Sunday, March 15, 2015

Dads in the 80's: Papa Don't Preach

My first cassette was presented to me by my mother in 1987 when I was six years old.  It was to be shared with my twin sister, of course, and we were still granted full access to my mum’s vinyl collection. This compact hard protective case housed mysterious black spools of tape and came in a paper jacket marked “Madonna True Blue”.

This album had been released for over a year already and it wasn't until my mum heard the song Papa Don’t Preach that she decided that this Madonna character was respectable, her newest single had “a good message” and that she could be a positive role model for her two young daughters -- and that we were old enough to handle it.

My mum cites “Well, she was singing about pregnancy and people just weren't addressing those sorts of things in those days”. My mum also reminded us that it was usually in the car that we had all our serious talks; politics, pregnancy, sex, and sexism -- provoked by the various songs that blasted out of the car radio. Music creates conversation. The proof is in the pudding, kids.

The controversy surrounding Papa Don’t Preach at the time was that Madonna was perceived to be encouraging girls to go out and get pregnant. Or that she was a saint for not getting an abortion. Or a slut for getting knocked up so young. Or naive for not using protection. Or a loud-mouth, (or was it a hero?) for singing about it. Madonna’s comment on the controversy is this:

"To me it's a celebration of life. It says, 'I love you, father, and I love this man and this child that is growing inside me'. Of course, who knows how it will end? But at least it starts off positive."

I wish this song evoked such a simple, celebratory message in me. The evocation of this song didn't hit me until much, much later -- very recently. I am a soccer mom, driving home with my two sons and it’s blasting from my car radio. I know every lyric, every note, but the pang and desperation in Madonna’s voice sounds different to me this time around. So here I am down this rabbit hole, triggered, and self-investigative.

Of all the analysis done on this song & video over the years, to me this is a song that screams:

It’s NORMAL for girls to feel powerless.

The video starts off with Madonna, alone, on the day she discovers she is pregnant, walking home to finally, after days/weeks of speculation, tell her father about her “awful mess”.

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

Madonna is alone a lot in this video, she’s sporting a new look; the gamine androgynous short hair, a more toned muscular body. I’d walk around in flats and a leather jacket too if I had to feel just temporarily, that I was powerful enough to match an over-protective Italian father.

The video flashes back to her childhood, raised as an only-child by a single dad in a 1980’s New York neighborhood. In my imagination it’s Queens, in a district called Ozone Park, where the breezes from the Atlantic rustle through their working-class neighbourhood. Boys dream of growing up to be cops or firefighters and girls dream of marrying them. Grown-ups put “no radio” signs in their vehicles at night to stop the crackheads from breaking in and teenagers take at least two buses and two subway lines to get to high school everyday.

You always taught me right from wrong
I need your help, daddy please be strong
I may be young at heart
But I know what I'm saying

Her father teaches her how to do chores around the house and watches her while she sleeps. In every scene the two don't have conversations, he is depicted as her disciplinarian and teacher and Madonna plays the silent and dutiful daughter.

The one you warned me all about
The one you said I could do without
We're in an awful mess, and I don't mean maybe - please

(Not) Coincidentally, Madonna is sporting a shirt saying “Italians Do It Better” as she hangs with her girlfriends. Her hunky, beefy mechanic love-interest walks past. They stare at each other, wordless, her friends are ambivalent. So are his. They're not showing off. They’re not seeking approval from their gang. They’re into each other, truly. They’ve already “done it”. What we know from the lyrics is that Madonna’s father disapproves of this fella and we’re not sure why. Maybe he thinks his daughter should focus on her studies, maybe it’s because he’s from the wrong side of the tracks, maybe it’s because he doesn’t want her to get pregnant.

But herein lies the father complex:  Madonna wants her father’s approval, and by fighting for approval she goes for the archetype he disapproves of. We play out situations in our personal lives that get us closer to obtaining what we’ve been longing for from our fathers. But you don’t have to take my word for it, ask Freud.

Papa don't preach, I'm in trouble deep
Papa don't preach, I've been losing sleep
But I made up my mind, I'm keeping my baby, oh
I'm gonna keep my baby, mmm...

Juxtaposition-ed with a mid-tempo catchy hook, dancing in a cute outfit, she sings the chorus: the decision-making part of the song. Madonna is strong, self-compassionate and determined. I am sexual. I am a woman. Look at my breasts, my curves, can’t you see? I’m not a kid.

The only thing she has control over is her body. She has no control at home, and no control over her future.

Pleading out her plight, this is the only time in the whole damn video that her lips move.  And when she cries out, there’s no one there to hear her. I’m dying to ask the male directors of music videos about such symbolism: Was this stuff intentional or did it just look good?

In my humble opinion, you could switch out “baby” with anything in this song; she could be singing about her right to get a part-time job, or go to art college, or wear this shade of lipstick, or to put this poster up on her wall, it all feels the same to a girl.

He says that he's going to marry me
We can raise a little family
Maybe we'll be alright
It's a sacrifice

Now after many sleepless nights she tells us she’s got her ducks all in a row. There’s that anguish of feeling the pressure to always have a plan. God forbid we let someone down. She had better lock down that boyfriend of hers if she wants to survive -- going from her dad's care to her boyfriend's care.
“Maybe we'll be alright, it's a sacrifice” are the simple lyrics. Maybe? Doe-eyed optimistic, or perhaps her standards for what a girl can have are pretty low: there's nothing ambitious about her future and "sacrifice” sounds like something her father and the Catholic church has lead her to believe she deserves. She’s banking her entire life on the love of a guy who’s just had sex with her. How scary is that.

But my friends keep telling me to give it up
Saying I'm too young, I ought to live it up
What I need right now is some good advice, please

She turns her back on her community of females who aren't giving her the sage advice she seeks. They tell her to give the baby up. But it’s not just actual advice on what to do that she wants, despite what the lyrics say -- it’s for the trust and unconditional love of her male role model.

I have an engaged, loving, wonderful, supportive, feminist father. He didn’t shower me with loving words or praise and he didn’t have to -- the way he treated me I knew he loved me.  He never treated me like his little princess. He never babied me. If he scolded me, it was never harshly. In fact, I rarely recall him raising his voice. Yet for whatever reason, there was always a deep yearning for his approval:

That sense of “Am I doing this right? 

Now as a grown adult my mother is my contemporary, but my father's role remains the same from where I stand. Whether I'm buying my own car or building IKEA furniture, I catch my mind drifting to my father -- Am I doing this right?

I can’t say enough about the torture when girls feel they've let their parents down. Or when no one talks to them. I can’t speak for all girls but for me, all I wanted was to be seen, to be heard and to know that I was doing it right. What I wanted from my mother was something different, what my sister wanted was also probably different. What my brother wanted from them, again, something different.

The peaceful conclusion is that it’s not a “problem”, it doesn’t need to be “fixed”. It just is. Freud would conclude I have a positive father complex; seeking out the positive attributes in male archetypes that I attribute with my father. Plus I’d say both my parents taught me about goodwill, and being independent, and being beyond competent, so well done, folks.

Daddy, daddy if you could only see
Just how good he's been treating me
You'd give us your blessing right now
'Cause we are in love, we are in love, so please.

When she finally sits down to talk she tells him “Don’t Preach”, which is pretty powerful. It’s not a question. Plus to preach is to “judge or criticize” and lord knows she’s already been spending the last few weeks doing that to herself. Now help her feel she hasn't ruined her life and that you trust her decision.

This scene depicts the "normalized" view on father-daughter dynamics: A father’s role is to protect, that’s his job. That’s what makes a father “good”. He’s failed if she’s gotten pregnant. Who will look after him now if she’s gone off to start her own family? A girl will feel shame and guilt if she’s let down her father. Look, she’s covering her body with a cushion.

Papa don't preach, I'm in trouble deep
Papa don't preach, I've been losing sleep
Oh, I'm gonna keep my baby, 
Don't you stop loving me daddy
I know, I'm keeping my baby

He stands up, storms out of the room. She looks up, alone, afraid, unloved, unseen, uncared for, she’s a small cast-away. He says nothing to her, she says nothing to him. Over time she waits, saying nothing, not speaking. Hours go by, repeat. She has no power in this conversation. She must silently wait for him to come around and decide if she’s worthy enough to help, worthy enough to keep loving.
Finally at the end of the video he walks into her bedroom, takes her hand and holds her. The legacy of the father in this story is that HE gets to be "the hero".

I never knew what happened to Madonna and her little family, or whether the relationship with her father evolved into something more progressive. Chances are she'll play this out in her new relationship. But who knows -- maybe they’ll be alright?

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