“I like challenge and controversy – I like to tick people off,” Madonna boasted, tossing her head and flashing a mischievous half-smile. The 27-year-old pop star was sipping a diet cola in a conference room at the New York offices of Warner Bros. Records. She appeared almost demure in a pink-and-blue flowered dress and a very short haircut inspired by the late-50’s gamine look of Jean Seberg, Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron. Gone along with most of her hair was the heavy makeup and jewelry that made last year’s Madonna resemble a contemporary street version of Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
“After awhile I got sick of wearing tons of jewelry – I wanted to clean myself off,” Madonna said flatly. “I see my new look as very innocent and feminine and unadorned. It makes me feel good. Growing up, I admired the kind of beautiful glamorous woman – from Brigitte Bardot to Grace Kelly – who doesn’t seem to be around much anymore. I think it’s time for that kind of glamour to come back.”
If Madonna’s new upscale look represents a dramatic swing away from the provocative sex symbol who wore lingerie as outerwear and crucifixes like diamonds, it does not signal an end to her courting of controversy. “Papa Don’t Preach,” the second single from her third album, “True Blue” (Sire 25442; LP, cassette, compact disk), is bound to rile some parents of teen-age girls. The protagonist of the song, which was written by Brian Elliot, is a pregnant adolescent who begs her father to bless her decision to keep the baby and marry her boyfriend. Madonna sings it in a passionate, bratty sob that makes the plea immediate and believable.
The song has also been turned into a compelling slice-of-life music video. Filmed on location in a working-class neighborhood of Staten Island, with Danny Aiello playing the father, it features a virtuoso performance by a waifish, saucer-eyed Madonna, who looks all of 15 as she quivers anxiously, awaiting her father’s response. Like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the song and its video have an iconographic resonance that could push Madonna’s career to an even higher plateau than the household-word status she attained last year with her 6 1/2-million-selling second album, “Like a Virgin.”
“‘Papa Don’t Preach’ is a message song that everyone is going to take the wrong way,” Madonna proudly predicted. “Immediately they’re going to say I am advising every young girl to go out and get pregnant. When I first heard the song, I thought it was silly. But then I thought, wait a minute, this song is really about a girl who is making a decision in her life. She has a very close relationship with her father and wants to maintain that closeness. 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.”
“Papa Don’t Preach,” for which Madonna contributed a couple of minor lyrical revisions, is the only song on the album that Madonna didn’t have a strong hand in writing. The song was sent to her by Michael Ostin, the same Warner Bros. executive who discovered “Like a Virgin.” Most of the album’s eight other songs Madonna co-wrote with Patrick Leonard, the musical director for her 1985 tour, or with her sometime songwriting partner, Stephen Bray. The three also co-produced the LP.
While “True Blue” lacks the gleaming ultra-sleek aural surfaces of “Like a Virgin,” both its songs and Madonna’s singing show a lot more heart. “Live to Tell,” written for the soundtrack of “At Close Range,” the movie starring her husband, Sean Penn, was released in advance of the album and recently spent a week perched at No. 1 on the pop charts. It proves that vocally Madonna isn’t limited to catchy novelties and disco tunes – she can carry off a weightier ballad. The rest of the album consists of highly commercial dance-pop whose lyrics convey an upbeat message along with casual autobiographical references. “True Blue” takes its title from a favorite expression of Sean Penn, and is a tribute, according to Madonna, “to my husband’s very pure vision of love.” Musically, it also pays homage to Motown and to 60’s “girl-group” hits like “Chapel of Love” that are the direct antecedents of Madonna’s sound.