A teenager telling her father she is pregnant doesn’t seem, on paper, a very 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, compilation-conquering, Glee-featuring 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’), yet on ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, released in June 1986, she turned to the thorny topic of teen motherhood, while introducing a new weapon in her arsenal: a classical string section. In the process, she took a big step towards making the transition ‘from pop tart to consummate artist’, as Sal Cinquemani has so memorably put it, in reference to the song’s parent album, True Blue. She achieved this, furthermore, 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, notably 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 concerning an expectant adolescent who confronts her father into a compelling and controversial hit record that won her artistic credibility – something I like to think I played a small part in when I purchased the seven-inch, aged 13, from my local branch of Woolworths, all of three decades ago. I’ll consider the fact that it got to number one in the UK chart 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 sickly ode to his long-neglected wife, ‘The Lady in Red’. I’ll also consider how it stirred a major furore in the USA for appearing to send a message to unmarried teenagers across the nation that getting pregnant was somehow cool, a furore that helped it maintain its number one position on the Billboard Hot 100. I’ll further look at the song’s reputation over subsequent years, taking in the singer’s Who’s That Girl World Tour of 1987, when she naughtily dedicated it to the pope, 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 Madonna felt compelled to elevate the song’s core message of female self-empowerment in her decision to record it, after obtaining the track – via a Warners executive – from an LA-based songwriter and producer called Brian Elliot. She had prepared the way, to some extent, on her largely self-penned ‘Live to Tell’ single from the previous March that pertained to a woman, in the first person, trying to conquer her feelings of guilt in connection to an unspecified childhood trauma, with the key 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 own 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’. She was therefore in a position to relate to the teenage narrator in Elliott’s song who finds the inner strength to challenge her old man when she finds out she is pregnant and has made her own life-changing decision to stay pregnant (for the usual period of nine months or so, obviously). 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, as we shall see, the bucket load of visual ideas and attitude that were to make it (yes, I’ll say it) iconic.
In her commitment to deliver – and sell – the defiant message of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, Madonna was prepared to evoke the anti-parent discontent inherent in golden-era Hollywood and 60s girl groups that the song itself appeared to draw from. She would be singing a track that owed a debt to the 1947 Betty Hutton movie ‘Perils for Pauline’, particularly, for having showcased a song called ‘Poppa Don’t Preach To Me’ and therefore an alliterative moniker to give frisson to the theme of father-daughter strife in a way that, say, ‘Father, Refrain From Moralising’ simply could not. She would also be summoning up classic songs by the Shangri-Las that incorporated confiding, first-person narratives of troubled young females having to defy their dads, most often over their choice of boyfriends. ‘Leader of the Pack’, from 1964, is an obvious forerunner, with its teen protagonist telling the story of her beloved biker from ‘the wrong side of town’ who her folks are ‘always putting down’, with the outcome that: ‘one day my dad said, “Find someone new”‘ – the harbinger for his tragic crash. The narrator of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ similarly has to remind her dad that the father of her child is, ‘The one you warned me all about / The one you said I could do without’, while pointing out that, ‘We’re in an awful mess / And I don’t mean maybe’. More to the point then, perhaps, is a 1969 song by The Lovelites titled ‘How can I tell my mom and dad that I’ve been bad‘, with its depiction of a teenager who has to contend with telling both her parents that she is pregnant (a taboo subject at the time), with the added issue 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 was mindful to make us actually care about the strong-willed narrator of ‘Pappa Don’t Preach’ and her family problems by making some substantial changes to her sound in the making of the record, while at the same time, I suspect, having grown weary of people comparing her voice to that of Minnie Mouse (or even, sad to report, ‘Minnie Mouse on helium’). She got an arranger by the name of Billy Meyers on board, for starters, to give the song its dramatic, staccato-style classical opening, which you might get away with calling ‘Beatlesque’ or, more impressively, ‘Vivaldian’, but which, in any case, succeeds in grabbing your attention and putting you in a state of anticipation for the vocals. And with the pressure on, she succeeded in adopting a lower vocal range than she had on songs like ‘Material Girl’ and ‘Gambler’ (anyone actually remember ‘Gambler’, by the way?) to characterise the teenager and convey the seriousness of her predicament, singing 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, and then projecting a real sense of desperation on the soaring chorus: ‘So pleeeeaase, papa don’t preach, I’m in trouble deep’. Of course, it is unlikely that the youth in question would actually say ‘I’m in trouble deep’ in conversation, but this does not detract from the fact that this is a raw and powerful vocal performance that injects the song with unparalleled urgency and directness.
With her dramatic new sound, Madonna gained a good deal of Radio 1 airplay with the UK release of the single on 16 June – from the likes of Bruno Brookes (real name) and Mike Smith. But then there was the famous video. In this, she further made us sympathise with the song’s storyteller, while improbably adding a touch of pop glamour to proceedings. She basically succeeded in starring in something resembling a short movie – with James Foley directing and proper-actor Danny Aiello co-starring – taking the decision to act out the role of the pregnant youth herself, in the halcyon days before the full realisation of her feeble stints in godawful films like ‘Shanghai Surprise’. She even added new dimensions to the central character by depicting her as a working-class tomboy from Staten Island NYC who has fallen for, it is shown, a car mechanic (the father of her child) with a rocker image and a dubious penchant for muscle-top t-shirts, while brilliantly evoking a sense of tension in relation to the papa. She also depicted a final reconciliation between father and daughter, in a specially extended outro, that is not apparent in the lyrics, with the dad seemingly coming round to her way of thinking – after having washed the dishes. But as a contrast to the kitchen-sink vibe of the acting sequences, Madonna also appears in the video as herself – a performer – sporting a striking new 60s look consisting of cropped blonde hair, a sexy black top and what I’ve come to discover are ‘Capri pants’, while revealing, during some impressive dance moves, a newly toned body. She provoked much heated discussion amongst my school fellows, too, over just how much of this newly toned body she did in fact reveal, many among them, it was clear, having became overly familiar with the video through repeated viewings on their parents’ VCR while hovering over the pause button.
With the video really helping to sell the song in those heady days of the ITV Chart Show (and, for some, MTV), Madonna adopted the same blonde tomboy image for the record sleeve – both of which helped persuade me to make that essential purchase of the single from the aforementioned ‘Woolies’, back when buying a cutting-edge Madonna release meant negotiating the pick ‘n’ mix sweets, piles of ‘Back to School’ stock (in July?!) and, of course, the bargain bins. I had no idea at the time that this look was popularly known as ‘gamine’ (a great word!), but I certainly remember being intrigued by the singer’s radical change of image from the mousy-haired and crucifix-loving figure that I used to know from the first two albums – and even from her look in the recent ‘Live To Tell’ video. I also appreciated the 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 and notable for its distinctive ‘Ain’t no big deal, uh uh uh uh uh’ refrain, which would make you look damn silly if you got caught singing along to it. I further found out, after taping it off a friend, that the 12″ extended version of the A-side was worthwhile for the extra bits of funky synth bass, while being thankfully devoid of the usual feature of extended mixes back then: three or four minutes of gratuitous stuttering effects. The single further came as a striking picture disc that was thoroughly, may I say, gamine in appearance, while making history as the first Madonna song ever to be released as a CD single.
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 succeed in setting pro-abortionist campaigners against anti-abortionist groups, who all recognised the singer’s significant influence within youth culture at this time. As reported in the New York Times, Alfred Moran of Planned Parenthood in New York complained that the song undermined efforts to promote birth control by positing ‘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’. This, he believed, was irresponsible when ‘the reality is that what Madonna suggests to teenagers is a path to permanent poverty’. Feminist attorney Gloria Allred agreed that the song encouraged young females with 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’. On the other hand, the president of the California chapter of Feminists for Life (FFL) in the USA praised it as a pro-life song: ‘Abortion is readily available on every street corner for young women. Now what Madonna is telling them is, hey, there’s an alternative’.
Madonna was happy simply to stand by and let people argue about her single in the latter half of ’86, ahead of garnering major recognition for her singing on it when she received a nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 29th Annual Grammy Awards in February ’87. She found herself in particularly august company this year, too, in a category of supremely talented and technically gifted singers like Dionne Warwick and Tina Turner (with Cyndi Lauper also in the running). She eventually lost out to Barbra Streisand, though, for some boring old number from a Broadway album (opinion mine). She subsequently featured the song to great effect on her Who’s That Girl World Tour, although what would go down as a significant moment in pop history was rather overshadowed, in my case (when I caught the show at Wembley Stadium), by the singer absolutely freaking out at somebody in the audience for having chucked a plastic cup at her during the quiet bit of ‘Live To Tell’. But I’ve since come to appreciate how Madonna utilised ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ as a political weapon at this time, by dedicating it to Pope John Paul II and featuring him briefly on a video backdrop, along with the words ‘Safe Sex’. She therefore played on the fact that ‘papa’ often means ‘pope’ in Italian, using the double meaning to express her distaste for a patriarch frequently intent on imposing upon the right of women to have control over their lifestyle and their bodies, preferring him, I shouldn’t wonder, not to preach the view that having a child outside the ‘sanctity of marriage’ is immoral, or that having an abortion is a grave sin that results in ‘automatic’ excommunication from the Catholic Church. She succeeded in rankling the pontiff, as well, because he urged Italian Catholics to boycott her concerts. This, however, did not stop her winning the award, the following September, for Best Female Video at the MTV Video Awards.
Building on the song’s apparent status as a commercially successful protest song with a cool video, Madonna included a remixed version of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ on her era-defining hits package of 1990, The Immaculate Collection, which might possibly have placated the pope somewhat in view of its Virgin Mary-inspired pun (or maybe not). But, further down the line, she inadvertently provided grist for Kelly Osbourne, who brought us a tortuous hard-rock cover of the song in 2004, in recognition of her dad being Ozzy Osbourne – or something. Madonna came to the rescue, though, by including the original version of the song on another greatest hits compilation not to include ‘Gambler’ called Celebration in 2009. And in the same year, she will have been amused to see it reach a new generation by featuring in season one of the hit high-school drama ‘Glee’, which a lot of people over 40 seem to think is a lot like ‘Fame’ from the 80s, but actually isn’t. Its inclusion in the episode called ‘Hairography’ even had something to do with the plot, which dealt with – let me see – a character named Quinn doubting her decision to give her baby to Will’s wife, Territory, and reconsider her stance on raising the baby with Puck. It is Quinn, then, who sings the song and replicates some of Madonna’s dance moves (with Puck on guitar), which, if nothing else, serves to emphasise the highly distinctive and instantly recognisable flavour of the choreography in the video.
While ‘Glee’ helped to ensure the continued potency of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ into the noughties, Madonna also worked to give it lasting currency by including it on her Re-Invention World Tour of 2004, though bafflingly choosing this song in which to parade around the stage in a kilt (only she knows why). She could thereafter, it seems, sit back and see it resonate through popular culture, notably through the acclaimed 2007 indie movie ‘Juno’ about a wise-cracking pregnant youth (Ellen Page) who has relationship problems with her dad, which became subject to the very same criticisms that ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ received for supposedly glamourising teenage pregnancy, further giving rise to the ‘Juno Effect’ (a media construct that supposes, in a nutshell, that a lot more teens than usual got knocked up because they thought Ellen Page was cool). Working against the song, however, was the idea amongst newcomers that the teen in ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ was actually talking about her boyfriend when she referred to ‘keeping her baby’ (and, yes, I suppose it is true that she doesn’t specifically mention getting a positive on her pregnancy test, or morning sickness, or anything like that). On the other hand, I have come across a high-school kid on the internet who is a little more astute to its cultural significance, having completed a lovingly earnest school project on the song’s structure, form and meaning in which s/he discovers that it has eleven stanzas and a chorus line repeated ten times, with a breakdown of the first stanza: ‘the character tells her father she considers herself as an adult now and not a child any more. I quote line 4 @ “I’m not a baby”.’
What all this business ultimately shows is that Madonna hit upon a great song called ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ that featured a strong female lead that she identified with, and felt able to take it places. She sang the hell out of it because it expressed her own resentment towards the patriarchal figures in her life. She put strings on it, changed her image, and made an awesome video for it, and basically sold the thing, 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 knew, too, that the controversy the song would inevitably attract as a result would simply help it on its way, although, for my own part, I certainly didn’t consider anything to do with pro-choice rights or anti-abortion issues when I bought the record back in summer ’86. I just thought it was a brilliant and exciting record that offered a new kind of Madonna, seemingly intent on heading in a new direction of pop sophistication. It was crushingly disappointing, then, when the song did eventually relinquish the coveted number one spot to Chris de Burgh and his dreary effusions for the lady in red, she with the ‘highlights in her hair that catch her eyes’ (real lyrics). Both songs have become signature tunes for their respective artists, though for very different reasons