Last year, Brian Elliot wrote what he calls “a love song, maybe framed a little bit differently.”
The 36-year-old songwriter explained: “I saw it as a sensitive plea for compassion and understanding about a young girl who found herself at a crossroads in life and didn’t know where to turn.”
Then Madonna got into the act.
The pop starlet discovered the song about a pregnant teen-ager who wants to keep her baby and included it on her “True Blue” album. Now Elliot’s simple love song, “Papa Don’t Preach,” is in its second week at the top of the Billboard chart.
But it’s become a more than a pop hit. It’s also emerged as a media cause celebre , with everyone from feminist attorney Gloria Allred, Parents Music Resource Center founder Tipper Gore and various right-to-life organizations leaping into a debate about whether the song romanticizes pregnancy and encourages young, expectant girls to not consider abortions.
First, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mick LaSalle wrote a Fourth of July column attacking the tune: “In songs, a singer can go on about the same thing for as long as she wants. But in real life, you get interrupted. When Madonna says ‘He’s gonna marry me’ and ‘We can raise a little family,’ I’d be screaming, ‘Yeah? How? Sponging off me?’ ”
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Judy Markey wrote that she became “real steamed” when she saw the Madonna video of the song, wondering why she couldn’t have addressed the problem “from a more constructive point of view.” Markey later acknowledged, after interviewing Elliot in her column, that perhaps she shouldn’t “preach” either.
Allred wasn’t feeling quite so conciliatory. After hearing the song, the prominent attorney has demanded that Madonna either “make a public statement noting that kids have other choices, including abortion, or if she doesn’t want to make a statement, then she has the responsibility to make another record supporting the opposite point of view.
“This song has me very concerned because it’s being used by anti-abortion groups to encourage young women to keep their babies instead of having an abortion,” Allred said. “We should be encouraging young people who are in a pregnancy crisis to discuss it with their parents and see what options they have. But this song puts parents in a very negative light. It makes having a baby seem very heroic and romantic, as if everyone lives happily ever after, which is not true in most cases for teen-age women in America.
“Pop songs have an enormous impact on kids today. They get their messages from music much more than from what they learn in school or in church. It becomes almost a religious message--a code or part of their belief system.”
Center founder Gore might agree with Allred’s last remark. Her Washington Wives organization has previously complained about how sexually explicit songs, including several of Madonna’s hits, have posed a possible danger to teen mores.
But this time around, Gore is in Madonna’s camp. “I think ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ is an important song, and a good one, which discusses, with urgency, a real predicament which thousands of unwed teen-agers face in our country,” she said. “If if fosters discussion about pregnancy between teens and their family, then I think it’s all to the good.”
But doesn’t Gore feel uneasy suddenly allying herself with Madonna, who had been one of the center’s most prominent targets? “We merely used her songs as examples, because they did contain suggestive lyrics. But that doesn’t mean we’re condemning that artist forever. When she comes out with a song that deals with sex in a sensitive fashion, we can applaud that.”
If Elliot has any reservations about being caught in this cross fire, the songwriter wasn’t letting on. “If Madonna has influenced young girls to keep their babies, I don’t think that’s such a bad deal,” he said, noting that he has received several calls from members of right-to-life organizations. “I’ve heard from all sorts of people that I’m a voice for the New Right and a minion of right-to-life groups.
“But I had no ambitions for this to be adopted by any special interest groups. I’m not much of an activist and I don’t have any banner to wave. I just wanted to make this girl in the song a sympathetic character. As a father myself, I’d want to be accessible to my childrens’ problems.”
Elliot acknowledged that Madonna’s presence radically changed everything. “A lot of people have a problem seeing her as a vulnerable, innocent heroine. But I never got the impression that she was slutty or opportunistic. She brought a lot of depth to the song. But once she sang it, it became the property of everybody, and they’ve all brought their different set of interpretations to it. It’s really out of my hands now.
“I still feel it’s a lucky thing for me. Any time a song can galvanize the public and create this kind of debate, it’s as much as any pop song can ever hope to be.”