There are certain songs that take you back to a poorly-decorated middle school gym where you’re standing in the corner, waiting for your crush to ask you to dance. For the majority of us, that never happened (despite all teen films telling us otherwise), but at least we had good snacks and our friends to dance with — which was always almost better.
When these bops come on nowadays, you’re immediately transported with the feeling of adolescent freedom. No bills, no big decisions, just the awkwardness of being 13, and having no clue about how simple things actually were back then. So put these songs on your playlist and take a mental trip back to that gym dance floor for a little bit.
Okay, let’s all just agree here that “Yeah!” was the song of the decade. Could any other pop song of the aughts come close to the universal appeal “Yeah!” has? Ask ANY middle school kid living in 2005 and they’ll most definitely agree. “Yeah!” is a classic pop banger, complete with *two* guest artists (Lil’ Jon and Ludacris) and a music video filled with lasers. Usher deserves a lifetime achievement award for this one.
Black Eyed Peas, “Let’s Get It Started”
The Black Eyed Peas had a lot of hits just after the turn of the century, but when it comes to middle-school dance material, “Let’s Get It Started” is prime (runner up: “Don’t Funk With My Heart”). There’s a great lead up and a slow, infectious beat that falls into a dance-ready chorus. Really, any Black Eyed Peas song will do at a dance, but this one is first-song-played material. If there’s any group that can start a party, it’s Fergie, will.i.am and co.
Beyoncé, “Crazy in Love”
First off, this is not only legendary in the Beyoncé canon but can hold its own at any middle-school dance that happened within the past 15 years. Holy hell, “Crazy in Love” is now 15 years old!? To this day, Beyoncé’s first solo single post-Destiny’s Child can go head-to-head with any pop song on modern charts — and probably still come out on top. It’s just that good. At the time, Bey could summon all the wallflowers out of hiding, creating a better 2003 for all.
Lady Gaga, “Just Dance”
I mean — duh — with this one. Gaga’s first chart-topping BOP was genuinely commanding listeners to dance… and it totally worked. It’s the song that set the tone for this songstress’s world domination — with “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance” sealing the pop star’s fate later on. The beat, the lyrics and Gaga’s DGAF attitude combined makes it impossible to ignore this song when it comes on.
Outkast, “Hey Ya”
“Hey Ya” was a song that please middle school listeners and their parents alike, and that was a rarity back in the mid ’00s. Furthermore, now that the generation is growing up and heading down the aisle, it’s been discovered that this Outkast track is the most popular song to play at weddings — 13 years after “Hey Ya” was released. It made an impact, alright? By the time Andre 3000 instructed you to “shake it like a Polaroid picture,” even Principal Keller was getting in on the action.
Justin Timberlake, “SexyBack”
Was this song a little too mature for a middle school dance? Maybe, but it was too infectious to just leave out of the lineup. Justin Timberlake had his first solo success with 2002’s Justified, but FutureSex/LoveSounds somehow made you forget NSYNC even existed. Sorry! But it’s true. This is in part thanks to his lead single, “SexyBack.” The song was JT’s first #1 solo hit and went three times platinum. Of course it’s going to be played at every dance from 2006-2008 and forever.
The Pussycat Dolls, “Don’t Cha”
This is the song where you showed your crush all that they were missing — though, again, it was a little ~mature~ for our middle school ears. But you always pulled out your BEST and sexiest dance moves… which must’ve made all the teacher-chaperones feel super awk. You know the ones.
Then when it came time for the chorus, “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me” was shouted with every bit of confidence your seriously self-conscious self could muster. Thanks to The Pussycat Dolls, every middle school girl owned the dance floor for four minutes.
Gwen Stefani, “Hollaback Girl”
The best part of dancing to this song in middle school is shouting “THIS SHIT IS BANANAS,” even though school administration made the DJ play the edited version. It doesn’t matter because you knew the real lyrics by heart. A song just as weird and cool as Gwen Stefani herself, “Hollaback Girl” was on every burned CD and first-generation iPod. Of course all conversations were dropped and all feet were on the dance floor when the DJ played this song.
Will Smith, “Gettin Jiggy Wit It”
For a while, many of us forgot Will Smith had a rap career. Before he was even in our living rooms on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, he was The Fresh Prince… Well, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, to be more accurate. With Jeff Townes, Will Smith released three albums before he landed his NBC sitcom. By the time he released Big Willie Style, it had been four years since Will released a rap album. The album was a hip-hop comeback and its single “Gettin Jiggy Wit It” helped land Will Smith at the top of the music charts, as well as the top of the box office. Middle-school parents especially loved him for his clean, fun hip-hop style.
*NSYNC, “Bye Bye Bye”
Ah, the era of the boy band. We’re not talking One Direction or any of their imitators, we’re talking about THE boy band revolution. The great late nineties and early-’00s gift (or personal hell, depending on who you ask) to us all was the comeback of the boy band, led by *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys. By the time “Bye, Bye, Bye” was released, *NSYNC was cemented as the boy band to beat out all boy bands with their marionette-inspired video and easy-to-replicate dance that EVERY middle-school kid tried to memorize.
Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone”
Just TRY to listen to “Since U Been Gone” without the urge to belt out the song’s mega-chorus. It’s impossible, which is why Kelly Clarkson‘s hit was inescapable for months. When this song came on at the dance, you dropped everything to sing along with your friends, nearly screaming “SINCE U BEEN GOOOONEEEE,” and thinking about all the unrequited loves who did you wrong.
Jimmy Eat World, “The Middle”
Jimmy Eat World made it so the emo kids could at least tolerate the school dance that their parents urged them to attend. Hey, emo kids deserve a good time with their friends, too! “The Middle” was Jimmy Eat World’s mainstream breakthrough and helped usher in the pop-punk era of the early 2000s. If you danced like a maniac during this song, you were already onto music’s next big thing.
Shakira, “Hips Don’t Lie”
If you didn’t attempt to mimic Shakira‘s legendary dance moves from this video, just pass on by this entry. “Hips Don’t Lie” ruled 2006, becoming an international phenomenon and reaching No. 1 in 55 countries. So yeah, wanting to dance like Shakira was a 2006 goal of pretty much every person on the planet, regardless of age.
Destiny’s Child, “Survivor”
Part of what made Destiny’s Child so great is the way Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle could combine empowerment with infectious melodies. “Survivor” is one of many girl-power anthems from the trio (including “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Independent Woman,” “Bootylicious” and more, of course). Destiny’s Child not only provides great dance tracks but the kind of tracks that help the listener ooze confidence wherever they go. In this case, it was on a dance floor in front of a bunch of adolescent peers.
Who cares if you didn’t know what “milkshake” really meant or which yard you were trying to bring the boys to?! With its beat and unforgettable lyrics, Kelis‘s “Milkshake” was prime dancing material in middle school. Fun fact: “Milkshake” was written by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo and turned down by Britney Spears before Kelis recorded it. It turned out to be a good choice in the singer’s favor, as the song was not only a commercial hit — but nominated for a Grammy award.
Spice Girls, “Wannabe”
You knew which Spice Girl you were, you knew the key dance moves and you were ready to show off on the dance floor. The Spice Girls were the glue that held any good middle school dance together, dominating the planet as we ushered out the ’90s and ushered in the new millennium. If you didn’t dance to a Spice Girls song, did you even attend the school dance? Extra points if you could rap Mel B’s verse flawlessly.
TLC, “No Scrubs”
Even in middle school, a gal has to have standards, and we don’t have time to deal with scrubs, especially when there’s a new Dawson’s Creek episode to catch after the dance. Thus, this TLC anthem was the perfect send-off and it cemented the idea that a scrub is a guy who thinks he’s fly well into our adult years.