My college had a tradition: whenever you heard the Madonna song “Like a Prayer,” you had to take your shirt off. The tradition started many years before I attended college, and its origins were murky when I was there. Even so, “Like a Prayer” was a staple of college party playlists.
I was mostly friendless in college, and did not attend many parties. I experienced this tradition in person perhaps only a couple of times, but—like a good alumna—the beginning notes of “Like a Prayer” bring me back to that era of my life.
In college I felt lonely nearly all of the time. For the first two years of college I ate almost all of my meals alone. In my free time I ran for miles around the small college town. I dreaded the long unstructured time of the weekend. I cannot convey the expansiveness of my loneliness, how it seeped into everything I thought and felt during those years and for many years after.
The loneliness originated, in part, from my inability to successfully navigate the transition from a Southwest Missouri public high school to a well-regarded liberal arts college. It wasn’t just that I was academically unprepared, though I was, but also that I was culturally unprepared. I lacked a common language with many of my peers, so I stopped talking.
But that’s not all. Right away during freshman year I fell in love with a guy who mostly hated me, and hating me became something that we bonded over during the time in which we were together. I already disliked many things about myself, so it wasn’t a big leap.
That the loneliness continued is even less mysterious than why it originated. My instinct when deeply lonely is to isolate myself, like how some animals hide when they’re dying. I perpetuated my loneliness for a long time in this way.
Even now it feels dangerous to admit how deeply lonely I once was, like I’m somehow risking everything, including the extreme privilege I enjoy now of very rarely being lonely. And yet, like so many dangerous things, it is also liberating. I can feel the last remnants of my loneliness’ strange, sad power dissipate. Which is not to say that I’ll never be lonely again, or have not been lonely since. I will, and I have. But maybe, I hope, I will never be lonely in the same all-encompassing way that I once was.
Last month, Missouri’s state legislature ended its session by passing one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country, which does not offer any exception for victims of rape or incest. Governor Mike Parson signed it into law, and it will take effect in August. Years ago my loneliness manifested in me as a deep hatred of my own body. This, too, does not seem mysterious.
When my now-husband was in graduate school, I worked in fundraising at the University of Montana. During that period, the university and the local police department became embroiled in a sexual assault scandal involving the football team. Soon after the scandal broke, the Department of Justice launched an investigation of the police department, and the university fired its longtime athletic director and its head football coach.
A significant part of my job in those years entailed sitting across from wealthy university donors as they yelled about the firings of the coach and athletic director, the “ridiculous” DoJ investigation, or the women “seeking publicity” by coming forward with their rape accusations. A common theme of these visits was that the real victims were the football players themselves, who were being made to withstand assaults on their characters.
For three years I sat across from these people, mostly men, and listened. I didn’t say much. They preferred it that way. The job taught me how to have a conversation in which I revealed nothing about myself. This was a necessary self-preservation technique and an effective fundraising strategy.
I soon began to believe that no one was interested in anything I had to say. I still believe this conclusion is mostly correct: the vast majority of people are uncaring, or preoccupied, or interested in other things that have nothing to do with me.
Lately my daughter has wanted me to lie down with her while she falls asleep. If I move before she’s totally unconscious she will yell or cry. The trick is to lie silently next to her in the dark room with the sound machine going for as long as possible, until her breathing has slowed and her body is warm and heavy next to me, without falling asleep myself.
I think about a lot of things in that twin bed next to my daughter, including how people become brave enough to be themselves in a world that actively discourages that impulse. I want to teach my daughter that bravery, but I have to learn it myself first.
I’m 31 years old now. According to the internet’s most toxic men’s groups—pick up artists, incels, men’s rights activists—I am past my prime, have been unfuckable for two whole years now. I know this because an old high school friend of mine sent me men’s rights blog posts and YouTube videos after looking up my work email address, when he heard through a mutual friend that I supported the University of Montana rape victims.
Only very, very recently have I realized that I get to talk anyway. I get to talk even if people prefer that I don’t. I’m allowed to say anything I want.
When “Like a Prayer” was released in 1989, Madonna’s divorce from Sean Penn had recently been finalized, after a tumultuous marriage in which he was allegedly physically abusive. Madonna had just turned 30. She’d weathered critical and commercial failures of two big-budget films, Shanghai Surprise and Who’s That Girl, and the Broadway production of Speed-the-Plow.
The song, like its parent album, achieved instant and widespread commercial and critical acclaim. It topped the Billboard chart for three weeks and remained in the top 100 for much of 1989. It is widely considered to be one of the best songs of Madonna’s career.
LA Weekly ranked it number two on its list of the 20 Best Songs by Female Artists. Pitchfork named it the 50th best song of the 1980s. It is among Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and was selected by both The Guardian and Entertainment Weekly as Madonna’s greatest single. Its use of a choir and an organ paved the way, according to some music critics, for gospel music to become more mainstream. It represented a distinct turning point in Madonna’s career, in which she began to be taken more seriously as a songwriter and producer.
People have been underestimating female popstars and actresses and writers and artists since the beginning of time. These stories are vindicating and inspiring, but– taken together– they’re also exhausting. When does half the world’s population get to stop proving itself?
During production of “Like a Prayer,” Patrick Leonard, Madonna’s co-producer, supposedly urged her to change the beginning chorus lines because he was uncomfortable with the sexual innuendo. When you call my name it’s like a little prayer/ I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there.
The song was incredibly controversial when it was released. Its accompanying music video pushed the envelope even further, featuring white supremacists, a black man arrested for the murder of a white woman, and burning crosses. Pope John Paul II personally condemned the video and the world tour that followed the release of the album.
“Like a Prayer” is now itself 30 years old. It has aged well. It remains infinitely danceable but also weird and a little offbeat; there isn’t another song like it. Madonna has said it’s her favorite song she’s ever written, though she’s also said that about many other songs. I believe her in every case.
Lately I listen to “Like a Prayer” at least weekly, if not more often. I don’t take my shirt off, but I do dance. Sometimes I sing along, off-key, which is the only way I know how to sing. I like the idea of sex as a prayer, of someone calling your name feeling like home, of life being a mystery. Every word of it is is true. It was true all those years ago when I was lonely in college, it was true when I was listening to powerful people shame rape victims for the sake of football tickets, and it is true now that I have my own daughter who I want, more than anything, most of all, to always be braver than me.