I was a junior in high school when the Jets hit the pop FM stations in my town. Pop radio was different in the mid 1980s. Pop was still pop—generally speaking, music aimed at mass (typically young) audiences, usually less challenging versions of various genres whose goal was accessibility more than artistry—but on a good top 40 station, you were likely to hear Def Leppard (pop metal), the Fat Boys (pop rap), Kenny Rogers (pop country), REO Speedwagon (pop rock, at least by 1986), Michael Jackson (pop R&B), and all forms of pop dance, which may sound like a redundancy but really isn’t because they weren’t playing any New Order.
At first, the Jets’ “Crush on You” sounded like every other pop dance song on top 40. It was cute and bouncy, with a breathy female lead vocal and a keyboard-driven rhythm designed to get stuck in your head all day. Mostly something I didn’t pay much attention to but tolerated because there would probably be a Pat Benatar song next.
This was the height of the MTV era (he wrote, wistfully), and when many of us saw the “Crush on You” video, something seemed strange. These musicians might have been black, but darn it if they didn’t look like they might be Polynesian.
The thought of finding out whether they were or not was an alien concept. Without the resources we have today, it never occurred to us to track down the Jets’ ethnicity, but eventually it trickled down to our lonely rock in the Pacific that the Jets were Tongan. Eight Tongan siblings playing their own instruments, with 13-year-old Elizabeth on most of the lead vocals.
Most of the students in my school weren’t at all Polynesian, and the Jets were from Minnesota, but dang. These videos featured young musicians who looked like our friends and neighbors, and there they were, all over MTV. On the Billboard Hot 100 on June 28, 1986, the Jets looked up and all they saw above them were “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” by Billy Ocean and “On My Own” by Patti LaBelle with Michael McDonald. Most of us were really in no position to say it, but “we” had our own Jackson 5. We had our own Osmond Brothers.
Note to self: edit this later when you think of a better example than the freaking Osmonds.
Through pretty much all of high school, I had an if-it-doesn’t-rock-it-sucks attitude about most music, but when the Jets came on MTV or 93FM Q (when I wasn’t in control of the car stereo), I paid attention and even sang along. Because Polynesian.
The Jets hit the Billboard Hot 100 ten times before they were through, including “You Got It All” (peaking at number 3), “Cross My Broken Heart” (number 7), “Rocket 2 U” (number 6), and “Make it Real” (number 4). I was honestly never a fan, but I rooted for them. They played a reunion show in Honolulu in 2009, a retro festival with the likes of En Vogue, the Cover Girls, and Ready for the World (how long was that set, I wonder), and I didn’t go. Friends who did, though, were most amped to see the Jets.
Interesting stuff I couldn’t find a place for in this stroll down Memory Highway:
- The Jets’ family name is Wolfgramm, and they are cousins of reggae singer Leilani Wofgramm, and if you haven’t heard of her you are probably old. I think she sold out when she performed here last May.
- Elizabeth married Mark Atuaia, a BYU running back from Hawaii.
- “Crush on You” was written by Rupert Holmes, the guy who sang “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” and the almost-as-good “Him.”
- Aaron Carter, among others, covered “Crush on You.”
- Brittany Spears covered “You Got It All”
- The siblings who performed as the Jets were eight of fifteen brothers and sisters.