A very serious ranking of things people “want” in popular song

Published November 29, 2023

On Nov. 29, 1963, the Beatles released the all-timer “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which wound up at #1 on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 for 1964. This got us thinking about all the things that people have claimed to want in hit songs, and so below we’ll rank them in order of how reasonable the request is.

Before we get to that, though: the Cambridge Dictionary explains that to want something is “to wish for a particular thing or plan of action.” They add that it “is not used in polite requests” – strike one, pop singers! But then again, “I want” is arguably catchier in a song: concise, direct, and more forceful than “I could go for” or “I feel like.” It is also, based on the makeup of our list, something that men seem to do a lot more than women. (chin-stroke emoji)

Anyway, this ranking isn’t about any of that. It’s about “I want” songs. And we want to get on with it, so away we go…

#1 I Want to Hold Your Hand, The Beatles (Year-end #1, 1964)

Again, it’s an all-timer, kicking off the entire British invasion, and staying at #1 for seven weeks (before being knocked off by “She Loves You,” which was replaced two weeks later by “Can’t Buy Me Love”). Anyway, we think it’s because hand-holding is universal—it’s about tenderness, love, and connection. The lyrics are even polite about it: “Please say to me / you’ll let me hold your hand” is definitely nicer than “She was just seventeen / You know what I mean.”

#2 Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper (Year-end #15, 1984) 

This iconically happy ‘80s tune still resonates 40 years later. It’s a rebellious and campy feminist sing-along, about women grabbing the freedom to live their lives the way boys have always done. And considering this was the first of eight consecutive Top 10 hits for Cyndi, we’d say she succeeded on those terms.

#3 I Want to Know What Love Is, Foreigner (Year-end #4, 1985)

According to Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones, this power ballad came from his experiences with failed relationships, and his search for something more enduring. We definitely all want to know and deeply experience what true love is – even if we’re not going to book studio time to have our singer yell into a mic about it. By the way, did anyone ever show him? Can we at least link him to Webster?

#4 I Want You Back, N’Sync (Year-end #37, 1998) & #5 I Want You Back, Jackson 5 (Year-end #28, 1970)

N’Sync are reflecting on the mistakes they made, and sincerely apologizing; the Jackson 5 have merely taken a girl for granted, and want her back now that she’s moved on with someone else. We can probably chalk that up to immaturity, though, since the latter was sung by an 11-year-old Michael Jackson. Surely he got it all together later in life!

#6 You’re the One That I Want, John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John (Year-end #13, 1978)

Slick Danny likes what he sees in the transformed Sandy – his chills are multiplying! But he’s making it sound like it’s his choice, and he’s doing her a favor. Both of them keep saying that he’d “better shape up,” making him a risky work-in-progress type of boyfriend. And of course neither of them appeared in Grease 2, so we have no idea how their story turned out – unless, of course, Sandy was dead the whole time.

#7 I Want You to Want Me, Cheap Trick (Year-end #34, 1979)

When you want someone to want you, it won’t work. Cheap Trick said the idea was to do a heavy-metal pop song, and the sillier the better. It didn’t matter what the lyrics meant, they said, just how they sounded. It worked – both in that the song is an all-time classic (don’t forget the Letters to Cleo cover!), and in that it gave us dumbass lyrics like “I’ll shine up my old brown shoes / I’ll put on a brand new shirt / I’ll get home early from work / If you say that you love me.”

#8 I Want Your Sex, George Michael (Year-end #24, 1987) & #9 I Want You, Savage Garden (Year-end #22, 1997)

This wasn’t even the most direct George Michael ever got in a hit single, but it still led to a lot of banning and bleeping. You can’t just go around demanding sex, George! He explained that it’s about attaching “lust to love, not just to strangers” – and sure enough, the video featured a writhing woman with “Explore Monogamy” written on her, so… hooray?

Savage Garden’s song is pretty much the same thing, only bad.

#10 Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Tears for Fears (Year-end #7, 1985)

As much as we like Tears for Fears, we’re not in favor of letting them rule the world. Of course, that’s not what they were actually saying: the alt-rock duo pitched this anthem against the world powers, and their insatiable thirst for control. In 2017, they told Yahoo! Music that the song’s themes are “just as poignant” now as they were then. But yeah, you still can’t rule the world guys.

#11 I Just Want to Be Your Everything, Andy Gibb (Year-end #2, 1977)

The spare Bee Gee brother is singing his soft-rock heart out, but… dude. Be our “everything”? Or, “If I stay here without you, darlin’, I would die”??? This all sounds way more like a personality disorder than a viable route to romance. Maybe you should hook up with Mick Jones, so you can both find out what love is.

 Honorable mention: I Want It That Way, Backstreet Boys (Year-end #15, 1999)

We weren’t sure where to rank this one, because we still don’t know what the hell it’s about. Back in 2018, the Boys tweeted a reply to Chrissy Teigen, who had similar questions, and they just made it worse: “Don’t wanna hear you say that you want heartaches and mistakes… or to be 2 worlds apart. We don’t want you to want ‘it’ that way – that’s the way we want it… for you to not want it that way.’

Screw you, Backstreet Boys.