Last week I talked about the revelations about music I had in my History of Rock n’ Roll class, and I promised to throw down a list of my favorite songs of the 80s this week. I’m not one to go back on my promises to you, my loyal blog-followers, and so here I am with 10 of my favorite songs from the 80s.
As I mentioned in my last post, many of these songs were either directly or indirectly introduced to me by my parents, as this era of music was sort of “theirs,” as it were. Some of these songs I found all by myself, though!
One of the things I find amusing about this decade of music is the large amount of songs that could possibly be misconstrued as romantic but are actually very creepy. (See “Every Breath You Take” by the Police.) This is… well, maybe one of them. Honestly I’m not sure if anyone considers this song romantic, but I know it fooled me for a while.
However, when I actually figured out what this song was about (Spoilers: A man begging his ex-girlfriend to come back to him, claiming that he basically gave her all her success and if she doesn’t they “will both be sorry.”) If that was the only thing the song represented, though, it would only be subpar lyrically. However, the second verse shows the perspective of the ex-girlfriend, effectively making this song a dialogue between two estranged former lovers. It’s messy and complicated and also, as demonstrated above, less-than-positive, and set to that synth-heavy and incredibly catchy instrumetals, it’s hard to resist.
I knew I had to have a song on this list by the Police, or else my dad would have something to say about it. I was torn on whether I’d talk about this, “Roxanne,” or “Every Breath You Take,” but finally decided on this one for… reasons.
Honestly, I just think this song is adorable. Everything about it is so filled with joy, from the quick piano notes in the background of the verses, to the way the chorus picks up in tempo. The song dances between wistful and excited, taking notes from both emotions and morphing them into a feeling I can’t think of a name for but I’m pretty sure hasn’t been expressed by any other song. Adding that in with that classic kind of reggae but not really Police sound and you’ve got a classic. Also, once my dad pointed it out to me while listening to this song in the car, I really ended up loving the quiet restatement of the “it’s always me that ends up getting wet” line at the ending. A nice bookend to a beautiful song.
We learned about this song in my History of Rock n’ Roll class, but this is one I’ve known and loved for years. Everyone has one or two of those media things that scared you as a kid, and this is one of those. I used to be fascinated by this song. The lyrics seemed so alien and forboding – “Some of them want to abuse you?” What? “Some of them want to be abused?” What?
And yet, as I’ve gotten older, the fear and mystery surrounding this song has compounded into a love. Because I don’t think I was really all that off as a kid. This song is meant to sound frightening and alien. I mean, just look at Annie Lennox’s sinister smile as she gestures robotically to a video of the earth! The song is meant to be so cynical in its worldview that it becomes something other, not human. The idea that everyone just wants to use or be used, abuse or be abused, is incredibly horrifying. And every part of that song commits so well to that idea.
From the pounding synthetic sounds in the background to the pounding, heart-like drum beat keeping time, this song oozes with style. Beautiful, thematic, unforgettable. Plus, Annie Lennox’s close-cropped orange hair is a look.
Okay, so, let me be honest here. I hate “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” I hate it not because it’s a bad song, I hate it because I was forced to perform a dance routine with my girl scout troop in elementary school in a barbie pink bathrobe to it, and that is enough to turn anyone off a song.
However! That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate Cyndi Lauper. Although, actually, that is what it meant for a while. But then I learned a little bit about the role she played in the 80s. I like how she presented herself as a quirky, thrift-shop fashion goofball as opposed to the usual image women in music as sexy and glamorous. (Not that there’s anything wrong with women being sexy and glamorous… it’s just a problem when that’s all they’re allowed to be.)
And then I gave this song a serious listen. And boy, it’s actually a really beautiful sentiment with some actually really beautiful lyrics. Has anyone paid attention to the lyrics of this song? Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for that romantic stuff that’s also rooted in notions of friendship and just, like, being there for a person, but boy is this song heartfelt. I think it’s beautifully performed, and is just a classic ballad for the ages.
I first heard this song when it was covered by Placebo and boy is that version garbage compared to this one. Is that a little mean? I liked that version for a while, sure, but then I listened to the original. (Well actually, then I realized there was an original.) The Placebo version is nice, but only original has those twangy synth sounds. Plus, the Placebo version is way too slow, it undermines the nice, natural beat the original has going.
But anyway, enough about the cover, let’s talk about this one. This song has such great atmosphere. Kate Bush has such a choral voice, strong and melodic, and I like the kind of echoy effect that has been applied… either on purpose or by the limits of 80s recording technology. I’m gonna go with the former. And as much as I dislike her own statement that this song is about how men and women can’t understand each other inherently and that they only way they truly could would be to “swap places,” it’s still a beautiful song, rife with emotion of despair over being unable to understand a loved one (male or female, come on guys, we aren’t hiveminds).
If I’m trying to think of a singular song to sum up my experiences as a kid listening to this era of music in our backyard hot tub, I always think about this song. I feel like it sort of defines the rest of this list for me, and may have even been one of the first songs of the era that I really ended up liking, probably because it was easy for me to understand, even as a little kid. It’s a song about a romance gone bad, the singer scorned by the person they one loved. It’s a predictable pop format, and yet I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it sort of pushed me down the path that would eventually come to me appreciating a lot of this music.
I can’t say there’s much here to analyze – it’s a one hit wonder kind of a song by a one hit wonder band. But there’s something so charming about it. Maybe it’s that synthetic “bum bum” sound that becomes a motif, maybe it’s the incredibly British vocals, maybe it’s just that I’m pop trash at heart. This song has just always held a special place in my heart, a special sort of nostalgia for an era of pop that, while I wasn’t alive for, I was able to experience through my parents.
I first heard this song in a tribute video for The Adventure Zone (an excellent podcast I’ve already recommended in the past). They Might Be Giants is a band I’ve been familiar with just for… you know, being They Might Be Giants. But I was so struck by this song I would watch that one TAZ video repeatedly, sometimes daily, just because it’s that catchy.
The lyrics are so clever and flow so well. There are so many beautiful turns of phrase in this song – I’m partial to the bridge: “No one in the world ever gets what they want / and that is beautiful / Everybody dies frustrated and sad / and that is beautiful.” Does that make me kind of emo? Ah well, I’m kind of emo. The meaning is a little buried under that beautiful language, but to me it seems like it’s about a relationship that’s ending. But that feels a little too simple for such a complex song.
It’s not just the lyrics that attract me to this song, anyway. It’s the driving force of those instrumentals, the way it never lets up, even seeming to outpace the vocals at times. It all comes together to make a song that grabbed me so hard I wasn’t able to stop listening to it for days… weeks, even.
I talked about this song last week in regard to how the opening clearly shows how this era was a time of experimenting with new technology. But now that I’m here just talking about the quality of this song, let me just say, that opening is just so great. It kind of sounds like the backing track to a cool indie 8-bit game, right up until the low guitar (bass? I can’t tell) joins it, and suddenly it’s an interplay between futuristic and modern sounds, and it’s got this dark atmosphere.
That dark atmosphere continues right up into the vocals, which are low and sad with just a dash of that characteristic 80s emotionlessness, somehow. Every part of this song is really deep and full of all kinds of interesting sounds, from the glitchy beeps and boops during the verses, to the constant layering of the basic riff that makes up this song. It’s just a ride, and I can totally get why this was one of my mom’s favorite bands. There’s just so much going on, so much to listen to, that each listen feels like a new experience.
Another favorite bestowed on me by my parents. You know, I think there’s a lot to be said in how well this song is constructed. Every single sound, from the guitar to the percussion to the vocals… everything, is percussive and tight. That tightness is blends well with the meaning of the song. I don’t know if I really need to explain that meaning as it’s pretty self-explanatory. That slick, cool sound works well with a song all about sex and seduction. It’s a standard in music, it works, it’s good.
But complex analysis aside, the real reason I love this song is that… it just sticks with you. Everything about this song is just so catchy! The main guitar riff is simple but effective, and the nearly whispered vocals jive so well with the music it’s pretty unforgettable. A great song.
I’m still a little unsure on what exactly this song is about. It simultaneously seems like it’s trying to be one of those sinister songs hiding under a veil of romantic language, but then it busts out with lyrics like “A simple prop / to occupy my time / This one goes out to the one I love.”
I suppose it could be just a song about taking advantage of those you love, and that would certainly go along with the dark-sounding guitar and vocals. Meaning aside, though, it’s that guitar and vocals that wins me over in this song. Contrasted with the repeated “Fire!” the song as a whole is subtle, but powerful. Nothing much else to say.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my quick little rummage through this era of music. I won’t claim to be an expert. I’m just an admirer of the music that gave birth to so much of the music I love today.
Next week, something completely different.