5. "Like a Prayer" (1989)
"'Like a Prayer,'" Madonna told the New York Times shortly after this video for the gospel-tinged track came out, "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." But thanks to the Mary Lambert-directed clip's heady imagery, which included burning crosses, stigmata and a saint's icon not only made flesh but succumbing to its pleasures, "Like a Prayer" wound up becoming about a lot more — the role of religion in popular culture, racism and the way large corporations react when confronted with controversy. ("I think when you fool around with stigmata it's a fairly dangerous area," Rolling Stone then-music editor David Wild quipped to Reuters.) The clip caused such a commotion upon its release that Pepsi pulled a $5 million ad campaign featuring the song, albeit with substantially different imagery attached. Still, Madonna remained undaunted: "Art should be controversial, and that's all there is to it," Madonna told the Times in 1989, as fundamentalist groups raged and Italian television banned the clip. That philosophy has animated the Material Girl's work since her earlier days, but the manner in which the "Like a Prayer" clip artfully imbued its ebullient song with her matter-of-fact, yet lightning-rod view of the world around her makes it one of the most iconic videos of MTV's first decade.
Mary Lambert, director: I knew that we were pushing some big buttons, but I sort of underestimated the influence and bigotry of fundamentalist religion and racism in this country and the world. I always think that, if my work is successful, it goes beyond my intentions and in this case it definitely did. The most important thing was to force people to reimagine their visual references and really root out their prejudices. Using burning crosses to reference racism to religion. Why not a Black Jesus? Why can't you imagine kissing him? I wanted to speak about ecstasy and to show the relationship between sexual and religious ecstasy. I think that subconsciously a lot of people understood this and were either enthralled or outraged by it. Consciously, I don't think a lot of the audience would have made this interpretation.