Popdose Flashback ’91: Susanna Hoffs, “When You’re a Boy”

Written by Music, Popdose Flashback '91

Kelly Stitzel takes a look at Susanna Hoffs’s solo debut, which just celebrated its 20th birthday.

In late June of 1986, with a handful of cash I’d received for my birthday, I walked into the Coconuts music store across the street from the mall my family frequented and made a beeline for the album I most desired that day: The Bangles’ Different Light. I think the record cost $10, which was a lot of money for an eight-year-old at that time, and my mom even asked me if I was sure that’s what I wanted. Of course I was sure — this was the album that contained my favorite song of that moment, “Manic Monday,” sung by one of my favorite singers of that moment, Susanna Hoffs.

I was lucky enough to own that album before “Walk Like An Egyptian” would be released as a single, so I knew all the words to the song by the time it hit the airwaves.  I used to blast the song, singing along while standing in front of the mirror practicing Hoffs’s facial expressions from the video. I kind of wanted to be just like her.

Throughout the rest of the decade, I continued to love the Bangles — and Hoffs — and bought everything they released. I made my mom let me rent Hoffs’s first movie, The Allnighter, which I think she agreed to only because it had Michael Ontkean in it and my mother loves Michael Ontkean. Today, I own that movie on DVD and I don’t care what you say, I love it.

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I still loved the Bangles when they released Everything in late 1988 and listened to it non-stop for several weeks after purchasing it (or did I get it as a gift? I think maybe it was the latter, now that I think of it). But at some point in 1989, I lost interest in them — probably around the same time they lost interest in being a band.

A couple of years later, I was watching MTV and I saw the video for “My Side of the Bed,” the first single from Hoffs’s solo debut, When You’re a Boy. I remember liking it, and thinking to myself, “I should ask for this album for my birthday.” But I didn’t. I just forgot about it completely because, well, it was 1991 and by then I had discovered ye old grunge music, among other things.

Cut to 2003. I was at a local record store and in one of the used CD bins, I found both of Hoffs’s solo records. The Bangles had recently reunited and released their first album in almost 20 years, so I was in the midst of a Bangles rediscovery phase. I decided that this was the perfect time to investigate Hoffs’s solo career. I listened to When You’re a Boy on the way home and I immediately remembered “My Side of the Bed” from all those years ago and could see the video in my head as the song played. I remember thinking to myself, “this is like part two of ‘In My Room.'”

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“My Side of the Bed” was a minor hit for Hoffs, reaching #30 on the Billboard Top 40 chart, helping the album make it to #83 on the Billboard album chart. Two other singles were released, though neither of them did very well on the charts: the lovely”Unconditional Love,” which was co-written by Cyndi Lauper, and “Only Love,” which Hoffs co-wrote with my nemesis, Diane Warren (no wonder that’s my least favorite song on the record).

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When You’re a Boy also contains a song Hoffs co-wrote with Juliana Hatfield, “That’s Why Girls Cry,” which is one of my favorite tracks on the album. My other favorites are “It’s Lonely Out Here,” “Something New” and “This Time.” Also included is a fairly nice cover of David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging,” lyrics from which give the album its title.

While it does have a few good tracks, as a whole, When You’re a Boy doesn’t 100% work. It feels disjointed and unfocused. Some tracks have a jangly guitar-pop feel, while others sound like they could’ve been mid-’80s Bangles cast-offs. The tracks that work best are those that are guitar-driven, not the ones with the terrible synths that make it sound like Hoffs was making a mid-’80s Debbie Gibson album (no offense to Ms. Gibson). Overall, the production sounds very dated — this record is definitely a prime example of “when bad synths happen to good people.”

Between 1993 and 1994, Hoffs recorded a second solo album, before parting ways with Columbia Records, that was never released. She married director Jay Roach (Austin Powers) in 1993 and took a little time off to have her first child. She eventually returned to the studio and released her self-titled sophomore album in 1996. While that album didn’t have as much commerical success as When You’re a Boy, it is a much better, more focused record. It also doesn’t contain any songs co-written by Diane Warren.