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. 31

    […] superb piece of Tom Ewing writing in his Popular series, in which he reviews every British number one single from the beginning. […]

  2. 32
    Juan on 3 Dec 2009 #

    did y’all know that Madonna flashes a boob in the video?

    seriously, play it in slow motion during the 1st or 2nd chorus… it just pops right out there!

  3. 33
    MikeMCSG on 3 Dec 2009 #

    The “True Blue” LP was for me peak-Madonna before she started taking her eye off the music ball and this is a terrific single. Fantastic intro (must be in the Top 10 – I’ll try and think of some others)great vocal and a song as strong as the tape keeping her breasts in that top (though obviously not 100% effective if we believe the pervs above :-))

  4. 34
    MikeMCSG on 3 Dec 2009 #

    Those intros (in no particular order :

    Two Tribes
    Echo Beach
    You’ve Got My Number (Undertones)
    This Corrosion
    New Year’s Day
    West End Girls
    Love Will Tear Us Apart
    Wasteland (The Mission)
    Just Like Heaven (The Cure)

  5. 35
    thefatgit on 3 Dec 2009 #

    @30…Sorry Tonya, I had not realised the debate was raging as hard then.

  6. 36
    MichaelH on 3 Dec 2009 #

    I think Tom nails it with the comments about whether the record is “about” something. It’s not, it’s about someone – and therefore the choices the narrator makes can’t be universalised. Reminds me of the arguments around Knocked Up, with the suggestion that because the Katherine Heigl character decided to have the baby it was therefore an anti-abortion movie.

  7. 37
    swanstep on 3 Dec 2009 #

    @34. Is there really a point to listing greatest intros? Pop songs are normally less than 5 minutes, so almost all excellent songs will have excellent intros (there aren’t many great sub-5 minute films without terrific initial shots either). Conversely, there are relatively few songs with fantastic intros that don’t end up being excellent songs since, normally, just unpacking that initial kernel of excellence gets you at least half of a pop-song (interestingly, the converse direction isn’t true of short films as far as I can see).

    At any rate, reflecting on your list, I found it very hard to think of songs I really like that *don’t* have splendid intros, and not much easier to think of indifferent songs overall with (wasted) cracking intros.

  8. 38
    punctum on 3 Dec 2009 #

    #15: Well, MBI, I wish I could agree with you but I’m afraid that her “PLEEEEEEASE” strikes me in the manner of the clipboard thinly wielded by an impatient trainee office manager rather than a girl frantically trying to make belated sense of her life. Come to think of it, has Madge ever been comfortable with franticity?

  9. 39
    Steve Mannion on 3 Dec 2009 #

    But in some cases the intro can be the most memorable or celebrated part of a song – that’s not necessarily the case with PDP but from a production pov I think its noteworthy/interesting – few big hits actually open with just a (relatively lengthy) string sequence whether authentic or synthesized. I think it stands out on that basis, they didn’t just kick off with the beat. I guess ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ intro is more blatant in its ‘this is epic pop, brace yourself’ grandeur. George Michael’s ‘Faith’ maybe a similar example with its organ riff on ‘Freedom’ tho that is much more understated and personalised.

  10. 40
    Alan on 3 Dec 2009 #

    most notable ace-intro/awful-song: Dire Straits Money for Nothing

    juan @32, in one of the Related Articles (above) i review this song in terms of a) the string intro b) madonna’s boobs.

  11. 41
    Tom on 3 Dec 2009 #

    We had an ace intro shame about the song example here.

  12. 42
    wichita lineman on 3 Dec 2009 #

    Re 40: Apparently Sting’s wailing on the Money For Nothing intro was a ‘song’ he’d already copyrighted, thus he nabbed a writing credit from the Straits without politely asking first. Isn’t he horrible?

    Doesn’t anyone else have a problem with the not-synthetic-enough/not-real-enough sound of PDP’s intro?

    The teenageness of “pleeeease” certainly works for me, though. I can’t hear the clipboard.

  13. 43
    Conrad on 3 Dec 2009 #

    Charlatans’ ‘One to Another’ for me was an exciting intro followed by ok/dullish song.

    Deeeeeeeeelite – Groove…on t’other hand is a dance floor filling intro followed by a dancefloor-packed tune

    Witchita, I think you are right about PDP’s intro – it’s a compromise reflecting the rather contrived attempt to write a ‘step up into pop’s big league’ hit

  14. 44
    Steve Mannion on 3 Dec 2009 #

    The strings intro was later sampled on Progress presents The Boy Wunda’s fairly rubbish ‘ard ‘ouse track ‘Everybody’, a top 10 hit exactly ten years ago.

    Didn’t Shut Up And Dance sample it as well? Maybe just wishful thinking on my part.

  15. 45
    MikeMCSG on 3 Dec 2009 #

    #41 Tom the most obvious example is bunnied (clue early 1996).

    #37 There’s something in that but amongst those I listed I don’t think Two Tribes or This Corrosion live up to the promise of the intro.

    Two songs I like which don’t have great intros are Boomtown Rats “Banana Republic” which tries about three before settling on the right one and The The’s “Armageddon Days Are Here Again” with its heavy-handed pastiche of “Ballroom Blitz”.

    Generally as well I don’t favour records which kick off with the chorus such as “Eleanor Rigby”; it’s like giving away the goods too soon.

  16. 46
    thefatgit on 3 Dec 2009 #

    Conversely, the Schooly D-esque echoey scratches of “Unfinished Sympathy” has to be the worst intro to an absolutely awesome song.

  17. 47
    Tom on 3 Dec 2009 #

    #45 that’s sort of cheating though, it shouldn’t even qualify as an intro, it’s just sadism. Anyway, PLENTY to say on that at the appropriate time :)

  18. 48
    will on 3 Dec 2009 #

    Re 42: Yes, I have a problem with those awful synthetic strings on PDP’s intro. Not that they spoil it for me – for my money it’s one of her best Number Ones – but they just don’t seem to fit with the rest of the song.

  19. 49
    Steve Mannion on 3 Dec 2009 #

    Are they really so awful? I actually think they sound pretty authentic, to the point where I wouldn’t have assumed they were synth. I don’t see it as any worse than ‘house piano’ basically (I can see what WL means re ‘not sounding fake ENOUGH’ tho I think). I’m also pretty tolerant of synth pizzicato tho (you can blame/thank Rollo Armstrong for this). It’s things like brass and marimba that tend to grate with me most when “faked”.

  20. 50
    wichita lineman on 3 Dec 2009 #

    Prince would have made them faker, I think, though I’m now immediately struggling to think of a song where he actually did good fake strings (I’m guesing they’re real of Take Me With U??).

    True, Steve, synth brass always sounds like a crap Roman fanfare, and some house piano sounds pretty mousey now. It does sound like “house piano” though, rather than an attempt to be Beethoven.

    Ahem. My nomination for pop’s most exciting intro, setting up a song that never relents…. Blockbuster. And the air horns on Set You Free do a similar “pay attention!” job.

  21. 51
    AndyPandy on 3 Dec 2009 #

    And it could be said that many instrumental trance tracks are ALL intro until three-quarters of the way in the breakdown arrives…

  22. 52
    Izzy on 3 Dec 2009 #

    I do quite like the string intro, but I wouldn’t say it’s particularly special in itself. What’s really terrific is the transition from the strings into the rest of the song – the string melody builds to its peak, thump, and straight into the song proper. It’s done with great economy and craft – no sense of the strings just being tacked on for me.

  23. 53
    swanstep on 3 Dec 2009 #

    @41, Tom. Thanks for that link back to a prior ace-intro discussion. Billy Smart’s point about, e.g., Daft Punk looping great opening patterns (just 2 bars in the case of Digital love IIRC) is great.

    @49, Steve. The strings don’t sound especially synthetic to me either. Punctum above seemed to suggest that the strings are real later on, i.e., in the middle eight and thereafter. Can anyone confirm this? They sound the same to me, and, in general, it would be a bit odd to pay for a bunch of string-players and then not use them (except possibly as a sample source) for your big F-minor intro.

    Utterly unrelated point: the font on the single sleeve reminded me of The Mary Tyler Moore Show font (a big influence on any ’70s childhood!). Comparing images now, the font’s not *that* close, but there’s something there.

  24. 54
    thefatgit on 3 Dec 2009 #

    All this talk of strings made me go off and listen to Mahler’s 5th.

  25. 55
    lonepilgrim on 3 Dec 2009 #

    re 54 Good choice – particularly the adagio – perhaps we can call this the String Theory thread

  26. 56
    lonepilgrim on 3 Dec 2009 #

    Oh and BTW re 50 – Prince used veteran jazz arranger Clare Fischer this year (1986) to produce some quite woozy string arrangements for Parade.

  27. 57
    swanstep on 4 Dec 2009 #

    @50, Wichita. The strings are real on ‘Take me with U’, ‘Purple rain’ etc.. The Purple Rain album lists the cello, violin, viola players, credits the arrangements jointly to Prince and Lisa, but saucily gives Lisa and Wendy the joint conducting credit.

  28. 58
    TomLane on 4 Dec 2009 #

    #1 for 2 weeks in the U.S., I thought it was tops longer but so be it. Another one of Madonna’s iconic singles, but not my favorite by her. For once I agree with T. Ewing’s grade. A 9 sounds about right.

  29. 59
    lonepilgrim on 4 Dec 2009 #

    Given the pregnancy theme, has anyone done a mash-up of this with Billie Jean?

  30. 60
    loomer on 4 Dec 2009 #

    A little known fact about PDP is that Madonna was sued for plagiarising “Sugar Don’t Bite” by Sam Harris, a hit 2 years earlier.

    Not sure how to do the html code, but his video is on youtube, the spam protector is not letting me post the link or even register for some reason.

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