Listen to America: The 1980s

To see the intro to this project, as well as links to other decades, click here.

43) “Out Here on My Own,” from Fame

You know the title song from this movie isn’t really eligible for the same reason “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” isn’t eligible? Good trivia. I wouldn’t have chosen it anyway, because the two songs that are most evocative of what Fame is going for are both about crushing loneliness. In the previous decade or so, films about New York alienation from Midnight Cowboy to The French Connection to Dog Day Afternoon had all gotten into this idea that being a nobody in New York City was a one-way ticket to existential despair. It took until the ’80s to bring that idea to teenagers, as Fame is as much an extension of Alan-Parker-the-director-of-Midnight Express as it is a prediction of Alan-Parker-the-director-of-The-Commitments. The High School of Performing Arts kids are absolutely trapped in New York, and throughout the movie, even the bravest and strongest of them get roped around the neck and dragged back to the pavement somehow. “Out Here on My Own” and “Is It Okay if I Call You Mine?” are the songs that most get into that feeling of being fated, and because one of them belongs to Irene Cara, we’re picking that. On its face, the song is bittersweet. Just because one is alone doesn’t mean that one is hopeless. Yet the film has to protest that idea even against the person singing it. The Martelli men tell Coco that the song is beautiful; she opines that it’s “sentimental shit.”

44) “There He Goes,” from Coal Miner’s Daughter

Inarguably the best of America’s music origins biopics, which have generally festered like a defrosted chicken decomposing in a Mississippi dumpster in July, Coal Miner’s Daughter contains the de rigueur scene par excellence. A nervous performer gets up to do an original song in public for the first time, and little by little the room bends to the performer’s magnetism: a star is born. The films which spoof those biopics, like Popstar or Walk Hard, make sure to include some kind of callback to that moment, emphasizing it just as much as the straight biopics do. That moment where the diegetic crowd’s enthusiasm and the audience’s expectation come together is the reason to sit through the first half of these pictures, the proof that the latter group needs that this person somehow deserves their fame, their nadir, and their comeback. If no one’s done this better than Sissy Spacek, playing a terrified Loretta Lynn, then it’s probably not all their fault. So few actors are Sissy Spacek. She is bashful in the first half of the song, but as Tommy Lee Jones walks the floor and the band smiles reassuringly and the crowd starts to come her way, she accesses the country star to be. At 2:02, there’s this adorable moment where she realizes she’s about to land the plane. She didn’t know up until that sudden smile and immediate shy glance to her guitar that she was going to make it, even if the rest of us did, and in that moment she wins us.

45) “Let’s Go Crazy,” from Purple Rain

Look, I don’t know that Prince needs to belong on a list like this, but this was one of our most cinematic performers. He understood the value of a concert film that was as much plot as concert, understood that for us to believe in the performance of the Kid we would need to see Prince doing his thing to start the movie. Thus “Let’s Go Crazy,” which uses the logic of a music video or concert film to begin something which is much more than that. The size of your average fourteen-year-old girl, Prince is the biggest person on screen because of his aura. Sometimes, as towards the end of that clip, the aura is a literal one, enshrining him in a beam of light which I sort of assumed was being saved for the Second Coming. And more often, it’s in a litheness and confidence that’s coming from his body and his guitar and rising up through his voice. Purple Rain is not a great movie, but the performances are unassailable.

46) “Big Bottom,” from This Is Spinal Tap

I don’t know that there’s a grosser couplet out there than “My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo/I love to sink her with my pink torpedo,” and if there is for heaven’s sake don’t tell me about it. More or less unparalleled among mock docs and absolutely the best riff we’ve ever seen on the indignities of being a namebrand musician, This Is Spinal Tap is another film where the choices are basically unlimited. (If this were a list of the musical performances most likely to bring me to tears, “Stonehenge” would be here on the basis of that model about the height of a Razor scooter being lowered onto the stage.) What’s great about “Big Bottom” is not just that it’s a terrific parody of a slightly bygone British sound, but that the lyrics of the song keep finding subtle ways to surprise. I thought referring to someone’s butt as “bumcakes” would be the funniest individual line about someone’s butt, and then Michael McKean sees that bet and raises himself “mudflaps,” which is not only funnier and more disgusting but sung in a way that is just raucously funny. The answer, regarding Spinal Tap, is to accept no substitutes.

47) “Johnny B. Goode,” from Back to the Future

“Blame” isn’t the right word for what I want to assign Back to the Future…it’s more like “culpability.” Back to the Future, which drops in “Johnny B. Goode” as a statement of what Marty McFly will think is still cool and what Marty McFly’s teenage parents will think is from outer space, has weaponized nostalgia. The goal is to put its mid-’80s audience into a mode where they can either appreciate a golden oldie or get back into whatever less achey feelings they had in their joints in 1958. Marty rapidly outstays his welcome as he tries to do his best Hendrix impression—don’t worry, kids, your parents were never that cool—yet the point has been made. Everyone is able to enjoy “Johnny B. Goode” at this point in time, and the song appears to have been chosen keenly for just that purpose. Your mileage may vary on the Elvisification of rock ‘n roll but with Michael J. Fox replacing a guy who didn’t need someone else to sing for him. (I like this movie a whole lot, but this scene definitely gives me the same vibes as that episode of Community where a retro diner owner tells the gang, “After they get frightened by the evening news, many seek the foods and soothing music of a pre-racial America.”)

48) “Blue Velvet,” from Blue Velvet

On the other hand, here’s a movie that thinks nostalgia is a weapon that can just cut your ear right the heck off. Isabella Rossellini’s interpretation of “Blue Velvet,” on a technical level, is probably not any better than anything Meryl Streep has ever sung for the screen. What’s happening with it in its various iterations in this film is staggering, flat out one of the most fascinating uses of music in any American movie. Nostalgia is literally fetishized, a nostalgia that takes Frank back to the mirror stage in his protestation “BABY WANTS TO FUCK,” fueled by a tank of gas, ’50s and ’60s pre-rock hits, and a literal patch of blue velvet. Rossellini reinterprets the song, probably most associated with Bobby Vinton, in doused tones more like harmonic gasps than actual singing. It’s a song which is intended for a single psychotic figure somewhere in the room, and yet it grabs a becoming voyeur as collateral damage. The nostalgia that Jeffrey is looking for is a more innocent one, a time when he didn’t know that there were men like Frank, let alone feel responsible to interdict them. Yet he is as taken with this as obviously and as obsessively as his nemesis.

49) “Why Don’t You Do Right,” from Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Somehow not even in the same neighborhood as the most uncomfortable animated burlesque number of the 1980s…for me, the holder of that belt is undoubtedly the anvil-from-heaven “Let Me Be Good to You” in The Great Mouse Detective. “Why Don’t You Do Right,” sung by the Hera to Robert Zemeckis’s Zeus, is just a more sedate version of “Put the Blame on Mame,” down to the redheaded sexpot in a familiar outfit lipsyncing something to make the anticipatory and surprised alike fall to their knees. There’s nothing particularly comic about what Rita Hayworth was doing four decades earlier, while on the other hand the intent here is largely for the laugh. Bob Hoskins, who already looks like a cartoon character, is gobsmacked by the fact that this beautiful woman is married to goofy Roger Rabbit; he is more amazed by the fact that he is so instantly aroused by her. Later in the film, Jessica will say that she’s “just drawn that way,” the film commenting on its own salacious instincts. The joke that Roger is married to a toon knockout is pretty funny, but that joke doesn’t rate the length of this performance. At some point, this animated character is not just supposed to give Eddie Valiant a weird boner, but presumably some of the dads taking their kids to this movie.

50) “Da Butt,” from School Daze

“At the Hop” fifteen years later, or is it really twenty-five? George Lucas was never all that interested in the here and now, and Spike Lee, despite a few forays here and there, will always return to the present. “Da Butt” is one of several musical numbers in School Daze, and compared to some of the more fanciful stuff going on in that movie, it seems almost dull. For example, no group of light-skinned women pulls out masks of Hattie McDaniel to taunt darker-skinned women during “Da Butt.” But in a movie that’s mostly satirical, this song stands out. Lee can make fun of the students and faculty of Mission College in their Greek life, their athletic lives, the sex lives, their political lives, their in-town lives, and he does until everyone’s blue in the face. What he doesn’t have it in him to do is to lampoon these contemporary college kids for getting down to a live performance of “Da Butt,” a song which is a few Kantian imperatives short of profundity, because he understands that being in this crowded hall part of the dance is an honest emotional experience. There’s pretense in everything else that these college students are up to, but “Da Butt” is pure candor.

51) “Part of Your World,” from The Little Mermaid

Maybe you rate the Winnie the Pooh theme song as an iconic Disney track, and if you did I wouldn’t judge you for it; I can’t quite get there. For my money, no Disney movie before The Little Mermaid had had a really great original song since 1967, when “The Bare Necessities” laughed its way to immortality in The Jungle Book. The Ashman and Menken team had done Little Shop of Horrors together, and done some stuff for Oliver and Company! a few years later. For The Little Mermaid, the restraints were taken off entirely, and the result is a musical score about as important as any other in the 1980s. The model that Disney films would follow to incredible success for the next decade relied on the premise guiding The Little Memaid: a fairytale musical comedy, where the songs more than the animation or voice actors would dictate the success of the film. The art of The Little Mermaid is not up to the standard of other ’80s Disney like The Fox and the Hound or The Black Cauldron, let alone some of the gorgeous work done on The Rescuers in the 1970s or One Hundred and One Dalmatians in the 1960s. There is no giant star providing voice talent here; would you say Kenneth Mars or Buddy Hackett is the film’s big box office draw in live-action film? But it has “Part of Your World,” a wistful song of anthemic quality, silly enough for little children (“whaddaya call ’em?..oh! feet!”) but belted enough to belong in the world of adult contemporary. By including an “I Want” song in the early going rather than waiting near the middle of the musical (for more complex shows: “Out of My Dreams,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “Marry Me a Little,” etc.), The Little Mermaid shows its willingness to engage audiences of all ages while recalling the crowdpleasers of Howard Ashman’s youth, like The Sound of Music or My Fair Lady.

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