Popular Songs From The '80s That Are Problematic AF

by Kate Seldman
Originally Published: 
Side By Side Of DJ Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince, The Beastie Boys and Queen
David Corio / Getty Martyn Goodacre / Getty Michael Putland / Getty

Ah, the 1980s. The decade of sprayed bangs, shoulder pads, and a lot of really great music. I’m a child of the ’80s and an elementary school music teacher, as well as a mom of two music-obsessed boys, and I love introducing my kids to the songs I grew up with.

Every so often, though, I put on a particular song, and it makes me realize just how different things were in the ’80s…and not necessarily in a good way. Some of these songs I’ve heard so many times that, I’m ashamed to admit, I’m sometimes not even aware that they contain questionable content–until my kids point it out to me.

Here are six songs that were big hits in the ‘80s, but whose lyrics simply would not fly in today’s world–and one surprising song that I didn’t find offensive, but my kids did.

1. “Money For Nothing” by Dire Straits

An entire generation of kids sang along with the line “That little f****t with the earring and the makeup/Yeah, buddy, that’s his own hair,” without batting an eyelash. I cringe at the thought that I must have sung this word countless times back in the ’80s, whereas today, I’d never dream of saying something so hateful.

The song is written from the perspective of a working-class man watching music videos–these aren’t songwriter Mark Knopfler’s personal opinions–but does that mean Knopfler is suggesting working-class people are homophobic? There’s just generally a lot wrong with this situation, not to mention the whole “chicks for free” part. I’ve noticed in the past few years that radio stations have begun bleeping out this particular F-word when they play this song. Hooray for progress.

2. “Walk Like An Egyptian” by the Bangles

You know what was super cool in the ’80s? Doing the “Walk Like an Egyptian” dance, where you bent your arms and tried your best to look like a 3,000-year-old wall painting. The Bangles even got passers-by in New York City to do the dance in their video for the song. You know who I’m betting didn’t think this was cool at all? Egyptian people. Because, surprise! They didn’t actually walk like that. That walk was based on ancient Egyptian drawings, and wasn’t anything to do with modern Egyptians. Problematic? You betcha.

3. “De Do Do Do” by The Police

I adore this legendary band, so naturally I wanted to introduce my sons to their music. I put on “Walking On The Moon” in the car. The kids seemed to dig it, so then I put on “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.” Bad Idea Jeans, as we used to say back in the day. Hey, Sting, guess what isn’t cool? Writing a song with a chorus that elementary school kids can’t help but sing along to–and then throwing in a line about getting tied up and raped. I know it’s a metaphor, but I’d prefer my kids go a few (thousand) more years without me having to explain the R word to them.

4. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” by The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff

This was my JAM when it came out. I remember being so determined to get it on my mixtape that when it came on the radio, I sprinted across my bedroom to hit Record/Play on my boom box. So naturally, I was super excited to introduce it to my kindergartner and fourth-grader… until we got to the part I’d forgotten about, where the girl that the Fresh Prince is macking on turns out to be a 12-year-old runaway. Creepy! I didn’t want to draw attention to the situation by turning off the music, so instead, I faked a coughing fit that lasted until the end of that verse. That’s because I deal with situations like a mature adult.

5. “Girls” by Beastie Boys

When I was 11, I loved this song, and I was so proud that I knew all the words. It’s about a girl that Ad-Rock likes, but she doesn’t like him back, so he assumes she’s gay. It gets worse: the final chorus goes, “Girls/To do the dishes/Girls/To clean up my room/Girls/To do the laundry/Girls/And in the bathroom.” I love the Beastie Boys with a fiery passion, and I suspect they wrote this song to get a rise out of listeners, especially since they later matured into thoughtful, progressive men who regularly spoke out about their respect for women, but…wow. How did I ever think “Girls” was the least bit funny? I change the radio station if this comes on when my kids are in the car–and when they’re not.

6. “We Are The Champions” by Queen

Scientists have discovered that this is the catchiest song ever written, so I played it for my music students to show them what peak musical awesomeness sounds like. They were not impressed. “I don’t like the part where he says “No time for losers,” one told me. “That’s not nice to the people who lost.” Another kid said, “He’s being a bully.” I’m not sure I agree. I don’t think that songwriter Freddie Mercury was trying to put anybody down, given that the rest of the song is about triumphing over adversity–and especially given the lyrics “I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face/But I’ve come through.” I do appreciate, however, that my students recognize hurtful words and see that it’s wrong to use them against others. I just don’t think that’s what Queen was doing here.

These days, if songs #1 through #5 come on my car radio, I turn them off. I’m sad not to be able to listen to them anymore, but I’m more sad that I –that anyone–once thought it was OK to say these kinds of things about people, even if it was just in a song. Turning off the radio shows my kids that in the 2010s, we value respect and kindness over homophobia and misogyny. And there are still plenty of great ‘80s songs that my kids and I can listen to together! Like Prince, he’s great…Hold on. My kid just asked me what Darling Nikki was doing with that magazine.

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