Those strings on the intro are an announcement, an almighty flex. Madonna’s True Blue was her third album, but it was the first one she made when she was already a massive star, a foundational pop-music figure. Up until then, Madonna had been associated with a particular sound. Madonna made club music, post-disco dance-pop. Even her ballads nodded to that sound. So it must’ve been at least a little jarring for people to hear the fussy, rococo strings that open “Papa Don’t Preach” — or, for that matter, to hear those strings fade into a story-song about a pregnant teenager desperate for her father’s approval. The strings nod to classical, to baroque, and to the Beatles-style psychedelia that had made a big deal about incorporating strings like those a couple of decades earlier. Madonna was doing what she felt like doing, and the things she felt like doing were working

“Papa Don’t Preach” wasn’t the first single from True Blue; that was “Live To Tell,” Madonna’s previous chart-topper. But “Live To Tell” was a movie-soundtrack ballad, and it came out months before the album. Masterful as it is, “Live To Tell” didn’t announce a great leap forward the way “Papa Don’t Preach” did. “Papa Don’t Preach” signaled that Madonna had enough juice to make a social-issue song that was also a stylistic left-turn. And for all its gutsiness, “Papa Don’t Preach” still worked as post-disco dance-pop. Its strings faded into jittery, propulsive synth-bass and big, mechanized drums, and this story about a girl begging her father to accept her big life decision somehow became escapist club fare. That’s a magic trick. That’s cowboy shit.

“Papa Don’t Preach” wasn’t supposed to be a Madonna song. A decade earlier, the songwriter Brian Elliot had tried to become a pop star himself, but his self-titled Warner Bros. debut hadn’t gone anywhere. By 1986, Elliot was producing demos for a singer named Christina Dent, who never really went anywhere either. Elliot had written “Papa Don’t Preach” for Dent, and he’d played the song for the Warner A&R executive Michael Ostin. Ostin liked “Papa Don’t Preach” enough to play it for Madonna, and she loved it. Ostin talked Elliot into giving “Papa Don’t Preach” to Madonna, and she turned the song into a whole other thing.

Madonna is credited as the co-writer of “Papa Don’t Preach,” but her contribution is apparently limited to a few added-on lyrics. And yet “Papa Don’t Preach” means more coming from Madonna than it would’ve meant from an artist who wasn’t yet established. Part of it is the production. Madonna co-produced “Papa Don’t Preach” with her old friend and collaborator Stephen Bray, who she’d known since before dropping out of college. (Around the same time as he was working on True Blue, Bray joined a reconstituted version of the Breakfast Club, the band that Madonna had been in before she got famous, and they peaked at #7 with 1987’s “Right On Track.” It’s a 7.) But part of it is also the way “Papa Don’t Preach” plays into the persona that Madonna had already established.

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