How do 20-year-old tunes by Debbie Gibson, George Michael, and INXS hold up today? Whitney Pastorek gives 'em another listen

By Whitney Pastorek
Updated January 04, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST
Deborah Gibson
Credit: Janet Macoska/ Retna

Pop hits of ’88: Still good?

Oh, hi. Look, Flashbackers: I totally deserve your scorn. I haven’t written one of these since June (my God, June? really??), and what’s more, I haven’t even tried. I should have at least been up nights, fretting about how I’ve forsaken you, and you are unlikely to ever forgive me…but I haven’t been. I mean, I’ve been up nights, but for other reasons. The other reasons being the things that kept me too busy to write this column. Right. So many excuses.

But so here’s my theory: Maybe the pressure to do this once a week was too much. Maybe I pushed myself too hard. Maybe I burned out. Which, as we all know, is better to do than fade away. Wait, or is it ”flame out”? Shoot. Whatever. The point is, from now on, what if every two weeks or thereabouts, I write you a little Chart Flashback, and we just see how long I can sustain that pace, and go from there? Yes. That sounds nice. I shall try that.

(I know what you’re saying: ”But Dalton Ross writes us a new Glutton every week!” That is true. But I think both Dalton and I would agree that he has less existential pain than I do, and, thus, more free time.)

Now. This week we’re emerging from our holiday season cocoons, and on top of feeling fat from all the eating/boozing, I decided to make us feel old. (This is a fixation of mine lately, if you’ve not noticed.) So the following songs are all a nice round 20 years of age, which means it’s been two decades since shoulder pads and neon accessories and big hair and all that innocence we used to know before grunge came and took all the fun away. Two decades. That’s two decades of time you’re not getting back, by the way. So here’s my 2008 wish for you, Flashbackers: Make the most of it. ‘Cause when it’s gone, it’s gone. Like shoulder pads. One hopes.

NEXT PAGE: Let the reminiscing begin! Billboard’s top 10 songs from the week ending Jan. 9, 1988…

1. ”So Emotional,” Whitney Houston

When she put out her first, self-titled album in 1985, Whitney was flirty and choir-girl naive and saving all her love for us. We fell in love right back. But somewhere between her debut and follow-up (from whence we get this track), the world found a fling in the form of Janet Jackson. Thus, here is a project: Go listen to ”When I Think of You” off 1986’s Control. Then listen to ”So Emotional,” and tell me if it doesn’t sound a bit like our Whitney’s trying awful hard to compete with Damita Jo in the edgy-girl game — especially given that this track immediately follows the ultimate in saccharine-synth good times, ”Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” on the record. And then suddenly, there’s that declarative intro. That clangy-bangy — as opposed to clicky-dingy — backbeat. The personality switch from questioning teenager to snarling sexual aggressor. She becomes a whole different person, for just one song (since ”Where You Are,” the next one up, sounds like it should sue ”Colors of the Wind” for plagiarism). But did Whit-Whit pull it off? Almost. Yes, parts of this song sound like something straight out of the Jackson factory knock-off bin (and I cannot fail to mention that ”When I Think of You” is clearly Janet’s attempt to wriggle closer to Whitney’s turf, executed slightly more seamlessly). But in every proper Whitney Houston song — and when she’s not pushing herself to make ridiculous noises, this is one of those — there’s a moment of transcendence. Here, I personally get emotional during those high harmonies in the chorus, crystalline thirds pushing us out of black-leather darkness and into candy-coated delirium. They’re all the proof I need that Whitney may want very badly to be the type of girl who growls over guitar solos, but she secretly just wants to flounce in taffeta. Ah, and there’s that regret again. What I wouldn’t give to turn back the clock, take her hand, and say, ”Taffeta good. Crack wack.” B