Growing up in public is never easy, especially when your formative years are spent flaunting your like a virginity to the world in white frilly undies and a 'Boy Toy' belt buckle. But these things were always transitionary; Madonna is many things, but she's no fool and she would have known full well before she started on that particular road that there was no long term career to be had from travelling it.
And so, for 1986, out went the tresses, baubles and bangles and in came the leathers, a short bleached fifties style crop and a new direction. Whereas the Madonna of previous was a good time girl all about holidays and getting into the groove, 'Papa Don't Preach' presents a stab at social commentary, in this case an unexpected teenage pregnancy:
"Papa I know you're going to be upset
'Cause I was always your little girl
But you should know by now I'm not a baby"
It would have been interesting if Madonna had meant this as a kind of logical character progression to show what happens to girls who dress and act the way she was doing barely twelve months previous, but I honestly don't think she was capable of being as self critical or self aware enough to entertain such a notion - I should have added above that growing up in public can be especially hard when you're in total denial of the fact. Madonna, lest we forget, was 28 years old when she sang this and in the 'school' sections of the video, she looked it.
No little girl certainly, and as such there's something very cynical about the execution here. It's as if Madonna isn't so much highlighting the moral dilemmas of gym slip mums as trying to convince the world that she could herself potentially fall into that demographic. Madonna always did take great pains to keep the portrait in the attic firmly hidden away, even if it does sometimes find the key and make a quick break for freedom. But that's up to her I guess, what of the song?
Told from the singer's point of view, at heart 'Papa Don't Preach' is a model of conservatism. Even the title harks back to something akin to the Victorian in attitude (does anybody really speak like that? Really?) No stranger to baiting the Catholic church, the same folk she was hell bent on pissing off would be nodding their head sagely at her pleas for her father's approval in her no hint of abortion decision of 'But I made up my mind, I'm keeping my baby', even if they did wince at her sandpaper rough delivery of it.
And that's the main problem with 'Papa Don't Preach', it's basic track is a continuation of the dance/pop hybrid genre that Madonna would mine from that day to this, but her delivery suggests something far more worthy and substantial, like she had something she wanted to say and only some faux vocal grandstanding could possibly convey the enormity of it all.
But Madonna simply isn't that kind of singer, she never was and whenever she tries to express the determination of the lyric, it comes out as a strangled squawk of childish petulance rather than defiance. What saves the day is producer Steven Bray's ad libbed insertions of bright, almost flamenco guitar and bursts of gothic strings that add colour and relish to what would otherwise be a pretty plain and by the numbers offering.
'Papa Don't Preach' is not typical of Madonna's output and she had very little hand in it's writing, though it was obviously meant to be a major statement of intent. True enough, it did raise a few eyebrows in 1986, but unlike the left field shift of Presley when he found his conscience and sang the timeless and still searing 'In The Ghetto', 'Papa Don't Preach' now plays as a quaint, typically eighties period piece with about as much cutting edge resonance as a George Formby double entendre. Perhaps realising the project was not a success and that such a 'good girl' approach went against everything she appeared to be setting herself up to be, Madonna would only rarely again stray from the path she knew best.