Dec 09

MADONNA – “Papa Don’t Preach”

FT + Popular78 comments • 8,805 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. 61
    fivelongdays on 5 Dec 2009 #

    If we’re talking about crap songs with great intros, I nominate “Yellow” by Coldplay. 30 seconds of indie-genius, followed by four minutes of indie-crappery.

  2. 62
    lonepilgrim on 5 Dec 2009 #

    Here’s the link to ‘Sugar don’t bite’:


    That is truly dire on so many levels.

    I wasn’t aware of the plagiarism suit – it seems a superficial similarity to me

  3. 63
    Tom on 6 Dec 2009 #

    I’m off on holiday – FLEEING from the next #1 – it’ll be up on Thursday so revive away in the meantime!

  4. 64
    James K. on 6 Dec 2009 #

    Witchita Lineman: The version I heard was that Sting’s management company insisted on the credit and Sting was embarrassed. I don’t know if that makes any logical sense, now that I think about it, so it could be an after the fact “No, no, I’m not a bad guy” defense.

  5. 65
    Mark G on 7 Dec 2009 #

    It’s usually the management, even if only to keep the artist looking nice, as so often happens.

  6. 66
    Lena on 7 Dec 2009 #

    I can’t help it, I feel I have to post this here, punctum mentioned it and I’ve gotta post it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FXXno7R5XY

    I’m not much for the “PLLLLLEEEEEEEAAAAAAAASSSSSSE” but then I’m not much for this album in the first place, it was as if getting married had made her more normal (in the Kirsty Young sense) than was good for her art. Not her success, obv.

  7. 67
    wichita lineman on 7 Dec 2009 #

    Re 64/65: Hmmm, yes. I also heard Duffy’s management (Rough Trade) were recently angry with her for doing the Coke ad that has rather diminished her monochrome, nu-Dusty cred – apparently they knew nothing about it. Shoe on the other foot, but still a barely believable excuse. I’ve dealt with enough songwriters who squawk “oooh, I don’t deal with that side of things” to avoid looking greedy. And Sting, oddly enough, isn’t one to whom I’d give the benefit of the doubt.

  8. 68
    Izzy on 7 Dec 2009 #

    Sting gives that version of events in his autobiography Broken Music (which is actually a pretty good read). Needless to say it is rot – the idea that Sting has no influence with his own management company is a little difficult to believe. I have a little sympathy with him keeping copyright in that his melody is just ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’, so I can see why he might have wanted to keep hold of it – however, I’d’ve thought that if he really wanted to put things right it would be a matter of minutes, and a fee of a mere pony or two, to get his lawyers to draft something to direct the royalty Knopfler’s way.

  9. 69
    thefatgit on 7 Dec 2009 #

    @67…when the time is right we’ll probably be discussing a nifty bit of business Madonna did with Coca Cola’s main rival, but we don’t want to wake the bunny!

  10. 70
    Matthew H on 9 Dec 2009 #

    Such an immense record; Madonna sounding like she actually means it, the mini-movie of a video, the tangible step up from 1985’s saucy pop onslaught. The True Blue album feels hot to me – maybe it was a sweltering summer, or maybe it was because I was 14 and sort of, erm, stirring. She was the bee’s knees then, so it was with horror that I thought she’d torpedoed herself with remix albums and ropey soundtracks over the next couple of years. OK, I guess we’ll come to that, and the recovery.

  11. 71
    Gavin Wright on 10 Dec 2009 #

    Wasn’t the string intro used on a Vauxhall ad campaign sometime in the late ’90s/early ’00s?

    I’d agree with Tom’s 9/10, the urgency of the music and the performance work well for me – it’s maybe not quite as good as preceding single ‘Live To Tell’ though.

  12. 72
    jonnyk on 20 Dec 2009 #

    Maybe I’ve been mishearing it all these years but I don’t think she sings ‘You give us your blessing right now’ as a command – isn’t it ‘daddy if you could only see/just how good he’s been treating me/you’d give us your blessing right now’?

  13. 73
    Brooksie on 14 Mar 2010 #

    @ Jonnyk: You’re right, Tom made a mistake above – the line isn’t a command, it’s a statement; “Daddy daddy if you could only see / just how good he’s been treating me / you’d give us your blessing right now / ’cause we are in love”.

    @ Matthew H: The soundtracks and remix album were to buy her some time while she took a well-earned break and worked on her next album. Incidentally, ‘You Can Dance’ has the song ‘Spotlight’ which she recorded for – and left off – ‘True Blue’, and it’s a cracking song.

    Madonna was very much about controversy even back then, and she clearly had the pop-knowledge to see that a song about a teen pregnancy would resonate with her fans and give her some headlines. She was clearly trying to step up in terms of maturity after the ‘adult’ ballad ‘Live To Tell’, and everything on PDP – from the strings to the subject matter – was designed to show it.

    I’m really surprised nobody has drawn a line to her other ‘controversial’ song just 18 months earlier, ‘Like A Virgin’: There we have Madonna – all puppy fat and squeaks – singing about sexual intercourse with someone that makes it feel like “The very first time”. Here we are the next year and she’s – uh-oh! Pregnant! She herself probably understood this connection. She had managed to rope in the teenage audience of ’85 by making them feel ‘naughty’, and here she was many months later attempting to keep them interested by being naughty and mature. It worked. She stayed a star and managed to build on her fame. ’86 was the year pop shed itself of the also-rans. True Blue was the first post-Thriller pop ‘event’ album. After ’86 it would be the US stars – with all the money the US record companies have to throw at them – that would endure as international icons (with one exception). Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Whitney Houston… and George Michael, were all pop stars in a different league.

    I like PDP; it’s a strong pop single from a strong pop album, and it has that hint of controversy that Madonna used a lot. An understandably instant hit.

  14. 74
    Erithian on 9 Apr 2010 #

    For some reason I haven’t got around to commenting on this yet. Although Lex at #11 is spot on about Madonna going to the next level as star, icon and life-consultant for a generation; and Michael H at #36 is spot on too when he says it’s not “about something”, it’s about someONE – a character nicely sketched and shown in the round, with influences surrounding her from friends, family and knocker-up, beset by hard choices but knowing that in the end the choice will be hers and she’ll stick to it. Dare I say, Girl Power? A terrific record.

  15. 75
    DanH on 2 Mar 2014 #

    Love the discussion on intros…when I think of ‘intro >> rest of the song’ songs, the two that immediately come to mind are “The Things We Do For Love” by 10CC and “I Won’t Let You Down” by PhD. Every time I come across them, I resist the urge to fastforward to their reoccurrence later in the song. On the other side, I have the exact same complaint for “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” by the Clash as Tom has for “Banana Republic.”

    As for PDP, not a big fan. I’ve always preferred “Open Your Heart,” one of those songs that is soooo standard ’80s pop but hits all the right spots in me.

  16. 76
    punctum on 8 Sep 2014 #

    TPL on the album: none sold more in 1986 Britain. What does that say about either?

  17. 77
    hectorthebat on 16 Jan 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    Arizona Republic (USA) – Madonna’s 30 Best Singles of All Time (2013) 12
    Blender (USA) – Top 500 Songs of the 80s-00s (2005) 468
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 282
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 62
    2FM (Ireland) – Top 100 Singles of All Time (2003) 37
    Freaky Trigger (UK) – Top 100 Songs of All Time (2005) 99
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Sunday Times (UK) – Top 10 Madonna Songs (2007) 2
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – Singles of the Year
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 19
    Melody Maker (UK) – Singles of the Year 9
    Spex (Germany) – Singles of the Year 34

  18. 78
    Gareth Parker on 1 May 2021 #

    Terrific intro, great song and Madonna puts it over well. The emotional connection I feel to this means I would go with an 8/10.

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