Music videos from the 1980s sure were all over the place! I was recently watching my old VHS tape of videos I’d recorded as a pre-teen, and it dawned on me that music videos from this time period represented a huge variety of approaches and technological levels. This new medium of entertainment ushered in an exciting era of artistic expression. People were still trying to figure it all out. Some bands simply sang in front of a blank white screen, while others pioneered the latest in special effects. Some rented a smoke machine and hit “record.” Others acted out elaborate stories, treating each piece as a three-minute short film. And that’s why ’80s music videos are so magical…
…and why it was so easy to spot the standouts. Don’t get me wrong–an expensive video doesn’t equal a standout. In fact, for some artists, like singer/choreographer Toni Basil, skillfully dancing in front of a blank background with a squad of cheerleaders while reciting the lyrics for “Mickey” got the job done and left people wanting more.
For others, like Thomas Dolby, videos were a chance to explore artful aesthetics, such as the quirky, steampunk-esque style of pieces like “She Blinded Me With Science.” Then there was Duran Duran, who traveled the world in Antony Price suits, exploring the islands, the jungles, and the streets of France while fireworks burst overhead. And who can forget that intense sequence in Billy Idol’s “White Wedding,” in which kitchen appliances exploded while choreographer extraordinaire (and Idol’s then-girlfriend) Perri Lister danced wistfully, trying to avoid shards of debris with her delicate feet. Pure video magic.
But sometimes it was the simple yet strategic choices that stole the show. Like the dreamy vibe of The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” in which a cloud-covered background behind the band and an inch of water on the floor equaled pure bliss as the xylophone played and tinted lenses cast a heavenly glow over each shot. Or the hazy warehouse where Janet Jackson danced, sans entourage, kicking over chairs while belting out the lyrics to “The Pleasure Principle.”
It all boils down to MESMERIZING MOMENTS–a certain musical phrase complemented by a certain look or move–where everything gels and the audience knows that something phenomenal happened that day in the studio or on the set. It’s the “I love that part where…” moment when the music video transcends its storyboard plot line and becomes art. And in the 1980s this magic happened regardless of budget. Funny how it still happens when I go back and watch these videos on my dusty VHS tape, some recorded during the year they premiered, and others recorded after the fact, curated on the former flashback tribute show Classic MTV by the lovely ’80s VJ Martha Quinn…
25 years later, I still secretly hope that somehow I’ll have a chance to sip a sunset-colored cocktail while riding on a yacht with Duran Duran, play the xylophone in a purple-tinted Psychedelic Furs video, and be one of Perri Lister’s punked out dancers in a Billy Idol montage. I can cut the holes in my black tights if she can teach me the moves…
Taylor Hillestad says
Luvvv 80s music videos, even though i didn’t grow up with MTV. Great timing to bring up MTV. At my art and design college I go to, I just went to a lecture by George Lois, the art director who came up with the “I Want My MTV” campaign. haha. It was great to hear him talk about all of the 80s artists he worked with for that campaign!
But “dreamy” is the PERFECT word to describe 80s music videos! Rio really inspires me. Also for some reason I luv “Method of Modern Love” by H&O. Its cheesy, but so dream like and surreal. Can’t beat Daryl serenading in the moonlight haha.
Great article. I grew up in the 80’s and I could not agree with you more.
It was a Golden Age across the board in entertainment. Music, Movies, TV. The videos were often cinematic, fantasy/wish-fulfillment, symbolic, poetic, accompaniment to the music. Fashion, clothing, decor…behaviors were decadent…excessive.
II was okay to dress like a star- if you could back it up with fame or skill. If you didn’t have the fame, fortune, or talent – you were a poser….and it didn’t take long for others to figure it out. One of the exceptions to that rule were the Metalheads/Heshers; they were definitely fans and they may or may not have been musicians.