Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #36

Rick Springfield – Jessie’s Girl

I’ve always thought that “13 Going on 30” had a Rick Springfield problem.

If you know the movie (and if you don’t, then shame on you), 13-year-old Jenna is a big Springfield fan. I, too, had been a fan, but by 1987, when the “13” part of the movie is set, Rick’s time at the top of the charts was long past. He hadn’t released an album since 1985, and his last single had peaked at #22. Jenna would have been 7 when he was at his peak, and 11 when he last mattered. I know that first musical loves hit hard, but I have been the father to two 13-year-old girls, and I am fairly certain that they would have moved on if someone disappeared from their sights for two years. Surely, Jenna was more likely to be listening to Debbie Gibson or Tiffany (two #1 singles that year) or Glenn Medeiros or some other pop icon that you may have forgotten but that burned brightly back then. 1987 Rick Springfield was also 38 years old. Ick.

I’m pretty certain this is because of the lag time between when the script was written and when the movie actually came out. If, say, the script was written in 2001, that would have made Jenna 13 in 1984, the year of “Hard to Hold”, when film stardom was still a possibility for our hero. You also see this problem with the reference to “Thriller”, which was not a song that a lot of people cared about in 1987; by then, we were all listening to “Bad”. But “Thriller” – and it’s video – played a fairly central role in advancing the film’s plot, so factual logic be damned.

None of this is meant to condemn the movie, which I love. Anyone who comes out of it not adoring Jennifer Garner is dead inside. Judy Greer, who has to be a lovely person to keep getting so much work, creates a first class bitch in Jenna’s best frenemy. Andy Serkis shows he’s capable of much more than motion capture, and Mark Ruffalo makes for a charming romantic lead. It’s also got some neat actors in smaller parts. Brie Larson plays one of the teen bad girls. The actor playing the younger version of Ruffalo’s character grew up to become the sort of cool sax playing Johnny Atkins on “The Goldbergs” (and is brother to the guy who played Ryan Reynolds’ horny kid brother in “Just Friends”). And, finally, Jim Gaffigan shows the unfortunate mess (sorry, Jim!) that your teen crush might turn into.

The song, as would appear obvious from the opening lines, is about the narrator’s attraction to his pal Jessie’s new girlfriend. Yet, one of the more amazing things about the song’s pop culture afterlife is the theory that the narrator is actually in love with Jessie (somehow misheard through a sort of wishful thinking as “I wish that I was Jessie’s girl”), and sees the woman as a barrier to that. It’s the sort of thing that would never occur to most of us, but, once pointed out, is hard to ignore. I can find no reason to believe that was Springfield’s intention, but it is odd how vague the object of his affection is as compared to the friend he envies – she doesn’t even have a name. 

There are a lot of cover versions, most of which are too faithful to the original to be worth anyone’s time. Craig Robinson’s version from “Hot Tub Time Machine” is fun because, well, it’s Craig Robinson, so of course it is. Matt the Electrician does a folky version that would confuse you in that “How do I know this?” way if you encountered it accidentally in nature (the way I felt when the acoustic version of “Take On Me” turned up in “Deadpool 2”). Mary Lambert strips it down to just piano, turning it into a torch song, but my absolute favourite is from Tate Logan and Zachary Ross and the Divine, who give it a pop punk spin that shows the true emo roots of the song. (What could be more emo than pining for another dude’s lady?) It even has a sequel, which is a decent tune in its own right.

But this is supposed to be about the original, and Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” rules. What’s less clear is why that is so. It certainly wasn’t an obvious hit at the time – it wasn’t even the first single off “Working Class Dog”. It’s a fun song, but as catchy as it is, no one would ever mistake it for an objectively great song, which becomes clearer on repeat listens. It opens with some fairly simple strumming, then Springfield comes in singing, all fey and breathy. Even after the song revs up, it feels confused, like it wants to be a rock song but knows it’s too insubstantial for that. There’s fuzzy guitar on the verses and then tinny on the chorus, and the obligatory solo (which absolutely no one is playing air guitar to) feels like Rick wanting to prove he’s more than another pretty boy who can sing.

And yet, “Jessie’s Girl” can’t be ignored – that opening guitar is immediately recognizable and can transport you to the early 1980s. I have no recall of loving this in 1981, yet I must have: when I got a new cassette player in June 1982, two of my earliest purchases were “Working Class Dog” and its follow up “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet”. He was so big at the time that we talked about his songs like any other important artist: I remember a friend having a theory about the meaning of a lyric from “What Kind of Fool Am I”. We knew that the dog on his album covers was named Ron. And it attained ultimate cultural relevance by showing by in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, with stoned Alfred Molina singing along. The now 73-year-old Springfield is still playing his ass off (and looking pretty fine doing it), and the song has never really left the airwaves, or stopped making new fans: on TikTok there is a clip of Harry Styles from 2012 saying it’s the song that gets him and Zayn Malik pumped up before a gig, and they were still doing a little dance routine to it two years later. Teen idols, separated by more than 30 years, but connected by a song. Maybe it’s not so odd after all that Jenna still loved him in 1987.

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