573. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, by Madonna

In my post on Madonna’s first UK number one single, ‘Into the Groove’, I found myself looking for controversy in the (slightly) saucy lyrics. When you grew up with Jesus-humping, cone-bra wearing, sex book Madonna then you do expect her to have been raising hackles with every release…

Papa Don’t Preach, by Madonna (her 2nd of thirteen #1s)

3 weeks, from 6th – 27th July 1986

‘Into the Groove’ wasn’t particularly troublesome, while ‘Like a Virgin’ missed #1 altogether, but we haven’t had to wait too long for some top-spot controversy. For her 2nd chart-topper, Madge tells the tale of a pregnant teen looking to her single-parent father for advice. Papa don’t preach, she begs, I’m in trouble deep…

Her Pa had warned her off the boy in question – the one you said I could do without – but he’s promised her a wedding ring. Her friends, meanwhile, say she’s too young. However, despite coming to him for advice, the narrator already seems certain: I’ve made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby…

It’s a grown-up pop song, any controversy is of the thought-provoking rather than the in-your-face kind. Musically, too, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ mixes a classical intro with synth-pop, and then Latin guitars. The moment where the bass comes in after the violins have reached their crescendo is brilliant, adding another contender to 1986’s gallery of great beat drops. Her voice even sounds a little older – I love the throaty rasp in each pre-chorus ‘please!’

In the video, too, Madonna sports a new cropped hairdo, and switches between leather-jacketed tomboy and blonde-bombshell in a black basque. The song plays as an imagined speech to her father, as she returns home to tell him. At the end of the video she does finally confess, and in the end they embrace. A happy ending.

I was looking for controversy here, and controversy there was. Some claimed it encouraged teen-pregnancy; others that it was anti-abortion. Madonna and her song-writing team were smart enough to use the phrase ‘give it up’ rather than anything more explicit. Madonna has always argued that it’s pro-choice, and has at other times added a ‘not’ to the I’m keeping my baby line when performing the song live. Either way, at least the world has moved on from a time when it was considered controversial for a woman to be the one who decides if she does or doesn’t have a baby………….. (how long does an ellipsis need to be to signify huge sarcasm levels…?)

Under the morals, most importantly, there lies a great pop song. No matter who Madonna has chosen to wind up, she rarely forgets that people come to her, first and foremost, for high-grade tunes. And yet, I feel that ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ is one of her forgotten gems… Other, bigger, more controversial moments have perhaps eclipsed its standing in her back-catalogue? It’s certainly not as played as other Madonna songs. If ‘re-discovering’ is too strong a term, then you can definitely re-acquaint yourself with it, below…

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29 thoughts on “573. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, by Madonna

      • It was definitely a big change. She’d gone from the Borderline/Lucky Star/trashy Boy Toy to slimmed down chick with an artistic edge. It was characterized as a “milestone.” She wasn’t sounding like her first album…like she was inhaling helium.

        She had several pivots…some good, some bad.

      • Her voice was improving. Her acting chops, not so much. Shanghai Surprise was a disaster. Desperately Seeking Susan wasn’t much better. She finally “got her act together”…😄…in 1992.

  1. While it’s fair to say I liked Madonna’s ‘80s tunes better then than I do now, “Papa Don’t Preach” is one of her songs that hold up better to me than others.

    Frankly, I don’t quite get what’s controversial about the lyrics. Teenage pregnancies are a reality, whether people like it or not. Also, I think Madonna’s lyrics simply tell a story without taking sides.

    People can get up in arms over nothing, and sadly it’s only gotten worse!

    • I mean, I guess it was always going to be controversial. It’s not every day a pop star whose audience is mainly teenage girls sings about getting pregnant… The sad thing is that it would still be controversial thirty six years on : (

  2. To say I disagree with the masses on this performer is an understatement. I’ve said before…she is a great business person…other than that I can’t turn the dial fast enough when I hear that voice. I would rather hear Yoko Ono with a head cold…I guess that pretty much says it all.

  3. This was Madonna phase 2 for me, more adult, more in control, and more sophisticated. Its a great pop record and she could do no wrong from hereon for me till the abomination that was Hanky Panky. She had such a wealth of great material that different markets had different singles by the turn of the 80s. The True Blue album was pretty fine too. But if you think this is one of her lesser known chart toppers the next she has refused to feature on any hits collections. I assume it was a messy divorce…

    • Woah what’s wrong with ‘Hanky Panky’?? Nothing like a good spanky…! 😬 I’m not sure this is lesser-known, just subsequently overshadowed. Her next #1 is definitely her most ‘forgotten’ chart-topper, along with ‘Sorry’, I’d say

  4. Pingback: 577. ‘True Blue’, by Madonna | The UK Number Ones Blog

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