Not since the advent of radio had there been such a powerful tool to make or break artists’ careers than music television. The 80s saw MTV and VH1 become the new jukebox for a whole generation of music fans, where music videos were no longer just an add-in, but integral to an artist’s image. With the medium not yet refined, there were no conventions to break; it was the wild west, both musically and visually, and allowed for endless experimentation. Even if the technology was crude, it just led to even more creative innovation. Let’s flashback to a more radical time when everyone was a little bit more tanned; a bit richer, broker, madder and wilder, in the best of the decade-defining 80s music videos.
While you’re reading, listen to our Best 80s Music Videos playlist here.
20: Paula Abdul: ‘Opposites Attract’ (1988)
Before it became the societal norm to lust after cartoons in Cool World, Paula Abdul shared screen time with a cartoon cat named MC Skat Cat (who also has a solo album?!) in her music video for ‘Opposites Attract’. The song is a delicious slice of late 80s pop and features Abdul’s signature dance moves, but, though it’s one of the best 80s music videos, would we send it into space as a document of mankind’s contribution to culture? Probably not.
19: Olivia Newton-John: ‘Physical’ (1981)
Before the days of athleisure, Olivia Newton-John encouraged us all to don our finest sweats and “get physical”. Seizing upon the 80s fitness craze, John took her sexually suggestive single and turned it into a workout mantra. She whips all the boys into the shape and transforms them into beefcakes. The only calories you’ll find here are in the cheese.
18: The Police: ‘Every Breath You Take’ (1983)
Famously misinterpreted as a romantic ballad, Sting details all the red flags of a stalker relationship set to a hypnotic guitar riff while he stares intently into the camera. As the rest of The Police and a string quartet plays behind him, he takes out his unresolved emotions on his poor upright bass with a smouldering look in his eye.
17: Billy Idol: ‘White Wedding’(1982)
Like Madonna, Billy Idol can’t resist a good church motif, and his gothic-wedding fantasy for ‘White Wedding’ is equally button-pushing. Helmed by legendary director David Mallet, who would go on to direct several of Idol’s 80s music videos, the ‘White Wedding’ clip put Idol’s pretty-boy snarl on full display and featured more latex than a Trojan ad. Once slotted into MTV’s regular rotation, Billy Idol became a fixture on the network and canonised into 80s culture.
16: Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers: ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ (1985)
To the casual observer, Tom Petty was not considered edgy. Petty and The Heartbreakers didn’t court trends or cutting-edge haircuts, but they did turn out some truly subversive music videos. Case in point, the delightfully psychedelic video to ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’, which casts Petty as the Mad Hatter from Alice In Wonderland who eats Alice after she suffers the unfortunate fate of becoming a sheet cake.
15: Dire Straits: ‘Money For Nothing’ (1985)
Despite notoriously hating music videos, Dire Straits were truly adopters of the meta-music video. The promo for their crossover single depicts two CGI-animated blue-collar men (the likes of which also inspired the song’s lyrics) resenting the band’s rock’n’roll lifestyle. The result is another live-action/animated hybrid, courtesy of director Steve Barron, the man behind a-ha’s ‘Take On Me’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’. Naturally, the video took off and made Dire Straits international stars.
14: Run-DMC And Aerosmith: ‘Walk This Way’ (1986)
This pioneering collaboration between Aerosmith and Run-DMC showed the walls of hip-hop and rock tumbling down in the most literal sense, with Steven Tyler busting through a studio wall like the Kool-Aid man. The unlikely joint effort was masterminded by Rick Rubin and both brought Aerosmith back into the fray and introduced hip-hop to every kid out in the suburbs. As the first rap-rock hybrid hit, collaboration paved the way for others like it, including Anthrax and Public Enemy’s ‘Bring The Noise’.
13: NWA: ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (1988)
While the majority of 80s music videos were a phosphorescent fantasy, in hip-hop videos the tide was turning, thanks to NWA’s groundbreaking ‘Straight Outta Compton’. The gangster-rap pioneers used their video to rep their hometown, shooting throughout various parts of Compton and introducing the rest of the country (and world) to LA street life.
12: Cyndi Lauper: ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ (1983)
With her rallying call for joie de vivre, Cyndi Lauper essentially created the original girl gang and became one of MTV’s first breakout stars – and a national sensation. In the video, Lauper rebels against her parents (played by her real-life mother and professional wrestler Captain Lou Albano). The visuals are just a buoyant as the music: it makes you want to skip down the streets of the Lower East Side just like Lauper herself.
11: Duran Duran: ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ (1983)
While considered a classic now, there was a period where not everyone knew to sing along to “Do do do do do”. In an effort to break into the US market, Duran Duran convinced their label to ship them off to Sri Lanka and film an extravagant music video that would launch that careers – and soon be a staple for many 80s music videos. We’re not going to get into the exoticism pitfalls at play here, but this video did shift the needle from performance videos to a more cinematic direction. Come for the Indiana Jones cosplay and stay for the literal “page-turning” transitions.
10: Genesis: ‘Land Of Confusion’ (1986)
80s music videos had their own set of tropes: over-acted skits, animation, live performance and puppets? Genesis’ five-minute long opus is like being inside one of Ronald Regan’s fever dreams, with plenty of cameos along the way. While the political message was loud and clear, the puppets, taken from the UK TV series Spitting Image, were more terrifying than satirical to the kids watching back home. That said, it was enormously popular on MTV and there are countless Easter Eggs to look out for.
9: Prince: ‘Raspberry Beret’ (1985)
Puffy-shirt psychedelia abounds in Prince’s animated video mash-up for his ’85 single. Clad in a cloud suit and sporting a freshly-shorn haircut (and letting out a goofy cough just before singing: (“I did it just to be sick, to do something no one else would do”), Prince And The Revolution perform to a merry band of dancers. As the story goes, Prince directed a whole video for the single, but also commissioned Japanese animator Drew Takahashi to create a whole separate promo, resulting in this surrealistic mash-up. Look closely and you can see a dreadlocked Pat Smear from Nirvana, standing in as an extra.
8: Madonna: ‘Like A Prayer’ (1989)
Life is a mystery, but the success of Madonna’s controversial take on Catholicism is not. It’s got it all: burning crosses, stigmata and seduction of a saint. Naturally, everybody was outraged: from Pepsi executives (who sponsored her tour) to the Pope himself. But Madonna is the master of the music video and knows exactly how to harness it as a medium to promote her latest incarnation, using MTV has a springboard for her own career throughout the decades.
7: Talking Heads: ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (1980)
Talking Heads’ postmodernist promo proved that you could still make innovative videos on a limited budget. Co-directed by famed choreographer Toni Basil (of ‘Mickey’ fame), the video features a bespectacled David Byrne taking on the avatar of proselytising preacher to African tribe members as he moves about like a digital marionette. Talking Heads also represented the wild-eyed creativity that flourished during they heyday of 80s music videos.
6: Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm (1985)
For a complex, layered track such as Grace Jones’ ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ you need something visually challenging to accompany it. Enter Jean-Paul Goude’s carnival funhouse of high art, photographic trickery and fashion. As Jones’ former partner and frequent collaborator, the two worked together to create a visually stunning and socially conscious entry among 80s music videos.
5: Guns N’ Roses: ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ (1987)
Despite their made-for-TV-swagger, Guns N’ Roses were not always MTV darlings. After Appetite For Destruction was released, it was crickets elsewhere around the world. It wasn’t until the fateful airing of their video for ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ that the band blew up overnight, the clip becoming one of the most iconic 80s music videos in the process. The video itself offered a triptych of scenes: there’s fresh-off-the-bus Axl, rock star Axl and nervous-breakdown Axl, who’s subjected to an onslaught of broadcast news à la A Clockwork Orange – otherwise known as today’s news cycle.
4: a-ha: ‘Take On Me’ (1985)
The music video for a-ha’s synth-pop classic is not only memorable for its impressive special effects but also the falsetto heights hit in the song. This video is the 80s personified: Rick Astley hair, romantic capers and comic-book-inspired pop art. It was also a labour of love, with illustrator Mike Patterson reportedly coming up with more than 3,000 sketches for the clip. The video was a smash success and kicked off the animation trend in 80s music videos that would last a decade.
3: Janet Jackson: ‘Rhythm Nation’ (1989)
After Janet Jackson unleashed this video upon the unsuspecting masses, we all wanted to be recruits in her Rhythm Nation. Directed by Domenic Sena, who helmed the video to ‘Let’s Wait Awhile’ two years earlier, it depicted a dystopian dance vision – one in which Janet leads a sexy paramilitary troupe to their stylish future, oozing attitude and razor-sharp choreography that set the standard for all dance videos that followed.
2: Peter Gabriel: ‘Sledgehammer’ (1986)
Impressionable youths remember this video for its eye-boggling animation and Peter Gabriel starring in his own Pee Wee’s playhouse, but the adults recall the not-so-subtle animated innuendo that kicks off from the very beginning. Either way, ‘Sledgehammer’ stands as a truly groundbreaking promo and MTV’s most-played music video of all time.
1: Michael Jackson: ‘Thriller’ (1983)
Having any other music video other than ‘Thriller’ as No.1 in our list of the most iconic 80s music videos would be heresy. Tapping the director of An American Werewolf In London, Michael Jackson single-handedly turned promo films into short movies. The former cherub-faced kid from Motown wanted to explore his darker side – and had the budget to do so. Michael Jackson essentially keep the lights on at the network and ‘Thriller’ became the first music video to be inducted into the Library Of Congress’ National Film Registry.
With such a prolific number of promo videos coming out of the decade, it’s hard to limit ourselves to just 20 80s music videos. Beastie Boys had already begun their creative takeover with music video parodies the likes of ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’; meanwhile, Herbie Hancock was starting to fuse jazz and hip-hop on ‘Rockit’. Heavy metal entered the mainstream in the 80s, and the best metal videos continue to shock and surprise. Some music videos (no matter how influential or notorious) are, however, just NSFW, such as Soft Cell’s bizarre ‘Sex Dwarf’. And then there were the 80s music videos that not only influenced the decade, they dominated it. See ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ by Fine Young Cannibals and ‘Karma Chameleon’ by Culture Club. Good luck getting those out of your head.
Looking for more? Discover why 80s music is cooler than you think.