And so it begins…

The 2022-23 academic year begins today at the Claremont Colleges.

Maybe it’s the historian in me, maybe it’s the incessant storyteller, maybe it’s the habit that helps compensate for the middle-aged memory, but my annual “tradition” is to mark each new academic year in the context of my life (and my time).

And so, this is my 21st academic year as a full-time, tenured/tenure-track professor. Overall, it’s my 33rd consecutive year in higher education (including 4 years as an undergrad at Claremont McKenna College and 8 as a grad student at UC Berkeley).

I’m grateful for every single one of those past years, and even more grateful for the ones still ahead. I feel so lucky to be a professor, and to work in a place that is structured to embrace each year as a new beginning.

What I feel the most grateful for are the relationships––the short ones that last for only a class; the ones that have lasted for 20-30 years; or the many, many others in between. Relationships with other people have been the best part of life, and certainly the best part of my job.

For those of you reading this now who fit into any one of the above categories, all I can say is “thanks.” And no matter where you are, or whatever calendar you live by, we are all learners. Happy new beginning to you!

REVIEW: The Beatles: Get Back (2021)

I wanted to share some thoughts on Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back. The boy and I watched all three episodes (each on the day of their release) last week and the quick review is: we both loved it.

If you’re a fan already, it’s made for you with love and respect. It’s a massive film, clocking in at about 7 and a half hours. Aside from a few lulls in the first episode, it’s so compelling that it feels like it moves fast. I can honestly say it left me wanting more.

Jackson doesn’t just re-edit the story of the boys in January 1969 from an archive of some 60 hours of unseen footage. He also re-edits the story we “know” of The Beatles in this period, what we now know as the last year of their time together as a band.

I want to offer just a few quick thoughts only because I feel like so many of the reviews I’ve read, watched, and listened to in the last few days are so different than what I felt/thought after watching. So here it goes…

The elephant in the proverbial room of this film is the hindsight that comes with us knowing The Beatles were about to end as a group. The original cut of this footage by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (released in 1970 as Let It Be) made this it’s story. 50 years later, we’re still fascinated by this running debate of who (or what) broke up The Beatles.

Jackson answers this question by diffusing it as a question, and that’s part of the beauty of this film.

There are surface ways his film engages the question. I walk away from it thinking the most direct answer to that question is Paul. Paul is asserting a greater leadership and his leadership isn’t really a collaborative one. Paul has a vision and he’s not really patient or skilled enough to bring the others aboard on that vision. When he can, it seems to satisfy him but where he can’t, it frustrates him further.

If Paul is to blame, then it’s for all the right creative reasons. He was growing into an artist with his own vision apart from the rest. The other beauty of this film is that we see the same thing happening for each of the other three.

George is on fire as a songwriter during these sessions. He’s going home three nights in a row and coming back with songs that will be among his most enduring. John is playing with his own vision, one that includes Yoko. For him, the film seems to present the roots of the story we know of the next (and last) decade of his life. Even Ringo is branching out. In one of the most memorable scenes, we see him sharing the start of what will become “Octopus’s Garden” on the piano (!!) with George, who offers him some song writing theory.

The point is each of the young men are developing into their own artist and for each of them that growth meant each moving away from what was.

Jackson’s recut makes the question of their break-up seem like a narrow and simple question, like the thinking of a child. It assumes The Beatles were supposed to not break-up. What we see in this almost eight-hour glimpse into the band is a story of positive growth. That growth (growing up?) will end the band, but it also births the rest of their creative careers.

Some pressures are pulling the band apart. The classic pressure the original film suggested was Yoko Ono. This cut diffuses that story. Yes, Yoko is hanging around (almost attached to John) for the recording sessions. But so are other partners and any number of other people (including a Hare Kirshna disciple). The experiment of filming their making of an album (which is also part of the story of this new film) created anything but a hermetically sealed environment for these sessions.

The film should make one question why we’d focus on Yoko above or before any of the others who are there. In some subtle ways, Jackson’s cut suggests the entire “Yoko is to blame” argument comes from the racism inherent in a larger society weighing in on John’s choice of partners. Their relationship was more news than Paul’s or Ringo’s (or even the crazy one we know of George), and the film suggests some reasons why.

Jackson also includes footage that frames the real “break-up issue” for the band, namely, the lack of a manager and the about to emerge disagreement over who the replacement one should be. Episode 1 frames its narrative partially around the death of Brian Epstein. We hear George say they are now without a “father.” The boys are mourning, and not doing so in any healthy way. You can hear that in their inability to really talk with each other but you can see it, too. John and Ringo are 28, Paul is 26, and George is 25 but they all look like shit! Drugs, drinking, and smoking (so much smoking!) are taking their toll in visible ways at this time.

The lack of Brian Epstein shows its presence in a host of negative ways, including the chaos of a project being re-written as it’s playing out. Jackson also lets us glimpse into John’s enthusiasm after meeting with Stones manager Alan Klein. The whole band even breaks to meet with Klein, unfortunately off-camera. Fans know there would soon be a split over who to make their new manager, and Jackson shows that story progressing over these days.

What we see a lot of in the film is how each of the “boys” are becoming “men.” This isn’t a simple story, not at all. Like the destructive things they’re doing to their bodies, and their inability to each speak like grown-ups with feelings, it’s a growing up while also tripping over their own malformed adulting skills. Here’s where we should be sympathetic to them. After all, they went from pubescent boys to global stars, never getting a chance to develop in a “normal” way. The kind of masculinity each carries is one most of us can recognize, but few of us would really know.

But each is growing nonetheless. They’re starting to make lives with new lovers and kids. They’re becoming less reliant on each other and more on themselves and these new families. And all that is natural and expected. And it leads to the end of the band as they built it.

This film is fun. If you love The Beatles you get to see some amazing stuff. As a glimpse into the creative process of the most influential writing team in popular music, it is more than amazing, it’s precious. (And we get to see Billy Preston and the formidable role he plays in this creative process.) But it’s also a really gripping (and, at times, sad) study in fame, growing up, and masculinity.

And I can’t wait to watch it again.

Remembering the present

Forty years ago today, on December 8, 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed in front of his home in New York City. He had just turned 40 two months before.

There’s a lot of great articles to read today, pieces not only marking the event but also ruminating on the life and legacy of the man and his music. (Here’s one from the BBC and another from Rolling Stone.) There’s a current of nostalgia in remembering an icon like Lennon, and even in remembering a shocking event like the murder of a high-profile figure (I remember where I was when I heard…). That’s a natural way to remember days like this, and an appropriate one, too.

The life and death of John Lennon has been a kind of a surrogate for the baby boomer generation to remember and think about themselves. They’re not a monolithic generation (none of us is) but Lennon and The Beatles—the music they created, the culture they helped define, and the impact they made—played a disproportionate role at a critical period in the lives of this generation. Good music mixed with experiences that define us as people makes the music carry special meaning. It becomes the soundtrack of definitive times in our lives. John Lennon and The Beatles also did more than that. They were, themselves, a definitive experience. It’s only natural, then, for the people who had those emotional connections to John Lennon to think about themselves and their lives on a day like this. In a way, it’s an extension and reflection of his impact.

That nostalgia seems less pronounced today than it was ten years ago, when we marked the 30th anniversary of his murder (and I wrote this). I wonder if it’s because more and more of the people for whom this mattered are no longer with us. I have no way of knowing if the two articles I linked to above are reflective of the bulk of the work published for today but, if they were, we’d probably point out the way they provide a healthy amount of explanation and history mixed in with their nostalgia. And it wouldn’t be hard to understand why.

I was only 8 years old when John Lennon was murdered, and although I remember the news that day and the sadness of the people I saw on TV, it wasn’t as impactful an event for me as other celebrity deaths had been or would be. If my memory is accurate (and that’s asking a lot) I didn’t really feel like I had an emotional relationship with John. I knew him and I knew The Beatles but neither were mine. I don’t remember sensing anything different from the people around me, although I’m sure my memory or my ability to perceive are to blame there. Still, for me, it was sad—it was shocking—but it wasn’t an event related to the things that mattered most in my world.

In a couple of months from now (February 6, 2021 to be exact), John Lennon will have been dead longer than he was alive. Funny thing is, for me he has become more alive over the last ten years than he was for me on this day 40 years ago. My relationship with The Beatles (and their solo work) has grown (really, only emerged) over the last four decades. Whether as the music I love, the personal connection I feel to the art these men created, or my professional interest in the times they helped define, me and John, Paul, George, and Ringo have a thing. And it’s a living thing, one that keeps growing over time.

So today doesn’t bring much nostalgia for me. I don’t really remember where I was when I heard John Lennon had been killed, and the day doesn’t bring me an unavoidable reckoning with the memories of my past. But it is a day for me. Even though the day is about a man’s death, for me, it’s not defined so much by his passing but by his continuing and evolving presence in my life. It’s a relationship almost completely formed since his passing.

As each year passes, more and more of us will be these kinds of people with respect to John Lennon and The Beatles. In a way, that says more about his life and legacy than anything, even more than the impact his death had on the generation who loved him and his music while he lived. Forty years after he stopped living, he’s still creating new and deep relationships with generations of people all over the world.

A new beginning

Happy new academic year!

Today is the start of the new academic year at the Claremont Colleges and I’m confident in saying it’s not going to be like any other before. We’re all online this semester, a first for me–and a first for most of us at the five colleges.

In lots of ways, the liberal arts model is the opposite of online education. It’s very personal. It’s about small, collaborative, and even intimate kinds of learning spaces. It’s as much about the conversations that happen in the hallways and in the quad, in the dining halls and in the dorms, as the ones that happen in the classroom.

Of course, online education can be a lot of these things. It’ll just take work, creativity, and a willingness to fail and grow. I’ve literally spent the last two months preparing my classes and while I feel as unprepared as I do for any other semester (maybe a little more so because it’s hard to anticipate what the normally predictable “feel” of the semester will be), I’m also excited about working with students to define what our new learning context can mean for us.

Maybe the most fun part of this is that I feel like a new professor again, despite the fact that this is my 19th year as a full-time professor (tenure-track and tenured combined). I got my first TA gig at Cal back in 1995. That makes this year the start of my 25th year as college instructor.

I first arrived at the Claremont Colleges in August 1990 as first-year undergrad at Claremont McKenna College. After graduating, I went straight to grad school at UC Berkeley and then got my first academic job straight out of Cal. That means I’ve been in this higher education world consistently for the last three decades, making this the start of my 31st consecutive year in higher education.

It’s always mind-blowing to write the above. None of it seems odd to me and all of it feels right but, at the same time, how have I been alive long enough to have been in a single industry for three decades?

And so it continues and, yet, begins anew. May it be a good year.

Good Times

I’ve said it here before but it’s worth saying again: I’m mentally and emotionally colonized.

I’ve been living in institutions of higher education for the majority of my life–more than 30 years. As a result, those institutions have a dominating influence on me and my thinking. Their values and patterns of being inordinately become my own.

Nowhere is this more true than in the timing of things. The rhythms and pace of higher ed are the rhythms and pace of my own life. My life follows the predictable course of the semester. My autumns move fast and ebb and flow. My springs are marathons that end with a grind. This is true for my work as much as it is for my life. Maybe the most powerful evidence of this is in the fact that I speak of years not in terms of the calendar year but in terms of the school year.

This has been a crazy year. It was a comeback year, going back to work and stepping back into the classroom after a summer of major surgery. It was a year of familial adjustment. My wife started working full-time (more than full-time, actually) and that meant changes for us all, individually and as a family.

You can get a sense of what this year has been like just by observing how frequently (or infrequently) I’ve posted on this blog. Over the thirteen years I’ve been writing here, the frequency of my posting has always varied as family or work take precedent. (Maybe that happens more because I tend to favor posts that take time to put together like a mini-essay, another example of how I’m colonized by academia.) I was on a a pretty regular pace for most of 2018-19 until the fall semester got fully underway and my wife started working. And then COVID happened.

I don’t like to complain about it because I’ve got a job, my wife has a job, and we’re all healthy and happy. Still it’s been a whole mix of ups and downs for us, just like for everyone else. Most days it feels like we’re keeping our heads above water alright and doing okay, but not much else. It’s boring most of the time. My kids know how to find their way out of that better than most but they’ve also grown a little accustomed to this new pandemic life.

Like I said, it’s not all bad. In fact, a whole bunch of it is pretty good. I wish we were all back to the lives we had before but it has been pretty great to have the kids with me all day, every day for more than 140 days now. Our relationship has evolved in good ways, deeper ways, and I really enjoy watching them grow and learning about them as the people they are and are becoming. It’s my silver lining, and I’ll miss it like crazy when this is over.

My #3 starts 4th grade tomorrow. The other two don’t start school (first day of middle school for one and first day of high school for the other) for a few more weeks. And I start my online semester in two. I’m scrambling like crazy to prepare myself and we’re all baby-stepping our way out of summer and into some form of a more scheduled, homeschooling life. We don’t know what it’ll be like but we do know the familiarity and predictability of the the fall semester won’t be there to lean on.

It’s going to be crazy times ahead for us, no doubt, but it’s all good. We got good kids and a good family, everything we need to be safe and cared for, and we got each other. It’s crazy times but good times. Like the song said–ain’t we lucky we got ’em?

Elvis Lives

Today is March 25, 2020 and though most people in this world won’t know it, it’s a noteworthy day in the life of Elvis Presley.

“But ain’t he dead?” you might ask. Yes, Elvis was born on January 8, 1935 and died on August 16, 1977. He was 42 years, 7 months, and 8 days old. That’s 15,561 days in total that the King of Rock ‘n Roll roamed this earth.

Well, today is the 15,562nd day since Elvis passed. That means the big guy has now been officially dead longer than he ever was alive.

Of course, in many non-physical ways Elvis remains very much alive. I could throw a whole bunch of statistics at you about the yearly visitor count to Graceland or the millions of dollars Elvis Presley Enterprises continues to make off his work and likeness to show how he “lives” as a business. And, surely, he continues to live in the hearts of all his fans.

The kind of “life” that most interests me is the cultural one. We continue to live in a pop cultural world that he helped to build. Even if the music doesn’t sound at all the same, Elvis played a big part is defining the “culture” of pop music. He helped define the popular music teen idol, sex symbol, rebel, “has been” and the comeback, and even the spectacle, all in ways that still linger today. Oh, there were many others who also played a part in defining those, but few would deny Elvis’ role.

The most interesting way he still lives is through his music. How many times a day is Elvis played on this planet’s radio waves? How many times a day do people put on and listen to his music?

We all live and, I hope, we are all loved and remembered. But how many of us are well remembered longer than we were ever alive? How many of us make such a cultural mark on this globe to be remembered in such meaningful, vital, and longstanding ways as this cat? Not many in the big scheme of things. That doesn’t say much about him or about us as people. It is worth a thought, though. For me, it’s a good excuse to spend some time with his music.

So way to go Elvis. Here’s to your continuing life as the King of Rock ‘n Roll.

For the Inadvertent Online Professor

Like professors in colleges and universities across the country, I’m making the transition from face-to-face classes to the online classroom.

I have some experience with online classes, but not much. I don’t have anything against online education, it’s just that my work in higher ed has been limited to the traditional, physical classroom. As I prepared to make this change, colleagues who are experts with online teaching have been an amazing resource. I’m so grateful for their generosity in sharing what they know so that people like me can learn and, hopefully, be just a little bit better than we would have otherwise.

Of course, what me and others are doing isn’t exactly the same as just making the switch to online teaching. We’re being forced to make this change because of a pandemic, and not at the start of the term but midstream. What we’re grappling with isn’t just the move to online education but the challenge of making this switch with a class that has already begun and was not originally designed to be anything other than face-to-face.

As I make the transition, I’ve been giving myself advice, too. Here’s what I’m trying to do and remember to do:

Don’t pretend it’s the same.
We’re all living in––and teaching and learning in––an unstable and unpredictable context. Both students and faculty shouldn’t expect our experience to be the same. That doesn’t mean it can’t be good and productive. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn. But it does mean we should recognize from the start that it’s going to be different.

One of the ways this isn’t going to be the same is in the amount of work I expect out of my classes.  It’s both smart and fair to make reductions in the workload of our classes.  But how to reduce? Twenty years ago, when I began my first journey into the world of outcomes-based education, one of the most compelling lessons for me was to design courses around what the essential takeaways were for each class. What skills and understandings did I want them to leave with? How can I enable them to get there? As I make changes to the workload of my classes, it helps for me to identify (or remind myself of) those essential “need to know” outcomes and to try to foster an ability to reach them in as direct a way as possible.

Be sympathetic.
We’re all kind of stepping into the unknown and we’re doing so while our lives are in flux. I’m learning to be an online professor while my wife works and while I’m also homeschooling, feeding, and caring for three kids. The students I work with are going through their own adjustments. Students have a wide variety of home spaces and contexts in which they will now be learning, and the inequities of our society are only going to be more pronounced in the weeks ahead. Keeping all this in mind, we should be as sympathetic with each other (and with ourselves) as we can in the weeks ahead.

Be flexible.
I like beginning my smaller classes with a weekly check-in. I can’t think of anything more vital right now. How else can I be responsive to changing student needs if I don’t know about them?  Creating space to hear what’s going on in their lives and with their learning is not only smart, it’s ethical under these circumstances.   Being open to that information means also being prepared to be flexible.  All the changes I’ve made so far are really only a proposal to the students I work with.  None of us knows what the days and weeks ahead will bring. So, just like with our present––when we find ourselves in a place we could not have anticipated at the start of our term––we should anticipate having to make changes again as circumstances change and needs arise.

And so here we go! If you’re facing the same challenges in your life, I wish you the best of luck. Be patient and be kind and, please, stay put.

Abbey Road at 50

Abbey Road turns 50 years old today! The Beatles’s eleventh studio album was released in the UK on September 26, 1969. It dropped in the US on October 1.

Abbey Road was the last studio album recorded by the group (though 1970’s Let it Be–––recorded before Abbey Road–––would be the last studio album of the group ever released). The boys recorded it from February to August of that year, at the same time the group was breaking up. As the story goes, the group was done just before Abbey Road was released. John Lennon had already told the others he was leaving. When Paul made the public announcement in April 1970 that he was done, the world knew The Beatles were over.

Abbey Road is a special album for me and my son. It’s our favorite, and some of the songs–––”Here Comes the Sun,” “Something,” and the ending medley of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End”–––have been a part of his life since he was a newborn. I used to play “Golden Slumbers” to him every night after bath time, while I dried him off and put on his lotion. I still think of those times when I hear it.

But it’s our favorite album for a whole lot of other reasons. It opens with a classic John Lennon song (“Come Together”). Some of the best George Harrison songs are on it (“Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”). It’s got Paul McCartney at his bluesy best (“Oh! Darling”). And not to be out done, Ringo Starr gives us a classic, too (“Octopus’s Garden”). I think the thing that always brings it all together for us is the fact that it’s the band’s last. They know they’re ending their time together and they use the album to say goodbye, not only to their fans but also to each other.

If I were trapped on the proverbial deserted island, and I had only one album of music with me to play, I would hope that album were Abbey Road. That’s not because I think it’s the greatest album ever made. Heck, I’m willing to admit it might not even be the band’s greatest album. But it is my favorite of theirs and, more importantly, it’s something that has marked the relationship of my son and I in big ways. This album has my heart.

So happy 50th birthday to Abbey Road!

Friday Five: September 1989

Thirty years ago, the top song in the country was “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” by Milli Vanilli. Even before the scandal that ended their career––they were lip-syncing to vocals by others––they were kind of an easy joke. Now they’re just a sad tragedy.

The rest of the top of the charts from that month aren’t much better, but there still are some great tunes. I was starting my senior year in high school that fall and I guarantee you, there was a lot of great music at the time. It’s just that the things that were most popular in September 1989 weren’t all the best reflection of the most creative and exciting music of that time.

So here’s five songs from the top five from September 1989, a mix of great, good, and, well, popular.

5. “If I Could Turn Back Time” by Cher
Don’t call it a comeback. Sure, Cher wasn’t the Cher of my early childhood, when hit records and a weekly variety TV show made her into a staple of the world of the famous. But 80’s Cher was making a name for herself as a real-deal actress, with movies like Silkwood, Mask, and Moonstruck, to name but a few. And Cher never stopped being Cher in those years. She was larger than life, sparkly, and a big deal in multiple intersecting cultural worlds––queer, straight, camp, dance, comedy, glam, and then some. I don’t remember liking the song that much in 1989 but sometime in the 90s I realized that I knew all the words to it, so I must have been some kind of fan. The video was popular (the 43-year-old Cher shares a bit more than her voice) but the song was even bigger, hitting #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the “Adult Contemporary” charts in September 1989.

4. “Heaven” by Warrant
It is what it is people. Big hair rock was all kinds of sputtering half-formed masculinity, whether in its guitar-driven rock anthems or its guitar-driven love ballads. Is this the best hard rock ballad? No. Is this the band’s best? Probably. But it is what it is. I liked it at the time because I liked Warrant. Their debut album dropped in ’89 and this was its biggest hit, peaking at #2 on the Hot 100 in September. That said, I don’t listen to much Warrant these days. I might not change the channel when one of their hits comes on the radio, but I’m rarely seeking them out. There’s a warm nostalgia factor for me but, in retrospect, the band rode the wave of MTV and big hair rock at a time when the wave was tsunami huge, but not all that creative.

3. Mixed Emotions by the Rolling Stones
It was #1 on the rock charts for the entire month of September 1989 and peaked at #5 on the Hot 100 at the same time. The greatest band in the world was still making good music throughout the 80s. Even though it wasn’t their best, it was still better than the best of most bands at the time. The album it came from––Steel Wheels––along with their Singles Collection compilation released that fall made the Stones pertinent to my generation. I was in a hard rock/heavy metal social group and we were listening to them by 1989, and not just because our parents were, either.

2. “Freefallin'” by Tom Petty
Tom Petty made a solo album in 1989 called Full Moon Fever. Maybe “solo” is the wrong word because his buddy Jeff Lynne was all over the place as a writer and performer. Still, the album produced a bunch of hit records, some of which became regular features at his live performances for the remaining quarter century of his career. This song is the biggest of those, and arguably “the” song of his career (although I wouldn’t make that argument). I liked it then, I like it now, and my kids like to hear it, too. I suspect this song will be enjoyed for as long as we’re around on this planet. It topped the “Mainstream Rock” charts for the last week of August, and then began its decline the following month. It would peak at #7 on the Hot 100 months later.

1. “Love Shack” by the B52’s
It was #1 on the Alternative charts for four weeks, ending the first week of October. That’s a little bit of an odd place for its biggest success, but it did make it to #3 on the Hot 100. Moreover, it really is the band’s biggest song, and that’s something for a band that made Rock Lobster a decade before, which was kind of a big deal. It’s a unique and catchy song that builds off the band’s strengths and still gets you moving thirty years later.

Friday Five: September 1988

It’s not that 1988 didn’t produce any memorable pop, rock, or R&B hits–it’s the year of George Michael’s “Faith,” for example–it’s just that many of the more successful songs from the year aren’t as enduring as songs from other years.

Maybe it’s a product of where music was at the time. Big hair rock, pop ballads, and dance pop seemed all equally popular, and college (or alternative) radio was climbing towards the mainstream. This musical polyglot is kind of characteristic of the charts for most of the rock n’ roll era, so maybe it’s not unusual. The dearth of really ensuring, standout hits that have survived the ages is the more interesting thing.

Apparently, September 1988 is a good reflection of the year as a whole. You’ll know the songs, or you won’t, but only one of them has stood the test of time to achieve the iconic status I’m talking about. And even that only sat atop the Hot 100 for two weeks.

5. “Peek-A-Boo” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
I don’t know this song and I really don’t know much at all about the music of Siouxsie and her banshees. I know they had fans–passionate fans if my world were any indicator–and I know they had a lot of success. I bet this song is not indicative of their best, either artistically or in terms of sales, but it’s a historic song for this month of 1988. In the second week of September, Billboard debuted their “Alternative” charts, meant to capture music that was big but not as “commercial.” This was the first #1 song on those charts.

4. “Finish What Ya Started” by Van Halen
Van Halen had become “Van Hagar” in 1985 and still managed to continue their success of the David Lee Roth era. They had a hit album in 1986 (5150, which topped the level of success they had with their monumentally successful album 1984) and followed it up with 1988’s OU812. This was a decline for the band in terms of sales, but it produced a set of hit singles including this late addition to the album. It peaked at #2 on the “Mainstream Rock” charts in early September and then began its quick decline. It’s a catchy song, yes, but it’s also a great microcosm of the kinds of simple masculinity that built big hair rock in the era.

3. “Another Part of Me” by Michael Jackson
Michael was a factory churning out musical success in the 1980s and early 1990s. At his best and most successful, those songs entered the popular cannon of music in ways most artists only dream of. Not all were songs that get a lot of play today, but they were still hits for the time. His album Bad was the first in history to produce five consecutive #1 songs. This was the sixth, which hit the #1 spot on the R&B charts in September 1988 even though it only made it to #11 on the Hot 100, ending his record-setting streak. It was a known song already, having been written and recorded for his 1986 3D Disney movie “Captain EO.” The video gives us none of that (after all, it was still playing at Disney’s parks) but instead goes live to show what Michael loved to show–just how big a cultural phenomenon he was.

2. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin
I was a teenager in my sophomore and then junior year in 1988 and, like most teenagers, my friends and I had strong opinions about music. This was one of those songs that you either liked or hated, at least in my little world. At the time, I probably said stuff about it that suggested I was in the “hate” camp. I mean, it was kind of easy pickings for hard rock fans. But I didn’t really hate the song. First, it was catchy–like the kind of catchy that when you hear it it sticks with you for most of the day. Second, lots of people–friends and family–loved the song. But the most important reason was Bobby McFerrin himself. The man was everywhere on TV and he was a really nice guy. Plus, he played all the “instruments” on this song because all of them were just him and the sounds he made with his voice and body. It hit #1 on the Hot 100 in the last week of the month where it stayed for two weeks. And trivia note: it was from the movie Cocktail, starring Tom Cruise.

1. “Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns N’ Roses
Out of all the songs on this week’s list, this is arguably the only one to have achieved that iconic status. Funny thing is, it only hit #1 on the Hot 100 for two weeks before fading away! Of course, it was a hit on the rock charts, too, but it only peaked at #7 there. Fans were fickle in 1988. That said, the song grew to be the biggest song for a hard rock band that had lots of big songs and, in many ways, it is the 80s hard rock ballad song of the era. It’s a contender for that title because of its “legs” in our culture. Its cultural endurance owes a lot to the video (equally iconic) but also to the blend of ballad tendencies, with pop and hard rock. It’s as solid song as the band ever produced, and it still deserves listening to, 31 years later.