Popular music and teenagers have gone together for the better part of the last century of U.S. culture. There’s a lot I could say about this as a historian, and as a lover of music, but the only thing that really matters is this: for most of us, the music of our teen years makes an indelible mark in our life story.
I don’t want to make the case about this music being “the best.” Intellectually, I know that some of the music I loved in this period of my life really wasn’t even all that good. No matter. All that is external to the power of music in our lives. When a song comes along that means something to us, that’s all we care about, not whether or not we should like it.
This list of 5 songs from 1987 contains songs that meant something to me in 1987. Some are better than others, yes, but all match up in a visceral way to my (memory of my) life at the time. They might seem like an eclectic bunch. That’s as much as function of me as it is the culture at the time.
5. “Where the Streets Have No Name” (U2)
It’s one of the biggest albums of the decade from one of the biggest bands in popular music. I wasn’t a U2 fan before Joshua Tree made them more pop than “college radio.” I really wasn’t too much of a fan even after that, but there are songs, and this might be my favorite of the bunch. I remember the day in spring 1987 when they announced on the radio that U2 was going to be filming a video in downtown LA and gave an address to go to if you wanted to be a part of it. I’m pretty sure at least a few people skipped school that day. That made the video and song even more meaningful to me, somehow. The Edge’s guitar, the way it builds and explodes, and the period of it release kind of make it like my generation’s “Born to Run.”
4. “I Think We’re Alone Now” (Tiffany)
I had a mad crush Tiffany. In 1987, Tiffany zoomed to the top of the MTV charts with “I Think We’re Alone Now,” a remake of an old 60’s song by Tommy James & the Shondells. I fell in love with it, and with the video. I think it says a lot that I didn’t go around expressing my love of her music to my friends. But I did love it. I bought the 45 and, later, the cassette. Tiffany was the first “star” I remember knowing about whose rise to fame came as a result of performing in shopping malls, hence the video (which is also another reflection of the “video/reality” genre of the time).
3. “La Bamba” (Los Lobos)
I don’t know when I first heard of Los Lobos. They were just always there, always known, the Chicano band from East LA. When the movie La Bamba came out they became bigger than that. I can’t say enough about the movie and its importance to Chicanos in Southern California. There were (and still are) so few reflections of our culture in popular media. The movie filled a void and provided a release, all while celebrating a music legend. Los Lobos covered the title track in a masterful way, reuniting it with its root in traditional music of Mexico. They made it a tribute and made it their own all at once. The flurry of mexicanidad at the end didn’t often make the radio. I remember sitting in my room with my radio on my lap every time I heard the song play, just hoping it would play all the way through. It remains the band’s only #1 song.
2. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” (Whitney Houston)
Whitney Houston was about as vocally talented as a person can be. She was so good, that it almost never really mattered what she sang. She had a voice that could make just about any song better than it was. I think this song is an example of that. It’s not bad, not at all. It has what it needs to be catchy enough. But I don’t think it would have been what it was in the slightest without Houston’s performance. The video is beautifully 80s, too.
1. “Welcome to the Jungle” (Guns N’ Roses)
Guns N’ Roses was my band. I’m hardly unique in that sense, of course. They were probably the most “authentic” of the hard rock bands of the time, able to occupy a space that drew in big hair glam lovers with metal heads. I first heard of them in 1987 before their album Appetite for Destruction came out. They were making such a name for themselves in the LA club scene and a version of the song “Mr. Brownstone” was getting play on non-mainstream radio in the city. When this song was released later in the year, it made them household names. My favorite part of it, aside from the song, is the way Axl Rose looks. It’s a style from before they made it big, a look that was probably replaced as soon as the record company hired a stylist for him. But it’s so LA metal at the time.