Dec 09

MADONNA – “Papa Don’t Preach”

FT + Popular78 comments • 8,733 views

#573, 12th July 1986, video

“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.



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  1. 1
    Mark G on 2 Dec 2009 #

    Ever had a song that seemed like chapter one in a long novel?

    I fear Chapter 13 would be less cheerful / defiant.

  2. 2
    Matt DC on 2 Dec 2009 #

    This is, I think, my least favourite of the really big 80s Madonna singles – I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t like it more than I do. It feels slightly forced in the way the others don’t, maybe?

  3. 3
    Izzy on 2 Dec 2009 #

    I took a quick dislike to it at the time too and I’ve never gone back to it. A lot to do with her look in the video I think, I found it a bore to watch – and to listen to, it seemed to drag in a way that I feel about a lot of major-key classics (even though this isn’t one).

    However, a mere mention of this record and the tune snaps back immediately. I need to revisit it, and urgently.

    Great review too, Tom.

  4. 4
    lonepilgrim on 2 Dec 2009 #

    Love, love, love this, A 10 for me – and an outstanding video that like the song tells a story concisely and charmingly – like the link from little girl drying while dad washes dishes to the role reversal in adult life- Madonna looks gorgeous, both in her stripey top and her straining bustier. She still looks just at home in the ungentrified New York landscape as she does bouncing around in the dance studio.

    There is a slight hint of ambiguity in the lyric in that the ‘baby’ she aims to keep could be the boy who dad may think is no good for her but the woman’s right to choose dimension was pretty daring stuff for Reaganite America.

  5. 5
    punctum on 2 Dec 2009 #

    One year after “The Word ‘Girl’,” we get “The Word ‘Baby’,” complete with an intro cribbed directly from ABC’s “The Look Of Love” (though played on a Fairlight rather than full string section, the latter doesn’t enter until the record’s closing moments) and a harmonic/rhythmic construct subservient to “Billie Jean.”

    “Papa Don’t Preach” uses the word “baby” in three distinct senses; firstly, as an assertion of the singer’s own perceived maturity (“I’m not a baby”), secondly, as a spirited defence of her chosen Other (“The one you warned me all about”) in which she passionately stands up for “just how good he’s been treating me” and declares that “I’m gonna keep my baby,” meaning her boyfriend. Thirdly, she is in “an awful mess” (so awful that she barely gets away with that “maybe” rhyme) in that she is pregnant (“We can raise a little family,” “It’s a sacrifice”) but adamantly refuses to consider termination – “I’m gonna keep my baby.”

    The song can very cleverly be approached from any or all of these possible angles, even though it is basically an astute update on one of the basic themes of ’50s/’60s teenpop. Moreover, Madonna (and/or composer Brian Elliot) manages to make play on the concept of “Papa” and “Daddy”; while she is clearly speaking to her father for most of the song, it is possible that in the chorus and later on in the song she is remonstrating with her partner about whether to abort or to keep. The ambiguity is underlined by the final “Don’t you stop loving me, daddy.”

    However, a clever construct doesn’t necessarily make for a great pop record, and while most of the ingredients required for the latter are present and correct in “Papa Don’t Preach,” it suffers from Stephen Bray’s bloodless, bassless mid-’80s production and also a degree of detachment on Madonna’s part; as demonstrated by her pose on the cover of the parent album True Blue, she already seems intent on turning into a remote statue.

  6. 6
    Steve Mannion on 2 Dec 2009 #

    The best strings intro in a pop song since…? Certainly my favourite intro to a #1 single since Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’.

    After two near misses (both of which deserved much better when you look at the run of dross leading up to this) this must have been a relief for those who cared.

  7. 7
    Mark G on 2 Dec 2009 #

    The best part of the video was the wordless final scenes, played out over the instrumental ending.

  8. 8
    Richaod on 2 Dec 2009 #

    Great review, and Papa Don’t Preach is a truly amazing song – what’s stunning how the sense of absolute anguish/determination and total catchiness coexist perfectly without ever detracting from each other. Never really got why the song’s not (in most circles) synonymous with Madonna’s absolute best; it was a watermark for emotional expression in her music. I mean, the strength of the vocal makes it well and truly uncoverable (not that Kelly Osbourne had much credibility anyway, but Glee completely glosses it over too).

    @Mark G: Not at all – it feels like a short story, very much a single, life-defining moment in time – complete unto itself. And if something like teenage pregnancy could ever end well, surely it’d be in circumstances as… considered as this?

    Oh, and here’s my own take on the song/video/accompanying controversy for Iconography, where I’m in the process of reviewing every Madonna single: http://iconography.tumblr.com/post/195209048/papa-dont-preach

  9. 9
    Tom on 2 Dec 2009 #

    Thanks for the link Richaod – this is one of the ones I didn’t read cos I knew it was on its way here :)

  10. 10
    Richaod on 2 Dec 2009 #

    @punctum: How odd – to me, Bray’s production is COMPLETELY about the massive, complex synth basslines – especially on Papa Don’t Preach and, say, Into the Groove. And Madonna’s vocal sounds to me about as empathetic as popular music can possibly get.

    And thanks, Tom – I’m glad there’s nothing stopping me from reading these!

  11. 11
    Lex on 2 Dec 2009 #

    This is one of my favourite Madonna singles, too, and an easy 10, for pretty much the reasons that Tom elucidates: it’s “about” stuff, sure, but what it makes clear is that the Important Issues that serious songs have to be About are, at heart, emotional situations themselves. And yeah, it’s to do with that completely thrilling vocal – she makes you believe in the character at the centre of it and the huge range of emotions she’s feeling, and she makes you realise that this is why this is an effective subject for a song, because there are so many emotions to convey.

    On a more meta level it’s Madonna pushing herself to the next level as a pop star, isn’t it? Which might be why Matt finds it forced – because it sort of is, Madonna raising her game in this way is a conscious strategy. A song like “Papa Don’t Preach” isn’t inherently more or less valid than a song like “Everybody”, and may or may not be better, but without “Papa Don’t Preach” you don’t get to be Madonna.

    Always loved the song’s commentary on the word “baby” in pop – because at heart it’s about growing up, coming of age, right? – but good point Marcello about the similar papa/daddy ambiguity. Weirdly, I think I’ve heard far, far more pop songs using “papa” or “papi” to mean “lover” in the past…three years or so? Do pop stars still sing about their fathers?

  12. 12
    Tom on 2 Dec 2009 #

    I also think that this is the first time where being a parent has made me like a song more – up from second-tier Madonna to first-tier.

    “Papa Don’t Tweet”

  13. 13
    Tom on 2 Dec 2009 #

    I should go back & listen to “My Son My Son” I guess

  14. 14
    MBI on 2 Dec 2009 #

    “The best strings intro in a pop song since…?”

    Jesus, maybe ever. I was aware of this song but never really listened to it until a few days ago, in preparation of Tom’s article. And man, the second I heard those strings I realized that this was way, way better than I’d ever realized. This is a fucking fantastic song.

  15. 15
    MBI on 2 Dec 2009 #

    ” also a degree of detachment on Madonna’s part; as demonstrated by her pose on the cover of the parent album True Blue, she already seems intent on turning into a remote statue.”

    Seconding Richaod on this one, punctum: This is an absolutely nonsensical criticism to me. She never sounded more engaged and intense (“PLEEEEEEASE”); this is like saying you don’t like “Papa Don’t Preach” because the guitars are too heavy.

  16. 16
    Kat but logged out innit on 2 Dec 2009 #

    I will always associate this song with Michelle off Eastenders – a bit of this song was used in a montage of ‘Enders clips for their 10th birthday thing to accompany Michelle fessing up to Pauline & Arthur that she was up the duff.

  17. 17
    Steve Mannion on 2 Dec 2009 #

    I really hate that trend in TV production/editing – it went into overdrive this decade. DYS at its smuggest, laziest and most insipid.

  18. 18
    Lex on 2 Dec 2009 #

    Also, is this the first time that Madonna’s Catholic upbringing – what she’s been formed by and reacts against – comes through so strongly?

  19. 19
    Martin on 2 Dec 2009 #

    Not a huge Madonna fan, but watching the video is very instructive. For one thing, it’s smack in the middle of the 80s and yet not trapped by it, it sounds like it’s from a bit later, which can only be good. The confidence and assurance of the video are staggering, the split between Madonna acting as the song’s subject (stripy shirt) and Madonna singing the song (bustier) is done with clarity and ease. The casting of pre-DTRT Danny Aiello was inspired, it shows a deep understanding of Italian-American life. (“Italians Do It Better.”) And the split-screen montage at the end is formally interesting without being showy. Only quibble might be that we don’t really see what’s so special about the boyfriend, but even there, non-special people fall in love all the time, if you know what I mean.

  20. 20
    LondonLee on 2 Dec 2009 #

    Magnificent record (from a great album too), though as with a lot of these 80s records the drums now seem like empty clatter with no fat to them — I think I say that every time. Sorry.

    Watching the video though you do see in hindsight that in the dance sequences she’s turning into this icon/statue (as punctum said above) that would eventually become the cone-bra, athletic Amazon of Blonde Ambition which robbed her of that fleshy normalcy she had at the start and I found a little off-putting. So in the dramatic parts she comes across as MADONNA playing an ordinary girl when before she would just have been that girl.

  21. 21
    MagicFly on 2 Dec 2009 #

    I’ll forever associate this with the arrival of our first VCR and the freeze-framed discovery of a nipple-slip in the accompanying video that set my teenage hormones to spin-cycle. What intrigues me is that at the time it seemed like an accident – now, especially in light of the SEX project, it feels like a crafty, wilful act of subversion.

  22. 22
    Conrad on 2 Dec 2009 #

    It is a fine vocal performance, but as a recording, as a production, its flat and draggy. Although the chorus hook is memorable it doesn’t excite, there is no uplift from verse to chorus. And the tempo just feels sluggish – a problem exacerbated by the tinny production, and the linear song structure.

    MJ can keep a one chord groove going on something like Wanna Be Startin Something, but Madonna just isn’t funky enough to pull it off.

    This is a song badly in need of a bridge. And a better producer.
    4 or 5

  23. 23
    thefatgit on 2 Dec 2009 #

    PDP for me marks the first step from pop starlet to Pop Superstar. Madonna has an agenda, which to me at the time was to make sensationalist pop. This I realise in hindsight was a huge misinterpretation. In the mid 80’s, she is “finding her own voice” and she intends to explore the possibilites of how to use that voice, lyrically. Lex is right when she says about Madonna’s catholic upbringing. I feel that at this stage of her career, she has to purge her catholicism in order to adapt and adopt her future avatars. Relationships and independence (from a youth perspective) are grit in the oyster of catholicism, so where better to start, than with a good catholic girl getting knocked up by a boy from the wrong side of the tracks?
    What a gorgeous pearl is produced! The strings ramp up the drama as Madonna’s pleas to her beloved Daddy become more urgent and insistent. It’s the right side of ambiguous so as not to spark a debate between the Pro-life/Pro-choice lobbies, if indeed they were active under Reagan. I’m sure Madonna would not have wanted to get embroiled in such a political debate at this stage of her career. If she is calculating her plan for World domination here, then she’s being awfully coy about it.

  24. 24
    LondonLee on 2 Dec 2009 #

    I’ve been singing this in my head the past few minutes and it keeps morphing into “Girlfriend” by Pebbles, is it just me or are they verrrry similar?

  25. 25
    Conrad on 2 Dec 2009 #

    Just had a second watch of the video, and actually don’t think my MJ comparison is really helpful, as clearly this is more of a pop song than an attempt to fill a dancefloor, and clearly the chorus contains chord changes.

    But it still sounds very flat – I think a big part of that is the “the one you warned me all about” section – the bridge – is weak musically and melodically.

  26. 26
    swanstep on 3 Dec 2009 #

    I share *some* of the hard-to-nail-down reservations others have expressed about this song/record and its associated vid.. The whole package is somehow more conventional and less light on its feet than everything that’s come before from M. I vaguely remember thinking: ‘Good.. but no Live to tell or Crazy for you’.

    Still, it’s pretty great. A top-notch vocal from M., esp. as Tom suggests, the big ‘pleeease’ going into the second chorus. The second chorus is then the high point of the vid. – we come back to M. dancing around in the bustier top….and it’s her finest dance vid. moment yet (let’s assume most people didn’t catch her doing Holiday on TOTP). The camera’s mostly slightly above her and yet she dominates *us* – her shoulders are back, her chest is pushed forward, and she’s on the move. Showing her training, she keeps her center grounded/still so we can really see all the articulation of her limbs, legs really snapping and so on. It’s a great moment. Madonna had announced the previous year that she was ready for her close-up, and here it is. She’ll have a seat at pop’s high table (with Elvis and James Brown and MJ) reserved for those who can really move, and move us even without singing a note, thank you very much. Also, the specific melodrama of the song makes sense for M. if you think (as I do) that her deepest insight was that there was massive unmet demand in culture by the ’80s for female glamour (no big new females stars out of Hollywood since the 60s, etc.), i.e., which she was then determined to meet/supply. Pushing a few dormant Natalie Wood melodrama buttons was in that case an excellent move.

    I can’t agree with the suggestion made by a couple of people above that the string opening is anything *too* special… Neither ELO nor Yes lost any sleep over this. And Siouxsie’s monster (vaguely street hassle-ish) string intro to Overground rules over the lot of them:

  27. 27
    Steve Mannion on 3 Dec 2009 #

    #24 Yes! I was going to mention ‘Girlfriend’ myself just as a song that sounded v influenced by PDP at least from a production pov. Pretty decent song too iirc.

  28. 28
    wichita lineman on 3 Dec 2009 #

    Re 26: Not wanting to sound too curmudgeonly but, christ, they don’t sound like real strings, do they? Cathedral City to the comte of the Left Banke’s Walk Away Renee.

    Re 23: It feels to me like your first instincts were right: Live To Tell was an issue song (child abuse), ramped up for the illegitimate child of PDP, then onto wild Catholic baiting, the Sex book, and…. phase two when she realised that was as far as she could take the shock tactics (country squire look and nutty English accent notwithstanding).

    Papa Don’t Preach – coming from a 28-year old – seemed to me very sensationalist. The girl wanted to make a (tabloid) name for herself. I much preferred non-sensational 45s like Angel, Dress You Up, Open Your Heart – swift, clean, non-stop ecstatic dancing. This is ok, but a bit Kids From Fame.

  29. 29
    Jungman Jansson on 3 Dec 2009 #

    The subject matter of the song has always made me feel slightly uncomfortable. It’s not like Madonna would seem like an obvious pro-life spokesperson, but still it doesn’t really sit right with me.

    It’s a decent song as such, but I always preferred “Open Your Heart” to this. “Papa Don’t Preach” doesn’t have any parts that truly stand out, nice string intro aside. But the video is memorable – I think it was one of the first videos I saw when we got MTV (sometime in ’89-’90), and it stuck with me.

    SwedenWatch: #6 on the sales chart, and straight to #1 on the Tracks chart.

  30. 30
    tonya on 3 Dec 2009 #

    “the Pro-life/Pro-choice lobbies, if indeed they were active under Reagan” huh? Pro lifers helped elect Reagan, and the 80s were heavy duty abortion wartime (it’s when the clinic protests started in earnest, for example). There was also a lot of agitation about unwed teenage mothers. I remember there being a fair amount of controversy about this song at the time in America and I’m sure Madonna knew that there would be. 8 or 9 seems right to me.

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