The 1980s were the big hit music videos— a cosmic explosion of creativity, technology and weirdness.
With the launch of MTV in nineteen eighty onesome artists have used the visual art form to sell sex, youth, and all things attention-grabbing, while others have used it to visually define themselves within the music industry.
Read more: 10 Artists Who Brilliantly Directed Their Own Music Videos
The music video was like adding another dimension to the music industry universe. With a blank slate, artists could visually represent their sound and style more easily.
Without these 15 music videos, the 80 years would not have been the cultural reset that we are experiencing.
“When Doves Cry” – Prince and the Revolution
PrinceThe career of and the rise of music videos couldn’t be more perfectly aligned. A provocative pioneer of gender ambiguity, Prince perfectly used music videos as a way to further solidify his public image and aura. The scorching visual for “When doves cry“didn’t sell sex – he sold Prince. Emerging completely naked from a bathtub, no other artist could better embody the aesthetics of sexuality than Prince himself.
“I want to break free” – Queen
Your point of view onI want to break free” by Queen probably depends on where you live. Britain saw the band’s true intentions of parodying the popular British soap opera coronation streetbut the rest of the world (especially the United States) has assimilated Freddie Mercury‘s drag as its coming out. Either way, Mercury was a trailblazer, both as an artist and as a gay man in popular culture. We give props to Queen for their ironic parody and theatrical ballet skills. Filmed at a difficult time in the band’s career, Queen were able to produce a unique and uplifting music video that was both serious and poking fun at themselves.
“Rhythm Nation” – Janet Jackson
Janet JacksonThe hypnotic choreography of military precision makesrhythm nation” one of the best music videos of the 80s. Shot entirely in black and white, “Rhythm Nation” evokes the solemnity of social injustice that Jackson sings about, with her and her dancers dressed in fashionable military uniforms. If performed today, there is no doubt that teenagers everywhere would memorize the choreography on ICT Tac.
“Me Myself and Me” – De La Soul
The hip-hop revolution transformed music in the 80s and 90s. Soul stand out from industry standards with their music video for “Me, me and me.” The visual uses a class frame to exacerbate the divide between Soulto the trendy and repetitive imagery of hip-hop artists of their time. No matter what record company executives wanted, De La Soul made his cultural challenge clear through this music video.
“Take me” – a-ha
The clip of “take on me” perfectly combined the new visual effects of the 80s with the narration. Using an animation technique called rotoscoping, the music video confronts the real world with hand-drawn animation. What might seem like a trivial effect of a disney Today’s Movie was groundbreaking in the ’80s. Not only does this music video get props for its visual aesthetic, it also nails the romantic fantasy storyline.
“Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” – Kate Bush
If music videos ruled one thing in the 80s, it was dance. However, Kate Bush steps away from the fast dance of the day and instead opted to perform an interpretive dance in her music video for “Run up that hill (a deal with God).“With bright lighting, classically performed dance vibes and hakamas, Bush’s performance stands in stark contrast to 80s exclamatory culture.
“Once in a Lifetime” – Talking Heads
You don’t need a big budget to make an iconic video, because talking heads show us with their music video for “once in a lifetime.” The video was produced by Toni Basil and features talking heads‘ singer David Byrne dancing erratically in front of a green screen. Behind Byrne, excerpts from religious ceremonies and dances from around the world. Byrne’s spasmodic movements amplify the song’s sermon-like delivery.
“Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel
Pierre-Gabriel‘s”Mass“deserves every ounce of recognition he gets. Claymation, pixelation, and stop motion, three extremely tedious styles of animation, are used to create the jolty effect seen throughout the video. Not only is the video aesthetically complex, but it also won nine MTV Video Music Awards as soon as it comes out.
“Straight out of Compton” – NWA
The golden age of hip-hop flourished in the wake of the 80s. NWA paved the way for the genre’s success while refusing to water down their message. “Straight outta Comptonis a musical punch, with each verse just as relentless and invigorating as the next. The video, depicting the gritty streets of Compton, sparked a new movement of rap– one that dealt with police brutality, segregation and social injustice.
“Love Shack” – The B-52s
Bright colors, voluminous hair and wild outfits – what could be more 80s than the video of “love shack” by the B-52s? While the 80s were largely dominated by emotional, darker new-wave bands, B-52 just wanted us to dance and have a good time. The music video for “Love Shack” is just as uplifting and welcoming as the song. And in the blink of an eye and you miss it, discover a pre-fame RuPaul dance at the 2:05 mark.
“Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” – Eurythmics
The 1980s challenged all sorts of assumptions about gender. In the clip of “Sweet dreams are made of this)by British duo Eurythmicsinger Annie Lennox sports a business suit and a bright orange buzz cut. The video features unique visuals, such as the other half of Lennox and Eurythmics, Dave Stewart, meditating on the conference room desk and, later, a cow circling around the table. Overall, it’s a weird video (even for the 80s), but Lennox’s flawless androgynous look is the most memorable aspect.
“Smooth operator” – Sade
With a clip as sophisticated as Sade Adouthe voice of “Smooth operatortakes the audience to a chic and subdued nightclub. The video follows a suave con artist, or “the slick operator,” if you will, gallantry all night long. The video may not scream 80s, but it does offer a clean and refreshing aesthetic.
“How Will I Know” – Whitney Houston
Considered one of the greatest singers of all time, whitney houston ditches the ballad for an upbeat pop hit with “How will I know.” Video is new territory for Houstonwith its creative backdrop and emphasis on choreographed dance. Houston makes her way fluidly through the paint-splattered maze with her backup dancers, eventually finding her way to video footage of Aretha Franklin on a screen.
“Walk This Way” (with Aerosmith) – Run-DMC
Hard Rock and hip-hop couldn’t be farther apart as genres in the 80s. Still, Run-DMC and Aerosmith seamlessly confront their two genres with their mega-hit, “Take this way.” The video – a clear metaphor for the two musical scenes – depicts the acts in adjacent rooms, each trying to rehearse. Anger ensues until Aerosmiththe leader of steven tyler pierce the wall. Once Run-DMC join Aerosmith on stage, the future of rap and rock will never be the same.
“Girls just wanna have fun” – Cyndi Lauper
If a music video sums up the popular 80s scene, it’s Cyndi Lauper‘s”Girls just wanna have fun.” Parading down the Lower East Side, Lauper and the friends let go of all their cares in the world – money, work, romance – and dancing. Through a much more sophisticated and sociological lens, we would see that Lauper actually says that women want to be treated the same as men – an issue that wasn’t necessarily addressed in mainstream pop music at the time. But for now, we’re going to watch Lauper and his friends with the most flawless ’80s hair and have fun.