Madonna released Like a Prayer right around the time my Aunt C took up with a black jazz saxophonist. Dating a black man had made her an outlaw in her father’s eyes, but it was her conversion to Catholicism that almost really did him in. Our lineage of Sweeneys hailed from Protestant Northern Ireland—not that anyone in my family except my grandfather had ever cared much about maintaining colonial British tradition.
My parents weren’t even religious—they were hippie pot smokers perennially on the brink of divorce—yet it was my own father who told me that Madonna worshiped the devil, and that my devotion to the singer was something called idolatry. The devil? Idolatry? It was 1989 and I was 8 years old. This was way out of my league.
I loved Madonna, purely and unapologetically. I loved the way she looked and sounded. My father had been right, though. I didn’t just love her, I wanted to be her: blonde or brunette, lace or crucifix. But after glimpsing Madonna’s Like a Prayer video for himself, my father banned MTV from our household. He’d turned to my mother and decreed, “She’s not watching that shit.”
But it was summer and school was out and, while my father was at work, I was free. Outside, the Carolina sun rendered asphalt to goo and I sprawled across our carpet, wide-eyed and watching Madonna dance beside burning crosses and find redemption from a black Jesus.
Then one afternoon my father’s words reverberated through me.
From my clandestine MTV viewing, I started to feel guilty. What if Madonna does worship the devil? I thought. What if God punishes me by killing my father?
Then I was on my knees, sobbing, praying. Please don’t kill my father, I begged. But please don’t kill Madonna, either!
We’d never been religious, and that was precisely why I suddenly wanted to be. And Aunt C’s Catholicism seemed so Bohemian—there were candles and chanting and incense and men donning robes. She could even shack up with black saxophonists! In the South! I wanted to drink the blood, to eat the flesh of the holy father too. The fact that I hadn’t started to feel like a significant absence.
My entire youth is a blur of being passed between aunts when my parents needed “to work on things” and during my father’s prolonged hospital stays for his severe Crohn’s disease. I was too young to grasp how sickness worked, but I lived under the steady fear that my father would be taken from me early—I just didn’t want my love for Madonna to be the reason for his heavenly summons by an almighty god I was suddenly so aware of.
I began praying constantly, pleading for salvation for Madonna and me. But nothing was like praying at Aunt C’s, the only place I felt safe, shrouded in the mosquito netting of her worship and the soothing sounds of Enya’s Watermark.
Madonna told The New York Times in 1989 that Like a Prayer “is the song of a passionate young girl so in love with God that it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life. From around 6 to 12 years old, I had the same feelings. I really wanted to be a nun.”
For years I prayed, right until my 10th birthday when my mother filed for divorce and told me that no, Madonna didn’t worship the devil, and that she never had. She reinstated MTV in our household and I was relieved, but angry. I’d been lied to and I didn’t know why.
Something in the “Like a Prayer” video had triggered my father. The video is ripe with religious symbolism—most of which I couldn’t understand because I’d never been to church—but it also deals with race. Madonna originally wanted the video to feature a mixed-race couple under attack by the Ku Klux Klan; she ended up using a storyline about the assault of a white woman and a black man who is subsequently, and wrongfully, imprisoned.
In The Billboard Book of Number One Hits author Fred Bronson quotes Madonna saying: “This story of a girl who was madly in love with a black man, set in the South, with this forbidden interracial love affair. And the guy she’s in love with sings in a choir. So she’s obsessed with him and goes to the church all the time. And then it turned into a bigger story, which was about racism and bigotry.”
I wouldn’t have called my father racist back then, yet I recognized that whatever messages he’d received from “Like a Prayer” he had determined to be harmful for me. I also knew that the world was changing for women, and Madonna was accelerating that change while constantly testing the boundaries of tradition and acceptability, too. The Vatican condemned the video. Conservative Christian groups called for her downfall. Pepsi yanked the song from a commercial.
My father was himself no saint, but it would take many more years for me to understand why Madonna’s boldness unnerved him. Society lets men be provocative and wild, but calls the same behavior controversial when it comes from Madonna or Aunt C. First we’ll be defying our fathers; next we’ll be dating black men!
As a kid, I knew Madonna was important, but I didn’t understand quite how. I didn’t know that my father wanted me meek and conventional, either. But Madonna scared men and these religious groups because her defiance—and her popularity—threatened their power. Sadly, a big part of being a woman is shirking what men—white men, in particular—have prescribed for us and what they’re always attempting to preserve.
The last time I prayed, my father really was dying. By then, he’d softened his stance on the world. I take credit for that. We lived together during my teenage years and managed to bridge a gulf most fathers and daughters never can. I wasn’t meek or conventional then, and I never would be. I’d gotten off my knees long ago. And I’ve never looked back.