Notes on DJ-ing ’80s Music

This last weekend I went to my 20-year high school reunion. That means (for those of you who’d prefer not to do math) that my classmates and I were in high school during the mid- to late-80s, which we all know was the Golden Age of American Pop Music.*

Unfortunately, the DJ who was hired to do music for the reunion seemed not to fully appreciate this fact, and, frankly, he did a terrible job. Presented with the opportunity to explore the nuances and surprises of the GAAPM, he instead spent the evening scraping the bottom of the 80s barrel, serving up such dregs as Tiffany‘s mall-rat anthem, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and even some Milli Vanilli. Seriously. As he launched into each poorly-considered song, people who hadn’t seen each other in 20 years turned to each other and shrugged quizzically, eyebrows set in a “WTF?” arch. Several members of the reunion committee were seen cornering the DJ and wagging their fingers at him. Dancing was more sporadic and less exuberant than one would expect of a room full of drunk 38-year-olds.

To be fair, the DJ looked like he might not have even been born in 1989, though perhaps he simply looked really young compared to the rest of us. So, it’s possible he just doesn’t understand. While it’s too late now to fix the music for our reunion, I thought I’d offer some advice for anyone else planning to DJ an 80s-related event:

  • This might seem obvious, but listen to some 80s music. Get yourself Sirius radio and spend some time with the “80s on 8” station (which employs four of the original five MTV VJs**) and “1st Wave,” especially when Richard Blade is DJing, or during the “Saturday Night Safety Dance.” Our DJ would have been much better off simply hooking his equipment up to satellite radio for the night.
  • Rent yourself some John Hughes movies. It also wouldn’t hurt to check out The Wedding Singer.
  • Know your audience. Our DJ seemed to think that we had listened exclusively to KIIS-FM in the 80s. Some of us spent much more time with KROQ. (If you weren’t in southern California at the time, the difference is basically between mainstream and alternative.)
  • You know that gizmo you use to speed up songs to match tempo? Yeah, don’t use that. We’ve lived with these songs for over 20 years now, and we know what they’re supposed to sound like. If you speed up Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” so that Simon Le Bon sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk, don’t you think we’re going to notice?
  • Feel free to range around Michael Jackson’s catalog. Whatever happened to him later, the man was a pop music genius at the height of his powers in the 80s.
  • For God’s sake, do NOT play Milli Vanilli or Vanilla Ice. They sucked back then, and they suck now.

* Sorry, boomers. The truth hurts sometimes.
** You know, from when music videos mattered, and MTV actually used to play them?


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