It works just as in the other theme weeks, I look at the most popular songs from 1988 and look at the ones that stand out for some reason. Here we go!
Taylor Dane – Tell It to My Heart (#1 in Germany, #3 in UK, #7 in US)
There is something strange going on in this song. The narrator makes it very clear that being together with that other person is really, really good.
I feel the night explode
When we're together
In the heat of pleasure
Those are no soft terms to describe romantic feelings and it’s just one example of many. But despite that apparent harmony of feelings the song is all about doubts.
The passion's so complete
It's never ending
As long as I receive
The message you're sending
Here the doubts creep in and the message/receiver analogy is a bit strange. The chorus gets down to it.
Tell it to my heart
Tell me I'm the only one
Is this really love or just a game?
Tell it to my heart
I can feel my body rock
Every time you call my name
Is this a love song? On the one hand we have these strong emotions that seem really extreme, but on the other hand it really doesn’t seem to be clear what the intentions are. There’s also a strong dependency again, as it is clear that without the other one, the narrator couldn’t really survive. Which would be somewhat understandable but it’s about the other one leaving but doubts if the other one is just playing a game! Somehow I find all of this slightly disturbing. There is so much need here but also confusion and it doesn’t sound like the most pleasant state of a relationship.
George Harrison – I Got My Mind Set on You (#1 in US, #2 in UK, #7 in Germany)
I know this is actually an old song, but still it was a big hit in 1988. There aren’t a lot of lyrics but it’s so weird how they don’t fit together. Or do they? The titular lyric makes it clear that this is a love song or at least you’d assume that. But the rest of the song goes
But it's gonna take money
A whole lot of spending money
It's gonna take plenty of money
To do it right child
It's gonna take time
A whole lot of precious time
It's gonna take patience and time, um
To do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it
To do it right child
If it’s a love song, why does it take money and time to do “it” right? And if it’s not a love song, what is it about that would still make sense? Despite being written in the 60s, this song sounds very 80s with its focus on money. Is that supposed to be ironic? Hard to say with such few lines.
Yazz – The Only Way Is Up (#1 in UK, #3 in Germany, #96 in US)
The chorus of this song, which repeats its title, seems innocent and like standard romance:
The only way is up, baby
for you and me now
It’s optimistic and seems to come from a place of misery, but with hope that things can only get better. What has been so bad, you ask?
We've been broken down
to the lowest turn
Bein' on the bottom line
sure aint no fun
But if we should be evicted
from our homes,
we'll just move somewhere else
and still carry on
“Evicted from our homes”? Wow, that’s oddly grim. And an interesting place to say “We’ll just move somewhere else.” But that’s it, right?
Now we may not know,
where our next meal is coming from,
but with you by my side
I'll face what is to come
Is this an 80s dance pop song about being homeless? Unemployed? A love song about being crushed by financial troubles? Listen to that song and tell me you’ve been thinking about debts and real estate before. There’s something so 80s about that, but it’s also extremely weird. And telling something about our culture, I think, that misery can be disguised by such an innocuous pop song.
Michael Jackson – Dirty Diana (#1 in US, #3 in Germany, #4 in UK)
I’m obviously not the first one to point out that this song is quite misogynist in its message. It could have just been a song about groupies, which is not a detestable subject per se, but the way the woman is portrayed is quite annoying. For one thing, she is called Dirty Diana, so it is not like judgment is held back here. She “seduce[s] every man” and “waits at the backstage door” to give the musicians everything they want, but then trapping them in her heart. What’s so weird is that the seduction angle is played up so much, but the blame is put completely upon her because she is dishonest. Do the musicians think it’s romance and love if they sleep with some girl waiting for them after the show? In the end, she’s also accused of ruining his relationship with his real love, but again, he’s as much to blame, if not more so. But no, the woman is evil here, she’s the seducer, the black widow, the snake and therefore, you know, dirty and the man is the poor victim.
B.V.S.M.P. – I Need You (#3 in UK, #3 in Germany)
Now that’s a love song! The lyrics are long and include many interesting details. If I get it right, the narrator wants to have this girl who seems, well, not so interested. Still,
You're a perfect girlfriend and I want you for my wife
I'm after your heart, oh, don't you see I'm not out to get your virginity
That’s good to know, right? But despite all the love talk, there are some weird things going on:
I feel like I'm filling out an application
so read my resume and have no hesitation
every time I see a girl I fall in love again
wish that we could be more than just friends
I really like the application part, but if I get this right, his résumé includes falling in love with every girl he sees. Anywhere. That might be a good explanation why she plays “hard to get.”
And the sound of your voice helps me carry on
And that look in your eyes it makes me weep
You are a quiet female you hardly ever speak
I may not be good at real romance
But I can do my best if I can get my chance
You have to love the juxtaposition of loving her voice and barely ever hearing her speak. Also, the admittance that although he basically proposed already, he can only try to work out this romance thing for her is kind of cute.
I'm not like the other guys I'm different like you you know I'm the innocent
I shouldn't tell you this but I keep urging
You might not believe it but I'm still a virgin
Do you want my love I need to know
Cause we're taking this situation too slow
Now we’re getting somewhere. Was this written by a teenager desperately wanting to have sex? I couldn’t imagine less convincing lyrics, “I’m different, because the other guys just want sex. That’s all I want too, but at least I’m still a virgin!” Amazing.
You should know that it's your love I need and satisfaction is guaranteed
And you know I want your love so much
Cause I'm singing this song with an MC touch
Satisfaction guarantee is nothing I would bank on, considering the other lines, but as he probably learned in school, the best argument has to be saved for last and what’s more irresistible than “an MC touch”?
Eddy Grant – Gimme Hope Jo’anna (#4 in Germany, #7 in UK)
I wanted to finish with something good. I know, this is one of those songs you are probably sick of hearing on the radio, but looking at the lyrics show that there is a strong political song hidden under the one hit wonder-surface. Sure, singing about apartheid in South Africa is not relevant anymore, but having songs in the charts that protest against a government and also against other political leaders who tolerate it, is quite astonishing, I think, especially today.
I hear she make all the golden money
To buy new weapons any shape of guns
While every mother in black Soweto fears
The killing of another son
Sneakin' across all the neighbours' borders
Now and again having little fun
I mean, imagine those lyrics on the radio, internationally. Well, and then imagine people singing along the chorus and nodding their heads without actually knowing what’s going on. Lyrically, it’s a very powerful song.
In the end, we have lots of romantic insecurity, some unexpected uses for money and poverty, some misogyny and some horny love lyrics, and a political song. Not to speak of the dozens of love and break-up songs I glossed over because they weren’t more than that, but a lot of them, a lot of “my life is nothing without you” and “I need you so much,” which, again, shows a desperation for a relationship (see B.V.S.M.P. again) that must come from a big void of living in our culture.