As a parent, you have certain responsibilities towards your children. You need to keep them safe, provide them with a home, put food on the table. And, perhaps most importantly, you must do everything you can to help them develop excellent taste in music.
My five-year-old daughter had her own Spotify playlist before she could walk, and it now clocks in at well over 100 songs. They make for a thought-provoking collection. A good few are understandably nursery rhymes, telling tales of stoic spiders and careless shepherdesses. There are some German ones too, reflecting her dual nationality, which range from a charming, Judith Durham-esque song about rainbows to a frankly bizarre one about coughing earthworms.
But the real interest lies in what could be termed the ‘grown-up songs’. These are ones she has heard on the radio, or heard me listening to, and asked to be added to her playlist. To distract myself during an especially long and messy bath time, I recently totted up how many of these tracks came from each decade. Much to my surprise, the clear winner was the 1980s.
Surprise because, if ranking the last six decades in terms of music, like most people I know, I’d have the Eighties in fourth place. Despite huge acts such as U2 and Simple Minds having their finest hour, in my mind it lacked that defining genre to make it stand out. The Sixties had rock ’n’ roll while the Seventies enjoyed the heyday of disco, glam and punk. The Nineties were blessed with Britpop and that slap to the eardrums called grunge. But the Eighties? Well, there was New Romantics and… erm.
What I had overlooked was pop. Pure, unadulterated, feel-good pop music, for which no era can beat the Eighties. Erasure, Duran Duran, Wham!, Culture Club, Kylie and her Stock, Aitken, Waterman stablemates – it was all so unrelentingly cheerful. And of all the songs on my daughter’s playlist, none are as uplifting as How Will I Know by Whitney Houston.
If aliens landed on Earth and demanded to know about our musical history – which, I think we can all agree, should be one of their highest priorities – then this is the perfect track to offer as our exhibit for ‘Eighties Pop’. It has all the essential elements: the synth-heavy intro, unchallenging lyrics about whether that boy/girl likes me, a sax solo in the middle. There’s a modulation after the bridge too, something of a staple in those years.
This is hardly remarkable when considering its pedigree. Songwriting couple Shannon Rubicam and George Merrill also wrote one of Whitney’s biggest hits, I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me), while also penning songs for Dolly Parton and Smokey Robinson among others. They even had their own moment in the spotlight as Boy Meets Girl, who topped the charts with Waiting For A Star To Fall – another exhibit we should offer to any extra-terrestrial visitors – which was partly inspired by this earlier success. ‘After [Whitney] sang How Will I Know, I glanced up and there was a shooting star in the night sky above the amphitheatre,’ Rubicam told The Guardian recently. ‘I pulled out my notebook and wrote down: Waiting for a star to fall. It felt like a sign from the heavens.’
The How Will I Know video is a classic of the era. A beaming Whitney, sporting a perm pinned down by a humongous silver bow, struts around a series of corridors painted in pinks, purples and yellows that match her brilliant makeup. All around are black-clad dancers pulling out some vintage Eighties moves, all high kicks and sharp turns. It’s quintessentially of its time: a little bit cheesy, a little bit fake – but all hugely enjoyable.
It’s no wonder she looked so happy. From early in the American’s career, she was one of those global stars for whom no second name is necessary, almost instant fame and appreciation derived in no small part from her remarkable, flawless voice. Sadly, she is now remembered as much for her troubled later life as for her music. From the late Nineties until her death in 2012, the tabloid press delighted in reporting each incident with priggish faux horror, while showing no restraint in providing their readers with every last detail. A far more balanced take on her life can be found in Whitney, the 2018 documentary film of her life that focuses on the many factors behind her demons. It’s definitely worth watching.
But five-year-olds aren’t interested in any of that. They only care about the music. And maybe I was wrong about kids needing musical guidance from their parents: I can find little fault in my offspring’s Eighties-heavy playlist. There’s a disco classic from Pet Shop Boys, an uplifting bit of soul from Wet Wet Wet, a stirring singalong Back On The Chain Gang by The Pretenders, another tune with a delicious key change after the bridge. Centerfold by The J. Geils Band is a favourite too, although I’m trusting my daughter doesn’t understand what they’re singing about.
No one gets us dancing around the bathroom like Whitney, though. How Will I Know is an undisputed pop masterpiece, one deserving of a place on anyone’s playlist – whether young, old or alien.
Tim Woods is the author of Love In The Time Of Britpop. His new book, Twisted Mountains, will be published by Little Peak Press in October 2021. Twitter: @tim_woods77