The most WTF moment on the old Cosmo cover was the fact that they used the word "ashamed" in a sexual context, asking "Is the pleasure worth the pain?" The tone was sympathetic, encouraging the woman-with-a-past to reflect on it all -- at which point "is it worth it?" sounds almost like a rhetorical question. She might seek forgiveness, even if just from herself, and then turn over a new leaf. People who never feel shame will never change, and stay stuck in their childish, annoying, corrosive ways.
So we ought to look for songs that touch on the themes of shame, admitting to doing wrong, seeking forgiveness -- and therefore expressing contrition (not just wanting the slate wiped clean for free), and wanting to turn over a new leaf and make the best of a bad situation. I found two clear cases (and you can't expect all 100 songs to be about shame), although discussing those will take a little longer than the single-sentence blurbs on the cover of Cosmo.
First, though, note what kind of song was not popular in the good old days -- the brash, unrepentant skank anthems that Pink has made her specialty. Her recent song "Walk of Shame" is about heading home from the apartment of a one-night-stand, hoping that no one sees her with rumpled clothes, etc., which would mark her as a woman who just had a one-night-stand. She doesn't agree that she did anything wrong at all, and is angry at the rest of the world who might look at her that way. The only hope she has of being rescued is that the elevator door will open already, so she can slip out of the building undetected. It's all, "Fuck society's standards of judgement!" rather than "I fucked up, I'll try not to do it again."
There actually was a song like that in the '80s, "Bad Reputation" by Joan Jett, but it went nowhere. It stalled out at 48 on the Rock charts, and did not make any of the other charts, here or abroad. Fun fact: although often held up as an example of an independent ballsy woman breaking open the Old Boys Club of rock 'n' roll, her two greatest successes were covers of older songs written by men: "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" by Arrows and "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells (kickass cover, BTW).
Now for the two songs of '86 that treated the murky themes of dating-and-mating with a mature person's mind. The clearest case is "Human" by the Human League.
While a couple had separated, both of them cheated on the other, and they're now trying to reconcile. They admit their wrongdoing, ask forgiveness, and try to move on with their relationship. The main point is that human beings are not perfect or perfectible, and that making amends for being human is just one of those things you have to get used to if you want to deal with other people. Only an egocentric shut-in is stingy with forgiveness, which keeps others at a comfortable distance. The lyrics for the bridge don't mince words about her own conduct:
The tears I cry aren't tears of pain
They're only to hide my guilt and shame
I forgive you, now I ask the same of you
While we were apart, I was human too
The vocal delivery is sincere and pleading throughout, not an empty pro forma apology, nor over-the-top wallowing in self-pity to make it look like the wrong-doer is actually the victim. In the video, Joanne Catherall's facial expression during the bridge is frank, then showing shame when she admits to cheating too. She was 23 when that song came out, yet in appearance and expression she comes off as more mature than most 30-somethings today.
The other song is "Papa Don't Preach" by Madonna.
You have to un-imagine how today's audiences interpret and use this song as an anthem for "Fuck you Dad, nobody tells me what to do except me!" If you just listen to the lyrics, she confesses that she ignored the warnings of her father and wound up in deep trouble -- getting pregnant as a teenager. But now that that has happened, it cannot be undone, and she's asking him for guidance through the rest of the ordeal. In context, the title simply means that she doesn't need hypothetical preaching after the fact. "What I need right now is some good advice," i.e. on how to concretely make the best of this bad situation.
If she thought her father was an idiot or an authority figure to mindlessly rebel against, why would she be solicitous about his potential loss of faith in his daughter, why would she turn to him alone for counsel, and why would her tone be pleading rather than defiant? In fact, it's her friends who she's rebelling against -- the ones who are saying she should be young and have fun, and give the baby up for adoption.
After seeking forgiveness, she tries to reassure him that she will act better in the future -- first, by not aborting the child or giving it up. But moreover by getting married to the father and sacrificing what could have been an exciting teenage life for the benefit of raising the kid in an intact, loving family. So, we also see the shame attached to brash single motherhood and bastardy. Most people remember this song as an odd anti-abortion hit by someone you'd think would be all pro-choice, but it's important to remember that it struck another blow against the status-striving career woman by saying it was better to forego that path and/or single motherhood in order to make sure her child doesn't grow up in a broken home.
On a related note, there are two other songs that enforce shame on a woman who's too forward in her advances. Not fire-and-brimstone stuff, though: playful in one, and playing-it-cool in the other. In both, the message is that women shouldn't be so presumptuous as to think that just because they make a pass at us, we're going to drop everything we're doing and jump in bed with them. The woman being too aggressive also takes some of the fun out of it for the man, who feels like his role in leading things has been usurped, almost like he's just a pawn in her game. Holding her back, and reminding her that her behavior is bordering on shameful, is an assertion of his autonomy and not being totally pussy-whipped by any random female.
"We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off" by Jermaine Stewart (who should've listened to his own song's advice -- died of AIDS in 1997). Key line: "So come on baby, won't you show some class? Why you want to move so fast?"
"I Didn't Mean To Turn You On" by Robert Palmer
Now, there are two songs that are more unrepentant in singing about shameful behavior like infidelity. One doesn't really count, though, because most listeners aren't going to understand that the singer already has a girlfriend who's out of town for awhile. It's set up only in the first line, and sounds unintelligible. Everybody heard this song as being about strangers in the night, a one-night-stand, etc., but not as a song about cheating, where the singer believes that adultery is fine as long as nobody finds out about it.
"Your Love" by Outfield
That leaves only one clear counter-example, where the two duet singers are each cheating on their partners, rationalizing it away because it feels "real" as opposed to the ordinary / sham relationships they're in, and further rationalizing that their partners may have secret lovers of their own. It's not wrong if other people are doing it too. And you can't expect blacks to set the highest standards for faithfulness.
"Secret Lovers" by Atlantic Starr
How does this tie in with the cocooning vs. connected cycle? Shame serves a pro-social function, getting you to behave more agreeably after having offended the group. Forgiveness on the other side allows the offender to be rehabilitated, as it were, back into the group. You can't expect to see them much on display when everyone is sealed off in their own little world.
Socially avoidant people are rather going to say, "Who needs to apologize to some stupid group or partnership that I don't even want to belong to?" And even if they did, the socially avoidant jury is going to say, "Ah, screw forgiving them -- their wrong-doing just proves how worthless they are, and that we ought to keep everybody at arm's length because you can never be safe when you let others get close."
Americans had a lot more people who they discussed personal matters with back in the mid-'80s, compared to the 21st century, according to an analysis of the General Social Survey. They're also more likely now to be kin rather than non-kin -- AKA friends, peers, neighbors, acquaintances, colleagues, and so on. I think that played a big role, too, in confessing and confiding -- are folks actually open and supportive to hearing you approach them? Here's another hit from '86 that shows how much more open the social climate used to be:
"Talk to Me" by Stevie Nicks
The songs here were chosen from a single year, and yet there's still enough detail to see the same picture emerge as it did from the Cosmo cover. In our paranoid cocooning culture, we imagine tight social connection as a nightmare -- all those eyes beaming down judgement on our increasingly less private behavior. In reality, folks are pretty understanding and forgiving when everyone is part of a cohesive group -- the only alternative to that would fragment the group, just as we have seen over the past 20-odd years. And seeing that everyone else does not enjoy an unblemished record alleviates our anxiety when we see our own -- not that we just ignore it as common background noise, but we come to appreciate that we're only human.
Related: an earlier post going over the history of songs about friends who'll be there for you.