Artwork by Laura Strohbusch
8th grade marks the end of childhood and the beginning of high school, when a mysterious pressure exerts itself on kids to define themselves, rather than simply exist.
It's also when most of us started to seek refuge in our record collections, CD players, Hit Clips, Limewire downloads, iTunes libraries, or iPod shuffles. As we built out our music collections, the first shadow of an identity began to surface. Did you gravitate towards the hits, the bops, the radio-friendly fare? Did you immediately identify with the angst of Fugazi, or the sloppy sentimentality of Ben Harper? Did you pretend to like The Velvet Underground, listening to “I’ll Be Your Mirror” on endless replay, because you had a crush on Nico?
Our middle school anthems encapsulate a time when emotional comfort was always just out of reach; when feelings were all-consuming, even (and especially) when they felt inexpressible. Whatever your “song” was, it became a salve for your rawest self. Not unlike Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade—a perfect mix of honesty and empathy, applied with the promise of better days ahead.
In that spirit, we asked some our friends and family to tell us the song that defined *their* 8th grade experience, the track that fills them with wincing nostalgia to this day.
Arranged from oldest to youngest, these songs evoke the exploration, wonder, and fear of 8th grade.
That was 1949, and “Buttons and Bows” by Dinah Shore was a big hit that spring. Her voice was like angel from the south, and I could not hear it enough. It wasn’t the lyrics or the melody, it was her voice. Years later I met her, and we dated for some time. We laughed about that. She will always hold a special place on my heart, but it probably really started in 8th grade.
Sheb Wooley "Flying Purple Eater." Captures puberty denying adolescence. 8th graders were younger in 1958.
I somehow can access the blur, confusion, and pain of 8th grade whenever I hear Blondie’s “Call Me.”
In 8th grade I was way into The Who. I didn’t know much about their earlier stuff, just The Who’s latest “Face Dances,” which many would consider one of their worst. But I didn’t care or have a clue. I had a cassette recorder and used to walk around blaring my favorite song off the album: "Another Tricky Day."
"Electric Avenue." I also loved "Rock It."
I played "Chariots of Fire" by Vangelis on the piano for my piano lessons and listened to "Hard to Say I’m Sorry" a MILLION times. But, today, I’d listen to "Key Largo" every single minute if I could. So go with "Key Largo" by Bertie Higgins.
Here is the missive I would wish for all adolescents, as this rousing jam encourages us to live it up and get weird while we can. When this song comes on, all participants are required to recite the preamble along with his majesty, Prince, and then subsequently “Look for the purple banana 'til they put us in the truck.” Let’s go.
I was in 8th grade in 1984-85. I’d discovered hip-hop a few years earlier (my head nearly exploded all over my knock-off Cavariccis) so by that time rap had a big hold on me. So many great records that year but my favorite by a mile is “Roxanne, Roxanne” by UTFO. It inspired 25 answer records in one year and was the reason for Hip Hop’s first ever beef. Also, it’s a great fucking song. Yesterday is a blur but I know every word to that record.
I remember watching Dee Snider hosting an MTV countdown of the best heavy metal songs and when I saw the video for "Big City Nights," I was hooked. I said to my friends, "Big City Nights is the best rock song ever." They all laughed. No one agreed with me.
The very best 80’s song. Total empowerment that once the volume is cranked up to 10 can apply to any romance, jerks, parents, school, or all of the above.
I thought I was Morris Day my entire 8th grade year.
When I was in 8th grade it was 1986. It was the year Pretty in Pink came out. I wanted to be Molly Ringwald. I honestly think I have seen that film hundreds of times. It was my favourite of all teen movies. John Hughes was my god. It told me it was ok to be different and to want more without losing myself in the pursuit. So...the Psychedelic Furs song of the same name (Pretty in Pink) would have be the song that defined that exciting time for me.
Neil Patrick Harris
Catchy lyrics by a brilliant artist, and one of the great videos of the MTV heavy rotation. A stop motion magic trick.
In 1988, me and my friends were listening to classic rock (Hendrix, Zeppelin) and lot of the shitty hair metal that ruled Dial MTV. Somehow through all this waste, Jane’s Addiction’s wondrous masterpiece Nothing’s Shocking made it into my atmosphere. It had elements of all those things I loved already but was so much weirder, cooler—like it had been dropped down from some druggy, sleaze spaceship from out of space, Los Angeles. It also had killer rhythms and some trumpet from Flea. “Mountain Song” starts with one of the greatest basslines in all of alt-rock. It’s heavy as fuck and simple enough that a beginner could play it and feel like a legend, which usually equals iconic.
It's tough because while I would say we listened to "The Humpty Dance" by the Digital Underground the most, the song that I think of when I remember 8th Grade more than any other is "We Didn't Start the Fire." I'm pretty sure when we graduated we sang a version of it but changed the lyrics to make it all about stuff that happened at school. It was very sweet and nerdy.
I listened to this and thought about all the boys who didn’t love me back because I had boy body and giant glasses.
On Valentines Day, a bird pooped on my head and I hid in the library so my crush wouldn’t see me. I listened to this song over and over. Maybe someday I’d have the confidence to say to her “It's a town full of losers, I'm pulling out of here to win.”
When I think about 8th grade I think about "Lady in Red." It was perfect for a slow dance, especially if the girl was wearing red. Or if she had just eaten a red fireball.
Emily V. Gordon
The Cure, Nirvana, and Prince all had hits when I was in eighth grade, and sure I liked all of those, but the song I listened to the most was probably Mr. Big’s “To Be With You.” It was simple, romantic, and catchy, all things I claimed to hate. I also unconvincingly pretended I’d never heard it when it played at a party.
"Everybody Hurts" by REM came out the summer after my 8th grade when my sister was leaving for college. I would listen to it on repeat but also, it played almost nonstop on MTV that summer and I was obsessed with the video.
In 8th grade my favorite song was "Alright" by Supergrass. It was in the movie Clueless which was the best film of the 1990s which was the decade at the end of the 20th century. I liked this song because it ruled. I was a big fan of the Beatles but was always frustrated that all of their music was in the past. "Alright" by Supergrass made me think that people could keep making pop songs in the same style years later. Also it ruled and the video was funny. The year after 8th Grade I started listening to Ska music which you don’t need to know about. Love, John Mulaney.
I used to listen to Sarah McLachlan and cry in my room. My Aunt once offered me tickets to see her play but I was too scared to go because I thought people would be doing drugs.
My two best friends and I won first place in the 8th grade Lip Sync contest with our rendition of The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” while donning matching neon green midriff tops and fluorescent orange bell bottoms. I’ve literally never felt cooler.
In 8th grade I was obsessed with Radiohead. The song I probably listened to the most was "Paranoid Android." It was probably the weirdest song on rock radio (which I listened to constantly) and the weirdest music video on MTV (which I also watched a lot of). I still like this song so maybe I’m not that different from my 8th grade self.
Apparently at this time I felt that I related and understood what it meant to be a real alone sad man.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead
I’ve been pretty musically obsessed most of my life and part of me wants to pick something random and cool--but if I’m being truthful it would be something like “Brick” by Ben Folds Five. In 8th grade I was really into sitting in my room listening to music and FEELING FEELINGS and that song was a perfect fit for that. I can vividly remember just laying there letting it fill me with sweet sweet adolescent emotion.
When K-Ci & JoJo's "All My Life" came on at the 8th grade end-of-the-year dance, I frantically looked for the girl I had a crush on, genuinely convinced it was my last chance at true love... when I found her she was already dancing at arm's length with the captain of the soccer team, and I resorted to sitting alone on the bleachers pretending that I didn't know every single word to the song.
I would do full performances of this album in its entirety for an audience of none.
This song taught me how to talk to girls and I once read it as a poem in English Class. Mrs. Clyburn didn’t know my skills weren’t my own.
I was a rabidly horny, never-been-kissed 8th grader who had a crush on a boy who used a walking cane as a fashion accessory.
Aaliyah died when I was in 8th grade, while shooting the video for this song, and I was heartbroken. My best friend and I wrote an article about her life and legacy for my middle school newspaper. Unfortunately y’all can’t listen to this on Spotify but call your reps if you want to make her music available to the queer youth of today who need to know what they’re referencing with their Tommy jeans.
Because it was in Cruel Intentions and everything in Cruel Intentions was sexy. And because it completely “got me.” Especially the lyric of “sucker love I always find someone to bruise and leave behind,” no idea who I had loved or left at the age of 12, but I really liked the idea.
This is not a joke. And it was four years old when I was in eighth grade. I listened to that CD too much (which is at all). I'm the only living person, including Lou, who knows all the lyrics to MULTIPLE Lou Bega songs.
First ever song I downloaded off Limewire when I moved to CA, didn’t have any friends yet, became my favorite song, fell in love with AC/DC. Later found out that the song that most gave me comfort was about a raucous night of sex.
Luda WAS dope.
I listened to this over and over again. Glee was my favorite show. I went on a class trip to Washington D.C. and listened to that song on repeat for the entire 8 hour bus ride.
Iconic Imogen Heap sample. Picture me with no tits crying to Jason’s sweet melodies.
As a teenage girl going through the sadness and happiness of young adulthood, I knew this song was going to mean as much to me when I was 20 as it did when I was 13. It made me feel inspired and happy and sad all at the same time and it still does.
Elsie Fisher (Kayla)
I heard this song at the end of my 7th grade year. I was beginning to explore my musical taste at the time and Marina became the only artist I listened to. I would listen to the song while drawing!
Jake Ryan (Gabe)
"Believer" by Imagine Dragons was one of the first songs that I really paid attention to the lyrics. I hummed it so much I drove everyone in my house crazy. My taste in music is currently the same—it was only last year that I was in 8th grade. I like pop rock like Twenty One Pilots (another fave band), classical music, and jazz.
P.S. Obviously "Smoke Weed Everyday" by Snoop Dogg is another favorite! jk
Listen to the "Eighth Grade Anthems" Playlist