The ‘80s were, according to my parents, “fluorescent” and “exploratory” (yes, they are both Aquarians). In a decade where conservatism crept up as a dominant ideology and harmful and anti-Black drug policy became a norm, music contrasted America’s growing traditionalist values. While constructing this week’s playlist, the year 1985 stuck out to me for two reasons. One, a LOT of phenomenal music was released in ‘85. Two, because on September 19, 1985, a group of wealthy Washington wives (including Tipper Gore) attended an important Senate hearing on what they thought of as “porn rock.”
The story begins when Gore’s daughter identified the theme of sex in Prince’s “Darling Nikki” from the Oscar-winning Purple Rain album, which contains music from the film. Instead of monitoring what she purchased for her child (the film attached to the album received an R rating, might I add), Gore linked up with a group of similarly repressive white women to form the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). They compiled a list of songs dubbed the “Filthy Fifteen” and the values that these songs denigrate. They applied pressure to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) through their D.C connections, with the RIAA eventually creating the “Parental Advisory” sticker that we see on music today. I can say that this sticker didn’t work on me personally. When I was in high school, I looked through my grandparents’ record collection and found a copy of Richard Pryor’s “That N*****’s Crazy” comedy record. Though my grandma told me not to, I sneakily listened to the record and howled with sneaky laughter all night. Phillip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire said it best: “All you’ve got to do is tell somebody this is a no-no and then that’s what they want to go see.”
I think that the PMRC story stuck with me because it reflects a white conservative tendency to demonize what exists outside of their idea of “normal.” We saw this in 2020 with reactions to Cardi B’s “WAP” from conservative pundits like Ben Shapiro. In their world, music cannot be too Black, too sexy, too fun or too joyful. It can’t suggest anything disruptive to society, lest it be labeled “explicit” and “evil.” This is so ironic to me, as these same people whine about “cancel culture,” while making it their personal mission to rid the world of what is outside of their perception of purity.
So, with this in mind, I set out to make a playlist this week that is too joyful and too fun with a sprinkle of too Black. Compiling songs that were all released in 1985, I chose slow songs about temptation (“Help Youngblood Get To The Freaky Part”y by Teena Marie), freestyle tracks about one-night stands (“I Wonder If I Take You Home”), and other 1985 R&B/Soul tracks that highlight the vibrant and exploratory feeling of the music of the 80s.
This week’s mix includes:
Help Youngblood Get To The Freaky Party-Teena Marie
This song can only be described as spectral funk. In a bassline-driven track, Teena Marie glides through a story about a woman’s encounter with a mysterious figure named Youngblood. In the song, he attempts to tempt her to a “freaky party,” but she reads him Romans 8:13, which says, “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” Talk about spooky.
I Want to Feel I’m Wanted-Maze
Though I’m a proud Pittsburgher, Philly soul band Maze is one of my favorites. Led by the vocals of Frankie Beverly over a beautifully smooth arrangement, “I Want to Feel I’m Wanted” is a top-tier love song and I sing it with a smile every single time that I hear it.
Part-Time Lover-Stevie Wonder
“Part-Time Lover” goes down in R&B history as the meeting of two legends: Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross. Vandross doesn’t sing more than a simple scat in the background, but his velvety voice sets the groove on this messy ass song about affairs.
How Will I Know-Whitney Houston
No 1985 playlist is complete without Whitney! We know this! She absolutely shreds “How Will I Know” and it was her second number-one single from her self-titled debut, which went 13 times platinum.
Raspberry Beret-Prince & The Revolution
Prince was the king of poetic innuendo. I was probably around 19 when I realized what “Raspberry Beret” was really about, spending most of my life lost in the whimsy of the song.
I’ll Be Good-Rene & Angela
Whew chile, if it was one thing they liked in the 1980s, it was SYNTH! Another thing popular amongst groups like Rene & Angela? Egos. Despite “I’ll Be Good” peaking at number 4 on the R&B chart, the duo went their separate ways in 1986. You can almost feel the tension in the music video as they sing a song about caring for one another.
I Wonder If I Take You Home- Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam
Latin freestyle is a genre that I think doesn’t get the love it deserves in the music world, created by Puerto Ricans in New York City. “I Wonder If I Take You Home” is carried by its hammering drums and Lisa Lisa’s husky voice.
It’s Over Now-Luther Vandross
This song is pure drama and so is the music video. Vandross had me hooked when he used the phrase “ESP’‘ to describe his sixth sense. This song is full of shade, creating a song that is musical-esque in its flair.
“Single Life” was probably a song that men my granddaddy’s age used to justify their rowdy behaviors. This cheeky playboy anthem about a situationship is perfect for the weather this weekend.
Who Do You Love-Bernard Wright
When I first heard “Who Do You Love,” I thought it had come out within the past five years. Bernard Wright (the son of legendary singer Roberta Flack) delivers an expressive and rhythm guitar driven song that is a perfect endpoint for this week’s playlist.
A note as you enjoy this week’s mix: Please do not ignore the violence occurring in Palestine at the hands of the Israeli government. Within the global struggle for freedom of colonized people, please be sure to educate yourself on the history of the oppression of Palestinians and donate to the Islamic Relief Palestinian Fund, as well as share the journalistic works of those on the ground reporting in Palestine, accessible through Twitter and other social media platforms. Liberation is contingent upon solidarity and awareness. None of us are free ‘til we all free. Peace, and join me next week where I tackle Originals vs. Covers.
Header image by Jake Runnion