Mean Girls was released ten years ago today, which is a thing that should make us all feel very, very old. And sure, I could get into my DeLorean GIF and fly back to that week in pop-music history, but I’ve already done hard time in 2004 for an earlier installment of my Somewhere in Time column, and I just don’t have a second thing to say about Usher’s “Yeah!” Instead, let’s head back to July 2, 1986, and check out what Billboard’s Top 40 songs were the week a couple of scrappy young dreamers named Dina and Michael Lohan welcomed a daughter named Lindsay into the world. Hey, anybody know what happened to those three guys?
40. Steve Winwood, “Higher Love”
There are so, so many middle-aged white guys on this chart. That’s who we supported, us record-buying teenagers of the ’80s, because we had no other choice. There was no Radio Disney to market to us in our infancy, no Nickelodeon stars waiting in an incubator to become pop stars, no Kidz Bop to translate American lyrics into child. Nope, we had to buy records made by guys who took statins. My first 45 was Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne,” a bittersweet story-song about two former lovers who bump into one another in a supermarket frozen foods section and get honest about their lives’ compromises and disappointments over a six-pack, then ruefully say another, more final good-bye as the snow turns into rain. I would sigh to myself knowingly as I listened to it: “Man, isn’t that life?” I was 9. Anyway, flukey and/or youth-skewing hits from Pharrell, Eminem, and Justin Timberlake aside, the oldest person in the most recent Top 40 in 2014 is Hayley Williams of Paramore.
39. Robert Palmer, “Hyperactive”
“No Palmer Girls in the video? No dice.” —the American public, July 1986.
38. Andy Taylor, “Take It Easy”
The first solo single from the least popular Taylor in Duran Duran comes from the soundtrack of the timeless Mitch Gaylord–Janet Jones love-among-the-pommel-horses gymnastics flick American Anthem. To call Gaylord’s acting in this video wooden is a bigger insult to wood than the trim on the side of your mom’s station wagon. Fun fact for all the kids with the mohawks down on St. Mark’s Place: This track was co-written by Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. Like characters in a Dan Fogelberg song, we do what we must to get by.
37. Whitney Houston, “Greatest Love of All”
Not bad, Whitney, but everyone knows Dina Martina did the best version of this song.
36. Jeffrey Osborne, “You Should Be Mine”
This one is subtitled “The Woo Woo Song,” predating Pat Benatar’s “Ooh Ooh Song” by less than a year, Cher’s cover of “The Shoop Shoop Song” by six years, and the simultaneous chart run of Tag Team’s “Whoop! There It Is” and 95 South’s “Whoot! There It Is” by seven years. And thus ends today’s lesson on onomatopoeia-core.
35. Madonna, “Papa Don’t Preach”
Aside from being the most famous person on the planet, Madonna could not catch a break circa 1986. She was coming off the Penthouse spread and the media frenzy surrounding her “Fuck Off” wedding to Sean Penn, and getting critically drubbed in the play Goose and Tomtom and the movie Shanghai Surprise — yet no kerfuffle was more dispiriting than the one over this song. The young protagonist of “Papa Don’t Preach” plans to keep her baby, which you would think would endear her to her more conservative detractors, but nope: Religious groups lined up to accuse her of promoting teenage promiscuity. The official word on abortion seemed to be: literally damned if you do, mocked and shamed if you don’t.
34. Level 42, “Something About You”
We talk a lot about the Song of Summer here at Vulture, but what we often fail to discuss is the Song That Brings on Summer. That joyous pop song that is carried in on the first warm breeze of April and whets your appetite for pool parties and humid afternoons. The ’80s had the best of these; I speak of Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way,” Jane Wiedlin’s “Rush Hour,” and Hipsway’s “The Honeythief” to name but three. They may peak before the height of convertible season, but they get you there, and that’s just as important. And this Level 42 track is without question the Song That Brought on the Summer of 1986.
33. The Rolling Stones, “One Hit (to the Body)”
At around this time, the conventional wisdom was that the Rolling Stones should pack it up and retire. That was nearly 28 years ago. And look: You could listen to this perfectly average song, or you could click right here and watch the absolutely ridiculous video for Mick Jagger’s 1987 solo single “Let’s Work,” and watch a man lose 95 percent of his mojo (although a Mick Jagger at 5 percent mojo is still formidable).
32. The Bangles, “If She Knew What She Wants”
It is one of the true tragedies of pop music history that the Bangles are best known for “Walk Like an Egyptian.” (It’s an injustice up there with Fountains of Wayne being considered one-hit wonders for “Stacy’s Mom.”) If you or someone you know is a person who knows the Bangles best for “Walk Like an Egyptian,” please download their album All Over the Place at your earliest convenience. You can thank me later.
31. The Fixx, “Secret Separation”
Very serious videos, inscrutable lyrics, heavy eyebrows: The Fixx, I declare you the Live of the ’80s.
30. Falco, “Vienna Calling”
Is there anything better than a second single from a one-hit wonder? They’re often more interesting songs, and they never stick around long enough for you to get sick of them. Keep “(I Just) Died In Your Arms,” give me “One for the Mockingbird.” I will take “In a Big Country,” but you must include “Fields of Fire.” After unleashing the ludicrous novelty song “Rock Me Amadeus” — a song whose radio edit contained a spoken-word timeline of Mozart’s life, making it the first No. 1 single to trot out classical-music factoids like “1784: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart becomes a Freemason” without any blowback — releasing a second U.S. single is the very definition of false hope. In this way, “Vienna Calling” may be the most inspiring song of the decade. (It’s also miles better than “Rock Me Amadeus,” though so are long stretches of the Donald Sterling tape.) (And yes, I am aware that he is responsible for the original version of the the worldwide hit “Der Kommissar,” but as far as I’m concerned, this just makes him a one-hit wonder twice.) (I am also aware that I am speaking ill of the dead.) (Look, can we just move on?)
29. Jermaine Stewart, “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off”
I was 15 the summer of 1986, still being chauffeured around town by my mother, and when this song (or “Papa Don’t Preach,” for that matter) would come on the radio, my mother would groan her disapproval. “But isn’t this good?” I remember asking, “Isn’t he saying to do the responsible thing?” Before the question was even out of my mouth, she replied “I JUST WISH WE NEVER HAD TO TALK ABOUT SEX AT ALL EVER,” thereby clarifying the official Catholic position on human sexuality better than all the modern popes combined. (Also, please take note of the backup-singer choreography in this video, which I can say without reservation is the best thing ever. Better than penicillin. Go look.)
28. Heart, “Nothin’ at All”
There is very little to discuss in this song, but I think you will agree that its record sleeve is the ’80s-est thing ever. It’s like Max Headroom had sex with Alexis from Dynasty and this is what they wiped themselves off with.
27. The Blow Monkeys, “Digging Your Scene”
Ah, the Blow Monkeys! One of the great also-rans of mid-’80s pop, with their one U.S. hit. (And here again, give me “Forbidden Fruit.”) There are a lot of other attendance-award winners joining them elsewhere in this week’s Hot 100, too:
- #44: Gavin Christopher with “One Step Closer to You,” serving up the best synth tone of the decade.
- #48: Not-quite-INXS Australian band the Models’ “Out of Mind Out of Sight.”
- #59: Madonna manqué and hair-scrunchie enthusiast Regina’s “Baby Love.”
- #66: Synth band-or-person Trans-X, aiming for that “Rock Me Amadeus”/“Tarzan Boy”/“One Night in Bangkok” weirdo spot with “Living on Video”
- #87: The one and only single by Star Search winners Limited Warranty, with “Victory Line.”
There was false hope to go around in Reagan’s America, is what I’m saying.
26. Nu Shooz, “I Can’t Wait”
The summer of 1986 was a pivotal one in my development. It was the last one before my folks started making me get summer jobs, I read Less Than Zero, Bright Lights Big City, and Slaves of New York all in a row, and Top Gun was released, making me want to join and also fuck the United States Navy. Most thrillingly, the drivers’ licenses my friends were starting to get were leveling the playing field. No more would athletic ability dictate social standing; suddenly a half-decent sense of humor and a friend with a car was all you needed to get invited to a party.
Adulthood was coming, and I could not wait.
25. Billy Joel, “Modern Woman”
There was a brief moment in the mid-’80s when Billy Joel and Bruce Willis became the same person. “Modern Woman” — right down to “the casual hip that don’t mean zip” — would have been right at home on The Return of Bruno, and later this very year, Moonlighting featured a fantasy dance sequence set to “Big Man on Mulberry Street.” 1986 was a big year for guys in moderately priced suits who used a lot of ’50s slang, and Joel and Willis were our Übermenschen.
Oh, also, there’s a Billy Joel station on Sirius/XM for the next few weeks, and when I heard about it, I flipped right over just in time to hear the “Edsel is a no-go” lyric from “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I said — out loud — “Billy, I’m going to have to get back to you.”
24. Van Halen, “Dreams”
Was this song written specifically to run under people’s skydiving videos? This is the song that runs under my skydiving video.
23. Prince, “Mountains”
We remember Appolonia as a Prince ingenue. We remember Vanity and Jill Jones and Sheena Easton and Carmen Electra. We tend to forget Kristin Scott Thomas.
22. Belinda Carlisle, “Mad About You”
Say what you will, but for me, “Mad About You” is the Song of Summer, 1986.
21. Rod Stewart, “Love Touch”
Here’s how little teen-centric entertainment there was in 1986: My friends and I went to see Legal Eagles, the Robert Redford–Debra Winger courtroom rom-com in the theater, just because it had “Love Touch” on the soundtrack. I don’t even think any of us liked the song, it was just there and so we went. We were in that awkward age: too old for the kids’ stuff, not yet able to legally purchase a ticket to an R-rated film. The best bet was usually to buy a ticket to whatever PG-13 film the theater was also showing, and then sneak one by one into the theater showing the hard stuff, where we’d only be caught about 70 percent of the time. The year before, a bunch of us snuck successfully into The Breakfast Club by buying tickets to Places in the Heart. You know how groups of 14-year-old boys enjoy a good Depression-era Sally Field–Danny Glover farm drama.
20. Madonna, “Live to Tell”
I saw Madonna live for the first and only time a few years back, and she sang this song up on a giant cross, just in case you’re wondering whether Mo’s relationship with the Catholic church has gotten any warmer.
19. Peter Cetera, “Glory of Love”
My high school was a lot like the one in Dead Poets’ Society, but only the part before Robin Williams gets there. We were taught by a strict group of Benedictine monks, most of whom were British and all of whom were empowered to smack us right in the head, hands, or backside if we were sassy, which we mostly were. We wore ties every day, we always had to be on a sports team, our school day went from 8:09 to 4:42. It was like the military, but the drill sergeants wore robes.
Far more rigid than the monks were the boys. Mean girls are legendary in our culture, but put a bunch of teenage males under one roof and see what happens. It was a conformity factory, because the price of nonconformity was attention, and the attention of a building full of pubescent boys in ties is not the kind of thing you want. I kept my head down.
But that summer, I enrolled in the creative-writing program of a summer school for artsy kids, and the tie came off. The weird were in charge here. We’d walk to the art museum, find a portrait we liked, and then sit in front of it and write the person’s life story. We’d talk about the movies we saw and what we’d do differently. We’d leaf through issues of Tatler with the kids from the dance program over lunch. I spent the whole six weeks of this program with a smile so wide even the drama kids were like: dial it back.
18. PSB, “Opportunities”
Polish superdirector Zbigniew Rybczynski emigrated to the United States in the mid-’80s with a green screen and a dream, and went on to make the same video a million times in a row, including:
Compare, but don’t contrast, because you can’t.
17. Boys Don’t Cry, “I Wanna Be a Cowboy”
This song is a war crime. If you told me it was cooked up in an hour by a small-market Morning Zoo team, I would have no choice but to believe you. There is simply no excuse for this song, and I know that it’s irrational to blame it for the success of the Escape Club’s “Wild Wild West,” but I do, and I am not inclined to forgive. I just watched this video for the first time, and making a cameo as our hero’s rival cowboy is Lemmy. Lemmy. From Motorhead. In the $13.50 mall-kiosk-ass video for the worst Top 40 song of the 1980s. Middle-aged rock legends making compromises: hot hot hot in 1986.
16. George Michael, “A Different Corner”
George Michael could not have started his solo career more tentatively. In much of the world, “Careless Whisper” was credited to “Wham! Featuring George Michael,” and then right into the middle of what was to be Wham!’s final album, ol’ George snuck in his first official solo single. It was like watching a torturously slow breakup between a person who is ready to move on and a person who is absolutely not going to be okay.
15. GTR, “When the Heart Rules the Mind”
What this prog-rock supergroup lacked in longevity, they more than made up for in man-brooches.
14. 38 Special, “Like No Other Night”
38 Special are the pleated khaki Dockers of song.
13. Bob Seger, “Like a Rock”
I plumb forgot that this song ever existed independently of the Ford F-150.
12. Moody Blues, “Your Wildest Dreams”
Fun fact: Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte, as Bon Jovi opposite band Jon Bovi, somehow play all of the 1986 Moody Blues in this video.
11. The Fabulous Thunderbirds, “Tuff Enuff”
We were a diverse bunch in the summer creative writing program, but the alpha of the group was a wildly effeminate kid named Frederick, with the factory-issue artsy-kid swoop-of-hair-down-one-side-of-the-face Mick Hucknall haircut for which we dubbed him Simply Fred. Simply Fred wore black turtlenecks almost exclusively, despite the punishing St. Louis heat. He gesticulated wildly with his hands, which he tucked into his sleeves, giving him the effect of an inflatable dancing man outside of a goth used car dealership. I closely monitored my every word, my every gesture, my every letter S, but Simply Fred let it all hang out. He was proud of himself. He was too gay to function, and yet he functioned. As a teenage boy. In 1986. To this day, I fear and envy Simply Fred.
10. Kenny Loggins, “Danger Zone”
“Revvin’ up your engine/Listen to her howlin’ roar/Metal under tension/Beggin’ you to touch and go.” Jesus Christ. It’s like Sarah Palin’s speechwriter got drunk and made a submission to Motor Trend’s poetry section.
9. Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer”
Gabriel’s So was by far the best of the 1986 old man albums, but my attention was elsewhere that year, specifically on the Replacements’ Tim, XTC’s Skylarking, and the first Crowded House album. There was not yet a word for the music I was falling in love with, which made it feel even more like it had been made just for me.
8. Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald, “On My Own”
Two middle-aged pop stars singing about divorce, and we ate it the hell up. In the summer of 1986, the teenaged record-buying American public spoke with one voice, and it was the voice of a 38-year-old dental hygienist named Pam.
7. The Jets, “Crush On You”
A wholesome Polynesian family band who dressed like the bag of M&Ms that comes out around Easter, and you couldn’t have named a single one of them even at the peak of their popularity. They were their own Kidz Bop. This is what our culture is missing right now. This is the void they should have pushed Malaya Watson into on American Idol. I am officially pining for the Jets.
6. Genesis, “Invisible Touch”
If any human being were a quarter as funny as mid-’80s Phil Collins thought he was, that person would be the greatest comedian in history.
5. Janet Jackson, “Nasty”
We’ve made a great deal of comedic hay over “Miss Jackson if you’re nasty” over the years, but we never really made much of the lines just before, wherein she seems to indicate that her actual name is Janet Privacy Control.
4. Howard Jones, “No One Is to Blame”
In the just-released new wave oral history Mad World — which incidentally is a must-read — Howard Jones explains his songwriting strategy, which is simply to say positive things in the most direct way possible. There is no wordplay, no subtext, no hidden meanings. “Things Can Only Get Better” means exactly that and nothing more. And this one is about the fact that you will be attracted to people even if you’re in a relationship, and that’s cool, as long as you don’t act on it. The end. In the tawdry pop climate of the ’80s, Howard Jones was like Joe Montana in that SNL Sincere Guy Stu sketch.
3. El DeBarge, “Who’s Johnny”
And then there’s this one, the single most confusing and bewildering pop song of all time. Because who is Johnny? Is El DeBarge Johnny, in which case why is he so happy about the girl pretending not to know his name? Is Johnny some other guy he thinks this girl is seeing, and if so, why is it “great to be alive”? And how does the robot from Short Circuit fit into all of this? Commenters, please enlighten me.
2. Simply Red, “Holding Back the Years”
That autumn, my class took a field trip to see a local production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the entire first act of which I spent staring at the body of the guy playing Stanley, wondering whether the rather obvious jock strap he was wearing was a character choice or for his own safety. At intermission, as I was scooching out of my row, I heard a voice: “Dave. DAAAAAVE!” I looked up, and beaming, flailing two black turtleneck cuffs in an enthusiastic double-wave, was Simply Fred, whose school had come to the show too. “Dave, How aaaare you?” “Simp … Fred! HIIiiiii … ” I felt the eyes of 50 classmates upon me. I sensed the ammunition being stored. I was about to get the attention of a building full of pubescent boys in ties. My eyes must have said something close to “I told you never to call me here,” because after a second or two, Simply Fred’s eyes said: “I am so sorry.” We looked at each other for a long second, nodded, and went our separate ways. On the line for the bus after the show, my friend Jim patted me on the back and whispered into my ear: “You might want to lay low for a little while.”
It’s the song Dan Fogelberg forgot to write.
1. Billy Ocean, “There’ll Be Sad Songs”
And after all that, after this summer Top 40 full of Madonna and sex and middle-aged whites and post-new-wavers and nasty boys, this forgotten wet noodle from Billy Ocean is No. 1. Pam, you’re at it again.