The Bowling for Soup song “1985” (actually a cover of something by SR-71 according to an Amazon user) won’t get out of my head. It doesn’t seem like it ought to be so special, but the hook is very catchy and the lyrics strike me as oddly poignant for a novelty song.
The nostalgia hits just the right chord, gelling perfectly with the hook of the chorus, pulling you into the wistfulness of the song. This is nostalgia at its most affecting—it uses pop cultural touchstones, sure, but not for their own sake. Here they’re emblematic of what we’re really longing for when we romanticize the past—not only lost youth but dashed dreams and squandered opportunities.
Like many rock and punk songs, “1985” holds up stable suburban married life as an example of undesirable drudgery. It’s a pop music cliché. But in this song, Debbie’s original “plan”—“She was gonna be an actress/She was gonna be a star/She was gonna shake her ass/On the hood of Whitesnake’s car”—is so shallow and inane, so absurdly dumb and farfetched, that it’s not a genuine missed opportunity at all. It’s an adolescent fantasy that adult Debbie must realize would have been unwise or impossible, but which she longs for all the same—it would have been fun. After all, who wouldn’t want to shake her ass on Whitesnake’s car?
The hopelessness of her old fantasy, in a way, frees her from the burden of feeling she’s made the wrong choices. Probably she hasn’t. What she wants is to have never made any choices at all—for time to have stood still. Her adult responsibilities—her “yellow SUV” and “two kids in high school” were perhaps inevitable. And she’s stuck looking backward.
It’s a sad song, really, but full of genuine affection for the past—its pop culture and the feelings they embodied. Pop culture evokes feeling in this song, not just pointless cleverness. It's not really about how Springsteen and Madonna were better than what came after, it's about "Why am I so old?" (A lesson Carl Weber might do well to learn.)
I don’t like the video much. When songs have stories, videos seldom follow them closely enough for me. The video cheapens the song (which I'm sure I'm giving way too much credit) and spoils the story I have built up in my head. Too much screen time spent on the band, and actually seeing her writhe on a car is distracting in the wrong way. It’s a good way to hear the song, though, if you haven’t before. Just do me a favor and minimize the window once the song is playing, at least the first time you hear it.
*UPDATE: The SR-71 version, now linked above, has a few different lyrics, most notably her longing for her "fairy tale" with her high school quarterback, and hinting that her life went downhill when "the rubber broke." I like this version less, probably because I'm used to the other one, but also because I think the song is more universal the other way. It's easy to blame a fluke like a broken rubber; owning up to your own choices is tougher and more touching.