Memoir Mixtapes Vol.1 / B-Sides

Papa Don’t Preach by Vicki Wilson

Madonna was keeping her baby. I knew this, because it was a Sunday afternoon in 1986 and I had typed out, one-fingered, the entire lyrics to “Papa Don’t Preach” on an old gray IBM (or was it a Compaq?) computer, then printed them on the continuous-feed printer paper. So there it was in front of me: I’m gonna keep my baby. Mmm. O-oh. I was 12.

I had recorded “Papa Don’t Preach” from the radio. Played the tape on my Walkman. Play it. Stop. Type the lyrics. Rewind. Play. Stop. Type the lyrics. It took a while to transcribe. A few times, my mother looked over my shoulder. I didn’t see her face.

I was a young 12. I knew where babies came from, but I didn’t really know, you know? And the lyrics to that song — unambiguous now — held some ambiguities for me: So she’s pregnant? How old is she? Can they really get married? What will her father say? Will he stop loving her? Can fathers do that? Where was her mother? Maybe that’s what made me feel the need to write down the words. There was a whole story somewhere here that I wasn’t getting, and I was searching for it. Or maybe it was just the dramatic string opening that snagged me.

I didn’t type out the words to “True Blue” or “Open Your Heart” once I got the album, although I did know all the words to “Live to Tell,” and could sing along pretty capably. Madonna’s previous controversial “Like a Virgin” wasn’t that much of a draw for me. It was the missing back story in “Papa Don’t Preach” that fascinated, a story so different from my own. I didn’t have a father who “preached” about anything. I had a mother around who’d look over my shoulder when I typed things. I hadn’t even come close to having a boyfriend, although I knew what it was to have a crush on the guy everyone said you’d be better off without. That was the guy girls always had the crush on.

Madonna has six kids now. I had to Google that. I’m not still obsessed with her. But I also discovered in my Googling that the lyrics to “Papa Don’t Preach” were based on teenage conversations the writer, Brian Elliott, overheard outside his window. No wonder, then, this song caught so many ears. There was a back story: a real girl (or thousands of them), pregnant and young, and we were all wondering and worrying about her. While dancing.

 

About the Author:

Vicki Wilson is a writer. She lives in New York and reads a lot of books.

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