On her 64th birthday we take a look back at the March 1989 release of Madonna’s Like A Prayer album and how she tackled the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS…
By: Christopher Turner
On March 21, 1989, Madonna released her fourth studio album Like A Prayer, her most introspective release at the time. The album received universal acclaim from music critics and fans, but stirred controversy because of a safe sex pamphlet that Madonna had insisted on including with every album.
A Rolling Stone review by J.D. Considine from April of 1989 correctly noted that Like a Prayer was “as close to art as pop music gets.” The album touched on topics such as childhood innocence, childhood loss, child abuse, spousal abuse, women’s rights, and spirituality. It mixed all of these themes together to not only make the listener think and dance, but ask questions as well — some of which were risky to ask back in 1989.
Even riskier? A powder blue pamphlet that was included inside. At the time all pressings of the Like A Prayer album included a card insert titled “The Facts About AIDS” that featured safe sex guidelines and a warning about the dangers of AIDS, something Madonna was only too aware of. She had lost a number of close friends to the disease throughout the 80s, including her best friend and former roommate Martin Burgoyne. Burgoyne had shared an apartment with Madonna in New York’s Lower East Side before the singer’s rise to fame, and later managed her first club tour and drew the cover image of 1983’s “Burning Up” EP album cover… He even briefly appears in the “Material Girl” video. In August 1986, Burgoyne was diagnosed with AIDS-related complex (ARC). Madonna helped care for Burgoyne during his illness, paid for his medical expenses at St. Vincent’s Hospital and leased an apartment for him on West 12th Street in Greenwich Village, so that he could be closer to the hospital. She was with him and was holding his hand when he died at 23 years old of AIDS-related complications on November 30, 1986. (Madonna would later write a song about Burgoyne called “In This Life” which was released on her 1992 album Erotica)
Madonna’s “The Facts About AIDS” Like A Prayer card insert referred to AIDS as “an equal opportunity disease.” It went on to say: “People with AIDS – regardless of their sexual orientation – deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry.” Three simple facts followed, explaining how you could get HIV, and then an equally simple message telling you to wear a condom. Madonna signed off the note with “AIDS is no party!”
The message, while relatively simple by today’s standards, was groundbreaking. It’s important to understand the repressive environment that Madonna’s album arrived to in March of 1989. The late 1980s was ruled by the religious right, especially in North America, and the average citizen still believed that AIDS was a curse that God gave to the gay community.
It’s all too easy to forget how much of a pioneer Madonna has been in her support of, and vocal advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights and her commitment to addressing HIV stigma. Madonna educated many about AIDS and safe sex at a time when schools, the media and religious institutions stayed far away from the topic. A move like this in 1989 could have easily ended a showbiz career, but Madonna survived and thrived by doing the right thing and, possibly, helping to save lives at the same time.
Of course, the pamphlet wasn’t the first time that Madonna was the face of AIDS activism in the 1980s. The Queen of Pop consistently used her platform to raise AIDS awareness in the late ’80s and early ’90s during the height of the crisis and raise money for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR).
Happy Birthday to a true icon and advocate for the community.