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We Were the Kids, Too

For the Price of a Dime

Since the 1980s, changing social mores, rising gas prices, and advancing technology have resulted in an information gap just screaming to be studied. A guide to demystifying songs from the ’80s for later, digitally native generations.

Marcos Chaves, Untitled, from the series "Buracos" (Holes), 2002. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler.

Over the summer I heard the 1982 song “867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone, and it struck me: My kids could never truly understand this.

It has to do with the line, “For the price of a dime I can always turn to you,” referring of course to Tutone’s having appropriate pocket change to use a public payphone to call Jenny of the bathroom wall scrawl. My digital native offspring barely know what a public phone is, and they certainly don’t understand what relationship it has to a dime.

Changing social mores and advancing technology have resulted in an information gap just screaming for attention, at least on family car trips when the radio plays. Herewith: key points for explaining popular songs of the ’80s to those listeners with freakish thumb dexterity. 

Answering Machine: Relationships Constrained by Rudimentary Technology

The Replacements were arguably the grittiest, most authentic rock band of the ’80s. So when, in “Answering Machine,” singer Paul Westerberg sounds like Grandma trying to figure out her new smartphone, it bears explaining how new and unusual answering machines were in that decade. The song’s opening line, “Trying to breathe some life into a letter,” reaches even further back, making it clear that even by the ‘80s, those historical communication artifacts written on paper were hopelessly outdated. Digital natives, though unfamiliar with letters, will be able to see an easy answer to Westerberg’s complaints: You don’t bother to call. You text, and you use emoticons.


Talk to Me Like Lovers Do: When Couples Chatted IRL

In the 1984 song “Here Comes the Rain Again” by the Eurythmics, lead vocalist Annie Lennox sings, “So baby/talk to me/like lovers do.” She is referring to the act of engaging in face-to-face dialog with a boyfriend or girlfriend, with eye contact. (And Skype’s video chats aren’t what she had in mind.) In the next line, she even suggests a pleasurable activity during which the talking might take place: “Walk with me/like lovers do.” Because they weren’t each Instagramming the flora and fauna, the walking and the talking could take place simultaneously. Holding hands was considered an enjoyable side benefit.


Terence Trent D’Arby: Not Talking About Tattoos

In the ’80s, the only people who had tattoos were World War II vets and auto mechanics. Getting a boyfriend’s name tattooed on your ankle, and the inevitable post-break-up return to the tattoo parlor to beg the tattoo artist to add a C to the front of “Andy,” was virtually unheard of. So when the waif-like TTD sings, “Sign your name across my heart/I want you to be my baby,” in his 1988 hit “Sign Your Name,” he isn’t actually suggesting that you come with him to the tattoo parlor while he gets some ink in the pectoral area. It’s a reminder that there are ways to demonstrate love and commitment that don’t invite the risk of hepatitis.


The Jukebox Is Only the Tip of the Iceberg

The 10-cent coin was a critical component of ’80s songwriting inspiration. In the case of “Jukebox (Don’t Put Another Dime),” The Flirts implore a stranger to spare them the inevitable outcome of dime meeting jukebox. A jukebox was a sort of open-source, do-it-yourself, coin-operated DJ-in-a-chrome-box found in restaurants and bars during that decade. Unlike with iPods, once the music began to play, everyone in the room was forced to listen to it. “Don’t put another dime in the jukebox/I don’t wanna hear that song no more,” the girl band sings. Whatever “that song” was, it reminded the Flirts of a lover best forgotten. Also: Though the music video shows the singers carrying a pile of vinyl 45 records into a record store and emerging with piles of cash, these days anyone who could find a physical record store would be pretty lucky to come out with even a dime.


I Eat Cannibals, Maybe Because I Don’t Have Any Other Recipes

No one understood the song “I Eat Cannibals” by Toto Coelo (known as Total Coelo in the U.S., just to make it more confusing) when it was still new in the ’80s, either. “I eat cannibal/feed on animal/your love is so edible to me/I eat cannibal.” Included here as a cautionary anecdote of what life was like before the Food Channel.


Thomas Dolby Telegraphs Future Creationist Defense

In 1982, when Thomas Dolby released “She Blinded Me With Science,” it was commonly held that the song referred to a woman, perhaps a Miss Sakamoto, whose charms rendered the singer senseless. “It’s poetry in motion/and now she’s making love to me/The spheres are in commotion/The elements in harmony,” Dolby sang, his spheres and elements spinning out of hormonal control. That’s all he meant. Resist any assumption that “she blinded me with science” could plausibly be an accusation hurled at a female scientist by global warming skeptics and proponents of intelligent design.


“Cruel Summer” as Metaphor 

When Bananarama sang, “Hot summer streets/and the pavements are burning/I sit around/trying to smile/but the air is so heavy and dry,” in 1983’s “Cruel Summer,” the group wasn’t referring to recent global weather disturbances that have caused searing summer heat to melt power lines and asphalt, or the need for cooling centers for the infirm. It’s just a run-of-the-mill city summer in which Siobhan Fahey, Keren Woodward, and Sara Dallin sit around being angry because they’ve been jilted. The sign in the video was not a typo: Gas once cost only $1.48 a gallon. Some might say that this is why our summers are always cruel now.


Signs: or When Youth Unemployment Was a Choice 

American hair band Tesla scored a big hit at the tail end of the ’80s with a cover of the 1970 Five Man Electrical Band song “Signs,” which included this understandably confusing lyric: And the sign says, ‘Long hair freaky people need not apply/so I put my hair under my hat and I went in to ask him, why?/ He said, ‘You look like a fine outstanding young man, I think you'll do/so I took off my hat and I said, ‘Imagine that, huh, me working for you.’” 

What’s happening here is that the long-haired albeit hat-wearing freak has been offered a job which he decides to refuse. On principle. Given that unemployment for people between the ages of 16 and 19 is likely to reach 25% this year, a modern young listener and job seeker would be more likely to stash his principles under his hat and ask what day he can start.


The Point May Be Moot, but Springfield Isn’t

In his 1981 hit “Jessie’s Girl,” Rick Springfield sings, “I wanna tell her that I love her/but the point is probably moot.” This is confusing to everyone, digital native or not. What Rick implies here is that Jessie’s girl wouldn’t even notice how much the Australian singer/actor pines for her due to her blinding love for Jessie. This is sad for her; there’s no way Jessie has held up as well as Rick Springfield has over the years. Bieber should pray to age half so well.


Nancy Davis Kho is a freelance writer living in Oakland, Calif. She writes a music and humor blog about the years between being hip and breaking one at Midlife Mixtape. More by Nancy Davis Kho