It’s officially prom season. A fraught but exciting time for adolescents across America who will embrace the chance to dress up, dance awkwardly, ride around in limos (or your parent’s beat-up station wagon) and pretend to be adults for one special night. The history of prom dates back to the 40s, but the annual school tradition has greatly evolved since the era of streamers in the high-school gym. Given its high stakes, prom has been used as a dramatic device in films and TV shows for decades. And just as music is the bedrock of teen movies, it’s also essential to any successful prom. To mark this time-honoured tradition, here are some of the best prom songs to dance the night away.
Forever Young: The 25 Best Prom Songs To Dance The Night Away
25: Chuck Berry: ‘Johnny B Goode’
Prom is often fraught with expectations: will your date say yes; will your corsage match your dress, will you be able to fix your parents’ relationship through time travel? The usual stuff. The prom scene from Back To The Future is one of the most iconic in cinematic history. As Marty McFly (aka Michael J Fox) joins the band on stage to perform Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’, he essentially invents rock’n’roll, just like Chuck did.
24: The Smiths: ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’
No one quite embodies youthful longing and emotional turmoil quite like The Smiths, so it’s only fitting this pleading ballad scores a movie scene where the high-school outcast gets bullied by the cool kids. Minus the outlandish premise (journalist goes undercover as a high-school student), Never Been Kissed gets everything right about the prom, from the social hierarchy of cliques to the extreme commitment to a theme (Shakespeare, in this case) and a memorable soundtrack.
23: Letters To Cleo: ‘Cruel To Be Kind’
While prom scenes started cropping up in 80s films, it wasn’t until the 90s that teen films really took off. 10 Things I Hate About You remains one of the best of the bunch, thanks to its fresh take on Taming Of The Shrew and a killer soundtrack. 90s alt.rockers Letters To Cleo appear both on the soundtrack and in the film, where they perform a cover of Cheap Trick’s ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ during the prom scene where the girl gets the guy and knocks out the bully.
22: King Harvest: ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’
From the minute you hear the twinkling intro, you know that everyone’s hitting the dancefloor with this 1972 classic. With its inclusive message and dreamy sound, ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’ is total soundtrack bait and a timeless prom song.
21: Josie Cotton: ‘He Could Be The One’
Another 80s cult classic, Valley Girl is a time capsule of mall culture, Nicholas Cage’s film debut and post-punk hits by Modern English, The Plimsouls and forgotten 80s star Josie Cotton. Cotton’s homage to 60s girl groups infused with the decade’s flash resulted in some bubblegum pop classics like ‘He Could Be The One’.
20: Beach Bunny: ‘Prom Queen’
This Chicago indie outfit are probably the closest to “prom” age on this list, but their catchy power-pop sounds nostalgic for a bygone era. Their adolescent ode to insecurity and becoming prom queen sounds exactly like something you would blast out of your limo’s sunroof.
19: Reeves Nevo & The Cinch: ‘Wooly Bully’
Sometimes all you need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz and some sick prom songs. Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High launched the careers of many young actors (Sean Penn, Nicholas Cage, Jennifer Jason Leigh) and set the template for teen films. During the final dance scene, the kids go wild for the 60s novelty rock hit ‘Wooly Bully’. The film version was recorded by Heckerling’s fiancé, Reeves Nevo & The Cinch, but we’re including Sam The Sham And The Pharaohs’ classic original among our best prom songs.
18: Kenny Loggins: ‘Footloose’
Kenny Loggins’ ode to emancipated feet became a smash sensation thanks to the 1984 film about a town that outlaws dancing, and which starred Kevin Bacon in his breakout role. Loggins co-wrote the ditty with the film’s creator and it’s become a fixture at school dances and weddings alike.
17: Sha Na Na: ‘Born To Hand Jive’
For a movie released in the 70s and devoted to 50s greaser culture, Grease appeals to all generations. No one could resist Olivia Newton-John as a sweet Sandra Dee-type, nor John Travolta’s rockabilly swagger, soundtracked by the original 50s revival group Sha Na Na. While it’s not prom per se, the pivotal ‘Born To Hand Jive’ scene had all the hallmarks of prom: cheap decorations and teens gyrating on the dancefloor.
16: Fatboy Slim: ‘The Rockafeller Skank’
Romcoms are especially guilty of setting unrealistic expectations, and the coming-of-age teen flick She’s All That, is no exception. During the ending prom scene, Usher leads an elaborately choreographed dance to the sample-laden ‘The Rockafeller Skank’ by Fatboy Slim, setting the bar so high that no real-life prom could come close.
15: Nicki Minaj: ‘The Night Is Still Young’
The real fun begins after the prom ends, when everyone spills out of the venue and scatters into the night. This one goes out to the night owls – the wild ones; and to everyone who doesn’t want the night to end. “The night is still young/And so are we,” Nicki reminds us, creating one of the best prom songs in the process.
14: Lionel Richie: ‘Dancing On The Ceiling’
Lionel Richie’s exuberant anthem exudes party atmosphere with a chorus of woos, in one of the most infectious hits of the 80s. Sure, there are indulgent guitar solos and keytars, but Lionel makes it work. Plus, the video’s visual tricks still impress.
13: Simple Minds: ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’
As you can see from this list, the 80s were both a fruitful time for teen films and prom songs, thanks in part to director John Hughes, whose movies propelled its stars to fame. Despite being their biggest hit, Scottish outfit Simple Minds had to be convinced to record ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, a song co-written by The Breakfast Club’s screenwriter. The song singlehandedly broke the band in the US, going No.1 and creating an immortal anthem in the process.
12: Peaches & Herb: ‘Shake Your Groove Thing’
When disco duo Peaches & Herb named their fourth album 2 Hot!, they knew exactly what they were doing. ‘Shake Your Groove Thing’ is smokin’, to say the least; with the slick basslines and tribal drums, you’ll be “shakin’ it” to one of the best prom songs too.
11: Alphaville: ‘Forever Young’
Given its wistful lyrics and 80s Euro-pop cheese, Alphaville’s 1984 hit single is the perfect prom song. It’s a scientific fact that all teenagers feel infallible and believe they’ll be forever young, but the songs’ lyrics hint at something darker. Written during the height of the Cold War, nothing says YOLO more than a nuclear holocaust. The song also makes an appearance during the prom scene in the cult film Napoleon Dynamite.
10: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark: ‘If You Leave’
As aforementioned, John Hughes was the master of 80s suburban adolescence and he hardwired his movies with soundtracks to reflect this. The majority of the Pretty In Pink soundtrack was recorded for the film, and OMD’s melodramatic ‘If You Leave’ backdrops the emotional crescendo of the narrative after Molly Ringwald runs after Andrew McCarthy at prom.
9: Taylor Swift: ‘You Belong With Me’
A trip down nostalgia road, this “old Taylor” classic taps into the kind of unrequited love that most feel during their confusing high-school years. It’s the perfect prom song for all the wallflowers and secret crushes that will never be revealed.
8: Billy Idol: ‘Dancing With Myself’
This song is for that moment at the end of a movie where the protagonist realizes their “dream” prom date is a jerk and they’re better off solo, eventually dancing with all their friends before the credits roll. “Well, there’s nothing to lose/And there’s nothing to prove.” Billy Idol knows.
7: Cyndi Lauper: ‘Time After Time’
Cyndi Lauper’s enduring ballad ‘Time After Time’ works to illustrate all rites of passage: prom, graduation, moving, birthdays, you name it. It’s a perfect slice of narrative pop and has been used in countless films, including the cult classic Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion.
6: David Bowie: ‘Let’s Dance’
Among the more highbrow of prom songs, David Bowie’s discofied hit ‘Let’s Dance’ is a more unconventional floorfiller. Thanks to Nile Rodgers’ funky production, you’ll be ready to sway under the moonlight, even if that moonlight is a disco ball in a high-school gymnasium.
5: Bee Gees: ‘You Should Be Dancing’
If this list of the best prom songs seems disco-heavy, it’s no accident. Disco is the lifeblood of dance music and the natural predecessor to house music, EDM, dance-pop, you name it. When the brothers Gibb insist you get on the dancefloor, you listen. With its blast of horns, blistering guitar and hypnotic grooves, Bee Gees’ disco hit is a great throwback prom song.
4: Donna Summer: ‘Last Dance’
Don’t let the slow burn in the beginning fool you, ‘Last Dance’ is a real barnburner. Another joint from the king of disco, producer Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer’s hit single is the perfect number to close out prom before everyone goes home or gets into more trouble.
3: Lady Gaga: ‘Just Dance’
With just a simple command, Lady Gaga upended the pop music scene and ignited a wave of slick electro-pop with her 2008 smash ‘Just Dance’, from The Fame album. Over ten years later, her synth-studded hit still commands you to the dancefloor, and easily ranks among the best prom songs.
2: Robyn: ‘Dancing On My Own’
Lyrically, ‘Dancing On My Own’ is the most danceable break-up song on record, but Robyn’s masterwork has come to mean something different to everyone. With its propulsive four-to-the-floor beat, it beckons everyone to the dancefloor, like moths to the flame of impeccable Swedish pop.
1: ABBA: ‘Dancing Queen’
This entry’s placement at No.1 is a no-brainer. You can’t have a playlist of the best prom songs (or any playlist at all) without ABBA. ‘Dancing Queen’ is distilled Euro-pop perfection – has one song ever contained so much pure joy? Even the most sullen teen at prom is not immune to ABBA.
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