15 music videos that contributed to the uniqueness of the ‘80s
The 1980s were the big bang of music videos—a cosmic explosion of creativity, technology and straight-up weirdness.
With the launch of MTV in 1981, some artists used the visual art form to sell sex, youth and anything eye-catching, while others used it to visually define themselves within the music business.
Read more: 10 artists who brilliantly directed their own music videos
The music video was like adding another dimension to the universe of the music industry. With a blank slate, artists could visually represent their sound and style more easily.
Without these 15 music videos, the ‘80s wouldn’t have been the cultural reset we know it as.
“When Doves Cry” – Prince & The Revolution
Prince’s career and the rise of music videos couldn’t be more perfectly aligned. A provocative pioneer of gender ambiguity, Prince flawlessly used music videos as a means to further solidify his public image and aura. The steamy visual for “When Doves Cry” wasn’t selling sex—it was selling Prince. Crawling out of a bathtub fully nude, no other artist could embody the aesthetic of sexuality better than Prince himself.
“I Want To Break Free” – Queen
Your perspective on “I Want To Break Free” by Queen probably depends on where you live. Great Britain saw the band’s true intentions of parodying the popular British soap opera Coronation Street, but the rest of the world (specifically the United States) equated Freddie Mercury’s drag as his coming out. Either way, Mercury was a pioneer, as an artist as well as a gay man in popular culture. We give props to Queen for their tongue-in-cheek spoof and theatrical ballet talents. Filmed during a rocky time in the band’s career, Queen were able to produce a unique and uplifting music video that was one part serious, one part poking fun at themselves.
“Rhythm Nation” – Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson’s hypnotic choreography with military-like precision makes “Rhythm Nation” one of the best music videos of the ‘80s. Shot entirely in black and white, “Rhythm Nation” emotes the solemnity of the social injustice Jackson sings about, with she and her dancers dressed in fashion-forward military uniforms. If it were made today, it’s no doubt that teens everywhere would be memorizing the choreography on TikTok.
“Me Myself And I” – De La Soul
The hip-hop revolution transformed music in the ’80s and ’90s. De La Soul set themselves apart from the industry standards with their music video for “Me Myself And I.” The visual uses a classroom setting to exacerbate the divide between De La Soul’s laid-back and somewhat intellectual style to the trendy and repetitive imagery of hip-hop artists of their day. No matter what the record label executives wanted, De La Soul made their cultural defiance clear through this music video.
“Take On Me” – a-ha
The music video for “Take On Me” flawlessly combined the new visual effects of the ‘80s with storytelling. Using an animation technique referred to as rotoscoping, the music video clashes the real world with hand-drawn animation. What might seem like a run-of-the-mill effect from a Disney movie today was groundbreaking in the ‘80s. Not only does this music video get props for its visual aesthetic, but it nails the romantic fantasy storyline as well.
“Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” – Kate Bush
If music videos mastered one thing in the ‘80s, it was dancing. However, Kate Bush strays from the fast-paced dancing of the day and instead chose to perform an interpretive dance in her music video for “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God).” With the glowy lighting, classical interpretive dance moods and hakamas, Bush’s performance serves as a stark contrast to the exclamatory culture of the ‘80s.
“Once In A Lifetime” – Talking Heads
You don’t need a large budget to make an iconic video, as Talking Heads show us with their music video for “Once In A Lifetime.” The video was directed by Toni Basil and features Talking Heads’ singer David Byrne dancing erratically in front of a green screen. Behind Byrne, clips of religious ceremonies and dances play from around the world. Byrne’s spasmodic movements amplify the song’s sermon-like delivery.
“Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” deserves every ounce of recognition it gets. Claymation, pixelation and stop motion—three immensely tedious animation styles—are used to create the jolty effect seen throughout the video. Not only is the video aesthetically intricate, but it also won nine MTV Video Music Awards upon its release.
“Straight Outta Compton” – N.W.A.
The golden age of hip-hop flourished in the wake of the ’80s. N.W.A. paved the way for the genre’s success while refusing to water down their message. “Straight Outta Compton” is a musical sucker punch, with each verse just as relentless and invigorating as the next. The video, depicting the gritty streets of Compton, birthed a new movement of rap—one that dealt with police brutality, segregation and social injustice.
“Love Shack” – The B-52’s
Bright colors, big hair and wild outfits—what’s more ‘80s than the video for “Love Shack” by the B-52’s? While the ‘80s were largely dominated by emotional and darker new-wave groups, the B-52’s 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 a blink-and-you-miss-it piece of trivia, check out a pre-fame RuPaul dancing away at the 2:05 mark.
“Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” – Eurythmics
The ‘80s challenged all sorts of assumptions about gender. In the music video for “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” by British duo Eurythmics, lead singer Annie Lennox sports a business suit and a vivid orange buzz cut. The video features some unique visuals, such as Lennox and Eurythmics’ other half Dave Stewart meditating on the boardroom desk and, later, a cow circling around the table. All in all, it’s a bizarre video (even for the ‘80s), but Lennox’s flawless androgynous look is the most memorable aspect.
“Smooth Operator” – Sade
With a music video as sophisticated as Sade Adu’s voice, “Smooth Operator” takes the audience into a dim-lit, classy nightclub. The video follows a suave conman, or the “smooth operator,” if you will, galavanting the night away. The video might not scream ‘80s, but it makes for a polished and refreshing aesthetic.
“How Will I Know” – Whitney Houston
Considered one of the greatest vocalists of all time, Whitney Houston ditches the ballad for an upbeat pop hit with “How Will I Know.” The video is new territory for Houston, with its creative backdrop and heavy emphasis on choreographed dancing. Houston fluidly makes her way around the splatter-paint labyrinth with her backup dancers, ultimately finding her way to video footage of Aretha Franklin on a screen.
“Walk This Way” (feat. Aerosmith) – Run-DMC
Hard rock and hip-hop couldn’t be any further apart as genres in the ‘80s. Yet, Run-DMC and Aerosmith seamlessly clash their two genres with their mega-hit, “Walk This Way.” The video—a clear metaphor for the two music scenes—depicts the acts in adjacent rooms, each trying to rehearse. Anger ensues until Aerosmith’s frontman Steven Tyler breaks through the wall. Once Run-DMC join Aerosmith onstage, the future of rap and rock would never be the same.
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” – Cyndi Lauper
If any music video sums up the pop scene of the ‘80s, it’s Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” Parading through the Lower East Side, Lauper and friends let go of all of their cares in the world—money, work, romance—and dance. Through a much more sophisticated and sociological lens, we would see that Lauper is really saying 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’ll look to Lauper and her friends with the most flawless ‘80s hair and just have fun.