By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Papa Don’t Preach’ is one of a string of famous songs that appeared on Madonna’s hit 1986 album True Blue. This album was, in many ways, ‘her’ Revolver, a consummate collection of strong hits which she co-wrote with those masterly songwriters, Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard.
However, this particular song was written by Brian Elliott (who based it on teen gossip he heard outside his recording studio), with Madonna contributing additional lyrics. The result is one of the standout songs from Madonna’s mid-1980s period.
But what is the meaning of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’? This song, about teenage pregnancy and a young girl seeking advice from her judgmental father, also arguably hides a second meaning alongside this.
‘Papa Don’t Preach’: summary
In summary, the song is sung by a young woman who has fallen pregnant. She is breaking the news to her father, the ‘papa’ of the song’s title, who she knows will be upset by the revelation that his ‘little girl’ is pregnant while still so young.
She asks him for his help, asking him to remain strong and dependable as she needs his advice. She is young, but she’s wise enough to know this.
She then tells her father that the man (or boy?) who she has been seeing, whom her father warned her off as bad news, is the father of her unborn baby. She is certain she is pregnant and now needs her dad’s help.
In the chorus of the song, she begs her father not to preach at her: not to lecture her on the mistakes she’s made. She knows she has made mistakes (she’s been unable to sleep because of the worry over what she’s going to do), but she is determined not to get rid of the baby: she wants to go through with the pregnancy and raise the child.
She says that the father of her child has sworn he will marry her so they can raise a family together. But her friends tell her to give up the baby and live her life and be free while she’s still young. So she’s torn between trusting her boyfriend and listening to her friends. Can her father step in and help her to decide what to do?
Later in the song, the speaker reassures her father that her boyfriend has been treating her well lately, and that if her father could see how well he treats her, he would give them both his blessing.
‘Papa Don’t Preach’: meaning and analysis
Brian Elliott, who wrote the original version of the song, offered a clue to its meaning: for him, it’s a song about a young girl who found herself at a ‘crossroads’ and didn’t know where to turn. Elliott himself got the inspiration for the song from schoolgirls from Los Angeles’ North Hollywood High School, who would regularly stop to fix their hair in front of the large window outside his recording studio. While they did so, they would chat, and teenage pregnancy was one of the things they gossiped about.
Never was a song title more in need of a comma than ‘Papa Don’t Preach’. How many people have heard that chorus and thought, ‘why isn’t the father preaching?’ or ‘is this a song about the Pope, and why has he given up pontificating?’ Like ‘no woman, no cry’ (which doesn’t mean ‘if you don’t have a woman, you have no reason to cry’ but ‘hey, woman, don’t be sad’), it must be one of the most frequently misunderstood songs in all of popular music.
Of course, ‘don’t’ here is not informal slang for ‘doesn’t’, but is instead cast in the imperative rather than indicative mood: ‘Papa, don’t preach’ or, in other words, ‘Dad, please don’t lecture me’.
We mention the ‘Pope’ connection because, although Madonna’s song is first and foremost about a domestic situation (a daughter imploring her father not to judge her, but to be there for her during a difficult time), ‘Papa’ does, of course, suggest the ‘Holy’ Father, especially under pressure from the word ‘preach’, which here shimmers with its dual meaning of ‘lecture self-righteously’ and ‘deliver an actual sermon’.
The Catholic church is, of course, an important recurring theme and feature of Madonna’s work, as ‘Like a Prayer’ would demonstrate just three years after ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, in 1989. Is Madonna also enjoining the Pope and the Catholic church, with its strict views on pregnancy outside of wedlock, not to ‘preach’ or be judgmental towards those young girls who find themselves in the same situation as the girl in the song?