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'1980s middle school slow dance songs' was the playlist I didn't know I needed

Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael of pop duo Wham! perform in London in November 1983.
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Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael of pop duo Wham! perform in London in November 1983.

It started with the fact that I really need to stick to a budget, and it ended with "Never Surrender" by Corey Hart.

I was going through a major review of spending and savings this week, just sitting in the living room on my laptop, with the dog snoozing on his bed because it's been much too cold to go outside. It was too quiet in the house for a tedious bout of record-keeping. I'd recently resolved an issue with my satellite radio subscription, so it was at the top of my mind, and I went to look at stations. I've learned from riding a Peloton bike that sometimes I will thrive in '80s-based music environments (I was born in 1970), so I went in that direction. One channel was called 80s Chillpill.

I would describe its vibe as "slow songs for an eighth-grade dance," but that's only because I was in eighth grade at about the right time. "Can't Fight This Feeling" by REO Speedwagon. "Careless Whisper" by Wham!. "Holding Back the Years" by Simply Red. "Lost in Love" by Air Supply. That Kenny G song that I never had any idea was called "Songbird." "Glory of Love" by Peter Cetera, from The Karate Kid Part II, which probably constitutes the greatest cultural footprint of The Karate Kid Part II. The UB40 cover of "Red Red Wine." More than one Kenny Rogers duet: "Islands in the Stream" with Dolly Parton and "We've Got Tonight" with Sheena Easton. (If you are from Philadelphia, I would describe the whole thing as "the softer side of WSTW," which is a pretty sick burn — take my word for it.)

I don't think I owned any of these records or, as they would have actually been, cassettes. (I may have owned the Air Supply one — sue me.) Some I liked and some I didn't, but there's not one that I'd ever have mentioned if asked to list my favorite songs of the 1980s. And yet, the nostalgia that kicked in was so particular. It's a consequence of radio listening, I think; at that time, I certainly spent some time listening to music that I owned, but that was a very limited library, so the rest of the time, I listened to the radio. (It wasn't until probably the middle of the decade that watching MTV began to serve this same function.)

It didn't really matter whether I liked "Can't Fight This Feeling" or not; I listened to it over and over and over, much as people do now with their very favorite songs. Top 40 was relentless (and, you'll notice, rather white), so if that was the direction you went, as it was for me, you heard what you heard and you didn't customize the experience. And, for the record, radio was more genuinely local; this was before the entire structure changed in the 1990s.

I wonder sometimes what the current version of this kind of nostalgia is. Obviously, people who are now the age that I was then will have these pangs about something, but it can be hard to know what. It's not as if it's always Top 40 songs for me. The other week, I was singing to myself a jingle from the Van Scoy jewelry stores. It dates back to at least the early '80s, and it starts, "I'm a lucky girl, hooray, oh boy!" Because, of course, she has a diamond from Van Scoy. I always found this music extremely annoying, but now, if you sing it, I will fully belt along. (And I am not alone. I had no idea, but this delighted me.)

It's the same thing with the music from Action News in Philadelphia. "Move closer to your world, my friend! Take a little bit of tiiiiiime!" Back then, was this music important to me? Of course not; it was the theme song to the news. But now, it seems that it's one of the most beloved bits of cultural currency from people who grew up around Philly at the time.

It makes me suspect that what we tend to refer to as nostalgia, which is officially defined as something along the lines of a painful longing for a time in the past, is really two things. One is a longing for the things we loved themselves: the vacation spots we went to, the friends' houses we played at, the book series we devoured, the best meals we ate at home with our families. But the other is more of a gut-punch reaction to hearing (or seeing or smelling) something that is bound up with a segment of our lives — here, my adolescence and teenager-hood, the development of my adult personality, the development of my taste, the time when I worried less about the world in spite of all the good reasons to have done so.

Perhaps that's the appeal of 80s Chillpill. Perhaps because I was rarely hearing these songs by choice, they are stapled indifferently to the widest variety of memories: being sad, happy, bored, frantic, lonely, with friends, in the car, in my room, studying, reading, hanging out. Doing things that were meaningless, but doing them in good company.

Perhaps that's the appeal of 80s Chillpill. Perhaps because I was rarely hearing these songs by choice, they are stapled indifferently to the widest variety of memories: being sad, happy, bored, frantic, lonely, with friends, in the car, in my room, studying, reading, hanging out. Doing things that were meaningless, but doing them in good company.

I remember one of my friends at a slumber party lying across her bed on her back so her head hung upside down, looking at a poster on her wall, and saying, "Did you know that Duran Duran spelled backwards is Narud Narud?" My brain has held tightly to that; its insignificance, in and of itself, is irrelevant. I'm not remembering Narud Narud; I'm remembering the friends, the slumber party. In the same way, when a switch inside me flips during "Never Surrender," I'm not having a painful longing for the song. I'm having a painful longing for versions of myself and my life — and all the people in it — that don't exist anymore.


This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.