“Papa Don’t Preach” is a fantastic record. Not because it’s a star getting serious, or because it raises issues, or because it ‘tackles’ anything in particular. It’s not a newspaper column. What it does is take a situation – a moment in a situation, even – and turn it into pop so urgent and convincing and exciting that you start groping around for the serious stuff as a way of giving what you’ve experienced some context.
“About” is a false friend to pop music. The idea that a song is “about” some bigger, grander thing than itself can ennoble some records. But it also works to reduce them. If the most important thing about “Papa Don’t Preach” is that it’s ‘about’ unplanned pregnancy then all sorts of temptations creep in. The temptation to look for a message in the song – the girl in “Papa Don’t Preach” is keeping a baby, therefore Madonna thinks girls should keep babies. The temptation to generalise – her decision is agonising, therefore this decision is always agonising. And above all the temptation to use “about” as a way to cushion the record’s directness, the feeling that something is at stake not in the wider world but here and now in this song and the moment it makes you live.
What’s at stake is a woman’s relationship with her father, whose approval she wants, and thinks she needs. “Papa Don’t Preach” draws a lot of its urgency from being a real-time, direct address – a form that’s the equivalent of the cinematic close-up on a face: you can feel building, warring emotions flicker and play across the record. This song – after steeling itself with that wonderful faux-formal intro – moves from nerviness, into flattery, desperate hope, panic, steeliness and anger. Sometimes the singer’s unsure of herself, other times surer than anything in the world. In the chorus she’s a mix of defensive and defiant. She commands, then pleads, in the space of a line or two – “You give us your blessing now, cos we are in love – please!”.
Those long throaty howls of “please!” seal it – this is Madonna’s best vocal on a single yet. The immediacy of “Papa” was nothing new for her – in “Burning Up”, “Into The Groove”, even minor stuff like “Gambler” she’d manifested that kind of fierce in-the-moment presence. But she hadn’t sung those songs like she sings “Papa Don’t Preach”, teasing her voice around the light, genteel synthpop arrangement then smashing against it, as as the record lurches between cry for help and declaration of independence.