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The Most Awesomely Eighties 1980s Music Videos

From big hair to big budgets, remember the kinds of gems that ruled the age of MTV

Michael Jackson in ThrillerMichael Jackson in Thriller

Michael Jackson in 'Thriller.'

MCA/Universal/Everett Collection

Remember how, like, totally awesome MTV was back in the Eighties? Bitchin’ music videos with bodacious bods, righteous clothes and radical dance moves. Since Eighties nostalgia never seems to end, we thought we’d list, like, the most Eighties kinds of 1980s videos. Flash back with 15 fresh categories.

In the early Eighties, some artists clearly didn’t think the whole music video thing was going to pan out. And it didn’t take long to figure out which videos were shot in a day. A good number of them merely featured the artist – Scandal with “Goodbye to You,” Huey Lewis and the News with “Workin’ for a Livin’” – pretending to perform the songs in a photo studio. John Cougar‘s band played air instruments on “Ain’t Even Done with the Night,” while Phil Collins was truly a solo act, playing all the air instruments on “I Missed Again.” See also: “Jump (for My Love)” by the Pointer Sisters, “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones.

In the golden era of MTV, a band knew they’d made it once they had their first million-dollar video. Backed by big bucks, they could shoot videos in Sri Lanka (Duran Duran), recreate a 1920s film set (Madonna) or employ elaborate stop-motion animation (Peter Gabriel). But when it comes to all-out video making, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is still unmatched. Three decades later, Filipino prisoners, wedding parties and flash mobs are still recreating those scary dance moves.

In the Eighties, we loved wild colors. In New Edition’s “Cool It Now” alone, every group member sports a different bold shade – reds, yellow, blue and even head-to-toe teal. We also loved leg warmers (Olivia Newton John), hairspray (Bananarama), big earrings (Cyndi Lauper), fingerless lace gloves (Madonna), oversized tops (Belinda Carlisle) and neon (Wham!).

100 Best Albums of the Eighties

You won’t scratch your head trying to figure out what decade spawned the video for “Land of Confusion” by Genesis. Featuring creepy puppet versions of Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and many of the USA for Africa singers, this is a Who’s Who of the late Cold War era. Before the fall of Communism, artists often reminded us that the end of the world as we knew it was merely a red button away.

In the early days, rock & roll was dominated by men. Even as women broke in, a soft and sexy image was almost sure to help one’s journey to success. But in the Eighties, some female performers decided to shove back, donning leather jackets, snarling expressions and take-no-crap attitudes. Joan Jett dressed like a badass biker in “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Pat Benatar led a pack of taxi dancers on a revolt against their dance hall pimp in “Love is a Battlefield” and Wendy O. Williams blew stuff up in “The Damned,” prompting Butt-head of Beavis and Butt-head fame to proclaim, “This video has, like, explosions. Like, half-naked chicks … It’s got something for everyone.”

While some women got empowered in Eighties videos, others wound up on the laps of bands. (As a rule, the more hair in the band, the more women objectified in the videos.) Mötley Crüe went the stripper route for “Girls Girls Girls,” ZZ Top chose leggy models for “Legs” and David Lee Roth went for a variety of bikini babes in “California Girls.”

Before rap went gangsta, some rappers wore pastel clothing and wrote songs about their parents (who simply didn’t understand). While hardcore acts like N.W.A. and Ice-T were just about to freak out Middle America, the comic-minded Fat Boys were covering harmless tunes like “The Twist,” pairing Chubby Checker with beatboxing. See also: Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.”

One sign of star power in the Eighties was the famous faces you could get in your videos. Billy Joel got Joe Piscopo for “Keeping the Faith,” Madonna got Danny Aiello for “Papa Don’t Preach” and multiple artists landed Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield. Ray Parker’s video for “Ghostbusters” included several cameos (including Chase), while Michael Jackson‘s “Liberian Girl” featured a slew of Eighties celebs like Jasmine Guy, Lou Diamond Phillips, Mayim Bialik and Steve Guttenberg.

The Eighties represented the golden era of the soundtrack song, and the Mack Daddy of movie tunes was yacht-rocker Kenny Loggins. Clip-heavy videos for his songs “Danger Zone” (Top Gun) and “Footloose” (Footloose) provided huge exposure for the films. Other big soundtrack videos: “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” by Phil Collins (Against All Odds), “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince (Purple Rain), “The Heat Is On” by Glenn Frey (Beverly Hills Cop), “Maniac” by Michael Sembello (Flashdance), “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger (Risky Business) and “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News (Back to the Future).

Young M.C. had guys telling their buddies to “Bust a Move” at the bar, while Ray Parker Jr. made it irresistible to answer the question “Who you gonna call?” with anything but an emphatic “Ghostbusters!” Meanwhile, Twisted Sister’s Animal House-referencing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” video had teenage boys everywhere repeating its lines, followed by Dee Snider’s rebellious declaration: “I wanna rock!” See also: Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing,” and MTV itself created the ultimate music video catchphrase, getting stars to demand, “I want my MTV!

In the Barnes & Barnes video for “Fish Heads,” we see fish heads wearing sweaters, playing baseball and drinking cappuccinos, leaving one wondering, “What were they smoking?” As artists were discovering the powers of the music video medium, we discovered that some artists could be just plain weird. See also: Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” and Grace Jones’ “Slave to the Rhythm.”

REO Speedwagon actually had two videos for “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” and both are cringingly cornball. Each spent an inordinate amount of time on tight shots of singer Kevin Cronin’s face. Other videos that are almost too cheeseball to watch include “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” by Journey, “Rock Me Tonight” by Billy Squier and “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.

As the AIDS crisis grew in the Eighties, some artists advised us to just say no. Janet Jackson sang “Let’s Wait a While,” while Jermaine Stewart chimed, “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off.” (Sadly, he died of AIDS-related complications in 1997.) The biggest AIDS-related video of the Eighties, though, wasn’t even about AIDS. “That’s What Friends Are For,” a cover song by Dionne Warwick and Friends, was an AIDS benefit tune with a video featuring Warwick, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Elton John. The song and video raised over $3 million for AIDS research and helped open the floodgates for more songs raising AIDS awareness through the Nineties.

Summery videos like “If This Is It” by Huey Lewis and the News, Duran Duran’s “Rio,” Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” and Madonna’s “Cherish” soaked their videos in sun and sand, even when the songs lyrically had nothing to do with the coast.

There was one easy way to make a video look artsy in the Eighties: strip the color. Try it: imagine adding color to “Every Breath You Take” by the Police and it’s just a guy playing stand-up bass and another guy washing a window. Remove the hues, it’s an intense, slightly creepy Video Music Award winner. See also: “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley and “Summer of ’69” by Bryan Adams, as well as A-ha’s “Take On Me,” which took the black and white to another level with comic-style animation.


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