What Was the Song of the Summer of 1986? A Thirty-Year Retrospective

Summer of 1986– the summer of Ferris Bueller and Max Headroom. The summer of Maverick, Goose, and Ice-Man. The summer I first read Catcher in the Rye and the summer when I finally committed to memory the words to “Hotel California.” And the summer where a dance song about a pregnant teen and her disapproving dad ruled the airwaves…well, according to Billboard, that is.


In my opinion, the summer of 1986 gets overlooked, music-wise. People glorify the summers of 1983 (the summer of Flashdance and “Every Breath You Take”) or 1984 (the summer of Purple Rain and “Ghostbusters”). But the summer of 1986 deserves props too, and I wanted to commemorate that time with a “thirty songs from thirty years ago” retrospective. Nothing to it.

But as I was doing some research, I noticed that my memory of those months didn’t mesh with other people’s– especially in terms of the so-called “Song of the Summer,” an honor that several sources, including Billboard and BuzzFeed, awarded to Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach.”

Huh. Now, I was fifteen in the summer of 1986, and like many 80s teens, I listened to Top-40 radio pretty much incessantly. Did I hear a lot of “Papa Don’t Preach” that summer? Sure… But no more than a bunch of other songs. And this isn’t a knock on “Papa Don’t Preach.” I just never considered it THE song.

(As an aside, who determines the “Song of the Summer,” anyway? What criteria do they use? And when do they determine this? For example, over a month ago now, one of my co-workers played Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” for me and pronounced “This is the Song of the Summer.” I mean, he was right– but summer hadn’t even started yet!

And why does there need to be ONE “Song of the Summer”? I guess I fell into that trap a few paragraphs ago when talking about the summers of 1983 and 1984– but I was just giving examples. The way I see it, many great songs can cycle through the pop charts in the span of three months. Why coronate ONE?

Anyway, back to Madonna’s teenage narrator and her unborn baby– who, incidentally, would be approaching thirty by now, probably with kids of her own. Feeling old yet?)

With all that in mind… below is a list twenty-nine other songs from the summer of 1986, divvied up into three categories:

(1) Songs Not Even Close To Being “SotS”– the “Song of the Summer” (Maybe I liked these songs, maybe I didn’t, but they were on the radio in the summer of 1986, so I included them);
(2) Songs That Just Missed the “SotS” Cut (These are the “coulda been a contender” songs– popular tunes, just not “Song of the Summer” popular.)
(3) Songs That, In My Mind, Could Rival “PDP” in a “Song of the Summer” Smackdown (If you have to pick one song, any one of these could get the nod over Madonna, in my oh-so-humble opinion.)

And now… My Thoroughly Subjective Evaluation of Twenty-Nine Other Pop Songs from the Summer of 1986

Songs That Were Not Even Close To Being “Song of the Summer”

“When the Heart Rules the Mind,” GTR: OMG, it’s GTR– a VIP among the OHWs (One-Hit Wonders), that went MIA after their only single was DOA. Actually, that’s not fair: this song is decent, but it definitely does not stand the TOT (Test of Time). R.I.P., GTR.

“Touch and Go,” Emerson, Lake, and Powell: A pretty good tune that had the misfortune of coming out a few months before Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” which is essentially the same song. Actually, “Touch and Go” may be better– or at least, not as cheesy. But since everyone remembers Europe and no one remembers this, I guess cheese wins.

“That Was Then, This Is Now,” Monkees: The summer of 1986 saw an inexplicable (and ultimately short-lived) Monkees comeback: MTV showed all of the Monkees episodes, and radio stations played this song, originally recorded by the Mosquitos, a name only slightly dumber than the Monkees.

“Suzanne,” Journey: A good song, but largely forgettable. How forgettable? Let me put it this way: It’s pretty much the only Journey song never featured on Glee.

“Modern Woman,” Billy Joel: This tune (from the soundtrack of the dark comedy Ruthless People) is pretty much maligned by all, including Billy Joel himself. In fact, according to several reports, when asked why he excluded this song from 1997’s Greatest Hits Vol III , Bill had a very straight-forward response: “I hated that thing.”

“If She Knew What She Wants,” The Bangles: Sandwiched in between the releases of “Manic Monday” and “Walk Like an Egyptian,” this forgotten gem of a song never got its due.

“Digging Your Scene,” Blow Monkeys: I literally just found out what this song is about: an attack on the anti-gay rhetoric that erupted in America at the time due to AIDS. A seemingly innocuous pop song that is actually a defense of gay culture during a generally homophobic era? That is awesome! I have such a newfound respect for the Blow Monkeys now!

Songs That Just Missed the “Song of the Summer” Cut

“Love Touch,” Rod Stewart: From the soundtrack of the comedy Legal Eagles (which I inexplicably saw twice in the theater, once against my will), this is just dippy but damn-catchy movie-pop.

“Rumors,” Timex Social Club: I really liked this song at the time, but unlike many a rumor, this song didn’t stick around long. Or, to put another way, I can’t say the song has taken a lickin’ and kept on tickin’. (Get it? Because it’s the Timex Social Club? Eh…)

“On My Own,” Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald AND “There’ll Be Sad Songs,” Billy Ocean AND “Holding Back the Years,” Simply Red: I am lumping all these together, because they all fall into the category of “Songs I Never Cared For at the Time (And Haven’t Warmed To in the Ensuing Thirty Years), But They All Went to Number One, So I Guess I Have to Include Them.”

“We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off,” Jermaine Stewart: I was sorely tempted to call this a legitimate “Song of the Summer” candidate, because it was played all the time in 1986 (despite the fact that it was deemed scandalous at the time, by nimrods who selectively heard the “Take Our Clothes Off” part while overlooking the “We Don’t Have to” part). But I relegated it to this second tier, because it peaked at #5, and I somehow feel the “Song of the Summer” needs to reach #1.

“Love Walks In,” Van Halen: Oh, and you didn’t play the opening to this song on your Casio keyboard ad naseum back in 1986? Just a stellar song. Mysterious and beautiful– basically, the musical equivalent of Zooey Deschanel from (500) Days of Summer.

“Tuff Enuff,” Fabulous Thunderbirds: From climbing the Empire State Building to wrestling a grizzly bear–this guy will do it all to for the object of his desire. And yet, the T-Birds do NOT win the award for the Most Outrageous Proclamations of Love by a 1980s Singer-Suitor. That honor goes to the guy from Modern English, who will not only “stop the world” for his love but also “melt” with her…. whatever that means. (Are the two related? Do you have to stop the world first in order to melt with someone?)

“Like a Rock,” Bob Seger: “Twenty years now—where’d they go?” Seger’s narrator laments as he recalls his days as a brawny, carefree, charging-from-the-gate teen. That was thirty years ago. Still, despite its age, this song is Chevy-truck tough, enduring as the best work of Seger’s later years.

“Danger Zone,” Kenny Loggins AND “Take My Breath Away,” Berlin: Two songs from Top Gun flew to the stratosphere of the pop charts in 1986: “Danger Zone” peaked at #2, while “Take My Breath Away” went all the way to #1– which still kind of mystifies me. While some folks could make a very compelling case “Take My Breath Away” was the “SotS,” I personally never saw the magic in it. In fact, the song has always given me the need for speed– the need to get it off my radio as speedily as possible.

“Nasty,” Janet Jackson: Ms. Jackson seemed so innocent back then, didn’t she? Oh, the 1986 Janet was still sassy and tough. Just not as… well, nasty.

“Mad About You,” Belinda Carlisle: In the early 80s, two of my friends had a heated debate about who was going to be a bigger star– Madonna or Belinda Carlisle. Guess we know who won that one. Still, Belinda had awesome songs, both as a Go-Go and a So-lo, and this is one of her best.

“Walk This Way,” Run-D.M.C.: The song that introduced rap into the mainstream, revitalized the career of Aerosmith, and influenced pretty much every rap-rock act that followed them. I wanted to put this in the first-tier of this list, but then I remembered my pesky, self-imposed “‘SotS’ Must Have Reached #1” rule. (It peaked at #4.)

“Stuck with You,” Huey Lewis and the News: This came out too late in the season for it to qualify as the “Song of the Summer,” but I wanted to get it in here, because it’s such a great song– one of those songs that when you first heard it, you couldn’t believe it hadn’t existed before.

“Sweet Freedom, Michael McDonald: Fun song, from the Billy Crystal- Gregory Hines buddy-cop film Running Scared. And since we’re on the subject… what’s up with the summer of 1986 and soundtracks? Four on this list already (and one more to come), and that’s not even including Carly Simon’s “Coming Around Again” (Heartburn), John Waite’s “If Anyone Had a Heart” (…About Last Night), and El DeBarge’s “Who’s Johnny” (Short Circuit). Plus we had the re-release of “Stand by Me.” And the Love Theme to Howard the Duck. (Kidding about that last one.)

“Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money),” Pet Shop Boys: Not sure the Pet Shop Boys did, in fact, make much dough from this song, since I have not heard it once on the radio over the past thirty years. But I wanted to include it, if only because it’s the only 80s song I know that name-drops “the Sorbonne.”

Songs That Could Rival “Papa Don’t Preach” in a “SotS” Smackdown

“Invisible Touch,” Genesis: I immediately recognized “Invisible Touch” as a calculated, soulless corporate pop, before I even knew what calculated, soulless corporate pop was. (I much prefer the follow-up single, “Throwing It All Away,” released later that summer.) Then again, “Invisible Touch” is the band’s only #1 song, and I heard it all the time during the summer of 1986, so what do I know? “Invisible Touch” could definitely compete for the “SotS” crown.

“Higher Love,” Steve Winwood: The first single from Back in the High Life and the song that officially kicked off my “Winwood phase” (which ended precisely two years later, with the release of Winwood’s Roll With It, an album as derivative as High Life is transcendent). From a pool of great summer songs, “Higher Love” rose even higher. From its drum-machine beginning to its Chaka-Khan-drenched ending, this is a perfect song, more than worthy of the “SotS” title.

“Glory of Love,” Peter Cetera: This “love theme” to Karate Kid II effectively swept the legs out from under the other songs during the summer of 1986. No, it was never one of my faves, but I’ll admit that it was played a lot– enough to make it a potential “SotS.” (Plus, if I don’t, my wife may accuse me as trying to sound cooler than I actually am.)

“Venus,” Bananarama: Appropriate that this song is about the goddess of love, but audiences around the world still have deep affection for it. “Venus” is went to #1 and became Bananarama’s signature song (even though I personally prefer “Cruel Summer”). For what it’s worth: my sister-in-law just told me this was the “SotS” for ‘86. You want me to tell her otherwise?

Well, I’m going to! Here’s the one song I’d designate the “Song of the Summer” for 1986…

“Sledgehammer,” Peter Gabriel: Sure, “In Your Eyes” is the song from the So album that has really endured over the long haul, but during the summer of 1986, no song was bigger than “Sledgehammer.” For my money, this was much more of a defining song than “Papa Don’t Preach.” If you picked “Sledgehammer” as the Song of the Summer of 1986, I’d definitely say you nailed it.

You know, as I write this, I can clearly remember these songs from the summer of 1986–thirty years ago– but I’m having trouble summoning even three songs from the summer of 2016, which is happening right now! Maybe the short-term memory is starting to go. Or maybe the current crop of songs just aren’t particularly memorable. Or maybe the current songs just aren’t that memorable to me.

I think a little paraphrasing of the last line of Stand by Me (from the summer of 1986) sums up my thoughts nicely: “I’ll never have music like the music I had when I was fifteen. Jesus, does anyone?”

Author: Mark Dursin

Mark Dursin is an English teacher at Glastonbury High School in Glastonbury, Connecticut. His writing has appeared in the Hartford Courant and several online publications, including The Faster Times and JMWW. He and his co-conspirator, his wife Sheri, blog at www.edgeofstory.com.

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  1. Fantastic retrospective. A friend and I were reminiscing about the summer songs of ’86 while pre-concert drinking for the Go-Gos’ Fort Lauderdale concert a few nights ago. All of the songs we mentioned were in your top two categories. I think it’s the period where we started to see a decline in the quality of pop music radio as hardly any singles from great ’85 albums still lingered on the charts, but there were still some great tunes.

    Sledgehammer is unquestionably the song of the summer. It’s a fantastic tune accompanied by a groundbreaking video. In a summer full of pop fluff – which, admittedly, was still pleasing to my ears – Sledgehammer’s artistic appeal stood out.

    Other songs which were favorites of mine not listed in your retrospective…

    There’ll Be Sad Songs, Billy Ocean – Not a fan of ballads, but I dig Billy, a tremendously underrated 80s act. I still like listening to this one, possibly ‘cause it’s so rare I hear it on any 80s format that I haven’t tired of it

    I Can’t Wait, Nu Shooz – Catchy and always puts a smile on my face. Saw them earlier this year, and Valerie sings this song so well live.

    Crush on You, The Jets – The Jets’ dance tunes are pretty quality. The ballads….not so much.

    Dreams, Van Halen – Wasn’t a big pop hit, but it’s another great song from 5150 accompanied by a fun video. Who doesn’t dig the Blue Angels?

    No One Is To Blame, Howard Jones – I don’t think I appreciated how good this song was at the time. 15-year-old me didn’t want to hear ballads. It’s a great song by one of the best new wave artists of the era.

    The summer of ’86 was also the summer in which I developed a still-lingering crush on Belinda Carlisle. That’s how the conversation came up the other night, of course. Mad About You is so catchy, great hooks and the guitar solo from Andy Taylor. And short-haired Belinda sauntering around in that little black dress in the video. Hawt.

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