A teenager telling her father she is pregnant doesn’t seem, on paper, a likely subject for a successful dance-pop single. So just how, I ask here, did Madonna turn ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ into a number-one smash in July 1986, destined to become a pope-bothering and compilation-conquering classic?
‘I made up my mind. I’m keeping my baby.’
Madonna spent much of 1985 singing about dancing for inspiration, dressing you up in her love and being a gambler (who will ‘take you by surprise’), all to chart-dominating success. Yet on ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, released in June 1986, she turned her attention to the rather more thorny topic of teen motherhood, while introducing a new weapon in her musical arsenal: a classical string section. In the process, she took a big step towards making the transition ‘from pop tart to consummate artist’, to use Sal Cinquemani‘s memorable phrase, but in a way that didn’t sound horribly contrived in the manner of other stars of the era who attempted to cross over to an adult listenership, like Sting on the single ‘Russians’ (let’s do Cold War politics!), George Michael on ‘I Want Your Sex’ (let’s do sex!) or even Wet Wet Wet on ‘Goodnight Girl’ (let’s do, erm, MOR pop-soul). For one thing, she demonstrated that a song could have a serious subject matter as well as an inspired pop hook. For another, she assumed the role of pregnant teen narrator with remarkable conviction when we consider that she was, at the time, a 28-year-old married woman.
While Madonna made it all look incredibly easy, I set out in this post to discover just how exactly she managed to convert a strange little song about an expectant adolescent who confronts her father into a compelling and controversial hit record that won her artistic credibility. She did, after all, take the single to number one in the UK Top 40 for three weeks in the month of July, fighting off the likes of UB40’s ‘Sing Our Own Song’, Owen Paul’s ‘My Favourite Waste of Time’ and mercifully, for a time at least, Chris de Burgh’s ‘The Lady in Red’. She also took it to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, where it gained extra publicity, no doubt, from the major furore it caused for appearing to send a message to the nation’s unmarried teenagers that getting pregnant was somehow cool. And if this wasn’t enough, she turned up the heat further on the song by dedicating it to the pope during the Who’s That Girl World Tour of 1987, knowing full well his position on the subject of pregnancy outside of marriage (yep, as with abortion, he was generally against it).
Crucial to note, first of all, is that while an LA-based songwriter and producer called Brian Elliot wrote ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, Madonna felt compelled to elevate its core message of female self-empowerment in her decision to record it. She had already set off in this thematic direction on her largely self-penned ‘Live to Tell’ single from the previous March, as it pertained to a woman, in the first person, drawing on her inner strength to conquer feelings of guilt in connection to an unspecified childhood trauma. It’s all there in the line: ‘The light that you could never see / It shines inside, you can’t take that from me’. Yet she now found herself touching on her first-hand experience of defying a strict God-fearing father in the years following the loss of her mother at age 5, being on record as saying how ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ ‘fit right in with my own personal zeitgeist of standing up to male authorities, whether it’s the pope, or the Catholic Church or my father and his conservative patriarchal ways’.
On account of her upbringing, then, Madonna was in a perfect position to relate to the teenage narrator of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, who finds it in herself to challenge her father when she finds out she is pregnant and has made her own life-changing decision to remain pregnant for the full term. She was particularly equipped to sing the lines ‘You should know by now, I’m not a baby’ and ‘I may be young at heart, but I know what I’m saying’ in a way that was utterly believable. So while her detractors may delight in claiming that she ‘didn’t even write’ this most crucial of hits, in that annoying way they do, it is dutiful to tell them that she brought a hell of a lot of genuine feeling to the record, before contributing the bucket load of visual ideas and attitude that were to make it (yes, I’ll say it) iconic.
In her commitment to deliver the defiant message of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, Madonna took influence from a pool of anti-parent discontent to be found in the songs of golden-era Hollywood and 1960s girl groups, which Elliott’s composition itself appeared to draw on. She was no doubt aware that the track owed a particular debt to the 1947 Betty Hutton movie Perils for Pauline, for having showcased a song called ‘Poppa Don’t Preach To Me’, with an alliterative title to give frisson to the theme of father-daughter strife in a way that, say, ‘Father, Refrain From Moralising’ simply could not. She will also have known that the song summoned up classic songs by the Shangri-Las in its use of a confiding, first-person narrative concerning a troubled young female having to defy her dad, specifically over her choice of boyfriend. ‘Leader of the Pack’ from 1964 is the obvious forerunner, with its teen protagonist telling the story of her beloved biker-boyfriend from ‘the wrong side of town’, who her folks are ‘always putting down’. Yet there is also The Lovelites’ ‘How can I tell my mom and dad that I’ve been bad‘ from 1969, with its depiction of a teenager having to inform her parents not only that she is pregnant, but also that her boyfriend has upped and left: ‘He told me that he loved me / And that our love was true / Oh, but when we made me mother-to-be / He disappeared on me’.
Madonna channelled such predecessors in her enactment of the strong-willed narrator of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ who has to disclose to her dad that the father of her unborn child is, ‘The one you warned me all about / The one you said I could do without’. She further made a major effort to make us care about the character by making some substantial changes to her sound in the co-production of the record. One such change involved getting an arranger by the name of Billy Meyers on board to give the song a dramatic, staccato-style classical opening, which you might call ‘Beatlesque’ or, more impressively, ‘Vivaldian’, but which, in any case, succeeds in grabbing your attention. She further adopted a lower vocal range than she had on songs like ‘Material Girl’ and ‘Gambler’, to characterise the teenager and convey the seriousness of her predicament, while having grown weary, one assumes, of people comparing her voice to that of Minnie Mouse. She sings first in a subdued manner — ‘Papa, I know you’re going to be upset / ‘Cause I was always your little girl’ — to give a sense of being worn down by anguish over what she must tell her dad. But she then projects a real sense of desperation on the soaring chorus: ‘So pleeeeaase, papa don’t preach, I’m in trouble deep’. The result is her most raw and powerful vocal performance yet, which injects the song with astonishing urgency and directness.
Together with her dramatic new sound, Madonna sold the track on its cinematic video, through which she made audiences further sympathise with the narrator, while improbably adding a touch of pop glamour to proceedings. With burgeoning film director James Foley in charge and proper-actor Danny Aiello co-starring, she took the decision to act out the role of the pregnant youth herself, putting in a highly believable performance. She achieved this by adding dimensions of depth and realism to the central character that were not apparent in the lyrics, specifically by depicting her as a working-class tomboy from Staten Island NYC, who has fallen for an oil-splattered car mechanic (the father of her unborn child) with a rocker image and a penchant for muscle-top t-shirts. In this, she accentuated the fact that she is much in love with the guy (by dancing with him on the Staten Island ferry and looking adoringly into his eyes) and brilliantly evoked a sense of tension in relation to the papa. She also depicted a final reconciliation between father and daughter in a specially extended outro, with the dad seemingly coming round to her way of thinking — after having washed the dishes. Everybody loves a happy ending, right?
As a contrast to the kitchen-sink vibe of the acting sequences, Madonna also appeared in the video as herself, a performer, sporting a striking new 1960s look consisting of cropped blonde hair, a sexy black top and ‘Capri pants’, while revealing, during some impressive dance moves, a newly toned body. She provoked much heated discussion amongst schoolboys, too, over just how much of this newly toned body she did in fact reveal in the video, it being common practice amongst them to watch it on their parents’ VCR while hovering over the pause button.
With the video really doing the business on MTV, Madonna sported the same blonde tomboy image for the record sleeve, keeping record buyers intrigued by her radical change of image. She was no longer the mousy-haired and crucifix-loving figure of the first two albums, nor even was she that similar to the woman in the ‘Live To Tell’ video, but had instead become gamine — in a Mia Farrow-type way. At the same time, she pleased record buyers with an exclusive B-side in the form of ‘Ain’t No Big Deal’ (UK only), a brilliant song recorded as a first-album demo back in 1982, now remixed by Reggie Lucas. She further put out a 12″ version that included an extended version of the A-side (with extra bits of funky synth bass), while also staring out from a striking picture disc. And for the first time ever, she found herself on the new-fangled digital format of CD single with this song.
The multi-formatted availability of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ facilitated its journey to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in July, before Madonna secured added free publicity for the single from the mounting controversy around it in the USA. She anticipated such a maelstrom in her description of the track as a ‘message song everyone is going to take the wrong way’, and it sure did upset pro-abortionist campaigners, who recognised the singer’s significant influence on youth culture at this time. She provoked Alfred Moran of Planned Parenthood in New York to complain that the song posited ‘that getting pregnant is cool and having the baby is the right thing and a good thing and don’t listen to your parents, the school, anybody who tells you otherwise’, all of which he saw as a problem when ‘the reality is that what Madonna suggests to teenagers is a path to permanent poverty’. She also provoked feminist attorney Gloria Allred to comment that the song encouraged young females facing unplanned pregnancies into a life of drudgery: ‘It makes having a baby seem very heroic and romantic, as if everyone lives happily ever after, which is not true in most cases for teenage women in America’.
When the initial controversy died down, Madonna reaped the crossover rewards of her highly successful single when it brought her a nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 29th Annual Grammy Awards in February ’87. This was, furthermore, in a category that included supremely talented singers like Dionne Warwick and Tina Turner, as well Barbra Streisand, who she lost out to (with an old Broadway number). She then proceeded to demonstrate that she had a political weapon on her hands, when she dedicated the song to Pope John Paul II during her Who’s That Girl World Tour the following summer. As she performed it, the pontiff appeared briefly on a video backdrop, along with the words ‘Safe Sex’, on the understanding that ‘papa’ also means ‘pope’ in Italian. By this means, Madonna protested against a patriarch who preached (literally) the view that having a child outside the ‘sanctity of marriage’ is immoral, and that having an abortion is a grave sin that results in ‘automatic’ excommunication from the Catholic Church. She instead projected the view that women should be the ones to have control over their lifestyle and their bodies. She succeeded in rankling the pope on this point, too, who subsequently urged Italian Catholics to boycott her concerts.
On top of this added notoriety, Madonna won the award for Best Female Video for ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ at the MTV Video Awards the following September, building on the song’s highly unlikely status as a commercially successful and danceable protest song with cool visuals. She also included a remixed version of the track on her era-defining hits package of 1990, The Immaculate Collection, the title of which might possibly have placated the pope somewhat in view of its Virgin Mary-inspired pun (or maybe not). She further gave it lasting currency by including it on her Re-Invention World Tour of 2004, though rather bafflingly choosing this song in which to wear a kilt. She will have seen it resonate through the acclaimed 2007 indie movie Juno, too, in so far as it concerned a pregnant youth (Ellen Page) having relationship problems with her dad. The film became subject to the same criticisms that ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ received for supposedly glamourising teenage pregnancy, further giving rise to the ‘Juno Effect’ (a supposed social phenomenon which saw a lot more teens than usual get knocked up because they thought Ellen Page was cool, or something).
Madonna went on to include the original version of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ on another hits compilation, Celebration, in 2009, in the same year that she saw it reach a new generation of music fans by featuring in season one of the hit high-school drama ‘Glee’. She may well have seen the episode called ‘Hairography’, in which the teenager Quinn sings the track and replicates the dance moves (pretty well) from the video, obviously serving to emphasise the highly distinctive flavour of that choreography. On the other hand, Madonna will have been concerned by a lot of newcomers to the song thinking that the teen in ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ is actually talking about hanging on to her boyfriend when she refers to ‘keeping her baby’ (and, yes, it is undeniably true that there is no specific mention of morning sickness or stomach cramps or food cravings, or anything like that, in the lyrics).
Despite some folks having a few daft ideas, it is clear from all of this that Madonna had phenomenal success with ‘Papa Don’t Preach’. We have seen how she hit upon exactly the right song for her in 1986 and how she was able to take it to unimaginable places by singing the hell out of it, putting classical strings on it, changing her image for it, and making an awesome video for it, with it just so happening that the message of female self-empowerment that inspired her in the whole process centred on a teenager having to deal with an unplanned pregnancy. She further demonstrated, in no small degree, that she was intent on heading in a whole new direction of pop sophistication with this song. So it was a real shame, after all her effort, that she was unable to put a permanent stop to Chris de Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’ from reaching number one in the UK, which it did on 27 July 1986. Oh well.